Students write. They write in all content areas on a plethora of topics for a variety of purposes. As a student, I remember writing in science, social studies, psychology, and music theory, aside from my writing for my standard English course. For all of my vivid memories of writing, I have very few memories of actual writing instruction.
In Teaching Adolescent Writers, Kelly Gallagher emphasizes the question: are we assigning writing or are we teaching it? This topic has re-emerged several times over the past few months and has left me reflecting on my beliefs regarding writing instruction. Below I have compiled what I believe is current best practice for teaching students to write.
Begin with a mentor text
Expose students to quality examples from your selected genre. This does not mean you need to provide students with an example of the particular essay you are planning to assign. Mentor texts can be pulled from a variety of resources across the web or from within your school library. Do not get hung up on length – only use the portions of the text that exhibit the characteristics you are teaching your students at that time.
Regardless of a student’s age, there is great benefit in hearing a teacher think out loud about the writing process. This may seem uncomfortable, especially if we do not feel overly confident in our own writing skills. However, allowing students into our thought process, and critique of our own work, will help guide them to critically evaluate their own writing.
A written piece is a compound work of art. If we try to teach the entire work at one time, students will surely be lost in all of the intricacies. Focus on one piece of the writing at a time. For example, when teaching argumentative writing you may spend a day, or two, or a week discussing only the claim. Have students read sample claims and discuss them in small groups. Model writing your own claim. Group your students and have them write a claim as a team. Then have the groups share and evaluate each other’s work. Once you feel your students have a clear understanding of that piece of the structure, then move onto the next element. Surely this leaves us thinking, “but we do not have enough time.” However, the investment now will have a direct impact on the quality of writing you receive throughout the year.
Create a template
Based on student observations of the mentor text and the known structure for your selected genre, create a writing template. Pre-printed graphic organizers are an OK starting place (and can certainly be adorable – thanks to Pinterest). Ensure that the planning resources you present to your students have transfer ability. If your template is too complex to create independently, it will not be used in future writing. Students get caught up in the worksheet and do not try to replicate that planning element when working independently. I recommend teaching the students to create their own organizers (especially in the intermediate and secondary grades) – have them start from scratch. There are countless foldable and mapping ideas out there. Expose your students to a few, and let them choose one that works best for them.
Write in Class
Provide time for students to write during class. This point is extremely important, because in class writing time lends itself to conferencing. As teachers, we spend endless hours outside of school grading and providing feedback on student writing. A lot of this feedback would be better received, and elicit better results, during a face to face conference – before a grade is given. In the real world, students will create written work for their jobs and careers, but very little of the work will be created in a vacuum. Learning how to share our work, receive feedback, and make adjustments are essential skills we can help our students develop. Writing conferences provide content area teachers the perfect opportunity to assess student understanding of the topic. Why allow students a week or longer to work on their writing, if a misconception is clouding their work?
Regardless of your course name, if you are assigning writing, are you teaching it?