Oct 31 2006

The Write Stuff

With the new SAT essay component, students' ability to clearly express ideas in writing is more important than ever.

Jane Soung

IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP TO THE debut of the new Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) last March, it seemed as if all that students, parents and teachers could focus on was the addition of a writing sample. As teachers and administrators debated the merits and flaws of the new essay component, education’s second “r” was launched front and center.

According to the New York-based College Board, the nonprofit association that administers the SAT, the test was changed to better reflect what students are learning in high school and to include writing, which was found to be an important success skill for college and beyond.

The 25-minute writing sample asks students to take a position on a given issue and write an essay with examples. It is meant to model writing done for in-class college essay exams.

The National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, a group that encompasses educators and business leaders, was founded in 2002 by the College Board to focus on the teaching and learning of writing. Last year, the commission published a report that conveyed just how critical writing is for success in the business world.

The report, “Writing: A Ticket to Work … Or a Ticket Out,” indicates that writing is key to professional opportunity, especially since “two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility.” Based on the commission’s estimates, U.S. companies spend as much as $3.1 billion annually to help improve deficiencies in employee writing.

What can be done to help America’s future employees become clear and effective communicators at an earlier age? One way schools are helping students get a head start on valuable writing skills is by exposing them to as much writing as possible. Schools are offering students more writing electives in addition to, or instead of, traditional English classes.

Choosing to Write

For the past 10 years, Mary Ellen Martin has been teaching two half-year writing electives at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, N.Y. Her sophomore Writing Workshop and junior Power Writing are electives that students can take five days a week for 40 minutes a day. The school also offers seniors a Public Speaking elective, a Writing Studio elective designed to help prepare for college-level writing and a year-long, six-college-credit English course.

Martin’s Power Writing and Writing Workshop classes focus on the process of writing and take students through a variety of writing forms, such as journaling, personal narration and creative exposition. In addition, the electives have a strong computer component, with the classes being held in one of the school’s four writing computer labs.

As Martin explains, “Working with writing and computers has opened the door to writing for many students, especially reluctant writers. Students can see how their writing is ‘alive’ on the screen, where they have the ability to revise it in real time, not days later when the teacher gives back their assignment in the traditional classroom.”

Each class period, Martin starts her sophomores and juniors with a journal prompt. The students write or respond to a topic for approximately 10 minutes before moving on to their current assignment. These short entries are just one way her students get a daily mini-prep for the SAT essay starting in 10th grade.

Martin also gives weekly 25-minute timed essays to her juniors. They discuss the two-minute outline, two-minute revision and other ways to write an organized essay under time constraints.

Practice paid off for Martin’s students in May. One of her juniors says, “I walked into the SAT feeling confident about the new writing section. When we began, every student in the room picked up his or her pencil and began writing right away, while I took the first five minutes to briefly outline the focus of my essay.”

Writing With Technology

The commission’s report on writing in the workplace also found that advances in technology are requiring employees to write more than ever. This same technology has also been changing the ways teachers relay the process of writing to students.

Christina Cantrill, coordinator of technology programs for the National Writing Project (NWP), which is working to improve the quality of writing and learning through professional development for teachers, describes how instructors use technology in a variety of ways to teach students about writing.

“It ranges from journaling, to [blogs] for sharing across distances with other students, to going public with some of the students’ work in the classroom,” she says. “Some are thinking about it from a multimedia perspective—taking text to a multimedia format, using images and photos. Others are taking a more straightforward approach, using Word, just at a high level of detail and instruction during the process of writing and revising text.”

At Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, English teacher Ken Keener has tapped into some of the lesser-known features in Microsoft Word to help his freshmen and seniors with the revisions process.

“When I was teaching composition with pen and paper, I was dissatisfied with my responses on student papers,” Keener says. “There was not enough time for adequate written comments, and my handwriting was sloppy in tight margins.”

Since all Moeller students have notebook PCs, Keener is now able to give his students feedback using embedded sound files within their Word documents. He records comments and revisions right where they need to be made in the piece of writing by creating a wave sound file (using “Insert,” “Object,” “Wave Sound” in Word’s toolbar) and recording into the notebook’s microphone.

Keener combines this capability with a library of comments to help him with revisions and grading. “It works really well because I can express myself fully,” he says. “It allows me to communicate things that are not easily expressed with paper and pen—comments on good writing and revisions to the content itself.”

Nick Abele, a student in Keener’s honors freshman class, appreciates the value of these techniques. “Especially in a freshman class, when we’re making the transition [to high school], the things Mr. Keener is trying to teach us he can do best with the sound bytes,” Abele says. “For example, he’ll tell you that you need to work on developing your thesis statement better, and this is how you could do it. Or you should develop this paragraph with [the information] you have over here.”

Writing for Each Other

In Winthrop, Maine, Dave Boardman’s portfolio English class uses a blog to communicate with students at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco. When Winthrop High School offered the new portfolio writing class with a mixed-grade setting for the first time in September 2004, one of Boardman’s goals was to get all his 9th- to 12th-grade students writing daily.

Even though Boardman’s students were at various reading and writing levels, they could easily contribute and comment on a class blog either at school or at home. “It [the blog] has made the writing much more real, since they’re writing for peers in their own class and across the country,” he explains.

The blog has also given Boardman’s students a different view of life, along with ample subject material. “My students live in rural Maine and have little or no concept of big city life, while the other students are in San Francisco, which gives them a ton of topics to write about,” he says. “The California students write about life in their neighborhoods and urban experiences, while the Maine students write more about life outside their town. Many of my students think small-town life doesn’t offer a great deal to write about.”

Principles That Work

What does it take to build a successful writing program? Since 1974, the mission of the National Writing Project has been to improve writing and learning in the nation’s schools. The project has spread from a single site at the University of California, Berkeley, to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Local sites operate on a teachers-teaching-teachers model of professional development. Each site conducts an invitational summer institute for approximately 20 teachers, giving them the opportunity to examine their approaches to teaching writing; to study and conduct research; and to develop their own writing skills. Participating teachers then conduct project-sponsored programs in their schools and nearby ones to share what they have learned.

While the National Writing Project does not endorse one particular approach to writing instruction, the following tips and principles embody some of the writing project’s core beliefs:

1. Writing instruction should begin in the earliest grades and be taught across the curriculum.

2. Student writing improves when students are given a real purpose and audience. Ask students to write about issues and events important to them. Encourage them to write letters to the editor, elected officials, family members and friends.

3. Teachers of writing should write themselves. When teachers write, they are better able to understand the demands and complexities of writing as well as interventions that might help their students. Form a writing group with colleagues and meet once a month to discuss each other’s writing and to experience the rewards of writing.

Recently, the addition of a writing section to the SAT exam has triggered new interest in the ability of young Americans to write effectively. While NWP Executive Director Richard Sterling welcomes the increased focus on writing, he stresses the importance of a rich writing curriculum.

“The good news about having a writing component on the SAT is that schools that previously ignored writing now have to pay attention,” Sterling points out.

“The bad news is that if preparation for the SAT becomes the writing program, then that program does an injustice to the craft and the teaching of writing. SAT writing represents only one kind of writing.”


Number of writing project sites — 189

Number of educators served by sites — 128,628

Total number of programs conducted by sites — 6,871

Number of hours educators spent in programs conducted by sites — 1,708,625

Number of teacher-consultants conducting programs — 12,238


March 2005 marked a new chapter in the history of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The more than 300,000 students who sat down to take the exam were required to complete a timed essay for the first time.

SAT changes include:

Writing (new): 25-minute writing sample, which replaces the Writing SAT II subject test, multiple-choice questions identifying sentence errors, and sentence and paragraph improvement.

Critical Reading (formerly verbal section): Elimination of analogy questions and the addition of shorter reading passages in addition to longer passages.

Math: Elimination of quantitative comparisons and the addition of questions evaluating topics from third-year college-preparatory math.

Jane Soung is a Skokie, Ill.-based freelance writer and editor specializing in education.