ellen scottEllen Levy and Scott Townsend, Secondary Services Team          


“I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the confidence that I could say and write the things I know.” She smiles and sweeps the bangs from her eyes. “Then someone showed me how.” 

– Monica DiBella, senior, New Dorp High School, Staten Island, as quoted in
The Writing Revolution by Peg Tyre, The Atlantic, October 2012

We’ve met many students like Monica. Students who grew up in the United States and have been enrolled in American schools for five, eight, 10 years or more, but continue to struggle with reading academic texts and writing analytical essays. Fortunately for Monica, her school agreed to focus on explicit writing instruction.

Monica’s school transformed from a site with a 40 percent dropout rate and few students earning college credit to what is now being touted as a model of school reform. While reading about this transformation, we were struck by some of the false assumptions that teachers initially had about their students. Many teachers had believed that:

  • Students did not have the intelligence to write essays of high school caliber
  • Students were choosing not to put forth their best effort
  • Teachers did not need to change their instructional practice, even after years of student failure

After deciding to focus on writing instruction, the staff identified the essential writing skills the students needed. To do this, they gathered in collaborative teams and discovered that many students struggled with conjunctions, such as for, and, nor, but, or, and so, as well as more complex transition words like although and despite.

Teachers realized that it was almost impossible to determine whether a poorly written response to a prompt was due to the students’ lack of content understanding or a lack of the language needed to express their understanding.

This realization forced teachers to question their previously held assumptions. They could no longer assume that students were lazy, nor could they assume that their instruction included all of the knowledge and skills that students needed. They came to understand that there are specific rules of language and writing that the students didn’t know and had to be taught explicitly.

“There are phrases – specifically, for instance, for example – that help you add detail to a paragraph,” Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. “Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?”

The staff of Monica’s school pursued a new approach to writing instruction, but just as important, they questioned and discarded their notion of student deficiency. Without faulty assumptions about the inability of the students, both teacher and student were free to embrace learning with new vigor. 

The outlook is hopeful for Monica, and students like her all around the country, who are now receiving explicit language instruction. No longer can we assume that students bring to our classes the academic language knowledge needed for success. It is our professional obligation to teach our students how to express the sophistication of their thinking. By taking this step, we equip them for future opportunities.  

This blog was previously published with the title, “Academic Writing – Building Confidence, Supporting Student Success.”