Q&A with Dr. Steve Graham

Portrait of Steve Graham

Dr. Steve Graham, Professor of Education at Arizona State University, answers questions about effective writing instruction, support for struggling writers, teacher professional development, and more.

For more than 30 years, Steve Graham has studied how writing develops, how to teach it effectively, and how writing can be used to support reading and learning. He is currently involved in the development and testing of digital tools for supporting writing and reading.

What are the goals of writing for young children? What motivates them?

The primary goals of writing for young children is to learn to use writing effectively to communicate, to persuade, to inform, to learn, to reflect about yourself and also to entertain others. What really makes writing motivating for young children is sharing it and being successful with it.

Why is writing important for a student's education? Why learn to write at a young age?

Writing is critical for student success in schools. One of the primary ways that we assess students’ knowledge in content areas is by having them write about what they know.  And that’s going to increase with Common Core.  So if you have difficulty writing, that puts you at a disadvantage.  Writing is also an important tool for facilitating learning and reading.  When we write more often, our reading comprehension improves.

When we teach specific writing skills, their corresponding skills in reading improves. For example, teaching spelling results in improved word reading skills.  Teaching sentence construction skills improves reading fluency.  When we write about a text, it forces us to actively think about what we read, improving our understanding and comprehension. When we write about things that we’re learning in the classroom, such as a science experiment, we come to a better conceptual understanding of the material.

So writing is really a powerful tool for increasing learning in the classroom. This makes it essential for success in school.

What distinguishes students with strong writing skills vs. weak writing skills?

Students with strong and weak writing skills differ on almost any dimension that you can think of.  In terms of motivation, kids who are weaker writers tend to not have a very strong competence about their ability to write, they often find writing distasteful; it’s not something they really like to do.  In terms of their knowledge about different genres, they often have incomplete knowledge. They’re not as strategic in terms of carrying out the processes of planning and revising.

Also they have more difficulty with fundamental writing skills — things like handwriting and typing are slower, the often make a lot of spelling miscues and grammar cues in what they write.

How do spelling and handwriting relate to writing instruction in the early years?

Handwriting, spelling, and typing are important for young children for a number of reasons.  One way of thinking about this is the effect of handwriting and spelling on the reader. If your handwriting is not very legible or you make spelling miscues, people form judgments about the quality of what you say on the basis of that. And those judgments are often very harsh in terms of thinking about whether the content and ideas in your writing are convincing.

Everybody’s had this experience when they write — their mind is a little bit faster than their hand, whether it’s typing or handwriting and something slips away before you even get it onto paper. Until handwriting, spelling, and typing are automatic and accurate, they can interfere with other writing processes as well.  So it’s important that we help kids master these kind of fundamental skills right from the start.

What is the relationship between writing and reading comprehension?

There is a very strong relationship between reading and writing. First, reading and writing are both functional activities that can be used to accomplish a task.  Second, reading and writing draw upon the same skills, knowledge, and processes in terms of being able to read and comprehend text and in terms of being able to write text.  Another way of thinking about this is that when you write — if you’re doing it the right way — you have to think about your reader.

So there’s this connection between writing and making sure that your reader comprehends, and when you read it’s helpful to think about the author behind the text as well.  In fact, teaching one helps the other. However, neither by themselves are sufficient; just teaching reading doesn’t make for a greater writer and just teaching writing doesn’t make for a great reader.  We want to take advantage of how they overlap but we need dedicated time of instruction for both.

What recommendations are included in the What Works Practice Guide on teaching writing?

Several years ago, What Works Clearinghouse approached a group of academics (including myself) as well as teachers to help them put together a practice guide for elementary grades in terms of what would be recommendations for teaching writing.  These practice guides are evidenced-based but they are also based on expert opinion.  And so the kinds of things that we found in terms of evidenced-based writing practices were the things that you might expect.  One is that you need to teach process. Kids need to learn how to plan, revise, evaluate, and monitor what they are doing.

See: What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide: Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers

Second, you need to explicitly teach things like handwriting, spelling, and typing and help kids master the skills of becoming facile in terms of sentence construction.  In terms of expert opinion, we also strongly believe that kids need to write for a considerable amount of time — at least an hour a day needs to be spent on writing and writing instruction. We also need to set up an environment to help young writers flourish — an environment that’s positive, where they see their teachers as writers, and where they work together with their peers.

What is the current state of writing instruction? How is it changing as a result of the Common Core?

The Common Core is a real game changer in the U.S. for writing instruction. When you take a look at elementary schools and the state of writing instruction for teachers and schools in general there are two things that stand out.  One, there’s very little writing going on by kids that involves extended writing about things that they’re learning or things that they’re reading. Second, there’s very little instruction in writing going on.

Now that doesn’t mean that there are not exceptions to that — there are some schools and some teachers who do a fabulous job with teaching writing. But what Common Core is now going to require is that kids write for multiple purposes (narrative, persuasive, and informative) and specific audiences,  and to use writing as a tool for improving their comprehension of text and also their learning. So it’s going to be pervasive in terms of taking a look at what’s happening in elementary schools in writing.

With the implementation of Common Core State Standards, there is an increased focus on non-fiction/informational text and writing instruction.  How can teachers balance this with narrative reading and writing?

There’s a lot of concern around Common Core and a worry that narrative writing is now being diminished. One way to think about this is that we’re not diminishing narrative writing, but we’re bringing other types of writing into the fold. We’re making sure that kids write to persuade and they write to inform as well.

I also think we should think about narrative writing in new ways — for example, using narrative writing also as a tool for learning. If you think about social studies texts creating a narrative around the western migration — that can help you think about and learn in social studies. Or, you might share the information you’re gathering through science experiments in a narrative story format to help contextualize that information.

I don't think it’s that narrative is going to disappear or is diminished, I think we’re going to use narrative in more creative ways hopefully, and also as a part of a larger approach to using writing in schools.

The Common Core State Standards include efforts to have students write supported arguments and explanatory texts. What’s the best way for teachers to tackle these skills?

So one of the challenges for persuasive and informative writing in terms of the Common Core structure is that kids are now expected to write persuasive text about things that they’re learning and also to gather information, analyze it, and share it in class. And that puts a lot of stress on the writer, because it means you have to have a reasonable sense of the information you’re going to write about.

So that means we have to be proactive up front, we need to have kids discuss the information that they’re going to talk about in their persuasive and informational text. They need to read about it. They need to look for ways of integrating that together as well.

How can writing be integrated throughout the curriculum — not just narratives and book reports? Why is this important?

There are a lot of different ways that writing can be integrated throughout the curriculum. First, almost every subject requires that you read something and so writing is a really powerful tool for helping you think about what you read. You can answer questions about text that you’ve read, you can take notes on it, you can summarize it, you can personalize the information in terms of how you think it applies to your daily life, you can talk about how it might be applied in daily life, and you can analyze and interpret what that text means. So we can use writing in a lot of different ways to think about reading.

Secondly, writing is very important in thinking about what we already know, our background knowledge. We do a journal entry in a science experiment, predicting what we think is going to happen and then we revisit that after we conduct the experiment.

At almost every level when we think about content learning, there’s a place for writing.

Should content-area teachers teach writing? What particular writing skills do they need to help students with?

My opinion is that schools should take a school-wide approach to teaching writing. And this is particularly important at middle and high school levels. Because a lot of teachers come into middle and high school and they're not really well-prepared to teach writing.

We completed a national survey of secondary teachers — randomly sampled from across the U.S., a group of language arts teachers, social studies teachers, and science teachers — and we asked them about their preparation. About 72 percent indicated that at the college level, they had little or no preparation in terms of teaching writing. And 42 percent indicated the same thing when we asked about everything that they'd done since then, including personal learning, in service, etc. Language arts teachers, as you might expect, felt better prepared to teach this skill. So when you consider that we have a large number of teachers who don't feel so comfortable with this skill, it’s important that we approach it as a group in terms of bringing all of our expertise to bear.

Language arts teachers really should have responsibility for the primary writing program. But what we'd like to see is that science teachers, social studies teachers, and other content area teachers, use writing as a tool for learning and thinking about what they're learning. There's reasonable evidence that this has a positive effect in terms of content learning. That content learning may be more strongly affected in the sciences than in social studies and language arts.

We want to be sure to take advantage of how writing can help students think about what they're learning. For kids into middle school and more so into high school, writing becomes more differentiated by discipline.

For example, when writing a persuasive text for social studies, the kinds of things that you draw upon as evidence to make your claim versus writing a scientific persuasive paper can be very different.

The students also need to have a general sense of what persuasion is, the basic parameters that you're going to establish, how you make your claim to support that, how you argue on the other side. But beyond that, they need to really learn the canon of that discipline, what counts as evidence, what's important in terms of making your case.

Learning how to write a persuasive essay for English isn't going to be enough to be successful in other classes. And as students move into college and choose a major, that becomes even more relevant. If you're a history major, you know you've got to go out and look at those primary sources. You can't be relying on secondary sources anymore. The way that you present that information, how you handle it, is going to differ considerably than if you're a computer science major and you're writing a paper in that discipline.

What does your research say about effective practices ?

My colleagues and I have conducted a number of meta-analyses trying to identify what are effective practices for young children. And a couple of things have come up as being absolutely necessary. One, is kids have to write, first and foremost. Second, we need to teach them how to carry out the processes of planning, revising, evaluating and monitoring as they’re writing. Third, we need to make sure that they’re knowledgeable about the basic characteristics of the genres in which they write.

And we also need to be certain that they develop the particular fundamental writing skills so that they’re automatic, like handwriting, spelling, typing, but also that they become facile in terms of their ability to put their ideas into sentences. It’s absolutely necessary that kids learn to do that.

There are a number of other things that we can do to support young writers.  One is helping them set goals for what they’re going to write about.  Second is to have them work together with each other around processes — they plan, they draft, they revise. Third is to give them feedback about their writing and help them assess their own writing and give feedback to others.

Another important factor is using 21st century tools. When kids use word processing for six months or a year, their development as a writer is much greater than when they just write by hand.

Finally (though not part of our meta-analysis), one of the things that we find consistently among expert literacy teachers is that they set up a classroom that’s supportive, that’s pleasant, and that helps kids develop over time as writers.

These are the things that we found to be most critical.

What is self-regulated strategy development?

About 25 years ago, Karen Harris, my wife, developed an approach to teaching strategies that over time evolved into what we refer to now as self-regulated strategy development. We wanted to teach kids strategies to accomplish particular academic tasks — a series of steps that would help direct your behavior, organize your behavior, so that you could be successful with a task, whether it was writing, reading, or mathematics.

And we also realized that wasn't enough. For example, the student might know how to carry out a series of steps for a strategy, but may not apply it. We thought that it was very important that we were very clear about when and where to use the strategies that we're learning (“strategy knowledge”). That occurs in part through discussion, and it also occurs through having kids go out and set goals for ways to apply some aspect of what they're learning, try it out, come back, and talk about its successes and how they need to modify their process.

Children with learning problems often have difficulty with self-regulation. We wanted to build in basic self-regulation processes — things that you use every day, such as setting goals, monitoring your performance, and reinforcing yourself. And so what we did is we pulled all of that together.

Here’s an example with self-regulation. If I'm teaching kids a story-writing strategy and it involved learning how to generate ideas in advance of writing each part of the story, then they would set a goal to not only use the strategy, but also to use all of the basic parts in their story. Once they're done writing their drafts, they would go back through and evaluate and see if they met those goals. They would graph their performance. And they would look for places where they reinforced effort over time.

With goal setting, if you buy into the goal, then you're going to bring your cognitive resources to bear. You're more likely to persist over time. And by getting feedback on that, you see if it works and then you're more likely to use it.

We also want kids to generalize what they learn broadly. And one way of doing that is after having set goals, to talk about how they're going to modify the process for that situation. How you would go out and do it like a homework assignment. And then coming back and talking about whether it was successful or not.

How can we teach grammar more effectively?

The question about whether or not teachers teach grammar has bedeviled writing instructors for the last 100 years. We probably know as much about this particular aspect of writing as we know about anything else. If you were to ask me the traditional approach to teaching grammar, should we do it, the answer is no.

So what does that traditional approach look like? Typically, it involves going from definition to example. So we define what an adjective is. And then we ask kids to generate examples. Then what happens is we have them practice that skill in de-contextualized situations, filling in the blank, picking the correct answer. And there's never any transfer over to your writing.

We don't want to ignore grammar all together. One of the ways to teach grammar is to use a procedure like sentence-combining. We have considerable evidence that when you teach kids to take small kernel sentences, model how to combine those into more complex sentences, work with them to help them do that until they get a handle on the skill, and then have them do it with others and then do it in their own writing, that has a positive effect both on the quality of their writing and the complexity syntactically of what they write. So it improves grammar — and not only grammar, but also quality.

The other approach, and this is a little bit more risky because we don't have a lot of research on this, is to turn traditional grammar instruction on its head. So instead of “definition to example” we do present an example and use that to establish the definition.

For example, we might start off by writing down all the “describing words” that students can think of for a dog. And then we say, you know what?, another word for “describing words” is “adjective.” So we know that kids know what the describing words are first. Then we use those to define a new word (adjective).

Here’s another example. I might ask students to help me generate as many describing words about a person, place, or a thing. And that's pretty easy for kids to do. Then we'll move from that to getting a definition. But that still requires no application. So what I then might do as a teacher is give a small kernel sentence: mailman, dog, bite.

And I might say, you know, we really don't know a lot about this dog. And we know nothing about the mailman. So let's generate some describing words together that will describe this dog. And the, we've got all these words, now let’s rewrite the kernel sentence. The vicious huge dog bit the cowering, running mailman. And so what we are adding in more description to that. We do more of those kinds of excercises together, and then the students go back to their writing. And they look for places where they can add more description to it — and we encourage that.

We don't have a lot of evidence on this strategy yet. It's a small corpus of work that supports it, but I hope that grows over time.

What strategies are most effective in teaching struggling writers?

The majority of techniques for teaching writing actually have been applied — in terms of research and evidence-based practice — with kids who don't have writing problems. So one of the questions that comes up repeatedly is do procedures that have been effective for struggling writers have some merit for use with kids who are average writers or above average writers? It in part depends upon what you're teaching. So let me use one example here.

There's considerable research that suggests that exclusively teaching kids strategies for planning, revising, monitoring, and evaluating the effects, can have a very positive effect on the writing of struggling writers. It's a nice thing to say that there's also research to suggest that that's the case for kids who are not struggling with writers. You have to ask why is that the case? But if you think about those processes, they take place inside somebody's head. They're not visible to young writers as they're developing.

What that strategy instruction does is it takes them out of their head and makes them visible for teacher modeling and teacher support for kids, giving them the kind of assistance they need to be able to apply the same kinds of strategies. And since you can't see it, it has a beneficial effect for not only struggling writers but average writers as well. Now, the effect is stronger for struggling writers. But it's also very positive for average writers as well.

If you're going to teach a strategy or a process, to a student who struggles, there are a couple of things that are very important. One of the things that we try to do is we boil that down into either heuristic or series of steps for carrying out the strategy. We try to put that in kid-friendly language, something they'll understand. If we need to teach something in advance (for example, vocabulary), we'll do that up front, because we don't want confusion between the vocabulary and the strategy steps.

Second, we need to help kids be clear about why they're doing each of the steps in the strategy, what the rationale behind each step is. And we want to be sure that we do that in simple language that kids understand.

When we model, it's a whole different ball of wax. Because what we want to do when we model, we want to make a process that's going on inside our head visible to kids. So if we have a strategy, we'll show it, making it visible and in simple language. And we'll use those words as we show. We also do a lot of other talk and it's purposeful. So we'll say things to ourselves, such as: what is it I have to do? Well, you know, one of the things I really want to do today is I want to write a story that my friend will enjoy.

So we set a purpose. We use talk that sets goals. We also use talk as we're working through this that helps show how we cope with difficulties. So if we're trying to generate ideas for what we're going to say up front and we're teaching kids how to brainstorm, remind students that you don't start evaluating the ideas right away. Or, if we get to a part that's pretty difficult as we're modeling and the students are helping us do this, we'll say something positive to ourselves to keep going.

We don't overdo it, but we want to make the "self talk" that goes on inside our heads visible to kids. So once we've done the strategy, the kids have helped us generate the ideas and helped us craft the story that we're writing, then we hold a conversation with the kids about what kinds of “self-talk” helped us with this writing. For kids with learning disabilities, we work on one thing that you will say to yourself as you're writing that will help you.

How can technology be integrated into writing instruction?

One of the major questions facing schools today is how to move from 19th century writing tools, pen and paper to 21st century writing tools. And I think the easiest way to jump on this right from the start are to use things like word processors or iPads as your primary tool or mode of writing. That’s the easiest integration into the classroom.

If you think of that as an entry point, then there are a lot of other things that you can start adding in — looking on the web for information that you’re going to write about and sharing what you write with people who are distant from your classrooms, including parents, friends, other classrooms.

What kinds of assistive technologies are available to help kids with writing?

There are a lot of assistive technologies today for helping kids write. One of the most common is word prediction. It predicts, based on the letters that you’ve typed in the word and the syntax of text, what the next word is in the text. This reduces the number of keystrokes, which is great for kids with physical disabilities or kids with really slow typing speed.

We have assistive technology where you can hear what you’ve written read back to you (text-to-speech), which helps you find errors in your text.

We also have assistive technology that allows you to speak directly to the computer as if the computer is a scribe (dictation, or speech-to-text).

We also have a lot of ways of getting feedback from the computer.  Right now, we mostly use that feature for spell checking and for grammar.  But those kinds of feedback tools are going to get much more sophisticated and helpful to young writers over time.

What is collaborative writing and how can it help young writers of all abilities?

Collaborative writing is a great tool for helping all kids write better, including those who struggle. The process can involve collaboration between teacher and students or between students and students.

Teacher-student collaboration often begins with the teacher modeling or leading an  interactive writing exercise. The important part here is that kids don't end up being strapped in their seats doing nothing! As the teacher structures the activity, kids engage by generating ideas, helping to organize the ideas, and coming up with the ideas for writing.

Student-student collaboration can be a structured situation. Sometimes that can be pairing one student who's a stronger writer with a student who's a weaker writer. And sometimes it can be reciprocal, with both kids giving feedback to help each other.

You can also use these two things in tandem. Teachers can model an interactive writing session with kids, and then the kids work together to apply the same things that teachers are doing.

The nice thing is that it makes any activity more fun if you do it with somebody else. So it's more motivating. Second, you get extra help, either from the teacher or the other student in terms of doing it. And third, one of the things that happens when you work with another person, is that you see how they carry out that task. It makes it more likely that you might incorporate something that they were doing in your own approach to writing.

What are some effective ways to implement peer feedback into the writing classroom?

One of the strategies that we developed with Charles McArthur is a peer revising strategy. Basically, what it does is provide a structure for kids to get feedback from each other on their writing.

I'm going to share a little story with you about its development. When we first tried this strategy out, we had the idea if we could get kids to say something about each other's writing, it might be useful, both in terms of their own writing and the other students' writing.

We sat down with two 5th grade students. We had each of the kids write a story. And then I said to one of the kids, I'd like for you to read your story to the other kids. And when he was done reading the story, I asked the other student, a young lady, to give him some feedback on it that might be useful. The first thing out of her mouth was "it stinks". As a result, the poor kid who wrote the story went storming out of the classroom and I went home for the evening. And so we went back the next day and I asked the young lady if she would share her story with the young man.

Beforehand, I got together with him and said I know it was tough yesterday. It was my fault that we approached it the wrong way. I said I want you to tell her three things that you like about the story. And then I'm going to ask you to take her writing piece and to look for two things: (1) to look very closely where there could be additional information that would help you understand the story, and (2) look for any place where there's some confusion.

If there's confusion, put a question mark. If there was more detail needed, put a caret. And then he'd come back and say, you know, can you tell me more about what you meant there? Or, I didn't quite understand this. And it worked great. So we used that as the basic structure for the peer advising strategy. Each kid writes. They share their composition with the other kids. The rule is you always say something positive about your partner's composition.

What I like about this strategy is that it’s flexible — you can increase or decrease the number of criteria that you want students to look at. What we found with the kids is that it not only helped the peer adviser, but we started seeing things that we were looking for pop up in the first drafts of each of the kids.

They started internalizing those criteria as their own. So that's a strategy that can be used all the way from first grade up to 12 grade. I's very flexible. Use one strategy only, but with adapt the criteria you incorporate.

Why is positive feedback so important in nurturing young writers?

One of the things that I think is really important to realize is that the type of feedback that you give to a young writer — whether it's a kid with a learning disability or a kid who doesn't struggle as much — can have a huge impact. I'm going to use a personal story to illustrate this.

When I was in college as a sophomore, I took my second course in English composition. It was a particularly tough semester because I got a D in that course. When I got that paper back, it looked like it had red, red ink. I burned that paper in my backyard. And for years afterwards, I really felt that I could not write well. That one experience had a pretty lasting effect for me.

So it's very important that we think about the type of feedback that we share with kids. There's considerable evidence that pointing out the positive features of what kids do has a positive effect on their writing. There's not very strong evidence to suggest in the other direction, that pointing out the negative things has a positive effect. I'm not saying that we need to ignore things that need improvement. But we're much better off if we pick one or two things at a time that we focus attention on and we return to it until a kid gets it right.

We also want to be very careful about saying negative things about the content of what kids write. Content is very personal to each of us. So if we're unsure about something kids write, we can say, "I don't know exactly what you meant there, can you tell me?" versus saying "I don't like this part". We can do this in a much more positive way that then gets the kid to be a participant in the discussion. I think that's vitally important.

How can we help kids understand the value and power of writing outside of the classroom? Why is that important?

In our Reading Rockets show, Growing Writers, we feature a teacher who has implemented a program called “Helping Hands” in her school, which encourages the students to engage in social change and use writing as an effective tool. How can we help kids understand the value and power of writing outside of the classroom? Why is that important?

You know, writing is a really critical tool for life in general, not just for school. If you look, kids today write more than at any time I can ever remember.  They email, they Facebook, they text, they tweet.  They use writing to communicate with others. They don’t often think about it as writing, but it’s dead center in their life. 

It’s also a really powerful tool for social change — writing for a purpose. For example, when our daughter was growing up, she — like every other kid in Maryland, Virginia and the District — worked on a “Save the Bay” water project.

In our daughter’s case, you can’t believe how much writing occurred around this. They wrote two grants that they submitted to the College Park government, they wrote letters to the Washington Post, the University of Maryland’s newspaper, and a College Park newspaper. They put letters in every mailbox around the stream where that they were trying to save. And they held rallies where they wrote their messages on signs. Writing was front and central in terms of trying to solve a real life problem. You don’t even think about it as writing when you’re doing that.

So writing is very important outside of school, in terms of both civic responsibilities and communicating with others.

How can teachers encourage positive feelings about writing in their students, especially for those students who struggle with it?

Kids do a lot of writing online today. And they’re very motivated to do it. In fact, I don't even believe they think in terms of motivation about doing it — it’s just something that they do often. And we want to harness that kind of enthusiasm in the classroom.

One way of doing that is to help students learn the difference between informal and formal writing. So when you tweet, it’s not going to be the same thing as academic writing, but we can use a tweet and bring it into the classroom and then talk about how we would need to change that for something that we write for the teacher. So we can bring in that online kind of writing directly into the classroom.

And there’s another way of thinking about this — that online writing allows us to share what we’re writing in the classroom with a much larger audience.

How can author visits play a role in a teacher’s writing program? What benefits do they offer to students?

It’s great when authors come into the classroom. Kids get a chance to interact with the people who wrote the books that they’ve come to love. They get to ask questions about the characters, they get to ask questions about how the book was written, and they get to ask questions about the author themselves.

And the great thing about that is instead of seeing the author as someone who is distant and perhaps someone you’ll never be, you get to see them as a person and you can start imagining yourself as being just like them.

What can parents do outside of the classroom to reinforce what the teachers are doing in the classroom?

Parents can play an important role in helping students see themselves as writers and helping them develop writing skills.  One of the things that’s really critical is that kids see their parents as writers. Parents write in their everyday lives, and should involve their kids in that writing (starting when they’re very young) and share what they write with their kids. And when kids bring writing home from school, parents should make time to listen.

There are also a number of things that parents often do to help kids acquire needed skills — things like handwriting and spelling. A surprising amount of instruction informally goes on at home, initially to help kids acquire those particular skills.  First and foremost, you want to make sure that you take an interest in what your kid writes and that they see you as a writer. 

What advice do you have for teachers who are intimidated by writing themselves? How can they develop their own skills and confidence?

You know a lot of people are not really comfortable in their own skins as writers. They don’t feel very confident about how well they write and they don’t particularly see writing as an enjoyable activity. That’s the case for a lot of people in general, but it’s also the case for quite a few teachers. If you were thinking about this from the point of view of your own child and you asked his or her teacher, “do you like to read?” You’re expecting that they’re going to say yes. You’re hoping the same thing with writing.

So one of the things that I think is important is for teachers to look for ways, if they’re not comfortable as writers, to help themselves become that.  I think one of the best ways of doing this is to organize or join a writing group of other adults where you share your writing with them. The other thing that works really well is to bring your writing into the classroom. Kids love to hear what teachers write! They love to see teachers as writers.  After all, you’re asking them to write for you — you should be writing for them, too.

What advice do you have for teachers who are intimidated by teaching writing to their students?  They are comfortable writing themselves, but daunted by the task of teaching writing.

A lot of teachers are really good writers but they don’t feel so comfortable in terms of teaching writing. And part of that is because they’ve not had any preparation to do so.  If you’re not comfortable as a teacher of writing, here are two ideas.

Pick a lesson plan that’s been effective and shows clearly how to implement it, and try it out.  That gives you structure right away. So, start with something that looks doable, have success with it, and then add onto it.

Join a group like the National Writing Project where you have a lot of teachers come together to share their very best lesson plans with each other and form a community around writing.

How does the National Writing Project support writing instruction?

The National Writing Project is probably the largest in-service group in the country. They got their start in the Bay Area in San Francisco back in the 1970s as a grassroots movement bringing teachers together to improve how they taught writing. There are some very interesting features about it that I think are phenomenal.

One of those is the “teachers teaching teachers” model. They will hold a summer workshop each year where teachers come together, they talk about writing, they share their very best lessons with each other, and they form a community. And often that community lasts much longer than the summer; you become a part of something that’s much larger. You’re developing a community of writers who are engaged and enthusiastic about teaching children to write.

Learn more about Dr. Graham's research on his website at Arizona State University.

Steve Graham (2018)

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Our Literacy Blogs

Dr. Joanne Meier
Dr. Joanne Meier
February 14, 2014
"If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book." —

J.K. Rowling