A New Model for Writing Instruction for the 21st Century

A couple of months ago, our tenth graders received their writing scores for the year. As a school we did very well with our proficiency level of 96 percent. What really bothers me about that particular writing test is a burning question, "Does it accurately measure the kinds of writing our students need to be doing in the 21st century?" Our students in North Carolina are asked to complete a writing test every March. On this test they are asked to complete "an extended informational response" which is further described as writing definition or cause and effect. Students are then scored for content and writing conventions. Basically, the prompts that I reviewed asked students to write articles or letters on a variety of topics. (North Carolina provides access to their writing prompts on the grade 10 writing assessment site here.) They also provide a full description of the assessment and how it relates to No Child Left Behind legislation. But even with all of the information provided by the state, my burning question persists? Just how does this assessment reflect the kinds of writing our students are doing and will be doing in the 21st century?

As a long-time English teacher who enjoyed teaching writing to students, it really concerns me that we are still using an assessment that does not authentically assess writing of the 21st century. The National Council Teachers of English have weighed in on this issue by describing the profound changes needed in literacy education and literacy practices. Because of these changes, they provide some imperatives schools might do well to heed.

  • Our schools and our nation need to recognize and validate the many ways we all are writing.
  • We need to develop new models of writing, design a new curriculum supporting those models, and create models for teaching that curriculum.
  • We need to make sure that all students have the opportunity to write and learn in intellectually stimulating classrooms.
  • We need to recognize that out-of-school literacy practices are as critical to students' development as what occurs in the classroom and take advantage of this to better connect classroom work to real-world situations that students will encounter across a lifetime. ("Writing in 21st Century" NCTE.)
The North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment has students writing letters and articles, as if our students are going to become journalists or 20th century citizens who send letters to the editor to their local newspaper. What exactly is not authentic about this activity? First of all, today's students do not read the newspaper. (I am not sure they have ever read the newspaper, but I will give a nod at our state's effort at trying to make the writing task authentic.) Students today, according to the many studies done on "digital natives," they do not read newspapers; they get their information from the Internet. Secondly, 21st century citizens are not likely to respond to issues using letters to the editor. They are more likely to respond to those issues using 21st century tools like blog posts, comment postings, and even posting YouTube Videos.  Besides, how is writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper or an article for the newspaper an "authentic" activity when newspapers are slowly becoming nonexistent? Let's face it, the North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment has become a fossil.

Perhaps we need to begin just as NCTE suggests. Let's validate and recognize all the ways students can write or express themselves with 21st century tools. I realize that could be quite a massive list, but let's start by recognizing that composition and response to issues no longer requires written words. If student gets upset with the BP oil spill disaster, they can post a video they've created on YouTube. They can post an original song they've sung in a podcast. They can post original photos with accompanying music in a slideshow. The list is endless, and as online Web 2.0 tools continue to evolve and be developed, the list of ways students can communicate ideas in the 21st century is never complete. Of course, we still need to have students use the written word. There is still much that has to be communicated that way. But the five-paragraph essay should be relegated to the slag heap immediately. No one ever authentically wrote that way anyway, and writing assessments that force teachers to teach in that manner need to be thrown into the same slag heap. Let's take a close, ongoing look at the kinds of writing our students do and the kinds of writing the 21st century will require them to do and toss out 21st century writing assessments and 21st century writing pedagogy.

Once we've tossed out that irrelevant writing assessment and writing curriculum, we need to do as the NCTE suggests: "develop new models of writing, new curriculum supporting those new models, and develop new models to teach the new writing curriculum." Kathleen Blake Yancey posts a report entitled "Writing in the 21st Century" on the NCTE web site. In that report, she provides a historical context to writing instruction and some themes to think about as we ponder writing in the 21st century. For example, she states "with digital technology and, especially Web 2.0, it seems writers are everywhere." Any new model of writing can't ignore that our students live in a world where "writers are everywhere" and that people "write in order to participate" which is actually an entirely different purpose for writing than to persuade or inform. Any new model of writing would be useless if it still had students writing essays and letters to the editor. Instead, our new models of writing need focus on how writers can use 21st century tools to express themselves in a world where anyone can have his or her writing published.

Once we have our new model of writing and the curriculum to be taught with it, we need revamp the old twentieth century classroom where students sit quietly at desks writing introductions-bodies-conclusions on ruled paper to be handed in at the end of the class. This is the real world of our students. If we want writing instruction to be intellectually stimulating, we need to give them real-world issues, concerns and problems. Then we ask them to use 21st century tools to respond, investigate, report back, and create solutions. English teachers need to put away their red pens which have been used to bleed all over student papers for the last hundred years or so, and become facilitators who empower their students to learn how to communicate effectively in the 21st century with 21st century media.

Finally, like NCTE suggests we need to quit separating what students should be doing in school from what they do at home. Asking students to write an essay in the English classroom using a pen and a sheet of paper then turning it in is an obsolete practice. Amazingly, our students do this, then on their way out of the classroom, they pull out their cell phones and they send a concise text message that follows very strict rules to a friend. We basically ask them to do the inauthentic before they can engage in the authentic. Why can't we have students authentically engaged in using 21st century media as a part of regular writing instruction?

It is time. We need a 21st century model of writing. Actually, we needed it yesterday, but we do need to move the kinds of writing and writing assessments we ask students to do out of the last century. Those of us in administration positions need to help our English teachers make this happen. We need to advocate to policy makers the imperative to remove outdated, irrelevant assessments like the North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment. We need to support our teachers as they seek these new writing models, develop the curriculum to teach them, and provide them with the kinds of access to technology in their classrooms that make writing authentic again.
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