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Massachusetts Curriculum Framework

English Language Arts
ADOPTED February 1997

Composition Strand

The Learning Standards in the Composition Strand set the expectation that students will learn to write with clarity, coherence, and personal engagement.

The Importance of Composing

We are challenged to communicate in writing in many different situations. We try to judge each situation and compose an appropriate response for a particular purpose and reader. For example, we share feelings, ideas, and experiences with friends and family through informal letters. Clear directions in writing must be included in invitations sent to guests. Formal letters must be sent to possible employers describing qualifications for a position. At town meeting, we try to persuade others to a point of view on an issue by presenting a prepared speech that points to common ground. We send editors at publishing houses stories or poems in which we have expressed strongly felt insights. Each of these examples occurs within a situation involving composing for a specific purpose and audience. The colorful phrases that strengthen bonds in casual letters would probably dampen possibilities if used in a job application. Deciding not to punctuate a poem may increase its effect, but failing to punctuate written directions will probably confuse those trying to follow them. Style, tone, genre conventions, level of detail, organization, and word choice, as well as the standard writing conventions, are all aspects of composition that we must consider in trying to communicate with others.

The Development of Writing

Young children's writing is a reflection of their speech. It reflects the language patterns of their homes and neighborhoods, as well as their unfamiliarity with the conventions of written language. For these reasons, teachers do not emphasize correcting errors in the beginning writer's first attempts at sentence structure, usage, and spelling. They want to encourage students to express their ideas in order to build fluency. They also want to encourage pride in legible handwriting. Beginning writers are usually eager to share their writing with peers and family members, leading to a heightened interest in learning to read. As students develop as readers and have opportunities to listen to the language of literature, both their writing and speech reflect the influence of written language. By middle school and high school, students can use writing to sharpen their reasoning and to demonstrate their intellectual development.

Teaching Writing

A good piece of writing demands constant reflection on both the ideas that are expressed and the way in which they are expressed. Students develop as writers when they are taught to reflect on both the rhetorical dimensions of composition and to use a variety of strategies to assist their efforts. Students need to write frequently, in a variety of forms and for a variety of purposes and audiences. Just as they learn about the constraints imposed on writers by genres of literature, they also learn that these different forms of discourse entail different modes of thinking and expression. Figure G shows the link between the rhetorical elements of discourse and common forms of writing.

Figure G
Common Forms of Writing

Aims of Discourse Representative
Forms or Genres
Common Modes of Presentation
Informational Analytic or critical essays, business letters, book or film reviews, character descriptions or sketches, dictation, directions, lab reports and observations, memoranda, manual instructions, object descriptions, précis, research reports, sensory observations, summaries Exposition
Persuasive Advertisements, debate scripts, letters of complaint, editorials and op-ed commentary, sermons, speeches Argumentation
Expressive Anecdotes, autobiographies, biographical sketches, diary entries, friendly letters, interior monologues, journal entries, memory monologues, memoirs, toasts Narration
Literary Traditional narratives
fables, folktales, ghost stories, jests, legends, myths, romances, tall tales
Modern narratives
detective stories, science fiction stories, story scenes and landscape descriptions, story openings and endings
Dramatic forms
dialogue, duologue, film script, one-act play,
radio script, soliloquy
Poetic forms
ballads, cinquains, free verse, haiku, jump rope rhymes, lyrics, popular songs, shape poems, sonnets

Teachers also demonstrate how effective writing is created by teaching students the strategies to organize a first draft, to rethink, revise, and improve their writing, and to note the important details of sentence structure and punctuation. By learning to critique and edit one another's work, students discover how composing differs from conversing. Composing is a craft that can become an art.

Teachers model and directly teach how to use a variety of strategies throughout the composing process to help students create effective compositions. There is no one writing process used by every writer or demanded by every piece of writing. Not every piece of writing needs to go through a draft process. Students must occasionally be given practice in writing on demand, without the benefit of time to revise. This helps to prepare them for times when they may be required to write quickly, clearly, and succinctly. Nevertheless, students should recognize all the stages in the writing process outlined in Figure H. It is linked to Figure B, Strategies for Developing Reflective Intelligence (page 7), and shows how these strategies are applied to teaching composition.

Figure H :
Stages in the Writing Process

Processes Activities Strategies
Preparation Thinking and recalling, brainstorming, free writing, outlining, clustering Focusing
Drafting Writing successive versions Assessing
Revising Rereading, adding new information, reorganizing for sequence Assessing
Editing Proofreading, checking for correct grammar and usage Assessing
Publishing Copying, formating, designing Assessing

The revising process is distinct from the editing process. The focus is on conceptual matters such as coherence, clarity, word choice (diction), level of detail, tone, style, and genre conventions before attention is paid to the more visible details that make for a finished composition. Students learn that it is important to use standard English in their writing, unless it is a literary genre featuring the conversational language of dialect-speaking characters, and to consider questions of format and design before a final draft is completed and published.


To some extent, standard spelling is a developmental phenomenon. In Kindergarten and elementary classrooms, teachers encourage beginning writers to spell by using the letters that they "hear" when they say or "sound out" the word they want to write. This method is usually referred to as "invented" spelling. This kind of spelling makes it easier for beginning writers to write down their ideas and allows them to approximate spelling in their earliest compositions. As children acquire more reading experience, they can learn how to spell many words correctly without instruction. This is especially true when students read one another's compositions to discuss and edit them.

Students learn correct spelling for regularly spelled words as part of phonics instruction. Direct spelling instruction is usually necessary for common irregular words, for frequent spelling patterns (such as read, lead, mead; freed, deed, need; or receive, deceive, conceive), and for important words used in all the disciplines (such as months of the year, major cities, states, countries, scientific terms, and mathematics concepts.)

Reflective Writing Across the Curriculum

Informal reflective writing can be an invaluable tool for exploring and clarifying one's ideas on a topic under study. It is not writing to be revised and polished; it is a link between thinking and speech. Students can use informal reflective writing productively in all content areas to comment on their observations, experiences, classroom discussions, or their reading. Teachers can model reflective writing and provide guidance with such suggestions as, "Summarize what you just learned in class today"; or "Generate questions about what you read for homework last night"; or "Write down your response to the poem I just read." Many teachers use journals for reflective writing and find that students who need to become more fluent writers benefit from some unguided informal writing. They gain confidence in their ability as writers and can then focus on improving the features of their formal writing.

The Research Process

By the time they graduate from high school, students should be independent learners so they can find answers to their own questions and evaluate the claims of others. To become independent learners, students need many opportunities to engage in the research process throughout their school years. Teachers of all disciplines are responsible for developing and using common guidelines for research papers, teaching the research process consistently, and assigning research papers. Students must learn to formulate open-ended research questions and use appropriate methods to answer them. They learn to draw on a variety of sources to obtain information: experts, observations, experiments, libraries, and interactive technologies. They need to learn how to weigh the evidence they find and to draw warranted conclusions.

As with the writing process, there is no one research process used by every researcher. Nevertheless, students should recognize the steps in the research process: exploring a topic of interest by preliminary reading in the library or talking with others, formulating a tentative research question, systematically gathering information, refining the research question, and then outlining what they have found that is relevant to the question before attempting a first draft of their material. In the course of writing their research, students may need to obtain more information and revise their writing. Students can report their research in a variety of forms--as a letter to a legislator or a short story, as well as a formal report. As with all writing, they learn to consider the appropriate audience for their research.

Computer Software and Writing

Computers and software programs for assisting students with spelling and grammar offer many opportunities to enhance the teaching of composition. Computers can motivate students to write, review, and revise sections of their work or entire compositions. When students are involved in a research project, electronic media provide easy access to multiple sources of information. On the other hand, technology also presents some challenges for the teacher to consider. Students need to learn how to evaluate the vast amount of information they can obtain from electronic data bases when researching a topic.

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 19: Students will write compositions with a clear focus, developing the composition with logically related ideas and adequate supporting detail.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Write well-organized compositions with a beginning, middle, and end, drawing on a variety of strategies as needed to generate and organize ideas. PreK-2: Students prepare to write a thank-you letter to a visiting artist. They brainstorm ideas and organize them in a web chart. Then they dictate the letter to the teacher who writes it on chart paper, or they compose their own letters, which they illustrate. (Connects with arts)
3-4: Students plan a mini-encyclopedia on birds. As a group, they generate a set of questions they want to answer, choose individual birds to research, gather information from library books or a computerized encyclopedia, compose individual illustrated reports, and decide how they might best organize them for a classroom encyclopedia. (Connects with science and technology, arts)
5-8 Write coherent compositions with a clear focus and supporting ideas, drawing on strategies that are most helpful for developing and organizing their ideas. Connects with history/social science, arts)
9-10 Write coherent compositions with a clear focus and adequate detail, and explain the strategies they used to generate and organize their ideas. The Merchant of Venice
11-12 Write coherent compositions with a clear focus, adequate detail, and well-developed paragraphs, and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies they used to generate and organize their ideas. Connects with history/social science)

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 20: Students will select and use appropriate genres, modes of reasoning, and speaking styles when writing for different audiences and rhetorical purposes. (See Figure G)

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Use a variety of forms or genres when writing for different audiences. PreK-2: At the beginning of the year, second graders write friendly letters to first graders telling them what they enjoyed reading and learning in first grade. As a follow-up, students write personal essays for the principal, describing what they remember most about their first day of school as second graders. At a "writer's circle," students discuss how the two assignments differ. 3-4: Pairs of students who are reading the same book share ideas and reactions by corresponding through informal notes. Next they write friendly letters to imaginary pen pals, and add appropriate background details to describe the book to a reader who is unfamiliar with it. Students discuss how the two assignments differ, and what dilemmas the second task posed to them as writers.
5-8 Select and use appropriate genres to achieve different rhetorical purposes. In preparation for an upcoming student council election, student candidates and their supporters discuss the most appropriate and appealing methods of presenting their messages. They then write speeches, make posters, design campaign buttons, or compose jingles for targeted audiences. As a group, students discuss how genre and audience work together to support the arguments being advanced.

(persuasive writing)

Students are asked to interview a grandparent or senior citizen about his or her experiences during World War II, and then write an analytical essay describing their informant's attitude toward Roosevelt's handling of the war or the news of the invasion of Normandy. (reference/informational writing)

Students are asked to assume the role of a character from John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud or Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" and write a diary entry or an interior monologue describing who they were and what they felt at a critical moment in the narrative. (expressive writing)

9-10 Use different levels of formality, styles, and tone when composing for different audiences. Students write letters to the editor of their school paper for and against a school committee decision to allow separate mathematics classes for female students, and a second letter on the same topic to their school committee. They then compare the stylistic and tonal differences between the two letters and discuss how audience "formality" affects language choices and writing style.
11-12 Use effective rhetorical strategies and demonstrate understanding of the elements of discourse (purpose, speaker, audience, form) when completing expressive, persuasive, informational, or literary writing assignments. Students decide as a class community service project to renovate an abandoned building to create a teen center and to raise funds for the project themselves. To garner community support for this inter disciplinary project, in the English class they write four different documents to publicize their activities: (1) a student's personal reflection of what she hopes future graduating classes will be able to do in the center; (2) a research report analyzing the effects of teen centers on crime reduction, community involvement, and vandalism; (3) an open letter to the local newspaper, advocating the importance of a youth center for the town and (4) a short one-act comedy in which two teens and their parents discuss the merits and potential pitfalls of a teen center for the twenty-first century.

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 21: Students will demonstrate improvement in organization, content, paragraph development, level of detail, style, tone, and word choice (diction) in their compositions after revising them.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Revise their writing to improve level of detail and logical sequence after looking for missing information and determining if their ideas follow each other in a logical order. PreK-2: After hearing classmates' comments on what they find puzzling or missing in first drafts of their stories, students add key pieces of information in a second draft. 3-4: After studying a detailed map, participating in a lesson on sequencing and chronology given by the teacher, and thinking about the logical order of the activities they have devised, students revise a description of the trip each would plan for visiting relatives to show them the highlights of their local community.
5-8 Revise their writing to improve organization and diction after checking the logic underlying the order of their ideas and the precision of their vocabulary. (Connects with science and technology)
9-10 Revise their writing after rethinking the logic of their organization and rechecking their controlling idea, content, paragraph development, level of detail, style, tone, and word choice. (Connects with science and technology, mathematics, comprehensive health)
11-12 Revise their writing to improve style, word choice, sentence variety, and subtlety of meaning after rethinking how well they have addressed questions of purpose, audience, and genre. After rethinking how well they have handled matters of style, meaning, and tone from the perspective of the major rhetorical elements, graduating students revise a formal letter to their school committee detailing how they have benefitted from the education provided them in their schools and offering suggestions for improving the education of future students.

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 22: Students will use knowledge of standard English conventions to edit their writing.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Use knowledge of punctuation (e.g., end marks,commas for series, apostrophes, capitalization, paragraph breaks), usage (e.g., subject and verb agreement), sentence structure (e.g., fragments, run-ons) to edit their writing. PreK-2: Students keep lists of editing conventions that the teacher has taught them. They become responsible for new editing conventions when both teacher and student agree that the student is ready. A first grader's ongoing list might look like this: "Things I Can Do: write my name; write the date, write the title; use periods; and use capital letters. "
3-4: After writing several drafts of a report on the regrowth and increase of forested land in Massachusetts, a student edits the report for correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, usage, and sentence structure before publishing it in a class book about Massachusetts wildlife. (Connects with science and technology)
5-8 Use knowledge of types of sentences (e.g., simple, compound, and complex), mechanics (e.g., quotation marks, comma at the end of a dependent clause before a main clause), usage (pronoun reference), sentence structure (parallelism, properly placed modifiers), and standard English spelling (homophones) to edit their writing. After visiting Lowell National Historical Park and reading Katherine Paterson's Lyddie and Mary Vardoulakis's Gold in the Street, students engage in research about the origins of the industrial revolution in America, the utopian plans of the first mill owners, why farm girls chose to work in the mills, the working conditions and strikes, why European immigrants later took jobs in the mills, the conditions they worked under, and why the mills finally closed down in the 20th century. Students help check each other's spelling, usage, sentence structure, and punctuation in final copies for their English and history teachers before they present their research.(Connects with history/social science)
9-10 Use knowledge of types of clauses (e.g., main and subordinate), verb forms (e.g. gerunds, infinitives, participles), mechanics (e.g., semicolons, colons, and hyphens), usage (e.g., tense consistency), sentence structure (e.g., parallel structure), and standard English spelling to edit their writing. As part of an interdisciplinary history/literature unit on twentieth century ideologies, students compose essays based on their reading of Alexander Solzhenitzyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Elie Wiesel's Night, and selected essays from Arthur Koestler's God That Failed. For a final editing conference with the teacher, students check for mechanics, spelling, tense consistency, and parallel structure. (Connects with history/social science)
11-12 Use all conventions of standard English to edit their writing. In preparation for the final draft of a research paper on the biblical references evoked in the writing of Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver, students edit each other's papers using Modern Language Association guidelines to check in-text references.

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 23: Students will use self-generated questions, note-taking, summarizing, précis writing, and outlining to enhance learning when reading or writing.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Generate their own relevant questions in their exploration of a topic. PreK-2: While the teacher writes them on the chalkboard, students brainstorm the questions they want to ask a local firefighter and police officer about the work they do. (Connects with history/social science, comprehensive health)
3-4: Students generate the questions they wish to use in gathering information from parents or others on why and how they or older relatives came to America. They prepare an oral report to their classmates based on the notes they take. (Connects with history/social science)
5-8 Generate questions, take notes, and summarize information gleaned from reference works and experts for a research project. (Connects with history/social science)
9-10 Use their own questions, notes, summaries, and outlines to deepen learning across disciplinary areas. As part of an interdisciplinary literature, history, and science unit, students explore the influence of a significant political concept, such as individual rights or democratic self-government, on the literature, scientific development, and political history of a country outside North America. After reading selections from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine, and Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, students use their questions, notes, summaries, and outlines as a basis for their individual essays and then analyze as a class the differences among the countries they studied. (Connects with history/social science, science and technology, foreign languages)
11-12 Use their own questions, notes, summaries, and outlines to integrate learning across academic disciplines. (Connects with arts)

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 24: Students will use open-ended research questions, different sources of information, and appropriate research methods to gather information for their research projects.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Formulate open-ended research questions to explore a topic of interest. PreK-2: A Kindergarten teacher helps students develop open-ended questions about the class pet. For example, they ask: "How much food does a guinea pig eat in a week?" The class brainstorms ways for finding an answer, and then keeps track of their pet's eating habits through daily observations. (Connects with Science, Technology and Mathematics)
3-4: Students use science notebooks and their Internet connections to generate information on weather patterns in New England and compare them to patterns in other parts of the country. (Connects with Science, Technology and Mathematics)
5-8 Formulate open-ended research questions to explore a topic of class interest and devise appropriate ways to document and display the information they gather. (Connects with history/social science, mathematics)
9-10 Individually formulate open-ended questions to explore a topic of interest and then design an appropriate methodology, form, and way to document sources for a report of their research. (Connects with arts, foreign languages)
11-12 Formulate their own open-ended questions to explore a topic of interest, design and carry out their research, and evaluate the quality of each research paper in terms of the adequacy of its questions, materials, approach, and documentation of sources. (Connects with history/social science)

Composition Strand

Learning Standard 25: Students will develop and use appropriate rhetorical, logical, and stylistic criteria for assessing final versions of their compositions or research projects before presenting them to varied audiences.

Grades Standard Examples
PreK-4 Form and explain their own standards or judgments of quality, display them in the classroom, and present them to family members. (Connects with science and technology)
5-8 Use prescribed criteria from a scoring rubric to evaluate their own and others' compositions, recitations, or performances before presenting them to an audience. (Connects with arts)
9-10 Use group-generated criteria for evaluating different forms of writing, and explain why these are important before applying them. (Connects with history/social science)
11-12 Individually develop and use criteria for assessing their own work across the curriculum, explaining why the criteria are appropriate before applying them. Students design their own different criteria to evaluate the research projects in English language arts, foreign languages, and community service learning required for graduation. Before a review panel of students, faculty, and community experts, students justify these criteria and explain how they have applied them.

Last Updated: February 1, 1997
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