AP and NWP teachers participating in the survey report giving students written assignments ranging from research papers to short responses, journaling, and creative writing. The type and frequency of written assignments varies considerably by the subject being taught and grade level, but on the whole these AP and NWP teachers place tremendous value on formal written assignments.
These teachers also point out that “writing” can be defined more broadly than written work assigned in an academic setting. In focus groups, many teachers noted that in addition to the “formal” writing students do for class, they are engaged in many forms of writing outside of the classroom, much of it using digital tools and platforms such as texting and online social networking. How to define these new types of writing and determining what impact they have on the “formal writing” students do in class remains an open question for many of these teachers. But most agree that among students, “writing” continues to be defined as assignments they are required to do for school, as opposed to textual expression they engage in on their own time.
The writing assignments AP and NWP teachers give their students
The survey quantified what types of writing exercises AP and NWP teachers assign to their middle and high school students. As the graphic below suggests, among this group of teachers, short essays and journaling are the most commonly assigned writing tasks. More than half of the sample (58%) report having their students write short essays, short responses, or opinion pieces at least once a week. Four in ten (41%) have students journal on a weekly basis.
Research papers, multimedia assignments, and creative writing in the form of plays or short stories, while not assigned by many teachers on a weekly basis, are assigned at some point during the academic year by most of these AP and NWP teachers. Just over three-quarters report having students complete a research paper (77%) or a multimedia project (77%) at some point during the current academic year. Two-thirds (66%) have students engage in creative writing, such as poetry, a play, a short story or piece of fiction, at least once a year.
In contrast, more specialized types of writing assignments such as writing out mathematical problems or proofs, writing up labs, writing computer programs, designing computer games, and writing music or lyrics are assigned rarely, if ever, by most AP and NWP teachers surveyed.
The type and frequency of written work assigned is obviously highly dependent on the subject matter being taught. Among Math teachers, for example, 81% report having students write out mathematical problems, proofs or concepts on at least a weekly basis. And among science teachers, 51% have students write up labs at least once a week and 56% have students write out mathematical concepts or problems. All of these percentages are much higher than those for teachers of other subjects.
In addition, while 94% of English teachers and 83% of history/social studies teachers had their students write a research paper in the 2011-2012 academic year, that figure is 68% among science teachers and 36% among math teachers. A similar pattern emerges for multimedia or mixed media assignments, with English (84%) and history/social studies (82%) teachers most likely and math teachers least likely (51%) to have given their students this type of assignment in the prior academic year. Science teachers (70%) fall in the middle.
How do teachers—and students—define “writing” in the digital world?
A fundamental question posed to the AP and NWP teachers in the current study is how they and their students define “writing.” Specifically, we asked teachers which forms of writing in the digital age—academic writing assignments, texting, social network site posts, blogs, tweets, etc.— are “writing” in their eyes, and which are not? In a 2008 Pew Internet survey of teens on this topic, the consensus among 12-17 year-olds was that there is a fundamental distinction between their digital communications with friends and family and the more formal writing they do for school or for their own purposes. Only the latter is considered “writing” in teens’ eyes. Survey and focus group findings in the current study indicate this perception has not changed, either among students or their teachers, and that there remains a fairly strong conceptual divide between “formal” and “informal” writing. For both groups, much day-to-day digital communication falls into the latter category.
Asked in focus groups to clarify what, specifically, they consider “writing,” the majority of teachers indicated that “formal writing” and “creative writing” fit their definition of “writing.” Slightly fewer said they would classify “blogging” as writing, and very few said they would consider texting as a form of writing. Asked how they thought students would categorize these same writing forms, the results are comparable. Most of these teachers do not think their students consider texting writing, but rather confine their definition of “writing” to those exercises they are required to do for school. A handful of teachers went even further, saying that some students define “writing” only as something that requires them to use complete sentences.
While most AP and NWP teachers in the focus groups said they do not consider texting, blogging, or micro-blogging (posting on social network sites) “writing” in the traditional sense, they believe these digital formats do spur thinking and encourage communication among their students, which may lead to deeper thinking and self-expression. Several teachers characterized these shorter online posts as “pre-writing” that may get a student engaged in a topic or discourse enough to want to write a longer piece about it or explore it further. In some teachers’ eyes, these digital forms of expression are building blocks for lengthier, more formal writing.
Teachers in the study say today’s students are expressing themselves more, and more often
Though most AP and NWP teachers who participated in the study do not characterize activities such as texting, tweeting, blogging or micro-blogging on social network sites as “writing” in the strictest sense, there is almost universal agreement among them that the digital ecology in which today’s teens live provides many more avenues for personal expression. In addition, most agree that many forms of personal expression are more accessible to the average student than has been the case for past generations. Ultimately, most of these teachers see their students expressing themselves in text (and other formats) more so than was the case when they themselves were in middle and high school. Asked in focus groups, if students today simply write more, in sheer quantity, most participating AP and NWP teachers agree this is the case.
92% of AP and NWP teachers surveyed describe writing assignments as “essential” to the formal learning process, and “writing effectively” tops their list of skills students need to be successful in life
The survey gauged AP and NWP teachers’ sense of the overall importance of incorporating writing into formal learning today, and asked them to rank the value of effective writing vis a vis other skills students may need to be successful in life. The vast majority (92%) say the incorporation of writing assignments in formal learning is “essential,” with another 7% saying it is “important, but not essential.” Only 11 teachers out of more than 2,000 describe the incorporation of writing assignments into formal learning as “only somewhat important” or “not important.”
These results are not surprising, given the large number of writing teachers in the sample and the focus on formal writing in much of the U.S. educational system. But the high value placed on writing extends across AP and NWP teachers of all subjects. While 99% of English teachers in the sample say that writing assignments are essential to the formal learning process, the same is true for 93% of history/social studies teachers, 86% of science teachers, and 78% of math teachers.
Asked to place a value on various skills today’s students may need in the future, “writing effectively” tops the list of essential skills, along with “judging the quality of information.” Each of these skills is described as “essential” by 91% of AP and NWP teachers surveyed. Again, while large majorities of teachers of all subjects respond this way, English teachers are slightly more likely than others to say that “writing effectively” is an “essential” skill for students’ future success.
Other skills relevant to the current digital culture also rank high as life skills, with large majorities of these teachers saying that “behaving responsibly online” (85%) and “understanding privacy issues surrounding online and digital content” (78%) are “essential” to students’ success later in life. Skills that fewer of these AP and NWP teachers view as essential for students’ success in life include “presenting themselves effectively in online social networking sites” and “working with audio, video, or graphic content.” Fewer than one in three AP and NWP teachers in the sample describes either of these skills as “essential” to their students’ futures, though pluralities do describe each of these skills “important, but not essential.”
Do AP and NWP teachers see continued value in longer writing assignments?
The tremendous value most AP and NWP teachers place on writing of all forms, and particularly “formal” writing, was reflected throughout focus group discussions. For some AP and NWP teachers, the extent to which today’s middle and high school students engage in what many see as “informal” writing means that “formal” writing assignments are more critical than ever. Moreover, many see tremendous value in longer writing assignments that require students to organize their thoughts and fully develop complex ideas (particularly because they often have to present ideas on standardized tests in this format). They see longer, formal writing assignments as an important juxtaposition to the more informal and often more truncated styles of expression in which their students regularly engage. Throughout focus groups, AP and NWP teachers expressed the belief that students must master all styles of writing in order to be successful across social domains and to communicate with different audiences.
While many focus group participants stressed the importance of learning to write in multiple styles—including more “formal” styles—and to write lengthier pieces on complex topics, other teachers questioned the “term paper mentality” and the tendency of some educators to equate length of assignment with complexity of thought. Some AP and NWP teachers in the study debated the value of longer textual expression today, not just for students but for society as a whole. As many digital tools encourage shorter, more concise expression, these teachers questioned whether mastering more traditional writing styles will be critical for their students moving forward. While these skills may be valued in standardized testing and in the college and university settings, there was some debate about how useful these skills are beyond those two arenas. Moreover, some teachers questioned whether lengthy writing assignments are the most effective format for teaching students specific writing skills.
What does a paragraph usually consist of?
A paragraph usually deals with a single idea. In general, you’ll have an introductory sentence expressing that idea, and several supporting sentences to round it off. Paragraphs are usually about 100 – 200 words long, but there are more exceptions to this rule-of-thumb than you’d expect.
Commercial writing breaks all the rules. Whether or not you find it irritating, your task is to hold your readers’ attention and get them to read what you’ve written. The average person doesn’t like to see solid blocks of text. It looks like it’s going to be difficult to get through, and nobody likes to work harder than they have to.
“White Space” is a great way to make your information look easier to master, and one of the best ways to create “white space” is through using paragraphs. For commercial writing, it’s best to keep sentences short and punchy, and the same goes for paragraphs.
People don’t usually like to see paragraphs that are more than three or four lines long. How many words is that? Again, although it’s not helpful, the answer is “It depends…” Font styles and font size will affect paragraph length – at least from a psychological perspective.
For example, this is a blog post, and I want to keep the reader engaged. The longest paragraph under this heading is only 61 words long. This is the shortest one so far, and it only uses 37 words.
I want to get your attention!
The above paragraph is only six words long, and you can count the words in this one if you like.
To make things easy for your reader, you’ll switch paragraphs every time you switch speakers, for example:
“I don’t know how long a paragraph should be,” said Mary, “but I hope to find out by reading this article.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” John replied, “but don’t let that limit your creativity!”
“Really? Can I bend the rules?”
“The rules are really more like guidelines.”
As you can see, I was able to stop identifying the speakers as soon as the conversation began to flow because John and Mary each had paragraphs to themselves. Neither of them said anything that was even close to 100 words, but it’s still easy to see who said what. Mary’s final paragraph was one word long.
In academic writing, paragraphs will usually consist of the “standard” 100 – 200 words (Burns, 2002). You will begin the paragraph with an idea and then explain it in the light of currently accepted knowledge (Phillips, 2014) with references. Bear in mind that your tutor will want to see some original thought, but will expect it to be motivated according to your reading (Williams et al, 1994). Smith (2004) supports this concept and confirms that academic writing requires longer paragraphs than those generally found in commercial writing or even story-telling. 200 words is really a bit long for any paragraph and since this one is just over 100 words, you’ll soon see why this should be the case (Me, 2015).
Whew! That was a marathon to read, wasn’t it?
How many words per paragraph? It’s really up to you!
As a takeaway, I’d like to suggest that there are absolutely no hard-and-fast rules as to how many words a paragraph should be.
Making them too short, can look a little odd.
This is an excellent example.
But it can work in some cases.
On the other hand, having really long paragraphs might work for you, but not for your reader. A lot of text without “white space” is hard on the eyes, and the brain. I’ve seen blog posts and web pages with absolutely no paragraphs to speak of. Did I want to read them? Not really. It was too difficult to separate the ideas from one another and there just didn’t seem to be a good enough reason to read them if I could find the same information split up into bite-sized chunks that were easier to digest. So, whatever you do, don’t forget the importance of paragraphs – and keep them a bit shorter than this one, unless you’re trying to baffle the reader.
By the way, the above paragraph is “only” 122 words (656 characters) long. Do you see what I mean when I say that longer isn’t always better? I’m ready to bet that you do.
(Photo courtesy of Enokson)