For years teachers have shared with me that they feel much more comfortable teaching reading than writing. “I read every night,” they say, “But when it comes to writing, I don’t really write myself. Except emails. Do emails count?”
I know in the days when I was in a multi-subject classroom, the thing that was hardest for me to teach was often the thing that I saved for last. I’d hope we’d run out of time, and then when we did, I’d roll my plans over to the following day.**
I am fortunate to be in the role of supporting teachers with their literacy instruction, and I want to try to help make the teaching of writing less scary, more do-able, more rewarding (for teachers and their students.)
One of the first stumbling blocks we need to work to overcome is student dependency on us, the teacher. Instead, we need to make it a point to support student engagement and independence. When your children are more excited about writing, that enthusiasm will spill over to you. From classroom environment, to partnerships, to editing, here are five ideas to get you started.
1. Set up your classroom with independence in mind
Offering students a writing center with materials they’ll need during writing time can help free you up to confer with students instead of handing out supplies. Consider including paper choices; writing implements; reference materials; mentor texts; scissors, tape, and staplers (for rearranging drafts); and copies of classroom charts.
2. Make writing meaningful, and give students choice
It may sound like this suggestion will make it harder, but really it will do quite the opposite. When children have a choice in what they write about, and have meaningful purposes and a real audience for their writing, they will be automatically more invested and engaged. Here’s a possible strategy you can teach to engage children in writing for social justice, inspired by some of the ideas from Katherine and Randy Bomer’s For a Better World:
“Think about something you want to see happen, or that you want to change. That can give you an idea for a topic. Then, think about who has the power to change it. That can help you keep your audience in mind from the beginning. Think about what kind of writing will best get your idea across.”
3. Find and use mentor texts
Every writer benefits from seeing an example of the kind of writing they are trying to write, and looking closely at that example can help a writer improve the quality of their own. Katie Ray in the classic Wondrous Words gives invaluable advice for how to use mentors across the writing process. She and others (Vicki Vinton and Mary Ehrenworth, Jeff Anderson) have written about the idea of using mentors on the sentence level to help with cadence and sentence variety. Here’s a strategy you might share with students:
“Decide the kind of piece you’re trying to write. In addition to genre, think about the sound or tone of the writing. Find a mentor or two who writes just like what and how you want to write. Read their writing once or twice to get the feel and sound of it in your mind. Draft your piece.”
4. Establish partnerships to support each other across the process
In many classrooms, kids pair up and swap papers to do peer editing right before recopying a final version. Nancie Atwell (In the Middle) warns us, though, that sometimes students insert more errors than they fix!
Instead, think about partners as being supports for students across the entire process. They can help each other plan out writing before drafting, rehearse a story or information piece aloud, be a listener to suggest changes that would help make the writing clearer, or prompt the writer to add more details. Here’s one favorite routine I teach to students that works across the writing process:
5. Free yourself from being the class “editor”
You could collect every paper in the classroom, mark up the papers with the changes that need to be made (spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice) and return the papers to be recopied. You’ll get a great-looking piece at the end of it, but it wouldn’t really reflect student learning. Then, during the next piece you’d need to spend hours being editor yet again.
Instead, teach students strategies for reading through their own piece and editing as best they can. Even if you teach just a handful of strategies during each unit, across they year they will have acquired more skills than if you’d simply corrected their paper for them. Here’s a strategy, for example, that can help students consider mid-sentence punctuation:
These five ideas can make a huge difference in the level of engagement and independence in your writing classroom, which in turn will allow you to do more teaching and responding to your student writers.
** Comment below about your hardest-to-teach subject, and guess what mine was. I’ll gift a copy of my newest book to the first person to guess correctly!
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Reading Strategies Book, and other popular Heinemann titles. Her latest is The Writing Strategies Book (2017), where you’ll find literally hundreds of ideas like those she’s shared here. (See our review.)
Jen began her career in education as a teacher in Title I schools in NYC and later joined the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. As an independent consultant, she has spent over a decade helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and instruction is meaningfully individualized to students’ goals. Visit her blog and follow her on Twitter @jserravallo.