There’s More to Writing Genres Than Meets the Eye

Teaching Genres-- Tips for Secondary ELA from TeachWriting.org.jpg

In this guest post by Kim Patrick, read about tips for writing within a variety of genres.

I’ll be honest. At times, I’ve been confused and overwhelmed when teaching writing. As an English teacher, that’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve been through innumerable curriculum changes and standardized testing cycles which have often defined what “type” of writing I’m supposed to teach.  I’ve learned that instruction for writing must go beyond the traditional genres but always focus on the basic concepts of audience and purpose.

Traditional Genres of Writing

When students begin writing, instruction starts with the essential genres.  Elementary school students are taught descriptive, expository, persuasive, and narrative forms of writing. Typical assignments may include writing stories, opinion pieces, and how-to essays. 

By the time students take college writing courses (which many high schools now offer as dual enrollment), students are expected to write lengthy academic research papers.  When I taught English 101 at our local community college, students wrote various papers including extended definitions, cause and effect, compare and contrast, illustration, and argument essays. With the emphasis on research and scholarly writing, students must use Modern Language Association (MLA) conventions and avoid plagiarism by carefully citing their research.

Writing for Standardized Assessments

Over recent years, standardized assessments have significantly influenced writing instruction. In Maryland, I’ve taught through our Maryland State Performance Assessments, Functional Writing Tests, High School Assessments and now, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) which is aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core identifies three text types for writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences

On the surface, these standards may seem easily understood, but the ways that students are assessed on their writing is often complex.  In addition to the state testing, as a high school teacher, I also prepare students for their SAT and Advanced Placement assessments, specifically the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition Assessment.

Are You Confused?  Than Your Students are Too!

My high school juniors frequently lament that they’re confused about how to write.  I’ve heard them complain that the way I teach them to write is different than the way their other teachers instruct them.  This is particularly true with students in AP History, a class where students face the challenging DBQ, or “document-based question.” Fortunately, in recent years I’ve seen consistency between the SAT essay, PARCC essays, and Advanced Placement writing.  Now these prompts all emphasize the use of text evidence to support the claims students make in their writing.

Analytical Writing

For success on these assessments, students need proficiency with analytical writing.  The reading and writing connection is vital, as students must first become critical readers before they can have success with writing. They need deep engagement with their reading- interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating the text- before they can begin to cogently communicate their own ideas.  Furthermore, they need to be able to synthesize information from several sources in a meaningful way. Click here for an example of a 2017 PARCC prompt (Research Simulation).

To help prepare my American Literature students for success with standardized assessment prompts, I’ve developed Common Core Writing Tasks from Paired Passages

Timed Writing

One of the principal challenges for students on all of these assessments is that the writing is “timed,” and they don’t have an opportunity to use the writing process, which is emphasized during classroom instruction.  Even at the college level when teaching English 101, instructors always guide students through steps in the writing process- brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing-before students submitted their final drafts.  For success with timed writing, students need practice writing under time constraints and must be reassured that assessors understand that students are writing a first draft.  Additionally, even though their time is limited, it’s important to encourage students to take 2-3 minutes to plan their ideas before writing. 

Writing to Learn

Unfortunately, it’s easy for teachers to get lost in “teaching to the test,” but writing instruction should not only be about the tests.  In my twelve years of work with the National Writing Project (NWP), I’ve rarely come across research that supports writing for tests.  NWP teacher consultants improve their writing instruction by reading theory and research, by analyzing their practice, and by being writers themselves.  In inquiry projects, teachers improve their practice by developing units of instruction that they can take back to their classrooms. Many of these units include “Writing to Learn” strategies, the use of short, informal and low-states writing activities to make meaning of concepts and ideas.  Writing to Learn can be used in all content classes and is an effective way to infuse writing across the curriculum.

Writing for Civil Discourse

In recent years, I’ve worked with an NWP program, the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) that specifically helps teachers and students improve respectful argument.  In the program, professional development gives teachers the tools to help students read critically, explore multiple points of view, and articulate their own positions on relevant issues.  With the divisive rhetoric and sound bites in today’s media, it’s important for students to learn to communicate objectively and appreciate different points of view.

Tips for teaching all genres of writing in high school

Real-World Writing

Students want to see the relevance of school to “real” life and their future careers, so instruction should give students extensive practice with a variety of genres that include “real-world” writing (which may be neglected because of the pressure for high test scores). Students need instruction for college application essays, for job seeking (resumes, cover letters, thank you letters), and for work (business plans, project proposals and reports, marketing materials, how-to manuals, etc.)

Writing for the Digital Age

No doubt, in our era of the Internet and technology, students need guidance for writing online. This includes writing for social media, for blogging, and for email. Students also need practice writing for video, podcasts and multimedia presentations. Unfortunately, constant exposure to technology may interfere with students’ abilities to sustain focus for deep reflection and revision.  The character limitations in many digital environments and use of emoticons can interfere with the development of strong vocabularies.  Providing writing instruction today has new challenges that teachers of past generations didn’t face.

Creative Writing

With all of the other types of writing students are expected to do, it’s no surprise that opportunities for creative writing may be limited, but it’s often the most important type of writing. Many students enjoy and appreciate opportunities to write for personal expression and for human connection.  Creative writing inspires student imagination and is an outlet for their emotions. It can include writing poetry, songs, stories, scripts, novels, etc. Sometimes I’ve even created “hybrid” writing assignments that combine creative and analytical writing.  For instance, at the end of their reading of a novel, I’ve asked students to write a character analysis from the point of view of a character while incorporating text evidence and interpretations of theme.

Tips for Teachers

Writing instructors can easily be overwhelmed with so many curriculum expectations.  So, what’s a teacher supposed to do?  With 20 years of experience, here are three of my suggestions.

1.  Students must write every day.

They need daily writing – informal, low stakes, and ungraded- in classes across the curriculum.  Teachers need to build students confidence in their writing abilities.  As the old adage goes, “practice makes perfect.” Writing to learn strategies are particularly effective here; students can write during bell ringers, journals, reflections, and exit tickets.

2.  Students need to understand Audience and Purpose.

Teacher should create writing assignments that lend themselves to different audiences. Otherwise, students may think writing is only for their teachers. Students should learn to consider who are they writing for. Will they be writing for someone who will score their test using a rubric (maybe even Artificial Intelligence), an employer, a friend, or a public audience? At the beginning of an assignment, it may even be beneficial to generate a list of potential audiences.  Teachers can also improve students’ understanding of purpose by publishing student writing – in a school publication, local newspaper, or online blog.  Knowing that their writing has a wider audience may help students put forth their best efforts.  It can also lead to a useful discussion of tone in writing.

Students also must learn strategies for various writing purposes. Here is an opportunity to help students understand why they may write a different thesis in English or history classes or why on a timed writing their introduction may not include a “hook.”  Purpose helps students understand the reasons why they’re writing a particular piece (to inform, to persuade, to entertain, etc.) and answers the question, “why?”  To help students better understand audience and purpose, teachers can help students “unpack” prompts and understand what they are being ASKED to do.

3. All genres of writing require students to learn the traits of effective writing

Traits of writing include ideas, organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, convention and presentation.  No matter whether a student is writing for a school assignment, for a college application, or for a job, or for any other situation, they should understand these traits.  All writing should have well thought out ideas, logical organization, strong vocabulary, varied sentence structures and correct standard English conventions.  With common vocabulary to describe powerful writing, teachers across content areas can help reduce confusion for students.

What do you do to help your students master genres of writing and communicate effectively?  Please share in the comments below.

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About the Author

Kim, a National Board-Certified Teacher, is starting her 20th year of teaching secondary English Language Arts and has taught grades 6 -12, in addition to teaching English 101 at the local community college.  Currently, she teachers 11th and 12th grade students in American Literature and Advanced Placement Literature.  As a teacher consultant for the Eastern Shore Writing Project, she’s worked with the National Writing Project, including co-facilitating professional development in conjunction with Salisbury University for the College, Career, and Community Writers Program. When she’s not working, you’ll likely find her playing with her rescue dog Buster, reading a book, or spending time at the beach!