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Writing Skills Shaped by Classroom Discourse
Writing Skills Shaped by Classroom Discourse

Writing well is not easy. Writing an effective argument provides an even bigger challenge.

Writing an effective argumentative essay means getting your own points across while anticipating and addressing the reactions of a potential reader. But lacking proper guidance, students assigned to compose argumentative papers often end up writing reports, rather than arguments.

UW-Madison English professor Martin Nystrand and colleagues at WCER’s Center for English Learning and Achievement (CELA) found that teaching students to construct effective arguments lies not just in the narrow confines of writing instruction, but in the larger classroom context. Their work is funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

In writing argumentation, student writers need to know how to put themselves in the position of the reader. They need to know how to question and disagree with the points being made in the argument. Yet these processes are often short-circuited when the teacher routinely treats knowledge as a given—fixed and found in texts.

Nystrand and colleague Nelson Graff examined an excellent writing teacher, Mrs. Martin (a pseudonym), whose seventh-grade students were having difficulty producing effective written arguments. Nystrand says that, in spite of the best efforts of this skilled and dedicated teacher, it was a challenging and not fully successful effort. The fact that her students still weren’t writing successful argument papers despite her up-to-date professionalism became the research focus.

The students wrote “hybrid” papers: Their essays included argumentative theses, but were developed with loosely related “factoids,” rather than with argumentative points that built upon each other to form a persuasive point of view—even though Mrs. Martin had required students to go through cognitive strategies for argumentative analysis in classroom ‘think-aloud’ exercises.

For example, a student named Carmen composed a paper titled “African Elephants Should Not Be Killed.” Her thesis was, “They [elephants] should be rescued and treated fairly.” Her conclusion read, “In over one-hundred years elephants have not been treated fairly, at all.” In between, we mainly learn about elephants: “Elephants are endangered because they keep getting killed for their ivory tusks, meat, and skin.” “Resources are made out of elephants such as: ivory pool balls, jewelry, leather, table tops, shoes, belts, boots, piano keys, combs, brushes, and more.” “Elephants are valuable resources in National Parks,” and “Even though killing an elephant is illegal and poachers still do it, elephant researchers may need to take the elephants into captivity, raise them for a few years and put them back into the wild to keep the population up.”

Previous studies had documented important parallels and relations between the development of writing and reading, yet most research had tended to focus on either writing or reading, not the two in interaction. Nystrand saw the value of situating writing development amidst reading and classroom discourse and other class activities. He then focused on classroom discourse and the role it plays in shaping student learning.

Mrs. Martin practiced many commendable techniques: She responded to students’ drafts and their final copies. She conducted regular writing conferences, made effective use of small groups, and taught a diverse range of assignments, from ungraded journals to argumentative prose. “On any measures of professional awareness and commitment to the standards of process instruction, the teacher surely scored in the top percentiles,” Nystrand says. “Yet her students’ efforts at argumentation persistently stalled as they fell back on mastered skills in reporting given information rather than configuring it to effective rhetorical use.”

In this case the teacher had neglected to teach the students how to think through the process of constructing an argument. She invited students to ask questions about research procedures, but student questions never led to discussion. Like most language arts classes in middle school, the teacher talked and the students listened. And although Martin asked her students to write arguments that came from making their own interpretations of the materials they collected, she discussed writing merely in terms of form, and her students mainly learned argument as a matter of text elaboration— information and details, not always related to claims.

Observations of this teacher’s class revealed that effectively teaching rhetoric and argumentation means more than adopting innovative strategies. It means modifying one’s ideas about knowledge and writing and examining all the activities of the classroom for the resources they offer students for developing rhetorical skills.

A few changes in writing instruction, while important, may not have the desired results if the dominant teaching mode of the classroom derails the instructional goals for writing. In this teacher’s case, comments on papers and during classroom discussion tended to close discourse, rather than to extend it and to encourage exploration and learning.

The classroom tended to favor efficient recitation, recall, and a mastery of givens, rather than vigorous discussion and argument. “But when writers construct arguments and move through the process of composing texts, they transcend the givens, “Nystrand says. “They don’t just find and report knowledge piecemeal. Students need to be shown how to weave together information supported by their developing understanding.”

Writing teachers should give students opportunities to figure things out—in class, face-to-face, teacher and students together. Students’ tasks should go beyond recalling “precast” knowledge to tasks in which they are dynamically involved in constructing new understandings in classroom interaction.

Nystrand and Graff hope that the results of this study helps even the most experienced teachers of writing think productively about their teaching.

For more information see the CELA web site at www.wcer.wisc.edu/CELA or contact Nystrand at nystrand@ssc.wisc.edu.