Think about what you need in order to feel satisfied with your own writing experience. Does a comfortable place to sit or stand help? Do you need pencils, a notebook, a laptop, or access to books or articles to support your writing? As experienced writers, we can identify what we need to get into the writing zone and be productive with some level of success, so why would we offer anything less to our students?
It is widely known that writing is challenging for many students and adults alike. It requires a broad skill-base, creativity, and dedication. Because of this, reporters announce that a large percentage of students are unable to write at desired levels, across the nation. Thankfully, teachers know that writing is much more than a test score and a level of proficiency. We also know that writing is not everyone’s strength, but when students are engaged in a supportive writing environment, they may uncover a hidden passion. As the educator, it must become a priority to support students of all grade and ability levels in becoming strong and passionate writers so they can reach their own level of success.
Helping Writers: Practices That Work
- Opening time and space to write – Teachers have different philosophies about what is needed to support student writing. There are teachers who believe that students need to sit at desks or tables and have proper posture, as one educator mentioned in a New York Times article, “Why Students Can’t Write”. Some think consistent structure is needed, whereas others think the opposite. Personally, having taught multiple grades in different types of schools as well as in varied regions of the world, I have observed that writers have varying needs to be successful. Some students can write neatly and productively while laying on the floor, while others need to stand up. Allowing choice in the space might be a simple solution for some. In this open space, allow for open choice in writing content and genre. But what all students need is time and space, as this can springboard students’ creativity, idea development, and the love for writing.
- Making natural connections between reading and writing – What do eight- or twelve- or eighteen-year-olds read? A lot of the same types of reading materials that we do: comics, stories, menus, novels, emails, infographics, subtitles, blogs. At different ages, different kinds of reading and writing are useful in a person’s life. So why not pair reading interests with writing genres? Some shifting in plans may need to occur, but planning reading and writing units must make sense for student learning and development as well as for your teaching. Support student writing by starting the year teaching through the genre they love to read. Although students have different genre preferences, it is possible to teach more than one type of writing simultaneously if you strategically choose crossover skills. It may sound and look chaotic initially, but grouping together social writing or informational types can make your teaching and student learning much more meaningful.
- Organically connecting writing to content – Even better than pairing reading and writing experiences would be to integrate meaningful writing opportunities within content learning experiences such as science, social studies, math or humanities. This integration supports the “synergistic thinking” needed to learn conceptually (Erickson & Lanning, 2014 p. 80). When planning, think about natural moments within experiences for student writing opportunities. To support this planning, station learning, with built-in writing opportunities, will allow for open content exploration and naturally-occurring written responses to content. A number of students love science topics, mapping, and problems to solve, so building those options into your writing or content areas can help develop the likeability of writing. At this point, without giving much thought to structures provided, samples offered, scaffolds shared, leave this writing space open for students to explore writing; to just allow ideas to flow and conceptual understanding to form.
- Building in structures when the time is right – Exploration in writing is important before getting into structures, tools, and feedback or grading forms. This allows the teacher to learn student interests, strengths and areas to support informally. When you get to the teaching, guiding, conferring and feedback point, this is targeted and personal. Having one-to-one conversations with students about their writing is pivotal in their development. While teaching and using the writing process is important, using it more openly may help writing feel less rigid in the process. Moving back and forth between drafting and revising, editing to drafting and more pre-writing may feel more natural to a student than merely moving robotically through the steps in the process. While conferring, your specific feedback about the deeper elements of the writing will support greater growth than feedback given about surface edits in spelling, capitalization and even some aspects of sentence structure. These surfaces edits can be done during peer feedback review and with tools like checklists and technology applications, so you do not need to spend time on that.
- Celebrating in-process and published writing – Some pieces are meant to be followed through to the end of a draft, some are meant to be published and others are not. Provide opportunities for students to start, stop and restart pieces in the event that interest or passion is lost in the process, however providing the expectation that publishing will occur at some point. Additionally, allow students to publish and publically share more than one piece in a unit. And always plan in celebrations of writing in which people in the school community can come in to read student writing or listen to them read it. Podcasting is also a great option for publishing and sharing writing.
Hindering Writers: Practices That DO NOT Work
- Stifling creativity in writing content, genre, organization, process, media used
- Writing without an understanding of the purpose
- Over-assessing or attaching a checklist or rubric to every piece of writing
- Seeking perfection
- Focusing on scores as an accurate indicator of writing skills
- Focusing only on what needs improvement without using strengths as a springboard
Growing this understanding of the purpose for writing in their personal contexts will generate motivation for students to want to write in multiple contexts about what matters to them. Open and exploratory practices that allow any learner to use their strengths and passions as an entry point for writing provides a favorable space for writing. A space where creativity in content, style, and organization will encourage students to write and eventually, maybe even love it.
Tammy Musiowsky is an international educator who has taught elementary-aged students in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is an active member of ASCD and is the President of the Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate. Her previous roles include elementary teacher, teacher leader, instructional coordinator, and Student Action Coordinator. She currently resides and teaches in Singapore. Find her on Twitter @TMus_Ed.