What DOES it take to be a COMPETENT writer?


Have you ever sat pondering WHY a student who is a strong READER is NOT a strong writer? Competent, yes, but not “functioning” at the SAME level as their reading skills?

Inventing my own letters.

 Flickr Creative Commons Photo by Mikael Wiman

I have. EVERY year, once the year end achievement results are shared with us. If truth be know, this is not a new phenomenon for me … nor for many of us. I have witnessed this gap, time and time again, over the 27 years I have taught.

So … I decided to do some research to see I could find some articles that would help to EXPLAIN the reasons for WHY writing proficiency often developed at a different rate than reading. I was SURPRISED at how LITTLE seemed to be out there.

Like a pit bull on a QUEST, I decided to put the question to my AMAZING Twitter PLN. It took a bit … but … I was rewarded with several inspiring conversations with people around the globe. That’s what I LOVE about my incredible colleagues on twitter!

It was not surprising, but it was also reassuring, to know that I was not the ONLY one looking for answers:

A variety of thoughts were shared:

It’s funny, because OFTEN children begin to “write” LONG before they begin to read. I experienced this with my OWN children. When Heidi began to talk about thinking about it from the perspective of writing computer code, producing, versus reading on your computer, consuming, the “differences” were becoming clearer. I wondered WHY I was finding SO little research on this common phenomenon.

Cristina Milos said something SO profound that, for me, she truly hit the nail on the head:

How true is that? Inspired, really. I am sure that MANY of us are able to enjoy and “read into” an artistic masterpiece. Painting one, on the other hand, is TRULY out of reach for MOST of us. It was through my inspiring twitter conversation with Cristina that I began to refine my search for documentation that would help to explain this gap and why it is COMMON.

If you are interested in reading MORE about this topic … and some of the reasons WHY writing develops differently than reading, here is some of the awesome reading I’VE been doing lately. Truly, if you’ve EVER wondered … these links are worth the time:

It can take DECADES to become a proficient writer. The metacognition involved is FAR more complex than the skills required to become a proficient reader. Most of us NEVER become published authors … and THEY are in a league of their own! The analogy could be likened to becoming a concert pianist, or violinist. The difference between the amateur and the expert … THOUSANDS of hours of practice.

Personally, I believe the ability to write an INCREDIBLE piece of narrative writing comes from YEARS of LIVING … life experience … something that our eight year olds have YET to do. Can we MODEL? You bet. Can we create classrooms FULL of rich opportunities to write for a variety of reasons? ABSOLUTELY. Can we create SAFE and ACCEPTING learning environments where children and adults ALIKE feel secure in their ability to take risks? To be BRAVE? YOU bet.

My mission? To explore the possibilities of “lessening” this gap. Will it be through more research on meta-cognition? Likely! I am the LEAD learner in my classroom … and … I want the best for EACH of my students, no matter WHERE they are on the learning continuum. Wish me luck!

I wonder:

  • Have you experienced this same gap?
  • Have you found specific techniques which help to strengthen our young learners’ abilities to express themselves effectively through writing?
  • Do you know of any research out there that will help me to FURTHER understand and explain WHY this gap is common?

4 thoughts on “What DOES it take to be a COMPETENT writer?

  1. Hey Laurie,
    I love that you turned that tweet into a very reflective blog post. I continued to think about your tweet and shared with my principal the conversation you and I had started. I was surprised to see my tweet included in your reflection! I also enjoyed seeing some of the other responses you received. I am surprised that there is so little research on a topic (literacy) that is crucial to success in life. Of course, not everyone is going to develop writing skills at a level to become an author, but effective writing and communication skills are so important.
    One of the things our school did a few years ago is look at writing instruction and how we can improve. I was part of the committee that looked at a variety of writing “programs” in an effort to choose one that our school could use from kindergarten to grade 8. We discovered that the programs were similar, but often used different vocabulary for the same writing skills and strategies. In the end, we chose to focus on the 6 + 1 Traits. Our main reason for choosing this one was that it provided a common language for every teacher (from K-8) to use with their students. Teachers could still use lessons and programs that they had found to be effective in the past, but now we all started framing those strategies around the language of 6+1. Have we solved our writing problems? No. Are we a little closer? I think we have taken a couple of small steps in the right direction, but it’s going to be a long journey.
    I look forward to hearing more about this.

    • Hi Tanya!

      First, thank you SO much for leaving a comment on my blog. It means a TON to me.

      It’s funny, but I had to write this post. It was writing itself in my head, the further I got with the questions and the conversation. Your tweet reaffirmed AND reassured me that we are not alone in seeing that gap. I would be interested in hearing your Principal’s thoughts on this topic!

      When I first asked the question and started my search I found SO little evidence pointing to the WHY behind these results and my observations over the years. My conversations, particularly with Cristina Milos, helped me to look at the question from a different angle and redefine my searches. I LOVE when that happens! Since then, I’ve found some GREAT documentation for how complex the skill development is for writing acquisition … quite different from the skill development in reading. It all makes SENSE to me, after teaching for 27 years.

      Like any good quest, though, OFTEN I come away with SO many more questions than I even began with!

      So … the back story. Our students do VERY well on their year end provincial exams. For example: Reading: 97.1 % Acceptable; 63.8 % Excellence. Writing: 97.1 % Acceptable; 22.9 % Excellence. Well above the provincial average. Both have the performance gap between reading and writing excellence … ours is much larger.

      I know the issue is more complex … and I think I need to dig much deeper into the actual strands being evaluated, (content, organization, sentence structure, vocabulary, conventions). I also know that I have seen highly capable students who usually score in the excellence range throughout the year actually score lower, (acceptable), on these provincial exams. It is a snapshot in time … one assessment opportunity of many writing experiences throughout the year.

      We, too, have looked carefully at our writing instruction, formative assessment, meaningful goal setting WITH each of our students. 6+ one offers some fantastic support, in specific areas, as does the phenomenal work of Barbara Mariconda. I do not use one individual “program”; rather a combination of things that work. That being said … all five of us on the team love the language of Barbara Mariconda and she has some valuable ideas on how to move students along. A common language is so important. Many teachers on staff embrace both resources.

      Like our children, not all LOVE writing. I feel blessed to LOVE it … although I am not certain I always felt this way. Like the research states … it takes many years to develop. I truly believe that writing is SO much more PERSONAL than reading … somehow, especially when I started writing for the “public eye” … I seriously felt MUCH more vulnerable!

      Gosh. This is becoming longer than the actual post! The long and short of it is … I know there will always be a gap. The research points to the fact that the skill development is MUCH more intensive than the skill set required to be a proficient reader. And, although we can support our eight year olds in a rich learning environment, as I said above … I believe that STRONG writing develops as your experiences in LIFE increase. With age!

      My next question … is there anything I can do to foster the development of these skills … BEYOND the amazing works of Maricona and the Six Write Traits. So … I THINK my journey is taking me into the metacognition domain. I am currently reading Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison. Actually, I’ve RE-STARTED the book … looking at it through the lens of “writing”. ALREADY I am seeing some HUGE potential, (i.e. the “Zoom In” strategy).

      I look forward to continuing this conversation and journey with you, Tanya! Thank you SO much for sharing your insights with me!

      Laurie 🙂

      • You are right Laurie, that did turn into a small novel – but one I loved reading!

        I loved Cristina’s analogy to writing being like painting. It made a lot of sense to me. So maybe instead of being troubled (and consumed?) by the fact that the gap between acceptable and excellence in writing is so much bigger than reading, we need to focus our energy on doing what’s best for our students and moving them forward, from the point they are at. I would suspect that most teachers are doing just that.

        I also agree with your comment about how the achievement tests we complete, are just a one day snapshot of our students’ abilities. I think most teachers (and hopefully admin) recognize that it really doesn’t give a complete picture, like a year’s worth of writing does.

        When our writing committee was looking at writing programs, Barbara Mariconda and Joanne Moore were two of the favourites. They both have great value and we found that our K-3 teachers often used Moore and the grade 4-8 teachers often used Mariconda. As you say, using “a combination of things that work” is what most of our staff does as well and for us, the common language of the 6 traits has helped our writing instruction and language be more consistent throughout our school.

        And I think that with most skills, as your experiences increase, so does your skills and that definitely applies to writing. I also have found over the past few years that I’ve been learning more about metacognition and trying to apply it in my classroom. I have heard of the book you are reading, but haven’t read it yet. Maybe it needs to come next on my professional reading list??

        Thanks for the conversation. I love how this type of connection pushes me to dig deep and ultimately learn. 🙂

        • Hi Tanya!

          I agree. I think it’s more powerful when our students are able to experience a “common language” between the grades, particularly when it comes to the craft of writing. I think it also makes our work as teachers a little less daunting when our students come to us with an understanding of some of that common language.

          This quest has given me some wonderful food for thought. After all … it’s all about each child, where they are currently, and helping them to grow to their potential. If there is a way to help them each grow even stronger in their abilities to communicate effectively through writing … then I am excited to explore that.

          I think you would enjoy Making Thinking Visible. I started it last Spring. Things got crazy busy and I ended up reading a few other professional books. Yesterday, while waiting at the dentist, I started at the beginning … looking at it through the lens of writing. I am excited to see how I might apply some of the amazing “tools” the authors suggest … in general … and through writing!

          Keep me posted if you discover anything exciting, Tanya! Thanks so much for the “conversation”!

          Laurie 🙂

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