Coaxing Student Writers Out of Their Comfort Zones

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All learners have comfort zones. I find it enjoyable, for example, to grapple with the complexities and rhetorical puzzles that James Joyce offers up in his novel Ulysses. But we also know our discomfort zones— concepts or subject areas that make us nervous or unsettled. Give me anything written by the philosopher Spinoza, and my hands will begin to tremble. Then tell me that I have to read it and explain it to someone, and… well, you get the picture.

One of the great ironies of good writing instruction is that teachers deliberately work hard to undo what they have already worked hard to do. That is, they create comfort zones for beginning writers; then they encourage them to take uncomfortable risks. Teachers help students gain confidence in fundamental writing skills: selecting and limiting a topic, developing and organizing ideas, and constructing sentences that support the main  ideas. But once students feel secure with these skills, teachers can begin urging them to throw off those security blankets—to consider more advanced writing topics, to develop more sophisticated sentences.

So for this entry in the Buried Treasures series, I want to highlight a tool that supports students in the risky business of crafting sentences that might be more complex and varied than any they’ve ever attempted.

This tool is featured in Writing Drafter, the second of four products in the Writing Navigator series.  As students begin drafting an essay from their writing plan, Writing Drafter encourages them to construct sentences based on a list of over 70 common forms used by accomplished writers. For example, here’s one sentence form—or template—that allows students to create countless sentences:

Form: When faced with…

Sentences:

  • When faced with an offer to share a pizza, I usually decline and order a whole one myself.
  • When faced with the choice between hot pizza and a chilled salad, I make the wrong decision every time.

    Writing Drafter offers over 70 typical sentence forms used by experienced writers.

When students complete their first draft, they can then use the tool to see how many of the suggested sentence forms they were able to include. The tool helps them answer these questions:

  1. Have you varied your sentence structure?
  2. Are there other forms from the list that might strengthen your sentences?

Writing Drafter highlights sentence forms students apply from the suggested list.

Of course, no writer, not even a professional author, will use every form from this list of suggestions in a single essay. Nor should they. But if students begin thinking about crafting more complex and varied sentences as they draft their paragraphs, then they are starting to think like writers. And that’s a learning zone we’d all be comfortable with.

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Terry Hardison

Terry Hardison oversees the development of English language arts resources for Curriculum Pathways. Prior to joining SAS, Terry worked for 21 years as a teacher and as a district-level English language arts supervisor.

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