• In Other Words

When Giants Unite: The CCSS Meet the 4Ws of Writing

by Ruth Culham
February 12, 2013
The Common Core State Standards are on everyone’s mind these days. For me, the positive impact of the standards so far has been a renewed interest in how we improve writing instruction in every classroom, at every grade, and in every content area. It’s hard work, and I welcome the energetic, enthusiastic national dialogue about writing.

To begin with, there is a harsh reality to address: What we’re doing in writing instruction now isn’t working. CCSS or not, changes need to be made. According to The Nation’s Report Card (NAEP, 2012), only 27 percent of eighth graders are proficient in writing and, of those students, only 3 percent are advanced. Consider the bigger number: 73 percent of eighth grades are not proficient. And the results for grade 12 are starkly similar: 24 percent proficient and 3 percent advanced. No improvement in four years? I’m sure you will agree that these statistics are dismal and simply not okay by anyone’s measure.

The implications are huge: Everything we do in writing must be examined for its effectiveness. All of our writing cards need to go on the table, and those that are not producing desired results should be discarded in favor of those that are. Five-paragraph essays, Friday spelling tests, out-of-context word practice, excessive prompted writing¾these are the types of practices that need to be rethought. In their place we should use methods that support many different learning styles, teach spelling skills in a variety of ways (using student writing for practice instead of worksheets), balance prompted writing with self-chosen topics, and so on. In other words, we should use best practices—or what I like to call, the 4Ws.

  • Writing process: the recursive steps writers go through to generate text
  • Writing traits: the language used to assess and teach writing
  • Writing modes: the purposes for writing
  • Writing workshop: the structure of the writing classroom
These are quick, thumbnail definitions, of course. But my point is that the effective teacher of writing embraces all four of the Ws, not just one or two—and there is a world of studies and reports that supports this claim: Writing Next, Because Writing Matters, Writing Now, Informing Writing, The Neglected R, among others. Years of well-documented research reveal why certain methods work better than others, but sadly, for many of today’s students, their writing education looks similar to students’ of past generations, with few if any Ws.

Writing instruction has been slow to change, in some measure due to its inherent complexity. It is, after all, thinking aloud on paper, and there is nothing easy about that. But it is possible to embrace that complexity and teach writing well, if we choose to. I believe students need diverse and multi-faceted teaching that focuses on how each of the 4Ws can help them improve. They need opportunities to apply the writing process (draft, edit, revise) extended pieces of writing over time. This work takes place in the writing workshop structure in which teachers conduct focus lessons (or mini-lessons), and students choose topics and work uninterrupted on their pieces, conferring with the teacher as needs arise. Trait-specific focus lessons develop specific, targeted skills, one at a time, so students learn how to revise and edit their work and take it to the next level. And, students’ longer, more extended pieces should rotate between the three modes of writing¾narrative, expository, and persuasive¾so they explore full range of purposes for writing. Each of the 4Ws adds substance to the writing classroom—and when we unite them, the whole becomes much greater than the parts.

So where do the CCSS fit into this long view of writing reform? The standards spell out what students should know and be able to do, grade by grade. The 4Ws are how we move students toward meeting them. As we explore the standards and their implications on teaching, see if you don’t agree that they clearly establish the need for the 4Ws to be fully operational in classrooms at every level and in every subject. The four categories of standards for writing are:

Text Types and Purposes
These standards focus on the modes of writing: expository, narrative, and persuasive (argumentative). They also address the different formats (structures) and genres (categories) of writing so students become knowledgeable of and adept at many aspects of writing.

Production and Distribution of Writing
These standards focus on the writing process. Revising (traits: Ideas, Organization, Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency), editing (trait: Conventions), and publishing work using technology (trait: presentation) are key to improving writing over time.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
These standards focus on writing to learn. Gathering information from multiple sources to express ideas, provide evidence, and support positions in the modes of writing: narrative, expository, and persuasive (argumentative) make this standard critical to the writing students do throughout their lives.

Range of Writing
This standard focuses on short- and long-term writing projects. Quick writes, short essays, journal entries, and responses to literature are but a few examples of short pieces. Longer, extended projects that last over several weeks in a writing workshop setting are equally important. They allow students to apply all steps in the writing process, confer with the teacher, and create multiple drafts before publishing a final copy.

p: ghm575 via photopin cc
Once again, this may be a simplistic interpretation of the standards, but you can see where I’m going with how the standards and 4Ws are inextricably linked. I believe the standards will be met in classrooms that apply the 4Ws. As educators everywhere tee up to meet the CCSS, let’s remember, “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach” (CCSS 2010, p. 7). My advice: Work backwards from the big picture of what students should know and be able to do in writing, and each day zero in on best practices based on the 4Ws. Then and only then will students meet the CCSS—and as students succeed, we may discover the joy of teaching writing, too.

See Ruth Culham at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas, where she will be part of the Invited Symposium, “Readin', Writin', and 'Rithmetic: Revisited Through the Common Core State Standards and Texas STAAR.” Her co-presenters include Greg Tang, Steven Layne, and Danny Brassell. Learn more at

Ruth Culham is the recognized expert in the traits of writing field and author of over 40 teaching resources published by Scholastic, including 6+1 TRAITS OF WRITING: THE COMPLETE GUIDE, GRADES 3 AND UP; 6+1 TRAITS OF WRITING: THE COMPLETE GUIDE FOR THE PRIMARY GRADES; and TRAITS OF WRITING: THE COMPLETE GUIDE FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL, winner of the 2011 Teacher's Choice award. As the author of TRAITS WRITING: THE COMPLETE WRITING PROGRAM FOR GRADES K-8 (2012), she has launched a writing revolution. TRAITS WRITING is the culmination of 40 years of educational experience, research, practice, and passion.

© 2013 Ruth Culham. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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