Teaching Writing

teaching writing skills

This strategy guide series identifies, defines, and provides examples of effective writing strategies and offers a list of resources related to each strategy.

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Strategy Guides in this series

This strategy guide explains the writing process and offers practical methods for applying it in your classroom to help students become proficient writers.

This strategy guide clarifies the difference between persuasion and argumentation, stressing the connection between close reading of text to gather evidence and formation of a strong argumentative claim about text.

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Building Lifelong Writing Skills

Instead of addressing a single piece of writing, elementary teachers can focus on students’ overall abilities and needs.

Elementary student writing in class

Are you looking for more effective ways to help your students become stronger writers? Would you love to be able to make the following statements?

  •  “I feel much more capable of identifying student needs in writing and teaching them strategies to use that improve their abilities.”
  •  “I feel as though I have a better understanding of what my students really need.” 

These quotes are from educators who were reflecting on their first year teaching a writers’ workshop after working with their colleagues and me throughout the year. Both took the time to dig into some new ideas that helped them change their instructional practices in writing so that they were asking questions and making choices that moved their writers forward.

Prior to this year, these teachers tended to lean toward what many teachers often do—talk to students about what they see in their writing piece at the moment. For example, you may notice that a student isn’t using any elaboration techniques and their sentences or paragraphs are very short and simple. You may look through their piece and then ask the student, “What did that look like?” And then after they tell you, you might say, “OK, why don’t you write that down?” 

But consider this: How will this correction or revision, which is based solely on that particular piece, help your student to elaborate well in their next piece?  Will they take the strategy of adding details about how something looks and apply it to their writing next time? 

In my experience, understanding  Lucy Calkins’s idea of how to teach the writer, not the writing, is what we need to help grow writers so that students will apply new strategies in their future work. You want to know your students’ strengths and needs as writers, not just what the current writing piece may need at the moment.  Then, and only then, will you provide them with the tools they need to improve their skills as writers.

Here are my tips for helping your writers grow in their abilities by providing them with what they need as writers.

Know your writers

The most important step to building up your writers is knowing them . Know their writing behaviors and ability level. There are three ways to accomplish this. 

First, you’ll want to administer and analyze an “on demand” writing piece, a piece of writing that’s written independently in one period of time. As the students are writing, take note of their behaviors and record what you notice—are they engaged, on task, planning, revising, and editing?

Look through each writing piece and take note of the strengths and weaknesses. A rubric would be a helpful tool for this stage of the process. Then look at each piece according to the strands of the rubric and identify where the students stand. 

The third way to know your writers is to talk to them. During independent writing time, meet with students and learn how they work. Ask them how they planned their writing piece, why they chose their topic, what they’ll be doing next, etc. 

These questions will provide important information about how students think about the writing process, and it’s also an effective way to identify any struggles that students may be having with engagement. If they haven’t spent much time writing, or if you’ve seen them up and about and not writing, this is a simple way to find out why.

Find the ‘base level’ of need

Many times, the first aspect of writing that you notice in a student’s piece is what you choose to work on with the writer. For example, if you notice in one student’s piece that they consistently write only a page or two before moving on to a new topic, you may decide that they need to build their stamina or elaborate more. 

There’s often something else beneath what we see in the writing, however, that’s causing the student difficulty. In this case, perhaps they didn’t take any time to plan or rehearse their writing. Missing this step of the writing process would certainly prevent them from knowing what to write, and as a result, they would have only a few ideas to include in their piece. 

Teachers need to identify the real reasons for any difficulties their writers may have so that they can identify what they truly need to learn. This is another area where talking to and questioning students will help. As you hear more about a writer’s process and decision-making, you’ll be able to more easily identify their base area of need. 

One tool I’ve found to be quite effective for teachers in identifying the base level of need is “The Hierarchy of Writing Goals,” from Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book : Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers . 

Teach the writers what they need

Once you’ve established the students’ areas of need, consider what the next steps might be in those skill areas that will help them to grow as writers. In the above example of the student who wrote only a page or two before starting a new topic, this writer needs techniques for planning out their writing. When they engage in the planning portion of the writing process, they won’t run out of things to include in their piece. 

You’ll want to choose a few strategies and teach them one at a time, either within a whole-class mini-lesson, a small group, or a one-on-one conference. One helpful strategy for planning a writing piece is to draw a quick sketch for each step of the story on each page of a booklet. An effective planning strategy for an informational piece would be to use bullet points to establish subtopics.  

Be sure the students understand that this is something writers do to help them write more about their topic and that they can use this anytime they’re planning a new piece. 

Use language of the writing strategy, not the writing 

The example at the beginning of this post of the student not using any elaboration techniques, with the teacher then asking them to write something for the piece that provides more detail, is an illustration of “teaching the writing.” Instead, it would have been better to teach the student a strategy that writers use for elaboration that would be useful for that piece, as well as future pieces. 

You might say, “If writers want to help their readers to understand what they’re writing about, they need to elaborate with details. One way to do this as a writer is to include words that tell about how something looks. This will help the reader to visualize what they’re reading, which will be more interesting to them.”

Notice how the language is pointing to what writers do rather than what could or should be in the piece of writing. This language helps teachers to stay focused on the writer’s choices and moves, and it also helps your writers to understand that they make choices as a writer and that these skills can be used anytime they are writing. 

Language is a very powerful aspect of “teaching the writer” for both the teacher and the students. The words you use when teaching a strategy will help you gear your instruction toward the writers. When you change your focus to growing your writers for their future and provide them with what they need for writing a new piece independently, you’ll make a much larger impact. 

Know your writers, find their base level of need, and teach them strategies using language that focuses on the writer, not the writing. Your writers will be creating strong pieces in no time. 

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How To Teach Writing To Anyone

  • March 19, 2020

teaching writing skills

​Writing is a key skill. The ability to put words down on paper is a critical skill for success in college and career, but few students graduate high school as proficient writers. Less than a third of high school seniors are proficient writers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Low-income, and Black and Hispanic students fare far worse and less than 15 percent scoring proficient.

So how can students learn to write better? What tools do they need to become better at making an argument on paper? In this document, we’re largely focused on argumentative writing, which is central to, well, just about every aspect of modern life, from emails to workplace memos to empowered citizens.

Teaching argumentative writing involves teaching both argumentation and writing. This means there’s research on how to teach writing, there’s research on how to teach argumentation, and there’s research on the intersection of the two.

Earlier research in this topic often referred to it as “persuasive” writing. More recent research seems to prefer and use the term “argumentative” writing. One reason why is that “argumentative” is seen as a broader term. Persuasion is a particular goal that argumentative writing might have. But argumentative writing is seen to encompass many possible goals: persuasion, but also analysis, collaborative problem-solving, and conceptual clarity.

Main takeaways

There are important nuances further below, but the general picture of best practice based on experimental and quasi-experimental research looks something like the following:

  • Students need sufficient foundational skills and knowledge (in spelling, typing, content-specific knowledge) and may be taught some of this knowledge in the course of writing . This means that educators in early grades should work on building basic skills in hand-writing, spelling, and typing, and that educators in later grades spend some time focusing on sentence-building skills and incorporate content learning into writing assignments.
  • Students benefit from a writing environment where they write and edit frequently using word processing software on long pieces of writing that generate student interest.  Although students in early grades may by predominantly writing by hand, as they move on to late elementary school and middle school they should transition to typing, which enables more rapid editing. Although work on basic transcription and sentence-building skills is vital, educators also need to assign longer pieces of work as students progress.
  • Students benefit from clear writing purposes and from having well-defined goals for improvement.  This suggests that educators choose writing assignments that have larger purposes beyond simply being submitted for a grade—student writing that is published, displayed, or otherwise shared can improve student motivation. It also suggests that educators carefully structure the revision process. For instance, revision goals like “come up with two more reasons in favor of your argument and one reason in favor of an opposing argument” help students meaningfully revise their papers.
  • Students benefit from instruction on models of good and bad writing, and through explicit strategies in the writing process:  for example, pre-writing techniques, ways of organizing the material, making their reasoning explicit. Educators must correct misperceptions of what writing that focus on the product of writing (instead of the process). And they must be explicit about the strategies that good writers use to ultimately create solid writing.
  • Students benefit from guidance in genre-specific practices  (for instance, diagrams that help students “fill out” both sides of an argument, character sheets that help students flesh out the characters in their narratives, etc.). Educators can’t assume that skill in one genre of writing will necessarily transfer to others; students have to be taught about the expectations and norms of the writing community.
  • Students benefit from collaborating with each other: editing, receiving feedback, and editing again, or even working in groups to co-write material.  Providing feedback to others seems to provide as much or more benefit to writing skill as editing one’s own paper. Educators should focus on teaching students how to edit judiciously and provide feedback in a supportive way.​

Learning to Write

There is also an  increasing recognition  of the discipline- and genre-specific nature of writing. It’s not about teaching a single, relatively discrete skill — “writing” — but about teaching ways writing in  science , ways of  writing  in  history , ways of writing in literature. Writing in any genre is not a fully transferable skill—it  requires  contextual knowledge (about the purpose and the audience of the work), content knowledge (about the subject of the work), and writing process knowledge.

Methods and Approaches

Experimental and quasi-experimental work in this area has been the subject of many meta-analyses, with slightly differing emphases. These are fairly comprehensive quantitative summaries of the work in this area, but a substantial number of the underlying studies have  methodological problems  of one sort or another: e.g., no random assignment, no controlling for the Hawthorne effect, no measures of whether the intervention was implemented with fidelity, or simply  no descriptions  of the control condition.

More recent studies  tend to be  of higher quality, and also result in higher effect sizes than older studies (suggesting that earlier studies may have been understating the effect of some of the proposed interventions).

Meta-analyses look at broad swaths of different studies and group studies into categories to be able to calculate the effects of individual types of interventions. These categories are not always mutually exclusive. For instance, the distinction between “writing process” models (which focus on the process of writing — prewriting, organizing, drafting, editing, revising, etc.), “self-regulation” models (which focus on setting writing goals and teaching students to monitor their writing and editing to achieve those goals), and “peer writing” models (where student co-write and edit each others work)  can overlap  substantially. In other cases, single categories encompass quite a diverse set of practices. For instance, the “strategy instruction” model  includes interventions  involving pre-writing activities, peer writing, persuasive writing structures, etc.

Another complexity is how writing outcomes are measured. Rubric-based instruction may help students improve their writing when measured by the rubric, but not necessarily when evaluated through other means.

Research evaluating the popular 6+1 trait writing model, for example, shows  little improvement  in student outcomes when those outcomes are not measured with the 6+1 writing rubric.

Main Takeaways About Learning To Write

Teachers don’t assign enough writing..

The survey’s results, however, suggest some improvements in teacher practice compared to 40 years ago. Compared to an assessment made in 1979-80, teachers are giving students more questions that ask for more original analysis, they’re incorporating more research-backed strategies like process writing, explicit strategy instruction, and collaborative writing in the curriculum, and they use technology more often.

These findings dovetail with  another recent large-scale survey  of 361 high school teachers across several disciplines. Again, the main finding is that students don’t compose texts that are long enough (most writing practice asks students to compose texts one-paragraph in length or less), and that few writing assignments as students for analysis and interpretation. Moreover, most teachers say they are not prepared to teach writing (71% say they had either no or minimal college-level training in the subject in their teacher preparation programs).

Although experts argue that argumentative writing should happen across all disciplines, English teachers have often shouldered the main responsibility for teaching writing skills of all sorts (at least as judged by the surveys mentioned earlier). This emphasis, however,  clashes  with a tradition of emphasizing the literary tradition in English language arts classes (e.g., fiction and narrative), rather than argumentation. One way of providing students with more opportunities to write is to have teachers across many disciplines assign writing tasks. This has been a common aim of several reforms.

Time and expertise seem to be the main obstacles to teachers assigning more writing. Teacher workloads are high, while providing meaningful feedback on long pieces of writing takes considerable effort. Teachers report simply not having enough time to assign long pieces of writing, provide feedback on them, and providing lots of opportunities for revision.

Many teachers also report not being very confident in their ability to teach writing, not having the training or experience to teach writing well, or both. This lack of expertise (or at least lack of confidence) also likely discourages teachers from assigning more challenging pieces of writing.

Research has also revealed a number of best practices. The following best practices all improve student outcomes, and are listed in approximate order of effect size (largest to smallest) based on several recent meta-analyses of existing studies

Explicit strategy instruction helps students.

That said, authors of the survey view the overall amount of class time spent on research-backed strategies to be insufficient: for instance, about 3 minutes out of every 50 minute English class period would be devoted to one of the most support strategies—explicit writing strategy instruction.

Teachers should  illustrate  each strategy and facilitate students’ independent use of each strategy over time. For instance, a pre-writing activity like brainstorming might be initially presented to the students: the teacher can explain what the strategy is, why writers do it, and present a model of the practice to students. Then, the teacher would have students practice brainstorming in small groups, with occasional teacher guidance. After that, students would brainstorm on their own, while the teacher would provide occasional support. Finally, the teacher would encourage students to use brainstorming completely independently (revisiting aspects of the strategy if needed). ​

Self-regulation strategies can improve outcomes.

The most popular self-regulation strategy is the  SRSD  (self-regulation and strategy development) model. This integrates both explicit strategy instruction and self-regulation strategies into a classroom context. Teachers don’t just introduce a strategy—they track student progress towards mastery in using the strategy over time, aiming to motivate students and build self-confidence. The SRSD approach uses mnemonics, graphic organizers, and other scaffolds, in addition to developing prior knowledge about specific writing genres as students are taught them. Evidence  suggests  that the program is one of the most effective classroom programs, but outcome measures stop short of long trajectories (stopping at six months).

Process Writing improves student outcomes. Process writing involves getting students involved in pre-writing, organizing, drafting, revising, re-drafting, and editing their papers. It’s about engaging students in a relatively long-term writing process involving multiple drafts, rounds of peer and/or teacher feedback, and a finalized product. It’s also  helpful  to have students explain why they made their edits.

Process writing seems to be a key part of many successful writing interventions (such as SRSD), but the evidence on the efficacy of process writing alone is somewhat contradictory.

Most meta-analyses that evaluate process writing as a separate category of intervention find that process writing is a best practice and has substantial effect sizes. This effect, however,  seems modulated  by professional development — when teachers are not taught how to use process writing approaches effectively, the benefit disappears. A  meta-analysis  that focused solely on process writing found modest effects for students of average ability, but no significant effects on writing outcomes for struggling writers, which contrasts with qualitative research suggesting the benefits of process writing for struggling writers in particular. Many of the studies in the process-writing-specific meta-analysis also had weak study designs making the claim that process writing doesn’t help struggling writers at best preliminary.

Feedback Drives Achievement.

For feedback to be effective, students must be motivated to use feedback to improve and they must know how to use the feedback effectively. The first is a challenge of classroom culture. The second is a challenge of student knowledge.

Surveys   suggest  that many students feel like they don’t have enough guidance on what to do with the feedback they receive. One  study  at the undergraduate level suggests that the main factor influencing whether students implemented changes based on feedback was whether the problem described by the feedback was understood. Problem understanding increased when teachers identified where the problem was, proposed some solutions, and gave a summary of the students’ work.

Even generic automated feedback to scientific arguments  can improve  students subsequent arguments (e.g., feedback that reads something like “You haven’t provided enough evidence for your argument. You should add more evidence.” The effects, however, were most pronounced for students that had high scores to begin with, suggesting that receptiveness to feedback may also be playing a role.

One of the values of outside feedback (from either peers or teachers) is that students are  more likely  to make deeper, meaning-related changes in response to outside feedback than they are when making individual revisions.

Peer Collaboration Can Make A Difference.

Peer feedback offers  several proposed benefits . Students often perceive peer feedback as more understandable (and therefore, more actionable) than teacher feedback. Students  often feel  that teacher feedback is insufficient or unhelpful, and, in higher education at least, students report that peers provide more (and more helpful) feedback. Peer feedback is also a way of providing more overall feedback to students (on early or intermediate drafts of a piece of writing, for instance), as it requires less teacher time. Some reports even suggest that peer feedback encourages students to redouble their efforts because of the social pressure to do well on the assignment.

There are, however, also some challenges to peer feedback. Peers can offer valuable feedback, but it’s not quite up to the standards of expert feedback. For instance, in a  study  where peers used a predefined assessment guideline, peer and expert feedback was structurally comparable, although peers suggested fewer changes, gave more positive judgments and gave less evidential support for their negative judgments.

Another challenge is to develop a classroom culture where feedback is perceived to be helpful and non-threatening. In  one study , English Language Learners report liking peer feedback, but also being concerned about hurting their partners feelings or lacking enough knowledge to be helpful. In that study, students preferred online forms of feedback over face-to-face feedback.

Teaching students  how to give  valuable feedback is a critical step. Not only does this make the peer feedback more valuable for the writer, but it also helps the peer reviewer develop their own revision skills. For instance, a teacher might give peer reviewers some questions to guide their revision process. Questions like: Is the piece suitable for the intended audience—does it use the right tone, the right kinds of vocabulary words and text complexity? Is the overall structure of the argument clear? Etc.

In some cases, learning to provide peer feedback seems to have more benefits to students than receiving feedback. In a  study  from 2009, one group of students gave feedback on written work throughout the semester while the other group received feedback. Both groups improved over the course of the semester, but the givers improved more than the receivers when they had no prior experience in giving peer feedback.

Foundational skills and knowledge enable students to engage deeply with the material.

Students also  need to know  genre-specific writing structures and topic-specific vocabulary. For instance, young children have a  better understanding  of the narrative genre compared to other genres of writing (argumentative writing, scientific reports, poems). When students don’t know enough about the genre expectations, they can’t produce work that’s recognizably within the genre (e.g., when asked for a science report or an argument, they  might produce  something that’s more like a story).

Genre learning is something that continues throughout careers and  later schooling  (e.g., imagine learning about the “business case” genre, the “legal memo” genre or the “economic theory paper” genre); it’s part of the overall development of meta-cognitive knowledge. Explicitness about genre expectations also helps marginalized groups (who  may not be as familiar  with the genres they’re asked to produce) participate more fully.

Word processing lets students edit and revise more easily.

The commonly accepted explanation is that word processing makes editing and organizing a paper easier, and so encourages revision.

Although seventy-five percent of teachers report having students turn in their final draft through a computer, less than half of students use word processing for drafting, editing, and collaborating on written work. This is particularly notable given the presumed mechanism behind the advantage of using word processors over paper-and-pencil to draft and edit: word processors make editing and re-organizing far easier.

More Frequent Practice. Perhaps the simplest intervention that seems to improve writing outcomes is  more practice  (especially given the evidence on the little amount of practice that students typically get at long-form writing). Establishing writing routines (for example, having students  write  for fifteen minutes more a day than they currently do) and ensuring that the writing tasks are interesting to students — that the writing has some larger relevance or purpose — seem like  important keys  to having students write more.

Multiple drafts improve essay quality.

Writing can also improve reading..

Researchers have proposed  several explanations  for the deep relationship between reading and writing. They both involve common processes. Spelling, for example, helps students read and write. Sentence-combining helps students write complex sentences and comprehend more complex sentences. The writer also has to re-organize what she’s read, leading to deeper reflection of the material. And finally, writing provides insight into what a writer might be thinking, which helps students interpret written work.

Evaluations of programs that integrate reading and writing programs  show  positive writing outcomes. These programs typically involve professional development and peer collaboration on reading and writing assignments. Part of the explanation may be that reading helps students  anticipate  what readers may believe as they write. Reading texts that students will write about also increases their prior knowledge of the issues.

Grammar instruction is important but not that helpful for more advanced writers.

Research on common practices among exceptional writing teachers largely  complement or confirm  the best practices listed above. Exceptional teachers:

  • Are excited about teaching writing, making it clear to students that they enjoy the subject and enjoy teaching the subject.
  • Publish student work by sharing it with others, displaying it on walls, or publishing it in collections.
  • Encourage students to try hard and attribute success to effort (a component of the SRSD approach).
  • Reinforce classroom routines that help students progress along the writing process (peer editing, co-writing, revising, etc.) (a component of process writing and peer writing)
  • Have high but realistic expectations (a component of the SRSD approach).
  • Adapt writing assignments to student needs and interests.
  • Use activities that encourage deep processing (critiquing ideas about their papers) as opposed to shallow processing (filling out a worksheet that can be filled out mindlessly).
  • Encourage students to do as much as possible on their own. (a component of the SRSD approach)

Still, Some Open Questions About Learning to Write

For instance, at what age should students  begin  formulating structured arguments (either through discussion, as preparation for later writing assignments, or in writing itself)? Under certain contexts, even young children  can reason  well, which suggests that  early, more comprehensive practice  could substantially improve student reasoning in the long term. But there are also developmental considerations. There’s relatively little evidence on this question.

What’s the proper role of writing rubrics? Rubrics can help students set goals and perceive differences between their work and an ideal piece of writing. But such rubrics can become formulaic substitutes for deep engagement with the issues.

How should argument-structuring scaffolds be used? There’s little doubt that argument diagrams  can  help students formulate counter-arguments and rebuttals, and that they help lower-ability students in particular. Whether the benefits of such scaffolds extend beyond the assignments that use the scaffolding, however, is an open question: in some transfer tasks, students who have been using argument diagrams  don’t write  any better arguments than those who haven’t. They can, however, also  limit  reformulations and of the argument by making the issue seem “black and white” as opposed to “gray” and promote linear, less open approaches, particularly for higher ability students. How to fade these scaffolds over the long trajectory of student development is largely unexplored.

How should we be evaluating written argumentation skills? Researchers have used a variety of methods to distinguish “good” essays from “bad” essays, but the diversity of measurement approaches makes it challenging to compare studies. Articulating counter-arguments has been a major focus, but so have measures of elaboration and organizational structure. In some cases, it’s difficult to tell what aspect of the essays have improved because the descriptions are simply too vague.

What are interesting cases and authentic contexts for students in different classroom settings? A big hurdle for teaching written argumentation seems to be engagement. Students who feel that the writing has some larger purpose (and have some relevant experience) produce stronger written arguments, and presumably become better arguers because of it. But, as far as I can tell, there is no collection of vetted cases across the variety of classroom situations (and levels of prior knowledge) that teachers encounter.

Successful writing intervention programs involve extensive professional development, but what kinds of professional development is best, and how should successful professional development programs be scaled?

Are there other complexities to teaching students with learning disabilities that haven’t surfaced because of lack of research? The research on teaching writing to students with learning disabilities is particularly sparse. A relatively recent review of the research (2009)  found  only 9 studies that met their inclusion criteria for a total of 31 students.

​- Ulrich Boser

8 thoughts on “How To Teach Writing To Anyone”

This is a wonderful article that’s very helpful. I have been assigned to teaching 7th and 8th grade students that have very low lexile levels. These students do not know how to write and they don’t want to learn how to write. So, I’m searching for understanding and resources. I have started with building sentences, you know, writing complete sentences instead of fragments and run-on sentences.

good post, keep it up.

Great work, keep it yp.

nice work, keep it up

GREAT services

Thank you for this. Indeed writing is not a natural skill but one that is built upon. Contact My Homework Writers for help on writing should you feel you need that extra hand.

The skill of writing is a very important for everyone to excel in!

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