About the Experts
Diana Leddy, M.Ed.
Diana Leddy, M.Ed. is a nationally known consultant and expert on standards-based writing curriculum and instruction. She was a classroom teacher for over 25 years, and a former National State Teacher of the Year for Vermont. Diana is one of the founders of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, a core developer of the Writing for Understanding approach, and the author of many books and articles about teaching writing.
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Kevin Carlson: In this episode: “The Pillars of Effective Writing Instruction.” I'm Kevin Carlson, and this is Teachers Talk Shop.
Diana Leddy: I can't stress that enough that really a lot of time was spent looking at the student work. We didn't just come back and say, “Well, we think this worked.” We tried things. And then we looked at the student writing and decided whether or not it had actually worked. That gave us an approach that eventually became writing for understanding.
Kevin Carlson: That is Diana Leddy. She is a nationally known consultant, an expert on standards-based writing curriculum and instruction. She was a classroom teacher for 30 years and a National State Teacher of the Year for Vermont. Diana is one of the founders of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, a core developer of the Writing for Understanding approach, and the author of many books and articles about teaching writing. Recently, author and educator Patty McGee spoke with Diana about the Writing for Understanding approach. The conversation begins at the beginning.
Patty McGee: Hi, Diana Leddy, thanks for being with us today. Let's jump right in. Can you tell us about your journey, in terms of writing instruction?
Diana Leddy: The story that I'm going to tell starts way back in the 1990s. I was a very young teacher, and I was fortunate to be able to work in a rural school in Vermont—one grade, one class for each grade, K-8. And at that time, Vermont was trying a very courageous and adventurous idea, which was that they were going to try to assess writing statewide, using a portfolio rather than a standardized test. And they got grant money to do this. They brought in national experts in assessment, national experts in writing. And I was a fifth-grade teacher at the time, and my classroom was one of the classrooms that was contributing writing to help fuel this whole process. There were several other teachers in my school, as well, that were doing that. And that venture, unfortunately, eventually failed. Couldn't quite get the reliability and validity of a standardized test using portfolios, although we got pretty close. But it had a fantastic and amazing effect on our general understanding of writing. What we learned was very,
precisely in great detail what effective writing can look like at different grade levels. And we read literally thousands of papers to discover this. So going through this process was mind-opening for all of us at my school. But once we had this information, now we know what we want students to do. We realized we needed to do something about it. We needed to create instruction around it.
So we began what we would now call an action research project. At that time, we did not have those words, nothing so fancy. But our whole school got together and decided that we were going to try and figure out what kind of instruction would be effective to get these outcomes, and we came up with a pretty simple pattern. We would meet once a month as a whole school for a full day, and we'd begin by having whoever had knowledge taking some time to share with the full group. So we had learned a lot of things through the assessment project, and there were other people who would read research and help present that to us. So we'd spend a little time learning, and then we would make a plan to go off into our classrooms and teach a particular type of writing for a month and always bring back student papers and our observations. And that proved to be enormously powerful.
We wound up discussing, learning from each other. At the time, I was also going for my Master’s degree in education, so I decided I would make that my Master's project to analyze the data and distill it.
Patty McGee: It's really amazing when teachers have the opportunity to put their heads together to really, as you said, create this action research project, but just invest time, thoughtfulness and collaboration and what can come from that. So what was the outcome?
Diana Leddy: Well, we distilled all of our observations and student papers—and I can't stress that enough, that really a lot of time was spent looking at the student work. So we didn't just come back and say, “Well, we think this worked.” We tried things. And then we looked at the student writing and decided whether or not it had actually worked. And that gave us a very narrowed-down list of ideas about writing instruction that we put together into an approach that eventually became Writing for Understanding. Once we started this project, our test scores started skyrocketing, not just in writing but also in reading. And we had other schools calling us up to say, hey, “What are you doing over there?” So we would make an agreement to go over and do a professional learning
session with their staff. And basically that sort of grew and snowballed, and within about five years, we wound up spreading this approach pretty much all over the country. We've done professional development in 25 different states and a lot of work with curricula. And the important thing there is that all along the way, we were learning and we're still learning.
Patty McGee: And that collaboration.
Kevin Carlson: After the break, more about Writing for Understanding. Stay with us.
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Patty McGee: So can you give us some more detail, then, about what Writing for Understanding entails?
Diana Leddy: We wound up with three, what we call pillars, that are the basis. The middle pillar that holds up the whole building is, oddly enough, Understanding. What we discovered was that it is important to learn writing skills, and it is important for students to be skilled in the craft. But it's equally important, when you read a piece of writing, that that piece of writing says something meaningful. And we discovered this through lots of different avenues. But the story that stands out in my mind as we were all around a table, a bunch of teachers from all over the state trying to figure out some scoring, and we had a piece, and the piece was called “The Longest War”—I don't remember the student who wrote it, but we are forever indebted to that student because of the conversation that this piece instilled—we were looking at it and it was scoring perfectly on the rubric, but we all agreed that it was not a good piece of writing. It had misinformation in it, it didn't really go anywhere, your general impression when you read it was, no, this is not very good. It was a piece about the Vietnam War. And we had this conundrum. So is a piece of writing a good piece of writing because it scores well on the
rubric, because the student has great language skills, can organize things like that, that we normally think about as being important in writing, or is there more to it than that? And we eventually decided that this piece would score low, because it really didn't show a deep understanding of the content, and that that's the bottom line for any piece of writing, is to show that deep understanding.
Patty McGee: Okay. So that middle pillar, the one that holds up the building, as you said, is understanding. What are the other pillars?
Diana Leddy: Another pillar is backward design. We were very much influenced by and worked a bit with Wiggins and McTighe about how to design writing backwards. Now, once we understood that understanding was important, that backward design looks a little different than you might imagine. We do design backward from standards, but we also design backward from content. So the first question we ask is, “What do we want students to understand or to show understanding of in this piece of writing?” And then we look at the standards and decide which of the writing types would work well to be able to express that kind of understanding. And then we actually do what's called a test drive, which means that we write a piece like the ones we expect our students to write, so that we have a really thorough understanding of what needs to go into that piece, what needs to happen for students to write it.
Patty McGee: So understanding, backward design, as two pillars.
Diana Leddy: And then direct instruction. Basically—this sounds so obvious, but I think, in writing especially, we often forget it—students can't write if they aren't taught to write. And for many, many years—and I was really guilty of this—we assigned writing, but we didn't teach it. So we'd think of a wonderful assignment, we'd put it out there, and we'd say, “Go ahead, write.” And then we'd be surprised that they couldn't do it. Or actually, even worse than that, and this is what I used to do: I'd find one or two pieces where the student showed that they could do it, and usually that student could do it because they were widely read or they had a lot of background knowledge, and then I'd sort of blame the other students for not being able to get there, even though I hadn't taught it.
Patty McGee: Could you describe “explicit instruction,” what you mean by that? Because I do think there's many working definitions of that in education. And very often as teachers of writing, we feel as though we're being explicit, but perhaps we're not. Can you dig a little more into that?
Diana Leddy: That's a good question, because there's a lot involved there. You need to, first of all, have that backward design, so that you're very clear about both the content of the writing and the skills that are going into it. As far as building understanding, that is part of the writing process. And the reason that that's so important, that building understanding and explicitly teaching the content that you want to make sure students show that they understand, is because if it's not taught in class, then what you're doing is winding up depending really heavily on background knowledge. And in order to level the playing field, in order to make sure that all students actually have access to the knowledge and understanding that we want them to express, planning into your teaching a time to not just teach facts or to do research, but a chance to process, to really understand that content, is part of explicit instruction.
So generally writing in our approach is text based. You can build understanding in lots of ways, but since we're ELA teachers, the most efficient way is to have students use their reading skills and practice those while they're building content. And we all work with the same content, which is a huge difference, as well. And that is so that we can discuss, we can have explicit lessons in it, we can take notes, and students can collaborate with each other. So that's the explicit instruction in building content knowledge, and then also explicit instruction in building concepts of craft. So that will vary based on the writing type. But for expository writing, things like having a focus and organizing, elaborating in narrative writing your voice and tone, making sure that you have a logical, coherent plot, things like that. And all of that is instruction, is explicitly planned from a piece similar to the piece that you hope that students will write.
Patty McGee: Wonderful. Could you give us some ideas for any educators that are listening right now on what they might be able to do in the classroom, or anyone who's interested in taking a first step into this approach of these three pillars?
Diana Leddy: You can implement them on lots of different levels, so I would encourage people to just go out and start experimenting with aspects and to see what they think. I'll give you a little tip for each of the pillars, so that people can get an idea of what it might look like in the classroom.
If you're looking at backward design, you want to ask yourself a slightly different question than you might have before, when you design a writing assignment. I used to say, even if it was topic or content-based writing, I'd say, “What is there that my students can write about in this topic?” If you flip that question just a little bit and say, “What can my students learn from writing?” then you're going to wind up with a good solid assignment.
Patty McGee: Interesting.
Diana Leddy: So think, “What can my students learn from writing?” instead of, “What can my students write about?” So if you were doing, for example, a unit on animal adaptations, a science unit on animal adaptations, and you decided this would be a great thing for students to write about, instead of saying, “Oh, [they’re] learning a lot about animals, they can write a story about one of the animals that we learned about,” things like that, instead say, “Well, what's the core here? The core is that they need to understand and show understanding of how animals adapt to their environments. So let's create a writing task where you can go with lots of different genre.” They could either do an informative piece and explain how an animal or a couple of animals are adapted to their environment in an essay, or you could still do a narrative, but the narrative would be focused on, let's say, watching an animal use an adaptation in its habitat and you create your story, your adventure, around that. So, “What can my students learn by writing?” I think is important.
And then for understanding, I would strongly recommend note taking, especially class note taking and group note taking with your students. Note taking is really difficult. We often don't give quite enough instruction in it, so starting by taking notes together is really important. One thing I've found that's really helpful in note taking for all elementary students, but especially for primary grade students, is to take very brief notes using words and pictures. So if you're lucky enough to be able to draw, you can use the Noun Project, [it] gives you free icons that you can download, but having a simple—again, if we're talking about animal adaptations—having a simple picture chart where you have a picture of the animal, and then next to it a picture of the adaptation, and no more than a couple of words. Teachers will often say, “Oh, if I take notes for my students with my students, then they're just going to copy what's up there.” Well, if it's a picture, they have to reconstitute that thought, so they don't just copy what's up there, they have to really understand it. And as I said, with primary students, I think teachers
will find the effect of this is mind boggling. I taught kindergarten for a long time, and I was very accustomed to saying, “My students can't do this kind of thinking,” whatever it was, complex thinking, “because they're too young.” Once I started taking notes, I realized that, of course there are some things that my students are too young to do, but many things that I thought they couldn't do they all of a sudden could do, because they didn't have to hold all of the information in memory. So if you have notes, especially picture notes, those can become manipulatives of thought. Students can take—just like math manipulatives—students can look at those notes and they can play with them in their heads or sometimes with their hands, if you if you can create an activity where they're on a table and working together, where they can manipulate and move around information without having to remember all of it.
And as adults, we do this all the time with complex thinking. We always take notes when we have some really hard thinking to do, and we also have more capacity to hold things in our brains and more background knowledge than younger students have. So if you take the time to take notes with your students and encourage them to work with those notes, I think you'll see that they can do much more complicated writing and thinking than you thought they could do before.
Patty McGee: Who they are is not only valuable, but is a gift to all of us.
Kevin Carlson: After the break: Direct Instruction. Stay with us.
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Patty McGee: What about the direct instruction pillar?
Diana Leddy: It is kind of just what it sounds like. But you need to think about how, as you would in any subject, how do you make the concepts that you want to teach really clear to students? And there are lots of ways to do that, but one pattern that we've found that works really well is to break the writing into smaller chunks.
So let's imagine you're writing that animal adaptation task as a little essay. Have students write one paragraph at a time and start each lesson with instruction. So if we're writing the introduction, we begin by perhaps looking at a model of an introduction that's very well written, looking at what makes it well written, and then having students practice, orally rehearse, what they are going to write—speaking is very, very powerful, especially for younger students, but again, for all of us—and then writing it down.
So looking carefully at a model, creating explicit instruction around that model, having students orally rehearse what they're going to say, so they have a chance to get a little feedback from a peer, as well as just formulate the sentences orally, because our oral language is usually much stronger and more fluent than our writing language, our written language. And then they write it down.
The other advantage of that is that a teacher then can collect those introductions, look them over, see where there are any problem areas, either for if the whole class is having a problem, [or] they're struggling to make a focus statement or a thesis statement, then the next day, instead of moving on, I can stop and reteach that and we can go back and revise them. If it's just a few students, I can pull a group and we can go through that. But it really gives you an enormous opportunity to plan your teaching and to plan your reteaching.
Patty McGee: Yes. This is definitely making me want to do some more reading and researching. Thank you so much for coming and sharing Writing for Understanding, at this point a collaborative project of thousands of teachers. And this will have a direct impact on classrooms right away.
Diana Leddy: I encourage teachers to go out and experiment and let us know what you find out, because it's all part of the process.
Patty McGee: Thank you.
Kevin Carlson: Thank you, Diana Leddy, thank you, Patty McGee, and thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. In this episode, we learned that understanding is one of the pillars of the Writing for Understanding approach. Students with deep understanding of a topic are better prepared to write about it.
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Throughout this season, we talk with leading literacy experts to explore current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree View of Literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms.
Thanks for listening. For Benchmark Education, I'm Kevin Carlson.