Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing

In a 1946 piece for The English Journal, “Teaching High-School Students to Write,” Lou LaBrant addressed the role of drills and direct instruction when teaching students to write:

The question always arises when such a program as the one described above is proposed as to the role of drill. Here again is a term–“drill”–which may mean many things. We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing [emphasis added]. On the other hand, it is often possible to discuss with a class a problem which appears in many papers and to extend the discussion into a day’s work on it. For this study I have found sentences taken from class writing most effective, particularly if I encourage the student who made the error to explain what he was trying to say. Little is gained from blind drills, that is, from drills prepared in advance by some textbook writer who could, of course, not know the idiosyncrasies of the class [emphasis added]. (p. 127)

Two points are worth repeating (emphasized above): (1) In 1946, the research base had “hundreds of studies” showing that isolated, direct instruction of grammar was not effective as writing pedagogy, and (2) front-loaded direct instruction was also ineffective for teaching writing.

During my 18 years teaching high school English, I focused primarily on teaching my students to write. While I was always a skeptic of direct grammar instruction as useful to teaching writing, I was an eager and masterful front-loader of direct instruction on writing.

I spent much of my planning and lots of my class time yammering away about this or that before allowing students to write.

And then the epiphany—one captured perfectly by LaBrant at the end of her essay:

Sufficient discussion has perhaps been presented to indicate the thesis of this paper on the assignment “Teaching High-School Students To Write.” The thesis is this: The teaching of writing is concerned primarily with considering material which is of importance to the writer and in which he has consequently some faith….Whatever the material may be, its primary virtue lies in the attempt to tell something to others or to formulate one’s own experience. On such a basis there is matter for discussion and for consideration of the relation of the form to the meaning. Since the student has something at stake, he can be expected to work at the problem. (p. 128)

Students learning to write are apt to listen to direct instruction after they have completed a draft of an essay that they have chosen and in which they have invested time and energy to offer their ideas to a real audience.

The issue in teaching writing, then, is not if we offer direct instruction, but when we offer direct instruction.

Confronting the “When” of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing in an Era of Rubrics

Teaching writing is influenced negatively by not only the traditional commitment to isolated and direct instruction of grammar, mechanics, and usage, but also the more recent era of rubric-driven writing instruction aimed at high-stakes testing of writing.

As Alfie Kohn (2006) has discussed, as well as Maja Wilson (2006, 2007), rubrics can accomplish some narrow assessment goals, but they tend, like grammar drills, to impact negatively our goal of fostering independent and effective writers:

Just as standardizing assessment for teachers may compromise the quality of teaching, so standardizing assessment for learners may compromise the learning.  Mindy Nathan, a Michigan teacher and former school board member told me that she began “resisting the rubric temptation” the day “one particularly uninterested student raised his hand and asked if I was going to give the class a rubric for this assignment.”  She realized that her students, presumably grown accustomed to rubrics in other classrooms, now seemed “unable to function unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.  Worse than that,” she added, “they do not have confidence in their thinking or writing skills and seem unwilling to really take risks.”

For teachers at the K-12 level, the high-stakes accountability era poses a powerful hurdle to good writing practices; for college professors teaching first-year seminars focusing on writing, a different hurdle exists since students come to college often with narrow template-driven perceptions of writing—linear and sequential writing processes, prompted writing assignments, mechanical frameworks for five-paragraph essays that include introductions with direct thesis sentences, body paragraphs with prescribed sentence-lengths, and redundant conclusions (restate the introduction, goes the guideline).

Here, then, I want to outline briefly how I approach the first essay with my first-year seminar students enrolled in my Adventures in Genre! course.

The weeks leading to the first submitted essay focus on helping students confront their beliefs about writing and essays, including confronting how we define genres and what ways students are often required to write in formal school settings. One way we confront these assumptions learned in their K-12 experiences is by reading throughout the semester Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup, 11th edition); as well, I ask them to read “Advice on Writing” (Trish Roberts-Miller).

As we examine the expectations for writing found in school, we begin to compare how the essay is defined in four areas: K-12, college/academia, the “real world,” and universal qualities. (See a chart I ask students to compleete and maintain throughout the semester.)

Before they submit their first essays, we also learn to read like writers. I read aloud essays and parts of essays from Barbara Kingsolver (High Tide in Tucson, Small Wonder), an excerpt from Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo, essays by Kurt Vonnegut (A Man Without a Country), and others—including students choosing and discussing essays from William Zinsser’s The Writer Who Stayed.

The goals I focus on before they draft a first essay include very big and broad concepts of how writers write and why readers read. Primarily, I seek to reset students’ assumptions about essays, writing, and school.

Once the first essay is submitted—and I require students to choose both the topic and form of the essays they write since I am fostering their autonomy as well—I follow this process:

  • Students email their first essay to me, attaching at least one rough draft and a final draft (the final will be rewritten and students are aware of this requirement).
  • All students bring hard copies of their essays to class the day they are due by email in order to peer-review in small groups of three.
  • Before they peer-review, I hand out the first year writing intensive rubric approved by our faculty (I haven’t shared this with them yet), three blank rubric forms (two for peer review and one for self-evaluation), and a prompt analysis guide prepared by Ann M. Johns.
  • I respond to all the essays using track changes and comments features in Word, return the essays, and require all students to arrange a conference with me before revising and resubmitting the essays. My responses on the first essay are relatively light—in part not to overwhelm them and in part to allow me to ask questions when we conference.
  • In the conference I focus on allowing them to ask questions first, and then I ask questions such as: (1) What were you trying to accomplish in this essay? (2) Do you think you accomplished your goal? (3) Who is your audience? (4) What type of essay did you draft, and why?
  • The conferences end with our discussing a few revision strategies (“few” is extremely important), acknowledging that the essay may need several revisions (also students are allowed to abandon these drafts and start over, identifying the abandoned draft as a discovery draft), and requiring the student to set a due date for the revised essay (I do not assign the due date but encourage students to organize their semester so that they can handle the coming additional essays).

Throughout the semester, I also do not assign grades to any assignments, but offer students the opportunity to meet with me and discuss their grades on any assignment or current status in the class. I want them focusing on learning and craft—not grades.

The overarching goal of this process is to help students come to see that learning to write is a journey, along with fostering in them an awareness that essay writing is bound by the conventional expectations of the situation: Disciplines view essays differently, and academic writing remains distinct from writing essays for the public.

LaBrant (1957) argued “Writing Is More than Structure,” concluding:

The end has all along been writing, but somewhere along the way we have thought to substitute mechanical plans and parts for the total. We have ceased to build the house and have contented ourselves with blueprints. Whatever the cost in time (and that is great), and whatever the effort, our students must be taught to write, to rewrite, to have the full experience of translating ideas into the written word. This is a deep and full experience, one to which each in his own way has a right. (p. 293)

And in the teaching of writing, it is ours to help our students build houses from the blueprints they create—all in a learning environment that places our direct instruction primarily after the students have invested themselves in writing that matters.


Johns, A. M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest. Language Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.

Kohn, A. (2006). The trouble with rubrics. English Journal, 95(4), 12-15.

LaBrant, L. (1957, May). Writing is more than structure. The English Journal, 46(5), 252-256, 293.

LaBrant, L. (1946, March). Teaching high-school students to write. The English Journal, 35(3), 123-128.

Wilson, M. (2007). Why I won’t be using rubrics to respond to students’ writing. English Journal, 96(4), 62-66.

Wilson, M. (2006). Rethinking rubrics in writing assessment. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Teaching College Students to Write by John Maguire

Teaching College Students to Write

A faculty member explains how he figured out the way to turn poor writers into good ones.

By John Maguire

May 07, 2013

Today’s college freshmen can be trained to write well—and in one semester. I will describe one way it can be done.

Let’s start with an example from “Tom,” written in the first week of a freshman course.

Ever Since my childhood I worked many different jobs. In my teenage years I worked on a farm. My job was one to remember. Early Saturday and Sunday mornings, I would bring a bundle of chicken and rabbit food into a coop: Feeding the rabbits and chickens was the fun parts. Cleaning there manur was not so pleasant, but it taught me a leason. In regards to working on a farm my limits started and ended with cleaning manur.

When I graduated high school I became an Ra. I worked with Wellesley/MIT Upward bound Program. It was an enjoyable experience. Monday through Friday I was taking care/tutoring the Students. Being Able to teach Someone, anything while they are Struggling is a good feeling. On the other hand working with students who are not ready to learn, is extremely frustrating. I never wanted to give up on a student, but sometimes the student made that choice for me. Being an Ra I realised my limits was getting too involved and taking it personally.

That’s thirteen errors in fourteen sentences.

I used to drag guys like Tom through, gamely correcting all their errors, writing notes in the margins about the principles of clarity, subject-verb agreement, and the importance of active verbs. Huge expense of effort by me, but little learning by the likes of Tom.


Call for a Special Issue of Writing & Pedagogy

CALL FOR PAPERS Writing & Pedagogy, Vol. 7(2), Summer 2015, Special Topic Issue

Orality and Literacy in the 21st Century: Prospects for Writing Pedagogy

Twenty-five years ago, Comprehending Oral and Written Language (Horowitz and Samuels, 1987, Academic Press) was published. Chapter One of that book began with the following statement, which still holds:

In the next century it will be virtually impossible to pursue the study of written language and literacy without attention to oral language…. Speculations are that 100 years from now, not only will there be a mingling of research perspectives, but since features associated with oral and written language and social-psychological factors associated with language processes are constantly in a state of flux, our very object of study will also change dramatically. The lexis, grammar, and larger structures of oral language and written language may become alike, with the norm being a writing that is largely indistinguishable from speech. (p. 1)

 We are soliciting contributions for a special topic issue on “Orality and Literacy in the 21st Century: Prospects for Writing Pedagogy.” The issue will address attributes of orality and literacy that are gaining heightened attention world-wide and that we believe will significantly influence the nature of classroom instruction in writing. Scholarly examination of oral and literate cultures and spoken-written expression and their cognitive representation will influence the pedagogical practices that are advanced in the 21st century in educational policy, teacher education, and classroom learning and teaching.

The special topic issue will include articles in the categories of critical essay, empirical research, pedagogical reflections, technology-focused or internet-focused articles, and reviews of books to be published in the period from Summer 2013 to Summer 2015. We are seeking articles relevant for any level of education or type of writing pedagogy or practice, such as the following topics and areas of inquiry:

  • The evolving nature of orality and literacy, historically and culturally – How are changes in orality and literacy reshaping writing pedagogy? How have the oral and written dimensions of language, whether primary or second languages, been characterized by scholars and how might different perspectives have influence on pedagogical practices in writing?
  • The functions of oral vs. written communication among individuals and/or in given social groups or communities – Are the functions of the oral and written dimensions of language changing within specific cultures or social-contextual settings, and if so, how are these changes influencing writing pedagogy?
  • Interactions of oral and written expression and knowledge development within different academic disciplines – How is spoken language used to support writing tasks, genres, and writer-reader goals of different academic disciplines? How do oral and written modes of communication interact in contrasting types of knowledge domains, such as in science versus history?
  • Ways in which forms of speaking influence writing – How do speech styles and genres work as precursors to writing, and how do they strategically enter into and follow writing? How do discussions influence motivation and processes of writing and the products that are produced by learners? How can students in classrooms progress from spontaneous utterances to more planned discourse?
  • Spoken versus written input to writing – What is the comparative value of spoken versus written feedback or other kinds of contributions on students’ writing?
  • Linkage of oral and written competence across languages or dialects – How might students’ oral or written competence in their primary language be used to support or enrich writing in another language? How can writing pedagogy incorporate bilingual or bidialectal competence?
  • The role of the body in oral versus written expression – How do the mouth, ear, eye, hand, or larger human body contribute to the production of written discourse, such as through incorporation of specific features of oral language, gestures, or overall performance? How do visual and manual processing contribute to writing when writers use specific tools such as pen, computer, or hand-held devices? How should connections between mind and body be studied or employed in writing pedagogy?
  • Timing and prosody of speech and writing – How do timing and prosody through features such as intonation units, punctuation, and utterance/sentence length differ in speech versus writing? How are the rhythmic elements of language and discourse conveyed in writing? How might these be taught to developing writers?
  • Voice in speech and writing contexts – How is voice conveyed in specific speaking and writing contexts? How do writers adjust voice to geographic space or social-situational contexts? How can voice be defined and developed in the writing curriculum?
  • Audience awareness or interaction in speaking versus writing – How is audience incorporated into acts of speaking versus writing, and what are the pedagogical implications?
  • Cognition and consciousness in speech and writing – How does written language influence cognition and consciousness differently from speech, and what are the implications for teaching and learning how to write for cognitive development? In what ways are differences in speech and writing as modes of meaning and thinking incorporated into educational curricula?
  • Methods of oral and written discourse analysis – What methods, including with technologies, may be useful for the analysis of spoken and written discourse, and how can they be applied to writing pedagogy?

 Contributions to this issue may come from researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines, such as Rhetoric and Composition, Communication, Psychology, Culture Studies, Linguistics, Education, Media and Information Technology, as well as from those interested in writing in specific disciplines. A range of methodologies are welcomed, including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-method empirical studies as well as historical or issues-centered analysis and pedagogical description and critique. Contributors may suggest an issue or topic that is not listed but that may be germane to the theme of this special issue.

For articles in all categories other than book reviews, interested potential authors should send their email and postal addresses along with a provisional title and draft article or detailed abstract, summary, or outline of contents by email or hard copy by post to the guest editor. For best consideration, submit this by 31 January 2014. Also send a 75-100 word biographical statement that includes highest degree and where from, current institutional affiliation and job title, and major achievements. For book reviews, please notify the guest editor of relevant books to appear in the period of Summer 2013 to Summer 2015 and whether you would like to be considered as a possible reviewer of a specific book or books, for which the reviewer would receive a free copy. If you wish to be considered as a reviewer, also send email and postal address along with a 75-100 word biographical statement that includes highest degree and where from, current institutional affiliation and job title, and major achievements.

Guest editor contact information:

Professor Rosalind Horowitz

Discourse and Literacy Studies

Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching

College of Education and Human Development

The University of Texas–San Antonio

One UTSA Circle

San Antonio, Texas 78249-0654


Potential contributors will be notified within 2 months of submission of a decision about their proposed contribution and, if positive, given feedback towards a first or revised draft. Both the guest editor and the other editors of the journal will work closely with selected authors to aid in producing a unique and memorable issue on this important topic.

Writing as a Young Scholar/Academic

Writing as a Young Scholar/Academic

Writing in an academic and/or scholarly setting, such as writing as a student, has some expectations that strongly impact how the young scholar is evaluated. Here are some key issues to consider when writing as a young scholar in a variety of academic settings:

• Submit work that has been carefully copyedited. A sloppy document is often viewed harshly. You should run the “Spelling and Grammar” tool in Word; you should have a peer proofread. But do not submit sloppy documents in any academic or scholarly setting—even if the work is a draft yet to be finalized.

• Some surface features of writing are judged strictly in academia—sentence formation, verb tense/form, paragraphing, and overall document and citation formatting. Be careful with the following:

(1) Sentences must be formed purposefully. Great care should be taken to punctuate and form complete sentences—with fragments and run-on sentence formations being rare and purposeful. Often, students are not allowed any deviation from complete sentence formation.

(2) Maintain control of your verb tense and forms. Verbs should be in present tense when discussing the action of a text (books, films), but in past tense when dealing with historical or contemporary real events. Again, students are expected to show control of verb tense and forms—using and shifting these tenses and forms with purpose.

(3) Conform to the citation requirements of the field—APA, MLA, or whatever citation style sheet the field requires. Documentation form, document margins, page breaks, headers/footers, headings/subheads, spacing—all of these surface details matter, and students should be diligent with them.

• Choose your words (diction) and tone carefully—making sure that the diction and tone match the level of your content. Students are often careless with diction/tone resulting in undermining their claims. “Get,” “fix,” “it,” “thing,” “there [to be],” “good,” “bad,” and similar common words are lifeless and beneath the emphasis you want to place on serious topics. Above all else, your diction and tone must match your purpose and topics.

• Academic writing must have a clear focus; often, the primary purpose of academic writing is to argue or promote a perspective. Students tend to write better when they see their essay as an argument of some kind. Can you answer this, “What is the central point you want your reader to understand or embrace after reading your essay?” Every word in an essay must in some way contribute to the central focus/purpose.

• All claims must be supported by evidence and elaboration. In fact, providing evidence and elaboration is the primary bulk of any essay. Claims are brief and have little weight; the evidence and elaborations/explanations are what convince a reader. When discussing a text directly, such as a novel, students must make direct textual references (quotes with citations). When quotes are included in a scholarly work, the writer must integrate those quotes grammatically with her/his original sentences. Here are some examples using APA citation (note the placement of punctuation, verb tense, title formatting, spacing, quote marks):

[First reference in a paragraph]

The Lacuna opens with a sentence that suggests foreboding for the story to come: “In the beginning were the howlers” (Kingsolver, 2009, p. 3).

[A second or subsequent reference in a paragraph]

Kingsolver pulls the reader further into the mysterious tone of the novel’s opening with “[a]s it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world” (p. 3).

[A quote of a quote (dialogue), second reference or after]

When the boy’s mother mentions his having a girl friend, the boy responds abruptly, “’I won’t have a girlfriend’” (Kingsolver, p. 9).

• Never simply use cut-and-paste quoting in an essay.

[Cut-and-paste quoting]

Kingsolver’s novel opens with a mother and son adjusting to life in Mexico. “It should have been like a storybook here” (p. 3). But they appear to be trapped in a life they don’t expect.

• Sophisticated writing doesn’t announce the claims and arguments to be made; simply make the claims or arguments.


Atwood’s novel is a perfect example of a novel taking a position on a topic.

[Claim made]

Atwood’s novel forces the reader to look beyond the stereotype of a feminist by portraying June’s mother as a feminist participating in a book and video burning.

• Citation formatting must be followed fully and consistently. With some style sheets, the requirements are unusual and confusing (especially with the format of the bibliographies), but students and scholars must follow these guidelines. Note spacing, line spacing, and indentation requirements; capitalization guidelines; title formats; placement of punctuation; listing for page numbers; and proper citing in the flow of your essay. SEE SAMPLE ESSAYS AND LOOK CAREFULLY AT APA, MLA, ETC., EXPECTATIONS FOR IN-TEXT CITATIONS AND THE REFERENCES LIST.


Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work, P. L. Thomas

Writing for Specific Fields (UNC)