5 Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

Sweet, sweet structure.

When we talk about writing, it’s easy to think of it in terms of what we’re saying. That’s the most exciting part, right? The stories of our lives, the new discoveries we make in research, the opinions we’re burning to assert… Those are our reasons for writing in the first place. But what about the craft of writing? What about making sure that those messages we so dearly want to get across are actually heard? There’s an answer for this, and it comes from a component of writing that is rarely prioritized in the high school classroom, but I’m going to try to prove here that teaching it well needs to be a bigger deal.

Structure! It’s a word that we don’t typically hear kids use when they talk about their writing, but it’s my new favorite writing focus with my teenage students. 

Before I get into telling you all the great things about teaching student writers about structure, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term, just in case it’s different than the way others may think about it. For me,

STRUCTURE =

*order of information  (There should be reasons why certain pieces are ordered first, before/after other things, or last.)

*overall organizational vision (What sections does this project have? Is it moving in a linear or nonlinear way?)

*where breaks and white space occur (Where are the shifts in topic, tone, or time? What lines or sections need emphasis?)

I started looking more closely at structure this year when I noticed that my students increasingly tend to write in big unorganized blobs of text–no paragraphs, no headings, no discernible order… just one big blob. The case of the missing paragraphs sent me out to teach structure directly, and it resulted in a slew of unintended positive side effects! So in case you’re not convinced yet, read on…

Five Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

  1.  Better close reading skills. When I teach writing, we work with mentor texts quite a bit. The idea is to understand a professional writer’s “moves” so that we might imitate them. But whereas strong imagery or repetition are things that students notice easily, they sometimes need prompting to find structural choices. When intentionally bringing attention to things like paragraph breaks, reasons for segmenting/sectioning writing, and watching for shifts in topic, tone, or time, students get a better sense of the specific impact that structural choices can have on readers. It also makes them more effective analyzers of text overall–they start noticing these moves in other reading contexts, too.
  2. More rigor in creative tasks. I love the freedom of poetry and narrative as much as my students do, but sometimes it leads students to believe that anything creative that they write on the page is beyond evaluation just by virtue of the fact that it’s creative. I recently had a conversation with an advanced student who is working on a poetry collection. She asked, “Since my poems are kind of all just my personal thoughts, is there really any way to tell if they’re good or not?” “Yes,” I told her, because while nobody can tell anyone what to write, there definitely is such a thing as good and bad creative writing. Part of my solution for this student was to examine her structure, because strong creative work uses it very intentionally. I advised her to think about her stanzas–why were they in that order? Why did she shift to a new stanza or a new verse when she did? Why did the stanzas have five lines each? Even young writers who do implement structural moves in their writing sometimes don’t have any actual reasons for them. Working with structure is a great way to challenge students to gain greater control and nuance in their creative writing.
  3. Huge impact on revision quality. Writing in any form can be completely transformed when it is purposefully reordered or even just when paragraph breaks are used well with intention. I try to help my students learn that paragraphs are units of meaning, not length–I still sometimes get students who wonder “how many sentences should be in a paragraph?” Of course, they should be evaluating that themselves, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great time to teach how and why we use breaks to help our audience understand that we are moving–maybe we’re changing the topic. Maybe we’re moving from a present narrative to a past memory that’s connected to that narrative. Maybe we’re isolating a one-line paragraph with white space because that line is really, really important. A structural revision can really transform a draft for the better.
  4. The “organization” category in standardized writing scores. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that the ACT Writing Rubric allots 25% of its scoring to the organization category. Blob writers cannot score well, even if everything else about their writing is on point.
  5. More effective arguments. It’s a pretty simple premise that when you’re trying to convince someone of something, you need a very strong opening point to gain the audience’s consideration, and the strongest possible closing point to seal the deal. Yet, I have many students who organize their argumentative writing simply in the order that they thought of it initially or in the order of the sources that they discovered, with no real thought to why certain pieces are placed where they are. Working with students to strategize about the most convincing order of ideas can be a game changer in the impact of their argumentative writing. It ends up feeling far less like an endless stream of “And you know what else?!” and far more like a cohesive, crafted persuasive piece.

The school year is almost done! Maybe for some of you lucky ducks out there, it’s already done. However, if you’re a writing teacher, take some advice from me and jot the word “STRUCTURE” somewhere in the early September days of your 2018-2019 planner. I think you’ll find that it will make your students’ writing click into place in new, exciting ways.

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