Let’s not tell them what to write. (p. 301)

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

As a teacher of writing, I immediately connected Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions with George Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. Not to oversimplify, but Hillocks’s work emphasizes several key points about effective writing instruction, captured well in a chart at the end of the volume:


Hillocks revealed that many so-called traditional approaches to writing instruction were far less effective than many of the practices at the core of writing workshop—notably that direct, isolated grammar instruction has a negative impact on student writing while free writing (without direct instruction) improves student writing.

At all grade levels, then, if our goals of instruction include improving students as writers, we must acknowledge and then implement practices that honor first student choice and engagement.

There exists a historical research base as well as a more complex research base that all elements of student writing are improved (grammar/mechanics, content, organization, claims/evidence) if students choose the topics they write about and the forms/genres their writing takes—especially when that choice is grounded in classroom activities that engage them in the topics before they compose (see Hillocks).

Assigning students a literary analysis essay on The Scarlet Letter after weeks in which the students are guided through the novel has two potential outcomes that are both problematic: (1) students write horrible essays or (2) students produce clone essays.

The problem with (1) is that we typically place the blame for the horrible essays in the students although the source of those horrible essays is mostly the assignment.

The problem with (2) is that these clone essays probably reflect compliance, not high quality writing abilities.

Our students need and deserve the time and space to become writers through choice and engagement—not by parroting what we tell them text is about, not by filling in the templates we provide.

Our students need and deserve rich reading experiences in which they begin to gather mentor texts that inform the choices they make, how they engage in forming words about the topics that matter to them.

As writing teachers, then, we must design classroom discussions that put students at the center through choice and engagement as a powerful way to increase the quality of student writing.