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Dr. William Spivey on Read With You Presents

Listen to the podcast here.

Dr. Spivey is a native Californian, born in 1939, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Professionally Dr. Spivey has been a dynamic, international presenter dedicated to helping teachers at all grade levels improve the quality of student writing and motivation. He has taught in public schools for over 50 years at elementary, middle, and high school levels as well as in continuation high school and has been a language arts consultant for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District. Also he has given courses at several universities for teachers of writing, grades K-12. He has been an English Teacher Specialist for the state of California, a fellow of the San Diego Area Writing Project, and a presenter at many English conferences including the Promising Practices Convention in San Diego, California Association of Teachers of English, and the Gulf Coast Writing Conference, where he was a keynote speaker as well as a presenter. In addition, Dr. Spivey has conducted hundreds of in-services for teachers at all grade levels in many school districts throughout the United States and Canada. He has authored several books and articles including Strengthening Student Writing Through Focus and Mastery of Writing -- a Sentence Expansion Approach Express system which he invented. All materials are available at

Dr. Spivey’s background: I remember vividly when I first started teaching in 1963. Students wrote something- short, choppy sentences, so I started teaching, making comments, teaching grammar. And they were still writing choppy sentences. So, I started to begin this journey to find out what you do to help students write.

The difference between kindergarten and university is that you kneel down to see the kindergarteners.

Next step- learn how to expand a sentence. I came up with the sentence expansion tree by using trigger words, such as “because” “When”. Lead students by examples and by structural cues. It doesn’t happen automatically. Students who read pick up some of this. It’s important not to just read for plot, you have to target study, ex. Vocabulary development, sentence style. It doesn’t just happen. It has to be taught and kept in front of the students.

They wont do it automatically, our ideas ride on the structure. If you want to change the structure of the writing, you have to give them clues and repetition. It’s not just review it later, you have to stay with it until you see it’s consistent.

The bottom line is that students have to be penalized for bad writing and rewarded for good writing. Questions and practice happen to, but they have to be held responsible. Writing is hard work, it’s never linear. They normally see the finished product. I’m reminded of the agony and the ecstasy. There were 5 drafts, what we read in the book is the 5th draft. My suggestion, is write. Then put it away for a month and then pull it out. That’s what revision is about. You see something different when you pull it out. Other people can also give you feedback. Writing is false starts, collecting ideas, arranging ideas, gather ideas—it’s hard work. Students need to realize that and make a commitment if they want to improve. They have to write frequently.

What goes into a persuasive essay, a narrative essay- students need to know what goes into the components. They must be taught, there must be instruction at every level, it doesn’t just happen.

The first part is the collecting of ideas- it’s not fluent. We have to move that around and they we see it again and think, who wrote this? We really do have to have space. Other people can give feedback or you can bring it back yourself and discover that there need to be changes. For example, if you wrote a sentence, and you knew to ask why…if I know how to expand, then I have a measuring stick. I can see how does my work compare. If I’m writing an autobiography, I can read an autobiography.

The more you know, the more you can get out of a professional writer. Reading will get fluency. My big complaint about just writing- it can help with fluency, but it will not improve writing. The quality improves when you ask, “Is this clear?” and in your learning what goes into each type of writing. You have to know what goes into each type of writing.

The commitment of students is a huge component of improving writing. Teachers can motivate and teach, or take something away. Teachers need to know there is positive reinforcement and taking things away. People are wired in both ways. What motivates your student? Negotiate with the student.

The teacher and the parent have to become privy to what goes into these things. How can they lead if they don’t know? They can sort of lead. But when you know what goes in to the writing, you can listen for what needs to changes. There needs to be instruction at every single level, and commitment on the part of the learner.

Teachers need to know the building blocks of writing, how to expand a sentence, how to write each time of essay, paragraph, etc. These are definite steps, it doesn’t just happen. It’s so much easier to teach a lesson that is quick. Writing is ongoing, it’s never finished. Teachers have a responsibility to have students write a lot. They also have to teach how to critique, especially in the school setting. A mistake teachers make is they feel they have to read everything they have students write. Practice makes perfect.

First, teach a pattern. (because) Now, ask students to do it. If it’s correct, students can then correct someone else’s. Model what is correct, show the students. When students know what they’re looking for, you can grade their critique.

Success breeds success. Writing is essential throughout school. People who do well in writing do well in math, in all subject matter. It’s essential in all disciplines. Why not learn how to write well in the beginning? Consciously build sentences and teach all the components in all levels.

You don’t know the future, you don’t know when you’re going to have to write well. Why not be prepared? Writing is thinking, what’s wrong with thinking? Develop a fun approach. Don’t take it so seriously. Experiment with your writing. Develop a fun approach. Be consistent, be dedicated.

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