What every teacher should know
Reading 101: A Guide to Teaching Reading and Writing
Writing: In Practice
To practice their skills and develop their craft, writers need lots of opportunities to write for authentic purposes. By varying writing assignments, we can ensure that our students have the chance to write in a variety of genres, for different audiences, and to deepen their command of written language.
In this section:
In one elementary school, a fifth-grade teacher exclaimed, “All my students can write about ‘small moments,’ but they can’t write in anything other than first person!” Her exasperation prompted a school-wide review of the writing tasks students were given. The process revealed that in every grade, students wrote personal narratives based on a small moment in their lives, but were rarely asked to write reports based on research, to generate persuasive essays, or to solicit information by writing formal letters.
By expanding the audience for our students’ writing — beyond themselves, their classmates, their teacher, and their parents — we give students authentic reasons to consider and adjust to their readers.
Whether students create a brochure or pamphlet for the local recreation center, a children’s book for the school library, a travel guide for a relative, or a letter to an elected official, they must consider what the readers already know, what they need to know, and what genre and voice would best serve the purpose.
To learn more:
- Writing for an Audience Beyond the Teacher: 10 Reasons to Send Student Work Out Into the World (The New York Times)
- Author Study Toolkit: Set a Purpose and Goals (Reading Rockets)
- 4 Paths to Engaging Authentic Purpose and Audience
Looking at writing from real kids
In any classroom, there will be a range in the quality of work that students generate. In the Looking at Writing: Pre-K through 3 section of Reading Rockets, you’ll find:
- Writing samples from real kids
- Advice about instruction based on samples
- Guidance on writing assessment
- Classroom strategies
- Writing resources
- Video about writing
The writing process
This can include an oral and written rehearsal of ideas in which students begin to prepare for the genre in which they will write.
Preview the relevant vocabulary and ensure it is used during brainstorming. This should include academic vocabulary (e.g., opinion, explain, predict) and content area words (mammals, , species, location).
Explicitly state that students will use these words when answering questions orally and when writing. Demonstrate how these words and phrases are used both orally and in writing. For example, we "make” a prediction but “express” or “share” an opinion. Ensuring that students can use vocabulary correctly in a discussion increases the chances they will do so in writing.
Ask questions to prepare students for writing. When asking and answering questions, ensure students use precise language and teach them to say what and who they are talking about, so that listeners and readers can follow their meaning.
Write down all of the student’s ideas so that a discussion can be generated. Recording ideas in writing allows students to see and make connections between ideas, and will help them in their own writing.
Accept any relevant contribution from the students in order to activate prior knowledge and creativity. Ideas that may be pertinent later, or are tangential, can go on a sticky note and be saved for later. These ideas can be revisited before wrapping up brainstorming.
Use metacognitive strategies at this stage of the writing process. Demonstrate how students can ask themselves key questions: Is all of my writing on-topic? Did I explain everything my reader needs to learn? Are my ideas in an order that makes sense?
Gradually relinquish responsibility for leading brainstorming. Allow students to brainstorm independently within an established time limit. Circulate and provide support.
2. Organizing information for a rough draft
An important but often forgotten step is transitioning from a brainstorm to an organized plan. We can teach students how to organize their thinking in a way that is appropriate for the genre and will improve the quality of their written piece. No one wants to read a “how-to” essay that ends in a cliffhanger or a travel guide that lacks accurate place names!
Use graphic organizers, maps, index cards, or sticky notes to arrange information by illustrating particular text structures or concepts.
Use a two-column note-taking format to identify main ideas and details while paraphrasing the information in the students’ own words.
Use outlining activities to emphasize paragraph structure or frames. Paragraph frames can help students organize their thinking. Employ the following steps when teaching outlining using paragraph frames:
- Teach students the basics of paragraph structure using topic sentences, details, and concluding sentences.
- Start using a basic level paragraph such as the sequential paragraph. Once this is mastered, move on to the other types of paragraph frames, such as enumeration, compare and contrast, cause and effect, opinion, and description.
- Have students start to use the skill of elaborating on their thoughts within the basic paragraph frames by using questions of what, where, when, why, and how.
- Emphasize the importance of quality over quantity so that students take the time to express their thinking clearly.
We’ve likely all experienced the panic of sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, not knowing where to begin. “Writer’s block” can be alleviated by drafting from graphic organizers, outlines, or paragraph frames. These supports can reduce the anxiety of starting to write and they often also improve the quality of the writing. To explicitly teach students how to transition from a graphic organizer to a draft, it’s helpful to keep in mind a few rules of thumb:
- Students using a map should first order and sequence their thoughts, put those thoughts into sentences, and put those sentences into their rough draft.
- For students using notes, we can review good sentence structure before students write their thoughts into their rough draft.
- Students can do multi-paragraph writing by linking single paragraph frames together. This kind of drafting can happen over the course of days or even weeks, so that students aren’t daunted by the thought of the final product.
When we properly scaffold the drafting process, we further emphasize that quality matters more than quantity and we teach students methods that will improve their writing for future pieces.
Effective revision depends on the ability to apply a critical lens to what has been written. In the process of revision, students push aside a personal attachment to a written document in an attempt to see how effective the piece is for a reader. Students must be explicitly taught and guided through the revision process so that they understand that revision is not a simple search for mistakes, but rather a process of improving the clarity and effectiveness of a piece of writing.
Reading a draft aloud to the class and soliciting suggestions, working with a partner to apply a revision checklist, or swapping papers with a classmate can all help a student notice things in her writing she had not noticed before. In the peer-review process, one student may express confusion (“Huh?”) allowing the writer to see omissions (“Whoops! I forgot to include the word not in that sentence.”) or to reconsider how much background information should be included in the piece (“Oh, I need to explain that my dad is a veterinarian so the reader can understands what happened to my dog.”) Seeing a reader engage with your draft can help a writer to look at his writing with “fresh eyes” and it might inspire a more thorough revision.
After a piece of writing has been thoroughly revised, proofreading serves as a final check for writing conventions, such as capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and paragraphing. By polishing a piece of writing, a writer can become more aware of his own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the conventions of writing, thus improving future drafts on new topics.
Publishing — or preparing a final draft — is the last step in the writing process. Writers can finalize their thoughts, check that all steps have been completed, and re-copy or rewrite the written piece to produce a legible, polished final draft. If all of the steps have taken place successfully, the written piece is completed and ready to be shared with a broader audience. That can mean posting the writing on a bulletin board, reading the piece to the class, taking it home to share, sending it to its intended audience, or sharing it more widely by publishing it online in a class blog or on a website for young authors.
Sentences are the building blocks for writing. Studies have shown the positive effects of teaching sentence-construction skills (See: Writing to Read and Writing Next). The IES practice guide, Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers also recommends that we invest time in teaching our students sentence construction, including sentence combining.
Sentence combining is a technique for teaching students how to write grammatically correct, varied sentences. This approach has been found much more effective in improving students’ writing than traditional grammar instruction (e.g., sentence diagramming).
In sentence combining activities, students are taught to combine short, simple sentences into more sophisticated ones. They may also be taught to correct sentence fragments and to simplify unnecessarily long, complex sentences into two or three shorter sentences.
Generally this type of instruction would begin with specific practice sentences, involving kernel sentences that we give to our students.
Consider the three kernel sentences below:
- The dog was huge.
- The dog was black.
- The dog barked furiously at the intruder.
These three sentences could be combined equally well as either:
The huge black dog barked furiously at the intruder.
The dog, which was huge and black, barked furiously at the intruder.
However, we would not want to accept this from students: The dog barked furiously at the intruder it was huge and it was black. Here's why: because that is a run-on sentence.
Also, we would not accept this: The huge dog barked furiously at the intruder. Here's why: because that omits one of the key ideas in the kernel sentences (i.e., the dog was black).
Here is another example:
- Mother made pot roast for dinner.
- The pot roast was delicious.
- Unfortunately, no one was hungry.
These sentences could be effectively combined as: Mother made a delicious pot roast for dinner, but unfortunately, no one was hungry. There are several other equally effective ways to combine.
In sentence combining activities, we can begin by modeling for students how to combine kernel sentences, using several examples of different sets of kernel sentences, usually with two or three sentences in each set. Then students try practice activities with our guidance, followed by more independent practice activities.
After students are successful with these controlled practice opportunities, the final step is for them to apply sentence combining to their own written work, as part of the revision and editing process. Students’ ability to apply sentence combining to their own writing is the ultimate point of sentence combining instruction.
It should be emphasized to students that the goal is for them to use grammatically correct and varied sentences, as opposed to sentences of one type only. A piece of writing composed only of short simple sentences sounds dull, but one with too many long, complex sentences may be difficult to understand.
A final word about writing instruction
As Thomas Edison [nearly] said:
“Genius [especially in writing] is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”
Good writing is seldom the result of divine inspiration and effortless talent. A solid piece of writing is usually produced through careful planning and hard work. Students need systematic instruction and lots of practice in order to understand what it takes to produce good writing. Intentional exercises, in all stages of the writing process, can help all writers to become better and struggling writers to find success.
The instructional focus for any writing lessons should be clear and explicitly stated so that students are aware of the skill they are practicing and the criteria for success. Rather than focusing on how many sentences they write or pages they fill, students should be directed to focus on the quality of work they are producing.
More Resources About Writing
Supporting Informational Writing in the Elementary Grades
Dysgraphia: A Student's Perspective on Writing
Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Jones, J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., et al. (2006). Early development of language by hand: Composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29, 61-92.
Graham, S., & Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Graham, S., McArthur, C.A., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.). (2007). Best practices in writing instruction. New York, NY: Guilford.
Haynes, C. & Jennings, T. (2012). Listening and speaking: Essential Ingredients for teaching struggling writers. In L. Moats, K. Dakin, & R. Malatesha Joshi (Eds.) Expert Perspectives on Interventions for Reading: A Collection of Best-Practice Articles from the International Dyslexia Association. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.
Van Cleve, W. (2012). Writing matters: Developing sentence skills in students of all ages. Greenville, SC: W.V.C.ED.
Video: A Room of Writers
Go inside Shana Sterkin's third grade class as she engages her students in writer's workshop. Everyone shares their writing, including Miss Sterkin.