The Mind, Brain, and Education Research of “Low-Stakes” Practice For Middle School Writers
Writing...the very thought of it can strike fear into the heart of even the most diligent students. Academic writing, such as an essay discussing a character's motives, presenting the main causes of a war, or outlining the parameters and outcomes of a science experiment, can be incredibly daunting to middle school students communicating this way for the very first time. A brain research-informed routine of "low stakes" writing practice can support students' learning process.
Personal vs. Analytical
When a child writes about events from her/his own life, ideas flow naturally. A story that you have lived is a story you know well and–bonus–you're the star of the show! Students intuitively understand that they should write it the way they would tell it to a friend. Sentences are mostly complete. Thoughts proceed in chronological order. Occasional lapses in grammar and mechanics are easily remedied by asking the student to read the text aloud, which usually produces a flurry of insights:
"Oh! I left out a word there."
"I think a period goes here, right?"
"I think I need to say this before I say that."
Personal narrative writing typically produces pleasing results and solid learning for the fledgling writer without much difficulty.
Contrast academic writing, in which suddenly self-conscious and grade-conscious students struggle to understand the highly structured, analytical, and somewhat formulaic writing that punctuates the sophisticated learning in which they are now engaged. Unlike their prior experiences writing from the place they know best–their own lives–students traverse a new and alien landscape.
And their writing often reflects it. In Grade 5 and 6 English classes, students pen sentences that soldier on for several lines, beginning one way and then trailing off into oblivion, either failing to express a complete thought or, for that matter, any thought at all. Repetition, profoundly effective in poetry but deadly in an academic essay, abounds. Well-intentioned yet utterly random vocabulary words are muscularly wedged in for good measure, sprouting like gaudy weeds in an untended garden.
In a word: Gobbledygook. It's as if the kids think they need to speak a new language to accomplish the task. Unfortunately, it's a language no one understands—including the writers themselves.
Mind you, it's not that our students have no ideas about their reading. They most certainly do; in fact, they have very good ones. We teachers have quite wonderful class discussions with them about myriad aspects of the texts they're reading. The problem enters when asking them to translate these ideas into a written exploration.
Grading further complicates matters. For those for whom writing is not a strong suit, the typical single round of teacher feedback and revision before grading–though it sounds quite fair and reasonable–often doesn't remedy students' confusion. The result can be disappointing grades on the finished products and discouraged students.
Enter "Low-Stakes" Learning
Research of British Educationalist and Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam indicates that students work hardest when given highly specific feedback but no grade. This research intrigued me; I had always thought that feedback plus a grade would be the biggest motivator. However, students need many more opportunities than we usually give them to "fail forward"—i.e., to make mistakes that lead to understanding, unencumbered by the final judgment a grade represents.
Isn't this what sports coaches have known forever? If you give a team member enough time to practice, praising progress and tweaking technique along the way, you eventually wind up with someone who can skillfully execute the plays. Described as "low-stakes" learning, this kind of work is messy and strewn with errors, yet ultimately is highly productive.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I wanted to see if my struggling writers would commit to a weekly effort where there was no grade to be earned, but simply as much coaching (in the form of specific feedback) as I could give them. I invited a group of five of my Grade 6 students to chat with me after they had submitted writing, which indicated they could use some support.
To my surprise, all expressed delight at the opportunity to work after school to practice writing together. They elected to work on Mondays because extracurricular activities took other days. I was deeply skeptical that they would be able to work productively after school on the very first day of the week, but forged ahead.
At our first meeting, I explained that they'd be helping one another by reading their work aloud to each other and receiving specific, sentence-by-sentence feedback from all of us. Further, there would be no such thing as a "bad" question; students were free to ask about whatever they didn't understand, and every question would be answered. Then they got to work, crafting paragraphs and, eventually, short essays on questions I had created for them based upon their current reading.
They dug in and worked hard, commenting honestly and specifically on each other's writing, and revising accordingly:
"That sentence sounds like it's missing something."
"You left out the period."
"Don't forget to underline the book title!"
"You used that word too many times in that paragraph."
"That sentence doesn't go with that idea."
I was pleasantly surprised and, at times, mildly shocked to see how dedicated they were—even though the workshop occurred on Monday afternoons and ran for a full hour after a long school day! Also, their writing was pure practice; no matter how well they did, it wouldn't count toward their grade. As Professor Wiliam correctly posited, it didn't matter: they attended regularly, stayed focused for the entire hour, and took their work very seriously.
The Last Word
On the final day of the workshop in early June 2019, I asked the students to complete a survey about their experience. All five unanimously agreed that it helped to have repeated opportunities to practice their writing without worrying about grades. Here are some of their specific comments:
"I could just think of how I could improve with no stress."
"...working without a grade helped me concentrate on learning..."
"It made the class easier for me...Grades make me feel a little worried about asking for help."
"It was the start of a better grade in English. Because the parents are worried about your grade. It was easier to learn."
"It affected me because I would not ask questions as much as I did in this workshop."
Armed with this positive outcome, I requested permission to set up a "Writing Support" time during the school day beginning in September. This way, students could receive writing coaching on an as-needed, daily basis. Our Director of Teaching and Learning, Jennifer Phillips, our then Director of Upper School, Georgia Zaiser, and English Department Head, Emily Seelaus, agreed that this was an idea worth trying.
Consequently, this year, my schedule was designed so that Monday–Thursday, during both morning and afternoon conference times, I am available in the Upper School Library for any student who wishes to come for Writing Support. I was skeptical that any student would give up time to do homework, which is how students tend to use their conference periods; nevertheless, I waited hopefully.
At the invitation of Ed Thompson, our new Upper School Director, I began giving short "commercials" about Writing Support during our Monday morning Upper School Community Meetings. Each commercial consisted of a single question that a student might have about her/his writing, followed by an explanation of how I could help. The goal of these rather simple advertisements was twofold:
Ensure that students knew that writing help was available to them.
Reinforce the idea that, no matter the size or type of writing problem, I was there for the students to support, coach, and encourage–nothing more. Everyone who came would receive assistance.
Gradually, students began to drop in. And they started to ask questions about their writing.
What was and continues to be so marvelous to me are the great questions they ask! Here are a few examples:
"Can you help me with my conclusion? I can't get it to work."
"I have an idea, but I don't know how to say it."
"How should I structure this?"
"I've finished my draft, but does it sound good?"
"Could you help me add descriptive words?"
As I began to address the questions they were bringing to Writing Support, I was and continue to be genuinely blown away by how much Far Hills students care about their writing. By the way, you'll be pleased to hear that they're doing tons of it. In this first trimester of the Writing Support project, students came to me with questions about written work in English, Science, History, and even writing some of them were creating just for fun! In every case, the student was committed to doing the best job possible, dutifully returning for a second and even a third session if necessary. Their interest and dedication to this learning opportunity has been tremendously inspiring.
Numbers Tell the Story
At our last Community Meeting of the first trimester, I shared with the students the anecdotal data I'd been collecting regarding how many students had come for help. I hadn't realized the extent to which students were availing themselves of Writing Support until I sat down to tally my records.
It turns out that the results of this academic experiment have been quite remarkable:
So far this school year, September through November 22, 2019 (53 school days), a total of 40 students made 73 requests for writing support.
Only 13 of those visits were because a teacher directed the student to come.
The other 60 visits were by student choice!
Sheepishly, I must confess that I never expected such a ringing endorsement of Mind, Brain, and Education research. Yet, this outcome resoundingly confirms what researchers are telling us about the benefit of providing opportunities for students to share their work and receive specific, constructive feedback without the encumbrance of a grade.
The powerful, brain research-informed strategy of "low-stakes" practice is one that encourages engagement and helps build mastery. Ultimately, it's just good teaching.
Meet the Author
Learning Support Teacher
Mrs. Keremedjiev is a veteran teacher with thirty years of experience. A former attorney, she has taught third-ninth grades and college freshman writing. She has spent 23 long and happy years here at Far Hills, where she presently teaches a sixth grade English class and provides language arts learning support to grades three and four.
Far Hills Country Day School is a high-quality Preschool-Grade 8 private school located in Somerset County, NJ.