Chewing Their Kudzu

by Robert Pondiscio
May 14th, 2010

The rapid growth of teaching the “writing process” instead of allowing academic content drive writing instruction is “literacy kudzu” writes Will Fitzhugh.  And like the infamously invasive weed, it’s growing out of control in our schools.

We now have, I suggest, an analogous risk from the widespread application of “the evidence-based techniques and processes of literacy instruction, k-12.” At least one major foundation and one very old and influential college for teachers are now promoting what I have described as “guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, processes and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something that they have learned.”

By privileging process over content, literacy kudzu threatens to “choke attention to the reading of complete books and the writing of serious academic papers by the students in our schools,” writes Fitzhugh, whose gloriously anachronistic Concord Review is the only journal in the world that publishes academic research papers written by high school students.  

“I hope they, including the foundations and the university consultant world, may before too long pause to re-consider their approach to literacy instruction, before we experience the damage from this pest-weed which they are presently, perhaps unwittingly, in the method-technique-process of spreading in our schools,” he concludes


  1. Excellent piece by Will.

    Using my 20th century skills, I may just concoct a device that sounds a swirling alarm every time someone utters something along the lines of “reading strategies.” The alarm would be followed by a booming voice: “Attention–there is jargon in the building. Please check your surroundings and ensure that history and literature are intact!” That would come in handy at PDs and such.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 14, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  2. I am dismayed by Mr Fitzhugh’s thesis, which I believe disparages process — which even the most knowledgeable writers must learn — because of a logical fallacy: that process necessarily replaces content. I apologize for the lengthy response, but this is a big deal.

    To begin, I stipulate that a bad teacher might implement that false dilemma between process and content (shame on him or her), but I would suggest that given the choice between content, process, and content-with-process, the last of these is superior. To disparage process, as Mr. Fitzhugh has done, is a misapplication of our energies.

    I love content, and make it clear to my students that no amount of process can replace it, but that does not mean that I discount the value of a healthy process in addition to knowledge of content. From Mr. Fitzhugh’s article, then, a few specifics that caught my eye:

    1) The Columbia TC psychologist (quoted by Mr. Fitzhugh) makes a reasonable point that suggests that process can complement content without supplanting it. Dr. Perin writes, “Secondary content teachers need to understand literacy processes and become aware of evidence-based reading and writing techniques to promote learners’ understanding of the content material being taught. Extended school-based professional development should be provided through collaborations between literacy and content-area specialists.” Why Prof. Hirsch calls her position “substituting” the former for the latter is not clear to me.

    2) Prof. Roney’s statement (also cited by Mr. Fitzhugh) that “the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better”: absolutely true, but it’s correlation, not causation. I agree, however, that it is logical to assume that the undermining of the value of content contributes here; I don’t agree that process has necessarily forced it out.

    Having read Prof. Roney’s original essay, however, I am appalled to hear her note that “Every single person I spoke with at [an event at her university] assumed from the title of the new department [of Writing and Rhetoric] that ‘all’ writing would be taught there.” This is unconscionable for scholars on any level, which leads me to have sympathy for Prof. Roney’s concern. Her colleagues’ position would be considered an idiotic one if it were raised in my high school.

    3) Mr. Fitzhugh’s crucial error, in my opinion, lies in his writing that process should not be used as a “[prop] to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something that they have learned.” I am a teacher of both content and skills. Were I and my colleagues to assume that only the former is necessary, we’d be abrogating our responsibility as badly as if we assumed that only the latter is necessary. So, the students lack motivation? My job includes diagnosing that — and it certainly does exist — and build in process to help point them to the error of their ways (that is, that they can’t do high-quality work if they begin with that flawed approach), and train them otherwise. Developing motivation would be an excellent first step, but that doesn’t absolve me from also teaching them how someone who has motivation would naturally go about the process. That’s differentiation, that’s responsive, that’s giving them a path to communicating their command of the content. (Again: if they’re all process, and the content is BS, my response is: “Take this back because it’s not sufficient, let’s conference about it, you need to rework it; first, tell me what you know.”)

    I am a teacher of high school students. I try to teach them — many of whom are very able — what expectations they should have for how much/how hard a writer has to think, know, and work. Process Writing is essential.

    I draw them a small donut with a big hole (for you math folks, I love to use the word “annulus”) and say that this is an elementary school report, where a high percentage of what you read goes into the paper. Then a huge donut, with a hole bigger than the previous donut’s but which represents a much smaller percentage of the entire donut (than in the elementary case). This is a high school research paper, where a tremendous amount of work — and critical discrimination — goes into producing a serious analysis. Cue Samuel Johnson, one of my favorite authors.

    Students don’t necessarily have these expectations without having been taught about process. We can teach and value both process and content, and should.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — May 15, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  3. Carl, you make fine points here. Of course process is essential. I don’t think any literature or history teacher could reasonably dispute that. But perhaps you have not seen schools and districts where process dominates, where all you hear about is “strategies,” and where people resist the idea that students should read or learn any specific works or topics. This is a huge problem, and you have to see it to believe it.

    Many state standards don’t mention a single work of literature, even in passing. Well, those are standards, you might say; the specifics should come up in curriculum. But in many cases they don’t. Officials and even teachers will argue that “you don’t teach the subject, you teach the student,” and that you choose the content to match the desired skills, which take precedence. They believe a teacher–or student–should select books that best match the student’s learning needs.

    And this, paradoxically, is one reason why students don’t master the skills–there’s no good content in which to ground them! “Compare and contrast” is of little value until you have something good to compare and contrast.

    Then you have schools that “infuse” the curriculum with content. That’s better than nothing–but they still assume that skills, strategies, and processes comes first and the content is a filler, vehicle, or whatever the term might be. And the idea of a “collaboration” between “literacy specialists” and “content specialists” makes me cringe–that TC professor’s quote is so jargon-laden that it makes me wonder: has the person read any literature lately? Who, having been immersed in poetry, could think and speak in such language? Literacy processes? Evidence-based reading? School-based professional development? Who can stomach this, after reading James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” which ends,

    But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
    And every bit of us is lost in it
    (Or found–I wander through the ruin of S
    Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
    And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
    Color of context, imperceptibly
    Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
    To shade and fiber, milk and memory.

    I’ll teach the processes, but I will not talk process-talk. I will make sure my students are drenched in language like the language above–language we want to keep in our minds.

    So, while any good course in literature, history, or mathematics involves process, this process comes to life–and gains meaning–when the content is the heart of the course. I get the sense that this is the case in your teaching. I understand how you could object to Will’s argument that process is replacing content. But in many places that is actually the case.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 16, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  4. Diana, your statement “I’ll teach the process, but I will not talk the process-talk” sounds like a compromise we both can accept. You (and probably Mr. Fitzhugh, although your conception of the conflict here is more nuanced than his) seem to be alarmed at the possibility that future teachers will be overawed by the jargon — a susceptibility made more likely if those teachers themselves lack a good grounding in content.

    Perhaps I am too idealistic, and Mr. Fitzhugh is not idealistic enough. I do know that it is more than a possibility that some teachers lack the education and critical thinking skills to discriminate in curriculum design, and that the TC professor’s comment could dangerously become dogma to such an unsuspecting, uncritical person.

    (I’m certain that that TC professor knows her content, even if she’s overconfident about the powers of some in her audience. The sentence before the frightening one that Mr. Fitzhugh cites reads, “Middle and high school content teachers, both pre-service and in-service, should be prepared to integrate literacy instruction into their routine subject-area instruction.” When I hear “integrate into” I hear a presupposition that the subject-area content is the sine qua non around which instruction originates. That’s my reading of her original essay, and why her jargon does not seem so empty to me.)

    One thing I like about the Common Core standards is the provision of sample texts. It promotes a healthy conversation, although, I hope, not a closed-ended one that will end with something like “You must teach these six things,” especially if it is followed by “in this order.” My state’s (PA) standards are completely open-ended; to people who know their content, this is perfect, because it offers free range to their imagination and creativity. For the students of those who (may not realize they) are handicapped by a lack of content knowledge (or professional judgment), it’s a tragedy waiting to happen…or, rather, as you rightly point out, it’s happening already.

    In the standards/curriculum wars, how do we promote freedom where it is warranted while regulating where it is not (yet) warranted? (I suppose there’s an obvious metaphor for capitalism and financial system regulation bursting through here.) I worry that polemical rhetoric like Mr. Fitzhugh’s inclines people against pursuing the sort of reasonable, melded implementation you promote.

    I also agree with you that content is not filler, and while there is a massive amount of meritorious content out there, not everything has equal merit, or merit at all. Content-prominence is elitism. Good. That’s inevitable and essential in a meritocracy, which is something I believe we should value, not run from.

    I want to build my students a scaffold toward greater merit, not by dropping building materials on them OR by simply giving them a schematic. They need both, in developmentally healthy quantities — delivered by an instructor who monitors and adjusts based on what he or she observes over the arc of the school year — as they observe well-made structures and practice making their own.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — May 16, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  5. [...] a comment on the Core Knowledge blog, Carl Rosin objects roundly (and reasonably) to Fitzhugh’s premise: “I am dismayed by Mr. Fitzhugh’s thesis, which I [...]

    Pingback by Why Does It Have to Be Either/Or? It Doesn’t, But…. « The Core Knowledge Blog — May 17, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  6. Thank you, Carl Rosin, for your reply to Mr. Pondiscio. As a home schooling mother, I find professional influence and shared ideas critical to my success. Mr. Pondiscio has a good point, that absent motivation is on the rise. I agree that, “privileging process” could destroy content. I agree with parts of your argument regarding process. I love your scaffold analogy. One of my sons will be in fourth grade in the Fall. Even though I have only begun the writing process versus only expecting content. I have seen through expectations of the process , content has improved in interest and quality. The two cannot , in a teaching environment be separated and still preserve quality. He seems to bring out the content better when he slows down enough to apply the process. My husband has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. He is expected to publish papers regardless of his doctorate area. Writing is critical to his career. While he was in college , I had to ponder why he was required to suffer through proper English courses and writing assignments. Afterall, he was not becoming a “writer”. It was not until years later I became aware of his writing skills being the foundation to his career. He could be the most admired and respected engineer (he is pretty darned grand) ,yet the professional world would remain ignorant of his knowledge if he were without efficient written reports,published papers and the like.

    When my reluctant nine year old asks, why he “has to” write properly and not just slap his ideas down on the paper- I will confuse him further by stating “one cannot have as great of content if process is ignored “.
    Don’t you think I will be popular? :)

    Comment by Barbara Richardson — May 21, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  7. This article shows how people go overboard from one extreme to another. There should be balance in everything. We can teach the writing process and hand in hand teach the content to go with it. Subjects should not stand alone but teacher need to learn to work cooperatively to make assignments more meaningful.
    For example, my husband teaches writing. His students need to write report. His co-teacher teaches Cultural Studies. He also needs a report. In both classes they are now writing the report. Cultural Studies focus is more on content. Writing focus is process.

    Comment by Paula Walker — May 21, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

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