Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
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A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing Like Crime Scene Investigators

I cringed as I listened to a former student explain how her teacher grades discussion.

“You have to talk three times to even be graded,” she said, swirling the last inch of iced coffee in her plastic cup. “And you can’t ask questions. Questions show that you haven’t thought something through enough to talk about it.”

I’ve been in that kind of discussion before. It moves a mile a minute, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it moves at all. Students talk in circles, offering half-formed ideas that still need to percolate.

In my head, I played devil’s advocate with her teacher:

  • What if we didn’t “force” analysis right away?
  • What if we gave students more time to collect evidence and let it percolate?
  • What if we spent more time on the brink of discovery?

Donald Murray says, “The writing act begins with the collection of the raw material of writing, information that will be arranged into meaning by the act of writing.” Continue reading