InsideOut: Strategies for Teaching Writing (Book Review)

ISBN and Chapter Info

Kirby, Dawn Latta and David Crovitz (2013) Inside Out, Fourth Edition: Strategies for Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
ISBN-10: 0325041954

The table of contents of the book is as follows:

  • Chapter 1 Finding a Footing for Teaching Writing Well
  • Chapter 2 Fluency and the Individual Writer
  • Chapter 3 Establishing the Classroom Environment and Building Community
  • Chapter 4 Writing Pathways
  • Chapter 5 Identifying Good Writing and Emphasizing Voice
  • Chapter 6 Authentic Writing
  • Chapter 7 Crafting Essays
  • Chapter 8 Responding to Student’s Writing
  • Chapter 9 Revising Writing
  • Chapter 10 Publishing Writing
  • Chapter 11 Grading, Evaluating, and Testing Writing
  • Chapter 12 Writing About Literature and Other Texts
  • Chapter 13 Engaging with Nontraditional Texts
  • Chapter 14 Mediating Literate Lives: An Argument for Authentic Education
  • Chapter 15 Conversations with Teachers

About the Book

Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing is a resource book for writing instructors, particularly those in the K-12 grades. This book is a fourth edition of Inside Out by Dan Kirby and Tom Liner first published in 1981, but this edition has been substantially revised to include modern issues such as the diverse classroom, discussions of standardized writing tests and new social media genres. The current authors, Latta & Crovitz, are former high school writing instructors and their expertise is clear from the anecdotes and samples they share.

Note: For some reason, the description indicates that it is for 10-17 year olds (i.e. students), but this is clearly a help guide for K-12 school writing instructors.

Why This Book

I chose this book because of my role as a Turnitin service administrator and instructional design consultant. Turnitin is geared for assessing writing assignments, so I thought a book about issues in the writing classroom would be beneficial.


The concept of the book is to help teachers create an environment in which students feel comfortable and are encouraged to develop an authentic voice as a writer. In fact, I would skip first to chapter five in which Latta & Crovitz define good writing as “full of detail, strong verbs, flare [sic], and an identifiable voice in multiple contexts.” (p 97)[1] as this summarizes the aspirations for their student.

[1] I would guess “full of flare” (196,000 on Google) would be “full of flair” (1,430,000 results on Google) in Standard English. Just saying….

The first parts of the book focus on the classroom environment, including suggestions of background music and rearranging space for peer editing/collaboration. Later chapters suggest different types of journaling and writing practice exercises which give students practice in different genres, but are more appealing than an average writing assignment. A typical freewriting assignment is one in which students pick four adjectives they feel now, then write a paragraph to explain them.

The additional parts of the book explores different writing genres and practices and provides examples of exercises and practical wisdom on issues to consider. For example, it suggests starting a school literary journal, but only if students are interested in contributing.

What Works

First, the authors practice what they preach in that they have developed a well-written, conversational tone which passes on their insights in an efficient yet elegant fashion. They also have some sage advice on how to assess students in a way that is helpful to students yet not overly discouraging. For instance, the recommend NOT correcting journal writing but rather focusing on questions a reader might have (e.g. “Why did that happen?”) or on structure. They also emphasize the need to point out when a student is writing well and why.

Latta & Crovitz also do touch on some modern issues such as new writing genres and especially their concerns for modern standardized testing on writing skills. They lament that many K-12 writing assessment tests are too focused on the “five point essay” so that writing instructors do not feel as free to allow students to explore other writing genres such as fiction or poetry. While the book does include tips for teaching to this kind of essay, it also encourages students to find topics that attract them so that students can feel more emotional investment in their writing. They also argue that focusing on fluency across multiple genres will allow students to enjoy the process more and gain fluency in different contexts.


One issue of particular interest to users of Turnitin is combatting plagiarism in the classroom. A quote that exemplifies their philosophy is “When writing is authentic, there’s little, if anything, to plagiarize” (p. 132). In other words, developing assignments in which students feel a connection with the topic or content will motivate many students to focus on the assignment. The book also discusses the need to teach citation and paraphrasing skills, comparing it to sampling in hip-hop. Other recommendations include helping students with drafts and timelines and adjusting assignments to be less generic, thus requiring efforts no paper mill can easily duplicate.

Suggested Improvements

Genres and Assessing the Testing Issue

A major theme of this book is the challenges standardized testing of writing brings to the modern writing instructor. I do agree that focusing too much on one format (their “five point essay (FPE”) will stifle any creative writer. In fact, I recall our yearbook faculty advisor noting that many students are so trained in this genre that they cannot reproduce the breezy conversational style needed for yearbook copy. Latta & Crovitz also ironically note that the testing may not be effective in producing the skills the “working place” needs.

I will assume that testing is flawed and do agree that their focus on voice and fluency is important. What’s ironic though is that one reason that teaching the five point essay fails is that it is actually a genre not found in real life.

Based on my own experience with workplace writing, these are the genres that are often seen:

  • Instructions or Documentation
  • Research and Progress Reports
  • Marketing or Journalism
  • Academic Articles (rare)

Indeed these are often formulaic because they are often replicating a “corporate” voice or need to be in a format somewhat familiar to users. For instance, straying too far from a standard instruction format could be disorienting. As the authors indicate, even these dry genres can be given life when applied to topics of interest to students. It is worth considering if a multi-genre test or (ahem) portfolio would be a more appropriate assessment. Badges related to different genres are another interesting possibility. Based on my experiences with editing documentation, I think this is a genre that could use more instructional focus.

Linguistically Diverse Classroom

When reading this book and other books on writing, I regret that there is not a better bridge between writing instructors and sociolinguistics. Some of the issues concerning teaching students of different backgrounds might be clarified in a sociolinguistics lens.

For sociolinguists, a linguistically diverse classroom would not only include English non-native speakers but also speakers of regional and working class dialects such as Appalachian English or African American Vernacular English. Both audiences need to learn more features of Standard English in order to be considered to be an articulate writer by other educated readers.[2]

[2] In fact most middle class English speakers speak with “colloquial” forms that diverge from written English.

An interesting side point though is that a person can be a good or even an excellent writer in their dialect or language but less skilled in Standard English. Examples would include AAVE speakers who can compose hip hop lyrics or speakers who can employ “down-home” rhetoric. Several examples that Latta & Crovitz cite show that part of having an authentic voice is conveying your cultural linguistic conventions, including non-standard grammar (p. 172) and even swear words (p. 175)!

Linguists have been advocating that teachers consider forms diverging from non-standard English to be different, but not necessarily inferior or having an illogical grammar. A writing instructor would argue that a good writer can master several forms, and I concur. What’s sometimes missing is the appreciation of non-standard English forms as being artistically valid. Many African American politicians find it crucial to master BOTH standard English and AAVE forms. If that person only knows Standard English, he or she may not be considered to be “authentically” black. This is a tension that few middle class Anglo students or instructors can fully appreciate.

Another sociolinguistics consideration for writing is that some conventions of writing occur because the audience is not participating in a face-to-face conversation. Many linguists assume that human language is optimized for face-to-face speech and that participants can rely on gestures, facial expressions and vague pronominal references to quickly convey meaning. A listener would also have opportunities to quickly correct misunderstandings. There are fewer options for that in a written text so some conventions such as clarifying references or using clear punctuation are necessary. This is a somewhat theoretical point, but could help instructors and students place their writing in a context of a communicative goal.


If you are a writing instructor, this book will give you some good ideas about interjecting some “life” into a classroom and making writing instruction enjoyable for both students and teachers. Its true strength is in helping students become authentic writers of fiction, poetry or literary essays. Having said that, there are some interesting writing assignment ideas that could be introduced into non-fiction writing, communications and even some social science courses.

However, there are some issues I wish explored more such as the nature of academic and corporate writing, how standardized “testing” (assessment) of student writing could be rethought and how to understand a classroom where not all students are white and middle class.

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