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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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To Teach Effective Writing, Model Effective Writing

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I strive to teach my high school students the value of criticism, especially when it comes to improving their writing.

To do so, I model how criticism continues to help me become a better writer. Earlier this year, for example, I shared a draft of one of my education feature articles, which included detailed feedback from an editor at a prominent media company. I asked my classes for advice on how to address several edits, dealing with sources, transitions, terminology, and structure. A few days later, I directed my budding writers to the much-improved final draft. This easy but worthwhile activity helped more of my students feel comfortable receiving criticism, and not view it as an affront. As a result, they improved their writing by taking the time and care to consider and respond to reader insight.

I want my students to feel secure in the knowledge that nobody is beyond criticism (even their teacher), and that the bigger challenge is developing the good sense to acknowledge and successfully respond to feedback.

Along those lines, I also offer the suggestions below about teaching writing:

1. Writers are the Best Writing Teachers

To teach effective writing, we must be effective writers ourselves. We can't teach what we don't know, and when it comes to writing, it's important to continue honing our craft. If you haven't engaged in much formal writing since college, you will remain a less effective writing teacher. No matter what subject you teach, try starting a blog, writing articles, or developing short stories -- all terrific ways to engage the mind and keep your skills sharp. Reading is important, but reading alone isn't enough to strengthen your writing skills, or to make you a credible authority on the subject. I am not proposing that every teacher write online every day (though if you do, that’s excellent). But even if just once or twice a month, in some way, shape, or form, teachers should produce writing to be read by others. It's at least that important to practice what we preach.

2. The Value of Sharing

No matter what you teach, share your written work. I always share with my students and ask for their feedback -- even their criticism. In that respect, it's essential for students to recognize not only your skill, but also your interest and engagement in constantly refining a crucial life skill. For one lesson, I even share with students some of my high school, college, and graduate school essays, and they analyze what I improved upon over time. I'm excited about sharing my work, and that in turn helps to get my students excited about doing the same.

3. Write for Your Students

No matter what you teach, write in front of students. When I am teaching about formal introductory paragraphs, for instance, my history students think of a worthy historical question for me to tackle. With the projector on, I then write out the paragraph, sharing my thought process along the way. Students observe how I work and rework my prose, and how I place a premium on concision. They also critique my work, which in turn helps them not repeat similar mistakes. Admitting my weaknesses helps my students become less defensive about their own work, and in turn more open to criticism.

4. The Writing Workshop

Create workshop environments, with multiple stations focusing on different aspects of writing. In my history classroom, I appoint a student who's great at transitions to staff the "transitions" booth, and a student great at topic sentences to staff the "topic sentence" booth. Of their own volition, or at my suggestion, students visit whatever booth fits their needs. As far as instruction goes, this maximizes utility while freeing me to meet one-to-one with the neediest students.

5. Seeking Feedback

Urge students to share their work with each other and online. Few writers have ever improved by keeping their work to themselves. As the teacher, I know that my opinions carry significant weight. But the same is true of what others think, especially one's peers. In an increasingly flat world and a digital age, students must feel comfortable and confident about sharing their work for the whole world to see. To that end, teachers should help students produce appropriate, high-quality content.

6. Real-World Writing

Most importantly, teachers must do whatever they can to convey the importance and usefulness of writing more effectively. No matter what craft or profession students wish to pursue, I make it clear at every turn that knowing how to write well will play a significant role in their success. From science, math, engineering, law, history, and journalism to anything else one can think of, the ability to express oneself clearly in writing is absolutely essential. Next year, to help get that point across, I hope to invite various professionals to speak to my students about the role writing plays in their lives.

How do you teach effective writing? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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EneasEnglish's picture

I agree, we must not be afraid to let our students see our writing process. If they are able to literally see us changing, adding, or even editing a mere paragraph, they would have more of a buy-in when we asked them to revisit their work as well.

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

This reminds me of a time I co-taught a lesson on congress with a civics teacher. We broke the class into the two houses of government and each student introduced a class rule as a bill. The rules went through committees etc... and a few ended up making it through the process. At the end, we asked them to write a page to describe the process they went through to make sure they could communicate about the processes they were supposed to be learning. To our dismay, only a couple students actually wrote with the level of detail we were looking for and we wondered if they actually 'got it.' Next class, we did the same lesson but right before the writing part we took the best paper from the first class, put it under the document camera and said 'this is what an average piece of work should look like.' The result? That level of writing ended up being average in that second class. A class which normally had a reputation of being rowdier than the first. Hurray! Yes, modeling and sharing writing is awesome.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

K. Svrjcek,

I think the teaching of writing is more philosophy, than following a program. Programs are great for resources, but when you try to implement a writing program you will find that there's not much writing going on. There are many authors you can check out who have thoroughly written about teaching writing (not programs). I always point teachers in the direction of Donald Graves (A Fresh Look at Writing) for a good foundation. Lucy Caulkins, Ralph Fletcher, Barry Lane, Tom Romano, Nancie Attwell. Vicki Spandel's "The Nine Rights of Every Writer" is a great short book. I've read all these authors and created a system that works for me within the writing program my school uses.


Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

When teachers write, we provide a positive model for the students. Our example says we give more value to writing and find it useful, more so than when we sit and correct papers while the students write. When teachers sit and write, we give ourselves a chance to test our own writing assignments. One never understand why students didn't seem to enjoy more wholeheartedly my "Imagine You're a Hypnotist" topic--until I tried it myself. When a teacher writes, we help demystify the act of writing. Students many a times think that experienced writers find writing easy or have some magic ability to "get it right the first time." If we share our projects or write in front of the students, they can see what a sloppy, difficult act writing is for all writers.

Rian Sid Oncog's picture
Rian Sid Oncog
a rebel with a halo

This is by far the greatest article I have read. I'm also a writer in my own way that's why this comes very helpful, and I'm also a future educator which is why this article has a double purpose. As a writer, the suggestions mentioned in the article is very helpful on improving my skills in writing and as a future teacher, I could apply the suggestions in my future discussions. I must say that the suggestions are very effective.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

It's a two-way purpose why we are writing, I being a composer of some poems made me more knowledgeable in gathering information as I go along. Letting the learners create such poems from their own words and creative mind can have an advance skills that could be a good start towards some attainment in life, to be a journalist, writer or even a writer.

Angie Wilson's picture
Angie Wilson
I am a 6th grade language arts teacher

This is a good article reminding me to continue to share my work with the students and let them know we all can learn from others and improve our written work. It is so hard for some students to hear constructive criticism. The more they have peer feedback and feed back from others, the more it becomes a part of the process. I try to make it really positive for the students. Daily they share their work with each other, pointing out positives and also ideas for the author. This students ultimately decide what they want to change. What do you think about having students blog with a public access to comment? I think it would make it very engaging and show of sense of ownership while making it meaningful, but the criticism could be harsh.

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Hey Angie,

I've loved blogging with my students for several years and having an authentic audience is powerful for improving writing quality. I've found that most blogging platforms a teacher would want to use provide a tool to have the teacher moderate the comments and give approval prior to being made public. I think it's the safe way to go. I've also shared directly with other classes to build an authentic audience for my students. I really think it's important for us to teach kids how to write both positive and critical feedback online. We want them to have those skills.

Bryan J. Rupe's picture

Really good article, thank you. In our classes we invite professional writers to talk about their techniques. It makes a huge improvement in writing for students. At one point we started to motivate our students with help of our partners from http://paidpaper.net/ by paying for papers if they do a good job. Efficiency grew just in few weeks.

smshaw's picture

I love your article and really appreciate that I am not the only one to put myself out there by writing in front of my students. How do you feel about having students writing in front of other students or sharing student examples?

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