Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Johnny Can't Write

This article by Mark Pennington addresses what kids need to know about writing informed and convincing essays for their college professors. In high school many kids are non-linear thinkers and don't know how to write persuasive essays with concrete details. Read the article to find out how Pennington's method of structural variety can help students improve their writing skills.

"Johnny is a creative story-writer, but he can't write an essay to save his life." Does this ring true for your child or student?

Johnny has had some good writing instruction. He can recite the steps of The Writing Process from the posters he has seen in every classroom throughout his elementary school years. He knows all about Writers Workshop. He would know what to expect if the teacher had written "Writers Conferences" or "Response Groups" on the white board as parts of her daily lesson plans. Johnny's writing portfolio is chalk full of fanciful stories and writing pieces in the sensory/descriptive or imaginative/narrative writing domains. He has been encouraged to unleash his creative mind-although that story that he wrote last year about the student boycott of the cafeteria may have been a bit too creative for the principal's tastes.

However, if you give Johnny a writing prompt, asking him to "Compare and contrast the cultural roles of women in Athens and Sparta," sixth grade writing paralysis would surely set in. Or worse yet, Johnny might begin his essay with "Once upon a time in a far-away land called Greece, two young women from Athens and Sparta..." His difficulties would, no doubt, increase if this were a timed assessment.

Unfortunately, most of the writing that Johnny will need to complete throughout his academic and work careers will not take advantage of his story-writing experience. Instead, most of what Johnny will be required to compose will be some form of writing that informs or convinces his reader. Additionally, most of his writing will be subject to some kind of time constraint. Johnny has just not had the instruction and practice in this kind of writing. His college professors probably will not hand him a "blue book," tell him to write a story of his own choice, and then turn it in after multiple revisions when his final draft has been published and properly illustrated.

Students need to learn how to write structured essays designed to inform and convince their teachers and professors. But how do you transform a creative, non-linear thinker like Johnny into an organized and persuasive writer? Take the mystery out of essays by replacing the confusing terminology of thesis statements, topic sentences, concrete details, and commentary with simple numerical values that reflect the hierarchy of effective essay structure.

For example, assign a "1" to introductory strategies, a "2" to the thesis statement, a "3" to the topic sentence, a "4" to the concrete detail, a "5" to the commentary, and a "6" to the conclusion strategies. Telling a student that a "5" is needed to support a "4," which supports a "3" is much more intuitive-and students get it!

Teach structural variety by having students write 3-4-5-4-5 paragraphs and revise with 3-4-5-5-4-5-5 paragraphs. Have students analyze text structure by numerically coding their science book or a newspaper editorial. Use this approach to develop sequenced writing skills, incorporating different grammatical structures and sentence structure. Teaching Essay Strategies.

by Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist and author of Teaching Essay Strategies ©2002 Pennington Publishing

©2002 Pennington Publishing provides a systematic program of essay skills instruction. Need more ideas? Check out the wonderful freebies for teachers and parents at
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Write it down,



  1. Carma,

    [This time there is a real box to type in instead of the little itty bitty sixteenth of an inch strip that was here earlier.]

    Mr. Pennington makes some valid points in the article about the differences between imaginative fiction writing and the stuffy serious writing of the business world that is designed to influence and inform, in a third-person voice. This influence and information is to sound like fact not opinion, even when it might be more opinion than substantiated fact. (For instance, in business a report may be written to recommend one supplier of a product over another. The decision is opinion-based, but must be presented in a form that sounds like all fact, not even Reason. "Reason" being a word that sounds objective but is the result of reasoning, a thought process that digests "facts" and the opinion about them to come to a conclusion.)

    Just this week I had to help my husband with a homework assignment that was one of these comparison papers. He, in his mid-40s and not just fresh from high school, was thoroughly frustrated by the fact the teacher wanted him to remove all personal opinion from his draft.

    Even so, I doubt we followed the instructions correctly. The teacher had given out a full page of instructions, a formula, for laying out the paper: first paragraph, tick off the points you'll make in the following paragraphs and then end the paragraph with the thesis statement; next paragraphs, compare the two items; final paragraph, reiterate the ticked off points and wrap it all up in a neat and tidy conclusion.

    Seems like this "formula" is the bane of just about any student forced to sit through a Freshman English Comp course. And whether a person uses the terminology or this numbering system that Pennington sugests, it will still be a horror.

    Using the number system to indicate that one section of the paper should be supported by the next is a great idea, but does nothing to meet the formula set out by my husband's teacher or the one I had in my frosh comp course.

    Worse, back in 7th grade, when we were supposed to have learned grammar and the parts of a sentence, we were handed a textnook that broke down the parts of a sentence into the 4, 3, 7 or the 2, 3, 5, etc., structures. What was a subject? A predicate? A noun or verb?

    Thankfully I knew "noun" and "verb" from earlier grades and French class (which we'd started in 6th grade). As a result of this horrible text and an inept teacher who loved to tell soties of his life and times in the Army Reserves as a Colonial, I learned grammar from reading good writing and from French and ASL courses.

    As someone who scored very high on my Verbal SATs, I find it very uncomfortable to play MADLibs with any kids I know. Because of that horrible 7th grade experience, I still need a cheat sheet to know the difference between an adverb and an adjective.

    I'd suggest to Mr.Pennington that his suggestion is bunk.

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