I hated writing when I was in school!
From elementary school through my undergraduate degree, every assignment involved writing about a topic the teacher assigned, and all my papers were returned to me with red marks, slashes, question marks, and C average grades. It’s no wonder I had zero confidence when it came to writing.
When I got my first teaching job, I heard my colleagues talking about writing workshops and writer’s choice. They encouraged their students to select their own topics for their writing assignments. Their reasoning was that if students wrote about what they knew and applied it to the criteria for specific genres (personal narratives, informative writing, opinion pieces, etc.) and criteria for effective writing (audience awareness, purpose, voice, structure, etc.), they would produce better pieces. What a novel idea!
During that first year of teaching, I also started graduate school and had to write a research paper. The instructor said we could write about anything we wanted. What? Anything we wanted? Eighteen years of education and this was the first time I had been given a choice of topic. So I did what our fourth-grade teachers said to do: I took a topic that I knew and applied it to the criteria of the assignment. I wrote about how the process of producing art (which was my major in undergrad) correlates with the process of writing. I was able to write about what I knew and apply the research I found, following the criteria for a research paper at the collegiate level.
The results? I got my first A on a writing assignment.
So what are the implications for your classroom? Whether you teach ELA or other content areas, you can help students become more proficient writers with a few simple best practices. Let’s take a look.
In her book The Freedom Writers Diary, Erin Gruwell shares how she used Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to connect with her at-risk students. Using Anne Frank’s book as a model, Gruwell asked her students to write about their own lives and the hardships they faced. As Gruwell used more books as models in her classroom, her students gradually learned the principles of effective writing.
Providing effective models allows students to see what good writing looks like, understand the purpose of different kinds of writing, and get inspired to apply the concepts they’re learning to their own writing. Great models can motivate students as they connect to the stories and see how authors use words to create a compelling message.
It’s not uncommon for teachers to provide a lengthy list of topics for students to choose from. It’s also common to give “sentence starters,” where the teacher provides the beginning of a sentence and students are expected to complete it and continue to write. Although these tasks have good intentions, what happens if a student can’t connect with any of the topics or sentence starters?
You will find better results if you allow students to create their own individual lists of possible topics, based on personal interests, family, pets, extracurriculars, etc. Students will surprise you with how many ideas they come up with, especially if you take five minutes to talk to individual students who may be struggling with their lists. Ask them guiding questions to help them discover ideas to write about.
When given a choice, students will be more willing to write, and when encouraged to write about what they know, even reluctant writers will feel a sense of purpose in their writing.
Purpose First, Structure Second
All the red marks on my school papers focused on grammar and sentence structure—not on purpose, audience, and idea development. However, grammar and syntax are issues that students can fix during revision and editing. At the beginning of the writing process, it’s important to teach students to focus on a specific purpose, be aware of their audience, and adhere to the characteristics of the form (e.g., informative vs. narrative).
Spending your instruction time on these higher-order issues will lead students to focus on what they are writing rather than how to spell and write sentences correctly. Effective writers are able to communicate to a specific audience, develop their ideas with details, and construct an appropriate voice and tone for their topic.
When students focus on grammatical correctness first, their thoughts and ideas are disrupted, and the writing process is halted. Structure is important, but it should come at the end, not the beginning.
Teachers as Writers
It’s important to show students that you’re a writer-in-progress just like they are. When you model yourself as a writer and explicitly demonstrate the different parts of writing, your students will see the writing process as it happens. Show them when you run into the difficulties that often come up in writing (e.g., finding a topic, developing ideas, word usage); doing so gives your students permission to struggle and learn how to overcome challenges. As you develop your own writing abilities, you will become a better teacher.
Writing is a journey, not a destination. Encourage your students to take part in the journey. Who knows? They might end up writing for a living one day!