By Veda McClain
A few years ago when I applied for admission to a certain school, I was led to a computer lab, given a page of writing prompts and told to respond to those questions. There were four questions and I had to write responses to three of them.
Each writing task required that I write in a different genre. One question asked me to share parts of my personal journey in a narrative highlighting major events that helped me become who I am. Another question asked me to share my opinion on a particular topic. Another question gave two opposing views on an issue, and asked me to take a stance and craft an essay that articulated, with evidence, why I chose the stance that I did.
What I soon realized with all of those tasks was that the scorers wanted to assess my ability to think and reason, to develop my ideas and then to craft essays that reflected – with clarity – my ability to articulate those ideas. It was clear that they wanted to know how well I could think and respond on the spot, or on demand. They wanted to see if I could string together sentences in meaningful paragraphs that showed clear and concise thinking that demonstrated depth and breadth of understanding.
That was a real life on-demand writing assessment that held meaning and purpose for me. There was no formula, number of paragraphs or perfect way by which my writing was to be judged, but I am sure that there was a rubric that would be used to assess my writing ability. That rubric was going to be used to help evaluators examine my writing for clarity and depth of thought, my ability to craft and develop a thesis and to assess my command of the English language.
In today’s educational environment, on-demand writing has been given a prominent place in accountability. Valuable instructional time is spent teaching on-demand writing. Teachers search for a spiffy formula or a link that we can click or swipe that will make teaching writing a cinch for us. However, there is no such formula, link or click.
Furthermore, many of us find writing to be a challenge, posing an even greater obstacle when we think about teaching students something with which we are uncomfortable. Writing and teaching writing effectively is an arduous and time consuming – but extremely valuable – work.
On-demand writing is called “on demand” because of when it is done and how it is done. “On demand” is not the product itself, and on-demand prompts may ask students to write in any of the writing genres.
As educators, our focus should never be to teach “on-demand writing,” but instead, our focus should be on preparing our students to think, to reason and then to write clearly and succinctly. Yes, there are specific strategies that can be used to help our students learn how to craft sentences, paragraphs and essays, but proficiency with using those strategies and developing skill in writing only comes with consistent practice in both thinking and writing.
Scorers of on-demand essays look for depth, breadth and clarity of thought in students’ written responses and not a formula. Formulaic writing generally lacks the thinking that is needed to demonstrate writing proficiency.
In order to be prepared for college writing or for writing in general, students need to be able to demonstrate clear thoughts in a written format. It is only when we face head-on the struggle of teaching our students to think and to write, will we produce proficient writers.