Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers
This practice guide provides four recommendations for improving elementary students' writing. Each recommendation includes implementation steps and solutions for common roadblocks. The recommendations also summarize and rate supporting evidence. This guide is geared toward teachers, literacy coaches, and other educators who want to improve the writing of their elementary students.
The recommendations in this guide cover teaching the writing process, teaching fundamental writing skills, encouraging students to develop essential writing knowledge, and developing a supportive writing environment. All of these practices are aimed at achieving a single goal: enabling students to use writing flexibly and effectively to help them learn and communicate their ideas.
Recommendation 1: Provide daily time for students to write
Level of evidence: Minimal
Providing adequate time for students to write is one essential element of an effective writing instruction program. However, recent surveys of elementary teachers indicate that students spend little time writing during the school day. Students need dedicated instructional time to learn the skills and strategies necessary to become effective writers, as well as time to practice what they learn. Time for writing practice can help students gain confidence in their writing abilities. As teachers observe the way students write, they can identify difficulties and assist students with learning and applying the writing process.
How to carry out the recommendation
The panel recommends a minimum of one hour a day devoted to writing for students, beginning in 1st grade (For students in kindergarten, at least 30 minutes each day should be devoted to writing and developing writing skills.). The hour should include at least 30 minutes dedicated to teaching a variety of writing strategies, techniques, and skills appropriate to students' levels, as detailed in Recommendations 2, 3, and 4 of this guide. The remaining 30 minutes should be spent on writing practice, where students apply the skills they learned from writing-skills instruction.
Time for writing practice can occur in the context of other content-area instruction. In science, for example, lab reports require detailed procedural writing and clear descriptions of observations. Students also can write imaginary diary entries of people from the time period they are studying in social studies. Additionally, students can write before, during, and/or after reading, to articulate what they already know, what they want to know, and what they learned. When teachers integrate writing tasks with other content-area lessons, students may think more critically about the content-area material.
Recommendation 2: Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes
Level of evidence: Strong
Writing well involves more than simply documenting ideas as they come to mind. It is a process that requires that the writer think carefully about the purpose for writing, plan what to say, plan how to say it, and understand what the reader needs to know. Instruction should include the components of the writing process: planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising, and editing. An additional component, publishing, may be included to develop and share a final product.
Teach students the writing process
1. Teach students strategies for the various components of the writing process
Students need to acquire specific strategies for each component of the writing process. Students should learn basic strategies, such as POW (Pick ideas, Organize their notes, Write and say more), in 1st or 2nd grade. More complicated strategies, such as peer revising, should be introduced in 2nd grade or later. Many strategies can be used to assist students with more than one component of the writing process. For example, as students plan to write a persuasive essay, they may set goals for their writing, such as providing three or more reasons for their beliefs. Students should then devise a plan for periodically assessing their progress toward meeting these goals as they write. As students evaluate their draft text, they may reread their paper to determine whether they have met the goals they articulated during planning. If not, students may revise their writing to better meet their goals.
2. Gradually release writing responsibility from the teacher to the student
Writing strategies should be taught explicitly and directly through a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student. Teachers should ensure that students have the background knowledge and skills they need to understand and use a writing strategy. Then, teachers should describe the strategy and model its use. Teachers also should articulate the purpose of the strategy, clearly stating why students might choose to use it as a way of improving their writing. Teachers then should guide students to collaborate in small groups to practice applying the strategy. Once students demonstrate an understanding of the strategy, the teacher should encourage students to practice applying it as they write independently. Teachers should make sure they do not release responsibility to students too early.
3. Guide students to select and use appropriate writing strategies.
When students initially learn to use writing strategies, teachers frequently should discuss when and how to use the strategies throughout the writing process, as well as why the strategies are helpful. Once students learn to use a variety of strategies independently, through the gradual release process, teachers should help them understand how to select appropriate strategies and use them across a range of writing tasks.
To help students select the appropriate writing strategy, teachers might consider posting strategies on a wall chart in the classroom. One column of the chart might include a list of all the strategies, and another column might provide a list of situations in which these strategies could be used. Once students are able to use a strategy effectively and independently, they can identify and add situations to the chart. Students also can identify opportunities to apply strategies in different content areas.
4. Encourage students to be flexible in using components of the writing process
Writing requires flexibility and change. Once students have acquired a set of strategies to carry out the components of the writing process, they need to be purposeful in selecting strategies that help them meet their writing goals. They also need to learn to apply these strategies in a flexible manner, moving back and forth between different components of the writing process as they develop text and think critically about their writing goals. For example, plans and already written text may need to be revised and edited numerous times to communicate more effectively, and writing must be polished to make it suitable for publication.
How to carry out the recommendation
1. Help students understand the different purposes of writing
Students should understand the purpose of each genre (to describe, to narrate, to inform, or to persuade/analyze) so that they can select the genre best suited to their writing task.
2. Expand students' concept of audience
Writing for different purposes often means writing for different audiences. To help students understand the role of audience in writing, it is important to design writing activities that naturally lend themselves to different audiences. Otherwise, students may view writing in school as writing only for their teacher. When discussing writing purposes, teachers and students can generate a list of potential audiences for a given writing assignment. Students then can choose the audience that best fits their writing topic.
3. Teach students to emulate the features of good writing
Students should be exposed to exemplary texts from a variety of sources, including published or professional texts, books and textbooks, the teacher’s own writing, and peer samples. Exemplary texts can illustrate a number of features, including text structure; use of graphs, charts, and pictures; effective word choice; and varied sentence structure.
4. Teach students techniques for writing effectively for different purposes
Students also must learn to use techniques that are specific to a purpose of writing. When developing a persuasive essay, for example, students can use the TREE (Topic sentence, Reasons—three or more, Ending, Examine) technique, whereby they make a plan for their paper that includes what they believe, reasons to support their beliefs, examples for each reason, and an ending.
Recommendation 3: Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing and word processing
Level of evidence: Moderate
When basic writing skills become relatively effortless for students, they can focus less on these basic writing skills and more on developing and communicating their ideas. However, younger writers must typically devote considerable attention to acquiring and polishing these skills before they become proficient. Spelling skills can affect the words students choose because they may be less likely to use words they cannot spell. Students also need to be able to generate strong, interesting sentences that vary in length and complexity in order to convey their intended meaning and engage readers.
When a student's writing contains spelling mistakes and poor handwriting, it can be difficult for the reader to understand what the student is trying to convey. Word processing programs can make many aspects of the writing process easier for students, including assisting students with spelling and handwriting difficulties to write more fluently.
How to carry out the recommendation
1. Teach very young writers how to hold a pencil correctly and form letters
Early writing instruction should begin with demonstrations of how to hold a pencil comfortably between the thumb and forefinger, resting on the middle finger. Teachers also should show young writers the most efficient and legible ways to form each letter, regardless of whether print or cursive script is used. Teachers also should show young writers the most efficient and legible ways to form each letter, regardless of whether print or cursive script is used. Because handwriting is a motor skill, it works best to practice in multiple short sessions. Students also should apply their handwriting skills in sentences and in authentic writing activities.
2. Teach students to spell words correctly
A relatively small number of words (850) account for 80 percent of the words elementary- grade students use in their writing. Teachers should help students learn to spell words they commonly use. Although many elementary schools have an explicit spelling curriculum, teachers should connect spelling instruction with writing as much as possible. Students should be encouraged to learn words they frequently misspell, as well as words they wish to include in their writing. Teachers also should help students acquire the skills they need to generate and check plausible spellings for words.
3. Teach students to construct sentences for fluency, meaning and style
Students should learn to write strong sentences that convey their intended meaning and engage readers. Teachers should focus sentence-level instruction on sentence construction, encouraging students to consider the meaning and syntax of the sentences they develop. Teachers also should explicitly demonstrate how sentence construction and sentence mechanics, such as punctuation and capitalization, interact to form strong sentences. Students also need instruction on how to use a variety of sentence structures in their writing.
4. Teach students to type fluently and to use a word processor to compose
Students should be introduced to typing in 1st grade. By 2nd grade, students should begin regular typing practice. By the end of 2nd or 3rd grade, students should be able to type as fast as they can write by hand. Instruction in typing should be accompanied by instruction in how to use a word processor.
Recommendation 4: Create an engaged community of writers
Level of evidence: Minimal
Students need both the skill and the will to develop as writers.97 Teachers should establish a supportive environment in their classroom to foster a community of writers who are motivated to write well. In a supportive writing environment, teachers participate as writers, not simply instructors, to demonstrate the importance of writing. By taking part in writing lessons and activities, teachers convey the message that writing is important, valued, and rewarding.
How to carry out the recommendation
1. Teachers should participate by writing and sharing their writing
Teachers should model how the ability to write affects their daily lives, demonstrate the importance of writing to communicate, model the perseverance required to create a good piece of writing, and express the satisfaction that can come from creating a meaningful text. For example, a teacher could draft a letter or an email to a friend in front of students, thinking out loud to make the invisible act of composing — which occurs internally for experienced writers — more visible to students.
2. Give students writing choices
Teachers should provide opportunities for student choice in writing assignments — for example, choice in selecting writing topics or the freedom to modify a teacher-selected prompt.One way to foster choice is for students to keep a notebook in which they record topics for writing. Teachers also need to provide instruction and opportunities for students to practice writing to prompts.
3. Encourage students to collaborate as writers
Teachers can encourage students to collaborate throughout the writing process by brainstorming ideas about a topic, responding to drafts in a writing group, or helping peers edit or revise their work. Collaboration also can take the form of collaborative writing, whereby students jointly develop a single text.
4. Provide students with opportunities to give and receive feedback
Students need to know whether their writing is accurately and appropriately conveying its message. One way students can determine this is by sharing their writing and responding to written and verbal feedback from the teacher and their peers. Although teachers should provide feedback to students through teacher-student conferences and rubrics, peers also should be encouraged to participate in the feedback process. Students also need to be taught strategies and appropriate language for written feedback.