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.

2 thoughts on “Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing

  1. Pingback: Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing | the becoming radical
  2. Pingback: Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics | radical eyes for equity

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