The authors, a teacher and an experienced school-based language/speech specialist, share a key concern with other educators: At-risk high school students continue to be unsuccessful at writing a basic essay despite the best efforts of teachers. Educators and researchers alike are in agreement that these students lack both the knowledge and the skills to express their ideas in writing. There are multiple ‘school’ factors and ‘student’ factors that contribute to student difficulties.
School factors include:
- New teachers that have minimal experience or training in teaching written expression, and
- The lack of instructional materials available that are “new-teacher friendly” and appropriate for, and of interest to, at-risk students.
Research indicates that at risk students demonstrate difficulty with language use and/or cognitive processes that further hamper their ease of learning and writing essays. A review of research also suggests that various instructional techniques improve the at-risk student’s ability to write essays independently and acquire needed academic skills. In addition, all students have skill strengths that can be used to further academic learning.
Consequently, the authors decided to develop a sequenced, research-based program that optimizes teachers’ effectiveness as instructors of written expression and eases the student’s ability to acquire basic writing skills. The authors titled the program “Talk/Write.”
The process of developing the Talk/Write program began with thoughtful discussions, then planning, researching, writing, piloting, and revising. Talk/Write is the culmination of the authors’ own personal experiences, input from other educators, and a review of pertinent research to determine the methods supported by speech/language and educational literature.
The goal was to identify research-based methods that had proven successful with at risk students and that could be utilized by new teachers. When Talk/Write was completed, the program was piloted and revised. Directly due to the pilot experience, the authors are confident that the Talk/Write program now meets the two fundamental requirements for success:
- It is a sequenced, research-based program that optimizes new teachers’ effectiveness as instructors of written expression, and
- Eases the student’s ability to acquire basic writing skills.
Teaching the Persuasive Essay:
A Foundation for Classroom Essay Writing
The Talk/Write program focuses on teaching the persuasive essay. Based on experience and research, the authors concluded that persuasive writing is critical to successfully teaching essay writing to adolescents. Models of communication developed and described in literature for language, development, and education psychology support Talk/Write principals that:
- Writing skills are mapped onto conversational-verbal language expression skills.
- Adolescents often argue as a means to persuade others.
- Adolescents, therefore, demonstrate the comprehension and expression skills that form the basis of effective persuasive writing.
In the English language arts and speech language literature, it is noted that people express themselves, in simple terms, for three basic reasons or social functions:
- To inform
- To entertain
- To persuade
If an individual communicates more for one function than another, his sentences and vocabulary, for the primary function, will be more complex and detailed than sentences and vocabulary expressed for less-used functions. Therefore, for example, if a child’s purpose in communicating is primarily to entertain, his jokes or stories will contain more specific vocabulary and be lengthier in terms of content and number of sentences than when he tries to persuade.
Not surprisingly, the consensus among teachers and parents of high school students is that most adolescent communication is in the form of “arguing.” In the authors’ educational observations, an adolescent’s “arguing” is an attempt to persuade parent, friend, teacher, or other adult. Talk/Write therefore chose to focus on teaching the five-paragraph essay for persuasion as the road map to successful essay writing. As students are told repeatedly in Talk/Write, they already know how to persuade; they just need to learn how to change talking, their strength, into writing. Piaget tells us that language is mapped onto experience. Talk/Write—and its successful outcomes in an earlier pilot—shows us that written expression is “mapped” onto verbal expression.
In addition, all writers, in some sense, are persuaders, whether they argue the theme or impact of a character in a piece of literature, the best solution to a problem, the presentation of information as accurate, etc. In all expository writing, the writer is required to support or prove the thesis with appropriate ideas and details. Therefore, a principle of the Talk/Write program is that skills in persuasive writing more easily transfer into other forms of expository writing. Whether writing about literature, history, or any other subject, students must have a point of view or a thesis to explain and support. Once students become adept at forming an opinion and developing essays that persuade the reader to agree with a thesis, they find the transition to other forms of expository writing easier.
Based on the authors’ experiences, as well as input from other educators and research, to be effective a writing program for adolescents must:
- capitalize on student strengths, not just provide them with interesting instructional material;
- persuade students that they have the basic skills in their repertory to succeed, and that they only need to learn how to transfer these skills into their writing; and
- provide instructional material and methods that are easy to understand.
Conversational Level Instructional Language
and Vocabulary Teaching: Why
Finally, the Talk/Write program’s instructional language is purposely written at the conversational level to ensure that instruction and materials are easier for at-risk students. Why? The authors believe that easily understood language is crucial for rapid understanding of instructional tasks and discussions.
Students do need to understand a limited range of vocabulary words in order to perform instructional tasks for learning written expression, and the required words are directly taught in the Talk/Write program. No more than five new words are taught in any one lesson. Words such as “thesis,” “persuade,” “organization,” and “development” are taught and reinforced so that students are able to cite definitions and identify these in essays.
Why is the Talk/Write program considered “user-friendly?”
- Students learn the instructional routines because these are limited in number, and repeated throughout the manual.
- Webinars demonstrate the instructional procedures and routines allowing teacher/viewers to run lessons that incorporate: teacher modeling, student collaboration, and student partnership practice.
- All the skills taught to students use these three instructional procedures and routines.
- Webinars can also be used for teaching students although most were written to provide teacher training.
- Instructional modules include: Learning objectives, rationale, lesson steps (a procedures checklist), a list of lesson materials, and teacher as well as student copies of forms needed to complete each Instructional Module Lesson.