Their Writing Scores Went Down

This is anecdotal, with no hard data, but still is worth a short blog entry:
In the past three or four years, We in Denver Public Schools have been pushing to allow with new standards and proficiencies at the national (ACTFL) and state (Colorado State Standards as revised in December of 2009).
To our knowledge, we are the only school district in the country to be in the process of creating a complete set of assessment instruments that directly align with those standards. As we are now through the piloting phase for lower level testing, an interesting result recently came out of one high school in the district.
That high school showed good writing gains two years ago in one of the pilots, but did not, that year, focus on writing much, choosing instead to align with Krashen’s concept that writing, as an output skill, should not be the focus of the first years of instruction.
Last year, however, due to a school wide push on writing, the foreign language people of course did the same. The result was that their writing scores went down from the previous year. The extra time spent looking at how the language is formed on paper did not lead to higher writing scores.
Carla there has to be some place in Krashen’s writing where this kind of event was predicted. If you know where I would like to read it. Basically, the idea is that the study of discrete grammar and focus on the language and not on its meaning leads to paltry, at best, gains in writing.

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15 thoughts on “Their Writing Scores Went Down”

  1. Ben – I don’t believe that Krashen predicts those results, though they could probably be inferred from his writings. See especially his paper Competence in foreign language writing (available on his web site and the latter part of his book Explorations in Language Acquisition.
    BTW, I just finished a 4-part series on writing – from a comprehensible input perspective – on my web site (successfulenglish.com).

  2. So Warren yes I am sure he made no such predictions. I just love the “feel” of his research, if I may be permitted a little puff of non intellectualized blasphemy. Everything I’ve ever read by Krashen makes me think that he is describing how it is possible to effectuate the deep absorption into the central nervous system of all aspects of a language, as opposed to short term memory stuff connected to the discrete analysis of a language. It’s hard to explain because, indeed, it is just a feeling. Probably makes no sense here. But it’s a good feeling. Like this most important researcher has, through his seminal research, allowed me as a teacher to feel justified in feeling and not thinking my way through my career. How refreshing! And how fun! How balancing! So inferring, predicting results, measuring results of any of the four skills with a data driven instrument, all that makes me get a little bit crazy. But, all the same, I will read that article. Could you summarize it a bit below?

  3. I won’t summarize, but I will give an overview. My POV, which is consistent with both language and writing specialists whom I respect is that writing is a thinking process that makes use of acquired language. The four parts of the series include:
    1. Learning to write – introduction stresses the importance of building the language “reservoir” before writing by comprehensible reading.
    2. Learning to write – almost anything introduces the idea of acquiring writing style vicariously, again by reading comprehensible material of the kind/genre you wish to write.
    3.
    Learning to write – in English describes how writing in English is different (my readers are mostly international ELLs and teachers).
    4.Learning to write – from start to finish provides an overview of an purpose-driven, reader-oriented writing process.

  4. Ben – In the original version of your comment above, I thought you were asking for a summary of my articles. I’m very sorry if I missed the point – which it appears that I did. I’m not really that intent on self-promotion.
    Here’s a summary of the main points of Krashen’s article, ” Competence in Foreign Language Writing: Progress and Lacunae” (available at sdkrashlen.com):
    1. Reading provides writers with “knowledge of the language of writing, the grammar, vocabulary,” and writing style.
    2. Writing does not contribute to writing competence – more writing does not lead to better writing – but it “can make you smarter” as you clarify your thinking during the writing process.
    3. Krashen describes the writing process – which is almost identical to what I describe in the final Learning to write article listed above).
    4. Writer’s block is caused, in part, by failure to use strategies, such as the writing process.
    5. Writers should take breaks from writing to allow for “incubation” – time for the brain to work subconsciously and generate new ideas.
    6. Writers should write regularly, for shorter periods of time – e.g., daily – rather than occasionally for longer periods of time. The result: more ideas and better writing.

  5. I wanted yours. Not that we all can’t do with a refresher on Krashen from time to time. In fact, Krashen may be the most misunderstood researcher in the field of education right now. I got this email recently:
    Ben –
    I am at my own children’s back-to-school night (NY metropolitan
    top-ranking district) anxious to see what Mr. Middle School French Teacher has to say. I listen, repeat 10x Je m’appelle! follow his directions, look at the catalogue-bought stuff plastering the walls listening to one cliché after the next. Classic. I finally go up to him, and this is roughly how it went:

    “You’ve ever heard of TPRS?”
    “Yep, a little…years ago.”
    “Well, how about Stephen Krashen?”
    “Nope, never heard of him…”.
    “So you’ve never heard of CI +1?”
    “No what’s that?”
    “Well how about James Asher, TPR?”
    “Nope.”

    So this guy never heard of Krashen. Maybe that’s an East Coast thing. Not hearing of Krashen is one way to avoid the coming tsunami of change in foreign language education. You simply won’t know how you got in that unemployment line – you were facing the beach and the next thing you knew you were in the unemployment line. Now, I think that those who have heard of Krashen, especially university people, would rather try to find flaws in Krashen’s work in order to make it sound like they also are at the forefront of the research. What better way to call attention to your own research than to hang onto the coatails of the big dog and, flapping along behind, tell him you found a flaw in his bark. Those folks are the ones who don’t trust Krashen because they want language instruction to remain purely in the realm of the intellect, which is now impossible. Krashen is the Carl Jung of his time – a pure researcher who had the genius to want to take it further – into the realm of intuition and the unconscious mind while also keeping its firm footing in the proveable. How cool is that? Of course, like Jung in his time, Krashen immediately becomes an easy target for insecure ivory tower intellectuals of whom I’ve personally had my fill. I mean, if some guy comes up with compelling data that points a huge arrow (bigger than the kind those kids flip around on the street to advertise the store down the street) directly at the idea that everything we are and have been doing in foreign language education for decades and decades is just a bunch ofanalytical hooey – because humans learn languages unconsciously and everything we do in our classrooms is about teaching languages to the conscious/analytical mind – then people wouldn’t really want a piece of that. Anyway, Warren, it’s a good summary. Your point 2 above supports the point I was trying to make so thank you especially for that one. I might add that your point 6 above is something Susan Gross never let me forget. She always warned against any more than about ten minutes a week (total time, whether it be a dictation or a free write) of total time spent on writing. Warren maybe from time to time you would grace us with a nice little set of facts about Krashen as you have above on the writing skill. Or just post a link here to any such content on your site. We all need to keep up on what Krashen is saying, because, like it or not, it’s what school districts, if they want to stay up with current research and actually implement the reform that is coming (Krashen based teaching is not unlike the green revolution in scope), are going to have to do. Principals, once they understand the research (most don’t today, much to the consternation of many of us) are just like us – they want to keep their jobs, and once they and district people make the buy in to this level of reform, the change will come quickly from the top down, which is the only way things happen in schools. People who try to change things from the bottom up usually don’t last too long in their positions, because they feel so weird in the building, like fish out of water. But it all will work out. Krashen will be embraced by the people at the top and the kids will be able to actually breathe again in learning languages. The principals will keep their jobs, and everyone will be happy. It won’t be long now….

  6. Because I’ve read some Krashen and (somewhat) understand his hypotheses (is that what we’d call them?), I was very skeptical when our superintendent sent this out to staff at our school. She got it from from the May 2010 MDE School Improvement Brief…
    I’ve opened the attachment to the report, but it is long and I don’t have the time nor expertise to critique it, but have long wanted to see one. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding the implications of the study???
    Any thoughts?
    “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a report released this month from the Carnegie Corporation and published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, provides empirical evidence that writing is an excellent tool for improving students’ reading and learning from text. The report identifies three core instructional practices that have the largest effect on student reading abilities:
    • Have students respond to text through writing personal reactions, analyzing and interpreting the text in activities like guided journal writing and analytical essays, writing summaries of text and taking notes.
    • Teach students the process of writing, text structures for writing, and skills for construction of paragraphs and sentences.
    • Increase how much and how often students write.
    The most striking conclusion is that these writing activities improved students’ comprehension of text over and above the improvements gained from the strategies of reading and rereading, reading and discussing text, and receiving explicit reading instruction. For more information, Open the Writing To Read report: http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingToRead.pdf

  7. Thanks for the comments, Jim. Personally, I believe writing can help in ways that the report suggests: clarifying and organizing thoughts, etc. However, the question for me as a language teacher is when to introduce writing. I didn’t look too far into the report, but I bet the vast majority of the studies were done with children already in school and thus already equipped with hundreds of thousands of hours of oral language behind them. Beyond the issue of motor skills, I doubt seriously that writing would help a two-year old much; the language just isn’t there yet. I tried years ago to have my students keep a journal in the target language. AP usually did okay; 4 struggled a little; 3 struggled a lot; 2 broke down completely – it was entirely beyond them because they didn’t have the language.
    Did they study the effect of writing on pre-schoolers and kindergartners? Or did they confine their studies to upper elementary and higher? My point, of course, is that you can’t take results of studies and try to apply them indiscriminately.
    Furthermore, the study is suggesting only very specific types of writing assignments, not writing in general, whereas Krashen maintains that it is the reading itself that has intrinsic value, not just certain kinds of reading. How many school writing assignments meet the criteria?
    I also noticed that the publisher of the report has a vested interest in making writing look good. Always consider who is telling you something and what possible motives might influence how they say what they say – and what they don’t say.

  8. “…I bet the vast majority of the studies were done with children already in school and thus already equipped with hundreds of thousands of hours of oral language behind them…”.
    Bingo.
    “…[the study] provides empirical evidence that writing is an excellent tool for improving students’ reading…”.
    I just had to copy that line so I could look at it again. Of course, with no comment.

  9. I think I have something similar about writing/reading when I taught college writing… I think writing improves thinking and improved thinking improves comprehension for those upper elem kids, because when you can predict/follow easily the thinking patterns in your reading, you comprehend and remember it better. I totally agree with Robert. I think they’re talking about a completely different level than ours. They’re not saying that writing helps you learn a language (at least from the snippet above). They are referring more to the effects of thinking better (through writing) in a language you already know.
    It reminds me of what I read this summer in You Gotta BE the Book. Good readers connect with books on 10 different dimensions in 3 different categories. Struggling readers are usually missing many dimensions. They have to be taught to connect with reading. The kinds of writing described above seem to be more geared toward that.
    Now I could be totally wrong…

  10. I’d run this one by Stephen. The last two bullet points seem to be in complete opposition to the tons of data that Dr. K has shown us over the past 30-40 years. I’d be interested in his observations.

  11. In our second language “foreign language” classes, why do we ever focus on writing? What is the objective of teaching students to write in a second language? Do students want to learn how to write? Not really. They want to learn how to speak, but it is rare that our ‘novice’ or even ‘intermediate’ learners want to write.
    Does the underlying writing emphasis have more to do with passing the AP exam? If so, the teacher is misinformed as to how to prepare students for that exam. What is necessary to pass it is lots and lots and lots of reading, NOT practicing writing.
    The real purpose of asking students to write is to inform the teacher as to what is needed in terms of re-teaching and re-cycling. Other than that, why do we make them write? It is one way to determine what they really know, which informs us about what we need to teach.
    Teaching English as a second language is different for a number of reasons, and the most obvious one is, of course, that writing in English is necessary for those who live in the U.S.
    For most second language learners, it is not necessary to be able to write in French or German or even Spanish. They want to understand and be understood. Period.
    Ben, we already know Steve Krashen’s answer to “Should we make them write?” Joe Dziedzic asked and he answered. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the responses to that. I still haven’t gotten a chance to look at the subject ages for this report. I am doubting that my superintendent did either. After reading The Power of Reading last year during a PLC with about 5 other teachers, a light went off in my head, and did also in those teachers’ heads (all elem. teachers). But it never helps when stuff like this gets pasted onto a school-wide memo and nobody ever looks into it to check it out (myself included as of yet).
    As far as L2 teaching goes, I feel strongly, with similar experience to Robert (thanks by the way Robert for adding that bit) and Diana and many of you I’m sure, that writing gets in the way, and should only be done when it is just throbbing the fingertips to get out, (or when used as proficiency assessment, which I think gets used as an excuse for others things like rigor and grading way too often). I haven’t experienced the throbbing thing yet in H.S., save the random notes on blackboards and notebook covers.
    Maybe I should send that report to Krashen as Jody recommended, because maybe he is familiar with it and can give us some insight as it pertains to areas outside of L2 post-elem literacy.
    BTW, may I ask what Dr. Krashen’s response to this Joe D. fella was?

  13. “…writing gets in the way, and should only be done when it is just throbbing the fingertips to get out…”.
    Well said! Output is output. First the computer needs to receive a lot of quality input. Like a ton of programming. Otherwise we’ll have the miserable “garbage in/garbage out” thing that describes events in the computer industry when the programming input has not been of a sufficiently high quality to guarantee any credible or decent output.
    Jim on your question about Joe D. (known now in DPS as Little Joey Krashen because of that phone call) – we only heard Joey’s side of it. I do know that Dr. Krashen displayed infinite patience as he talked Joey through the writing thing. Actually, only Joey knows what he heard from Dr. Krashen. I would guess that what Joey heard was pretty close to what Warren said a few days ago in his comments that kind of started this thread. Look, if people want to believe that writing has value, let them. I don’t. Not until later. Not until the language is pretty much a flowering garden of listening and reading beauty. I don’t have more than ten minutes a week for working on writing in my classes, if that. Et alors?

  14. Hi Jim!
    Joe D. is a DPS teacher who, during a discussion about input versus output and what is most important in teaching second languages, insisted that writing in the L.2 classroom is essential and should be given some weight. Joe is a TCI teacher, a strong one. That same evening, on the phone, Joey was able to actually ask Dr. Krashen his opinion about writing. Steve’s response was that writing is one way to evaluate what students actually know and can do. It also informs instruction. Practicing writing is not an effective method for teaching acquisition but it is one way to determine how much language has been acquired.

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