As a tennis player, I know how to hit a forehand. When an instructor feeds me balls and those balls land in the same spot with the same velocity, I have a really consistent forehand. In a drill situation, the balls come at me a little differently, but I know they’re aimed at my forehand. I’m still pretty solid as a forehand hitter. Problems happen when I get into a match situation. With so many other things to think about, the forehand becomes a lot less reliable. Sometimes I even forget I know how at all.
Sometimes my forehand reminds me of our students in writing classrooms in that we ask them to do so much so fast. There’s a lot to remember and integrate for writers, regardless of their functioning levels. In our fourth-grade informational writing unit, we expect our students to write information texts that involve research, note-taking, and integration of resources before the students even get to the writing itself. When the task involves so many skills, there are a lot of places for a metaphorical bump in a straw. When we break the task down, the final product involves many potential downfalls!
Knowing this, and also recognizing that one of John Hattie’s top indicators for student achievement is Cognitive Task Analysis (Hattie, 2018), a classroom teacher and I created a chart for students, breaking down some steps within information writing. You could consider it a hierarchy of tasks within a research-oriented information writing piece. You could also consider this an if…then sequence; if the current task seems too hard, then practice with the task before it, and then give the next one a try. We broke the levels into the following:
- Write about a topic that is familiar to you
- Use notes that are already taken to write about an unfamiliar topic
- Use given sources to take notes and write about an unfamiliar topic
- Research, take notes, and write about an unfamiliar topic
Once we’d taught that, we invited students to consider where they felt they could be successful as they entered the process. The yellow sticky notes on the chart were students’ own choices about where they wanted to start.
It was really cool that students selected entry points where we would have put them. That being said, as the unit progressed, students chose different entry points, self-selecting and thereby tracking their own growth as note-takers, researchers, and information integrators — in addition to information writers. By the end of the unit, some of our stronger students wrote only two or three pieces, but some of the students who started from lower levels wrote several pieces; some of them wrote seven pieces over the course of our six-week unit. They might have started with a piece about a familiar topic that didn’t require research and note-taking, but by the end of the unit, they had written pieces about unfamiliar topics that required the integration of information.
Whenever I get a chance, I remind teachers of the importance of volume in students’ writing lives. Because the steps of research, information integration, and note-taking were so tedious for some students, they didn’t get to practice their writing skills. Offering them the chance to write a couple of pieces on topics they already knew about allowed them to intentionally practice the structure and nuances of information writing. Before they put themselves into the situation of learning and integrating unfamiliar information, they got to a place of comfort in writing an introduction, creating sections, considering a conclusion, and incorporating facts and information with fluency and transition words. Once those complex skills felt more comfortable, the students returned to our chart and made a decision about what sort of information piece they wanted to try next. Their choices gave them power and intention, leading to purposeful practice.
At the end of the six-week students all of the students had the same assessment involving integrating semi-familiar information and writing an information text, and all but one made significant growth as evidenced by their pre-assessment and their results from previous years. The goals were the same, but the learning pathways varied with where we and students identified their practice needs.
In a tennis match, I know when my forehand disappears. Sometimes I have to work to stay in the match and talk myself into remembering what I think I know how to do. And sometimes I can run around it and try to hit only backhands. What’s so important is that the best remedy is to take a break and hit several forehands, in the same way that students can benefit from practicing their writing from the point of breakdown.