As teachers, we often bemoan the fact that “students can’t write anymore” and blame it on everything from texting and social media to the lack of grammar instruction and absence of vocabulary books. The truth is probably closer to the sentiment of David Labaree: “Learning to write is extraordinarily difficult, and teaching people how to write is just as hard.”
Teaching writing is a process—over time and with the right guidance and support our students can grow into better writers. We may feel frustrated that their final pieces aren’t polished to perfection, but if we look closely, within those imperfect final drafts are flickers of insight and bits of mastery.
We need to celebrate these small victories, and be patient as our students gradually master the myriad of skills involved in becoming a writer.
4 Strategies for Supporting Student Writers
1. Emphasize reading: Frank Smith writes in Reading Without Nonsense, “You learn to read by reading and you learn to write by reading.” I tell my students that something magical happens when we read—the words and sentences enter our consciousness, float around, and drift out through our pen or keyboard in our own narrative voice.
When students immerse themselves in John Green, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, or J.K. Rowling, those writers’ language and its wisdom seeps into their thinking and pours out into their writing.
2. Give them permission to take risks: Donald Murray has argued, “Many teachers complain that their students can’t write sentences. I complain that many of my students write sentences. Too early. Following form, forgetting meaning.... Sentences that are like prison sentences.”
In order to free my students from the constraints of correctness, I give them permission to break some of the rules that have been drilled into them since elementary school. As we read, we notice how the stylistic choices that defy convention are often the phrases we love the most. We then make bold attempts to experiment with these techniques in our own writing. We begin sentences with conjunctions, take liberties with rhetorical questions, repetition, and figurative language... even sprinkle ellipses with reckless abandon.
One of my students crafted a beautiful passage that was inspired by both Great Expectations and Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me.” She loved Alexie’s short, emphatic sentences: “I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky,” and how Dickens wove his title throughout the novel: “So imperfect was the realisation of my great expectations....” In a letter to the late author Paul Kalanithi about his memoir When Breath Becomes Air, composed for the Library of Congress’s Letters About Literature contest, she wrote, “You were determined. You were fierce. And you were unstoppable. You fought until your final breath... until your breath became air.”
3. Make them care: I want my students to understand that their ideas can bring about change, so I work to give them choices to write about topics they feel passionate about. They ask probing questions and devote the time necessary to develop a compelling argument, meticulously craft sentences, and carefully choose their words.
And they need to know their words will be heard by an authentic audience, which is sometimes an audience of their peers reached through shared folders on Google Drive and Padlet, and at other times a wider audience reached through writing contests and publishing opportunities.
4. Feedback, feedback, and more feedback: It would be easy to circle errors in red pen, write a few comments, and return papers with a letter grade, but most teachers don’t do that—the amount of time we spend on grading student writing is staggering. And much of this feedback is not improving their writing.
So in the early stages of the writing process, I dedicate time to conference with each student to offer them personalized feedback they can immediately use. Throughout the writing process, students self-assess based on the assignment rubric as I jump in and out of Google Docs to offer additional targeted feedback. As they get closer to a final product, I offer peer editors specific “look fors” and guidelines to further polish and refine their writing. All of this feedback results in final drafts that are much stronger and grades that are higher. But more importantly, students feel supported and encouraged as they’re learning to write.
When we take the time to refine our thoughts in writing, not in the unrehearsed way they often spout too quickly out of our mouths, our words can impact the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of others. My students understand that writing is power, and they well know that we could all use a little empowering.