Academic Literacy: Recognizing Writing by Dr. Harry Stein

Academic Literacy

Dr. Harry Stein, Manhattan College

Academic Writing (AW) has 7 Elements. 

Illustration #1 shows 7 types of writing

They are RW recognizing writing, copying, note-making, RD or redesigned writing, composition, media writing, and website design. 

Illustration #2

Element #5 composition is divided into styles and scales.  Styles refers to narrative, descriptive, expository, and point of view writing.  Scale refers to sentences, paragraphs, MP or multiple paragraphs, E or essays, and RP research papers.  During the course of an academic year students should practice all styles and scales.

The 7 AW writing elements are practiced in three settings:  the classroom, assignments, and on tests. 

Illustration #2 shows the relationship between five literacy skills. 

Writing is the most difficult because it cannot occur without gathering and organizing information, critical thinking, and memory.  Writing is both a product and a process of learning.  It is slowly and consistently developed over an entire year.

Academic Writing Skill #1  Recognizing Writing

Illustration #3A
Illustration 3B

Illustrations #3 ABC shows three examples of this skill.  They are teacher developed and used in CAT, the classroom, assignments, or on tests.

Stop!  Wait!  A teacher will ask how and when do I have the time to create these activities for my classes.  I am busy with 5 sections and 100-125 students.  My commercial supplemental materials do not have these examples.  A problem!  Yes, but solvable. 

Consider the following tactics.
1.  Before February ask your supervisor to budget a summer staff development time for you to to create these lessons.
2.  If you are told there is no money ask the supervisor to eliminate your school duty period in the next year and let you use the period to develop the activities which you will offer to other faculty.  This effort becomes your duty. Do this before a master schedule is created with supervisory assignments.
3.  If you cannot get a duty release ask the supervisor to approach a parent group for an initiative grant for a summer effort.
4.  Most districts require that faculty create an improvement plan for the following year.  Let AW activity development become your plan and during the coming school year occasionally ask your supervisor for released time during a school day to create the activities.  Schools have money for daily subs and period coverage.

Academic Writing Skill #2:  Copying

Copying is notetaking.  Think of copying as Xerox reproduction.  This is a critical skill.  It is unrecognized. Copying occurs in two ways:  we listen and reproduce or we read and reproduce.  At the end of a period take three or four minutes for a copying activity.  Find a critical sentence or two in a reading.  Ask students to get paper/pen ready.

Read aloud.  Stop!  Give them a paper copy of what you said or refer them to a text page.  Did they get it right? You may have an old overhead projector and could show them the passage they just heard.  Discuss the sentence.

Some teachers ask students to read a short passage and copy it.  Sometimes, even though the passage is in front of their eyes they fail to replicate it because copying requires careful attention and precise effort.

Note-making is active writing.  Students are given formats or frames which organize thinking and hence notemaking.

Illustration #6

Illustration #6 is a standard chart used in an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course.  As students read or learn in class they fill in the chart.

      Another chart form is called a triple screen.  Students are given an 8 1/2 X 11 paper and told to fold it vertically into 3 columns. The left column is labeled reading notes, the middle column is called class discussion, and the right-side column is called review notes.  A four-color pen is used.  Reading notes are in black.  Class discussion notes are in blue for clear understanding and red for confusing ideas.  Green is used for the final column.  Green shows growth or change incurred during the review.

Illustration #7

      Illustration #7 depicts two techniques used when studying an important person or group.  In this example we used George Washington.  The Inquiry Chart is self-explanatory.  The character analysis chart was originally used in a literature class.  Eliminate the word MARTIN and substitute GEORGE WASHINGTON and we have a Character Analysis Chart.  Both tactics, CAT, are used in the classroom, for assignments, or as a testing challenge.

Illustration #8

     Illustration #8 is called a “story chain.”  This example is from a literature class.  History teachers would create their own story chain word series.  Using the chain students in class or on a reading assignment expand or extend the words in the story chain into a larger narrative or series of events.  See the example of French and Indian War. 

      As we examine these note-making frames or palates they have one trait.  We do not ask or tell students to “take notes.” We provide them with an organizing frame.  They use it as a painting palate brushing in their thoughts.

Illustration #9

     Illustration #9 is a visual icon frame.  There are 11 content thought patterns.  Examine #7 Main Idea/Detail.  Students are given a four circle visual.  The central and smallest circle is main idea.  Students make an arrow into the small circle and print the main idea on arrow.  The other circles are details or outer ideas.  #11 is a football field.  At each end are goal lines.  The names of one or another group are printed on the lines and an arrow is extended from the group toward and across their goal line.  When a student studies the goals of the North or South in the Civil War, they study a football field with notes.  #1 is called a Reverse 7.  On the top at left 7 we see the word Federalist and at the top of the inverted 7 we see the word Antifederalist.  They are facing off looking at one another.  Notes are made below each figure.  The gap between them is a note room for their differences.  Visual icons are powerful ways to organize thinking and their results.

Illustration #10

Illustration #10 is a “time out” device one teacher developed to develop see/search/think/note skills.  Try it even though it may not fit your exact lesson content.  Students may learn a little Chinese!

Academic Writing #5 – Composing

The next type of academic writing is composing.  Composing has two features, styles and scale or quantity of words.  In general, the first composing efforts should be short and simple sentences and paragraphs.  Don’t assign complex essays or research papers early in a term.  English teachers may tell us that students know how to write.  This is not the issue.  They do not have content mastery in our subject.  They may not understand the natural logic or continuity of academic learning.  So, start short and simple gradually moving toward extended multiple paragraph and essay writing in the second or even third marking periods.

Qualify the above statement.  With high achieving AP or IB classes move more quickly.  They need rapid and continual work in short answer essays, open-ended longer essays, the DBQ form essay.  Their examination is in mid-May.  Time is short.  Demands are long.  

Adopt a composing plan for each 9 week marking period.

Follow it ending with research papers.  Research is a year long achievement but gradually escalate the size from a simple paragraph to more extensive works.  

Illustration #15

Illustration #15 shows an example of sentence writing and an outline of different paragraph types.  The sentence example is called “Right-write” to the point.  Have students place their pen on a paper and draw an outline of its shape.  Go to the back of the pen and begin to write a sentence about an assigned topic ending at the point of the pen.  The visual forces students to very carefully limit their thinking to a few precise words in their response.  The sentence can be narrative, descriptive, expository, or point of view. Just write to the point.  Brevity is beauty.

On the left side of the illustration are six organizational patterns.  At the bottom is a writing space.  One metaphor used in many schools is the “hamburger” approach.  The top of the bun is the topic sentence or claim.  In the middle is the evidence with salt, pepper, mustard, or ketchup as details.  The bottom of the bun is the ending. Hamburger writing can be used in the classroom for assignments, or on tests.

Illustration #16

Illustration #16 is a multiple paragraph assignment.  AP exams in world, European, and American history require SAQs or short answer questions.  Within the SAQ format they use an ACE technique.  A=a direct answer to the prompt.  C=how the writer defines and describes their claim in the answer.  E=explain your choice of the claim and logically connect your claim to relevant historical developments.  In short, bring more information to the SAQ.  The multiple paragraph challenge makes a claim, provides evidence, and ends with commentary.  3 examples of SAQs follow.  They were presented at an AP professional development program in Tampa, Florida.

    Before examining them take a look at the essay questions you have assigned.  Now, examine A B C D.

Illustration #17 has 4 essay examples:  A B C D

Illustration #17A
Illustration #17B
Illustration #17C
Illustration #17D

How do they compare or contrast with our work?  Look for clear, precise, linear directions. What does the end product look like?  What is the font size in the directions.

Are due or progress dates clear?  What are expectations for A quality work?  Have you posted examples of A quality work from previous years?  What is the essay worth in computing semester grades? When is the teacher available for individual help?   Set the context.  Ask students to locate the dictionary definition of the French word “essay.”  

     The final type of essay is the DBQ or document-based questions.  See illustration #18. This DBQ has 5 documents.  Creating DBQs is extremely hard and time-consuming.  Teachers get them from AP, IB, State agencies, or commercial sources. Except for AP courses, they should be assigned well into a course.  Responding to a DBQ requires both integrated knowledge from the course and the documents and powerful synthesis writing skills.  An inclass DBQ can be assigned to a cooperating group or an individual.  

Illustration #18

     What does a good DBQ response read like.  Illustration #19 is a reading sheet given to teachers who read AP DBQs.  The notes were made by the author.  This DBQ has 10 documents.  Current DBQs are 6 or 7.

Illustration #19
Document #1 – Homestead Act
Document 2 – Reactions to the Morrill Tariff
Document #3 – Benjamin Singleton and Exodus to Kansas
Document #4 – Migration to Kansas
Document #5 – Exodus to Kansas

This DBQ was graded on a scale of 0-1 to 8-9.  The average DBQ score in this reading from 2007 was slightly over a 3. An 8-9 score occurred in less than 5% of the papers.  Illustration #20 shows a English language State testing rubric.  It is not designed for DBQs but may be useful in grading the DBQ.

2007 DBQ in United States History
2007 DBQ United States History
2007 DBQ United States History
2007 DBQ United States History

2. determine the audience or target for the message,

Illustration #20

      The research paper is the final type of composing.

In a middle or high school the format for these papers normally comes from the English Department.  In a few schools the format may be cooperative merging social studies and even science teachers in a joint effort.

       The research paper involves style conventions such as bibliographies and footnoting.  These are always taught by English faculty.  We need to carefully consult with our colleagues.  We can not assign research papers and assume students know how to follow style conventions.  We have to coordinate the timing of our research papers with their instruction and practice.  This is complicated and one reason why research papers almost always occur toward the end of a course.  

Academic Writing #4 – Media Writing and Website Design

Media writing is the very opposite of linear, left to right composition.  Media writing has 3 planning elements:

1. pick a medium or carrier of a message,

3. decide on the quantity of information in the message.  

Two quick examples:  what word messages about the causes of the American Revolution might be printed on a T shirt or a cup or an advertising billboard.  A tee shirt can not carry an essay.  The message has to be short and direct.

Illustration #21A
Illustration #21B

Illustration #21 shows a chain.  The chain is a set of interlocking parts and is especially suited to showing events, their causes, and effects.  The chain is the medium and notes are appended to each side of the chain.  This example uses a “triple T” organizer in the upper left where the student notes their topic, theme, and thesis claim.  

Beth Isenberg was a 7th grade teacher in the Yonkers Public School system.  She chose the medium of a cup to show FDR’s plan to remake American society during the Depression.  Illustration #22 shows a draft of her media writing. Note the “triple T” in the upper right and a time line at the bottom of the page.  

Illustration #22

Ms. Isenberg used this cup media writing in 3 dimensions, the classroom, the assignment or on a test.  She gave students the cup and they had to put the pieces together.

Ms. Isenberg’s class also used the chain medium.

The final type of writing is website design.  Instead of asking students to compose an essay or research paper on a given topic ask them to create a website.  How?, they will ask.  Go to your IT person in the building or district and discuss your project with her/him.  Invite them into the class after you have had students go to one of their favorite sites and analyse the type of information at the site.  Did the site contain words, how many?  Did the site have data, pictures, or icons.  Did the site carry sound?  What colors or shapes were used?  Were vocabulary featured?  All web sites have design features and before we make one using history content students have to see their design features.

With the help of an IT person and planning the web site assignment over a long period of time we can begin to introduce new writing forms to our students.  All writing is symbol making.  When we underline or circle we are are writing.  When we star a word we are writing.  Writing is more than composing.  Writing occurs when we take our private thoughts and make them public.  Reading is symbol absorption.  Writing is symbol production.  Reading is silent and private.  Writing takes our private thoughts and proclaims them to an audience.  Writing is a risk-taking venture.  We expose ourselves to the critical eye or “I” of another person.  When we ask students to write they need the confidence of their own thoughts.

Finally, Illustration #23 shows a planning chart for academic writing.  It is broken into MP or marking periods, an MY exam (mid-year exam) and a final exam.  The chart enables the teacher to plan and record the types of writing activities for the entire year.  A similar chart can easily be constructed for a 9 week marking period.  The CATs strategy is noted enabling the teacher to place the activity in the C= classroom  A=assignment or T=the test.

Illustration #23

A set of academic writing beliefs concludes the chart.


     Academic Literacy is not only an idea it is a series of social studies teaching and learning activities for our classrooms, assignments, and evaluations.  We need to link these activities to four other mandated ideas that affect teachers and students.  These are school district mandated planning procedures, the mandated observation and evaluation of teachers, required teacher professional development, and the general philosophies that guide education in the fifty states and 12,000 public school districts.

Illustration #1 – Weekly Academic Literacy Chart

     Illustration #1 is a weekly Academic Literacy Planning chart.  It is a supplement to normal district plans that call for the identification of State standards, content teaching/learning objectives, selection of materials, and assessment.

     This planning chart identifies the four major elements in Academic Literacy, gathering and organizing information (I and II) critical thinking (III and IV) memory (V) and Writing (VI).  Using the Activities Handbook teachers can identify which activities they might use as students interact with content materials.

      At the bottom of the chart is a section showing how social studies teachers might coordinate with other faculty members.  Some students also go the remedial reading and writing teachers. NCLB, NO Child Left Behind or Title I) staff.  Some go to ELL staff, English language literacy.  If they know what content is being taught in a social studies class they can find similar content and use it for their skill objectives.  The inclass support teacher is assigned to be with special education students mainstreamed in a social studies class.

Illustration #2 – Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching Theory

      Illustration #2 shows the commonly used Danielson theory for teacher observation and evaluation.  Academic Literacy activities are part of Domain 3 Instruction.  

      Illustration #3 is a framework for creating a permanent professional learning community in a school or district.

Illustration #3 – Professional learning Communities in Schools

      Finally, Academic Literacy is always a tool in carrying out an educational belief.  The Aims of Education thinking of Eugene Maleska offers a wide variety of choices.    

Illustration #3 – Framework for Professional Learning Communities in Schools
Aims of Education

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