Journeys February Newsletter

Born to Argue: Engaging the Unengaged Writer
by Carol Jago, Associate Director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA, past President of NCTE, and Journeys Program Consultant

Many teachers are wary of mandates requiring children to write argumentative opinion pieces. Is it even developmentally appropriate? Before you respond, think about an 8-year-old you know who wants a puppy. Is that child not accomplished at compiling powerful evidence and able to marshal ethos, logos, and pathos in order to make the case for a pet? It isn’t that writing argumentatively is developmentally inappropriate, but rather that we don’t yet possess the pedagogical prowess to teach opinion writing.

Children have strong opinions. They care about endangered species and developments in bicycle helmet technology. They want to learn more about topics that matter to them and are keen to assert their views. It’s possible that by only inviting students to write imaginary stories or about their own experiences we have shortchanged them. This is not to say that writing fictional and personal stories should be banished from the curriculum. But maybe past practices have overlooked a kind of writing that could engage those young writers who don’t particularly like making up stories or writing about themselves.

Teachers shouldn’t have to choose between creative writing and opinion writing. Students need practice in both. The elephant in the room is that children simply aren’t doing much writing of any kind. According to survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 97% of fourth graders report spending three hours a week or less on writing assignments, about 15% of the time they spend playing video games (Kaiser Family Foundation 2010 Media Study). Most students do not write enough to learn to write well. Given the critical importance of writing for success in school and in life, students need to be writing more.

For too long traditional curriculum has separated the teaching of writing from reading. Instruction began with an engaging prompt accompanied by encouragement of students to brainstorm ideas. Drafting, revising, and editing followed suit. What is missing from the familiar process is research. Without realizing it or consciously meaning to, we have been requiring students to find all the evidence they needed for their argument on the hard drive between their ears. A better plan for helping students support their opinions is to require them to learn more about a subject before and as they write.

Unfortunately, the practice of writing off the top of one’s head often reflected the kind of task that was being assessed on state writing exams. Persuasive prompts like, “Should the school year be longer?” or “What is the best season?” became common because test developers felt they could only pose questions that all students possessed enough background knowledge to write about. This is about to change. “Next generation” assessment systems include performance assessment tasks. These integrated reading and writing items require students to read a collection of texts, analyze those texts, synthesize the information, and posit a claim of their own that must be supported with evidence from the readings. It’s a tall order. It is also dramatically different from the kind of prompt-driven writing many instructional materials prescribe.

Does this mean that students with poor reading skills will be doubly penalized as writers? Possibly. But it could also be argued that providing students with material to read on the subject they have been asked to write about, levels the playing field. No longer will children be disadvantaged by not having facts at their fingertips. Evidence-based writing tasks also discourage writers from making facts up for the sake of an argument — something that happens often on high-stakes writing assessments.

Many students are offered only lockstep, template-driven writing tasks. No wonder the resultant writing has been lack-luster. Integrated reading and writing lessons on topics that matter to children have the potential to engage students in genuine inquiry. When kids care about their writing, there’s a reason to get it right!


Selected References:


Component Spotlight

Writing Handbook and Teacher's Guide

The Writing Handbook is a consumable student book with 30 interactive writing lessons that complement the Journeys core writing lessons. For Grades 1–6, weekly Student Models are included with call-outs that give definitions and explanation.

The companion Writing Handbook Teacher's Guide is an incredible minilesson resource with 144 writing minilessons each for Grades 2–6, 83 at Grade 1, and 60 at Grade K. Minilesson topics include traits, writing process, writing workshops, technology, research, and checklists and rubrics, as well as many minilessons on writing forms. Corrective Feedback features provide if/then instruction for students who need extra support.

If using the Literacy and Language Guide in your classroom, note that the Writing Handbook Teacher's Guide minilessons are conveniently included.

TIP: The Resources tab in myWriteSmart has direct links to the Writing Handbook, so students can use it as a resource when completing writing tasks.

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Technology Tips

Get the Most out of Your Journeys Digital Resources

myWriteSmart allows teachers to assign writing tasks and students to complete and submit their assignments digitally, while facilitating collaboration between students and the teacher. It includes support for all stages of the writing process, including graphic organizers for the drafting stage and the ability to insert links, pictures, and multimedia. The Resources tab provides online writing tools and connections to sources for citing text evidence and conducting research. myWriteSmart comes pre-loaded with Journeys Research and Media Literacy projects, Write About Reading prompts, weekly writing assignments, and Unit Performance Assessment.

TIP: Journeys Student eBooks have point-of-use links to myWriteSmart, so students can go directly from their eBooks to this digital writing tool.

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Q: At Kindergarten, why are more High Frequency Words included each week beginning in Lesson 16?
A: The higher number of words at Lesson 16 relate to the addition of a new batch of High Frequency Words for the 2014 edition of Journeys (4 more words per lesson). These words were added at the time after feedback from customers. Student Book selections were revised to include the extra words, so students could practice reading all of the lesson HFWs in connected text.

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Q: Why are some Journeys Weekly Test questions not linked to specific standards?
A: Occasionally, there are test items on Weekly Tests that do not have standards associated with them. Sometimes this happens early in the year when students might be reviewing skills from the previous grade, but there are no relevant standards for the current grade. Other times this occurs when weekly lesson content is developmentally necessary for the instructional sequence, but it is not included in the standards for a particular grade.

In ThinkCentral, under the Reports tab, there is a way to report only on the questions attached to standards by selecting the “Standards Report” view. If there is no standard correlated to a question, students would not get points for or against them in the standards report view.

Q: What is the HMH Download Center and what Journeys components are available?
A: The HMH Download Center provides schools with offline availability of Student Books, Magazines, and Teacher Editions. PDF versions of these resources can be downloaded for use on interactive whiteboards or used by students, teachers, or classroom support staff. If Download Center access was part of your school's purchase, information can be found in the Order Confirmation email from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Q: What assistive technologies are available for Journeys to ensure access for all students?
A: For visually impaired learners, Journeys content can be converted into alternative assistive technology products, such as:

  • Braille
  • large print
  • screen reader programs

To see the range of HMH® products available on assistive technologies, go to the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC)

When using the Student eBook, students have access to audio recordings, alternative text (alt text), and closed captioning.

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