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Developing Better Writers

Strengthening students’ writing skills means carving out dedicated time for cycles of productive feedback and revision.

April 9, 2021
High school students writing in classroom
Ridofranz / iStock

Writing instruction often gets short shrift in the classroom, where busy schedules and the urgency of meeting academic benchmarks tend to elbow out the time-intensive process of teaching kids the skills of good writing. But that’s got to change, write Steve Benjamin and Michael Wagner for Phi Delta Kappan, because students still struggle “to produce the kinds of writing expected of them in college and the workforce.”

To do a better job helping students improve their writing, the authors recommend adopting an apprenticeship framework. The concept of cognitive apprenticeships—where teachers “model how to do the task, narrating their thinking at every step, and students repeat the process, explaining their actions as they go,”—isn’t new, yet it’s rarely practiced in the classroom, write Benjamin and Wagner, who are, respectively, an education consultant, and the chief academic officer of Concord Community Schools in Indiana. “If this sort of frequent practice, reflection, and coaching were the norm, students would have to spend much more time on their writing, be taught a much more intensive writing process, and work toward much higher expectations than we see in many classrooms.”

Here are a few of the practices Benjamin and Wagner explore in their article, as well as advice from teachers from our own Edutopia content.

Dig Deeper on Some Assignments

Benjamin and Wagner disapprove of instructional plans that are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” where students plow through writing prompts with cursory amounts of feedback. They note that creating an environment where students are “working on their work, intensively,” spending substantial time revising and reviewing teacher feedback, is more productive than “churning out dozens of lightly revised pieces through the school year.”

Revision with teacher oversight is crucial, but students can write frequently and dig deeper—and commit to serious revisions—on a subset of their written work. “If a student only writes ‘big’ essays, she is not getting enough practice to improve significantly,” write Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, high school teachers and co-authors of 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. “Improvement in writing is grounded in practice, in getting words on the page—lots of them. There are no shortcuts.”

Students should be writing between 30 and 60 minutes each day, writes English teacher Matthew M. Johnson. “The logic behind this is that nothing is more important for writing development than putting in the hours defining and refining one’s voice, organizing and reorganizing one’s thoughts, and learning how words spill out of one’s head and onto the page,” Johnson writes.

Yet that’s a commitment that can tend to make teachers nervous: adding more writing generally means adding more time for delivering feedback. But that’s not always the case, says Johnson, who advocates responding smarter, not harder. In other words, focus on giving deep feedback to a few higher-order concerns in a piece of student writing, rather than marking every single error, and then guide students through several cycles of revision so they’re learning what it feels like to work intensively on a piece of writing. “The teacher wins because going deeper on a few topics generally takes less time than marking everything, and students win because they get clear, quality feedback that does a better job of teaching them the most important lessons,” Johnson says.

Model the Writing Process

It’s important for students to see adults write so they get a sense of the messiness of the process, the rethinking and revising that occurs throughout, and get to see how even teachers struggle to find the right words, the right flow, or the most compelling structure for a sentence or paragraph.

After assigning a 700-word opinion piece about Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in American history, for example, high school history, government, and journalism teacher David Cutler likes to dedicate 25 minutes of class time to drafting his own version of the assignment—projected in front of the class so students can see him write, correct, rewrite, and so forth.

“I model laboring over writing a perfect first sentence (the lede), constructing effective transitions, and selecting sharp diction,” Cutler writes. “As I write, students also see how I constantly refine my work, moving often between paragraphs to tweak structure and narrative flow. Meanwhile, I field questions about my thought process, such as why I have decided to tweak a clause or reconsider my syntax.”

In the process, Cutler encourages students to call out mistakes as he writes, and sometimes even includes mistakes on purpose “to ensure that students are paying attention,” and also to demonstrate how he solves problems in his writing.

Emphasize and Improve Feedback

The quality of teacher feedback is obviously important and should go beyond surface-level critiques of grammar and syntax to move students forward in their writing. “Emphasize substantive comments and suggestions, rather than merely pointing out where students made errors,” Benjamin and Wagner write. “Feedback tends to be much more helpful when it poses important questions for students to consider, suggests how they might reorganize or expand on what they’ve written,” they note.

To move beyond a focus on grammar mistakes, Susan Barber, a high school English teacher and English department chair, recommends making feedback action oriented. “Students must see that the action taken can benefit their future writing and not just correct a mistake in the current paper,” Barber writes. When she works with students on college essays, for example, she might say: “Notice in this paragraph how you begin seven sentences with ‘I’ followed by an action verb. How can you vary some of these sentences so they don’t all sound the same? The content is good, but let’s work on sentence variety.” Students then suggest alternatives which Barber can then discuss with them.

Don’t Overmark

Barber also cautions against excessively marking up student writing, which can discourage and overwhelm students, preventing them from engaging in the revision process and growing as writers.

Instead of covering student work in red pen, “select a focus for feedback with each assignment,” she suggests. “Sometimes I’ll tell students, ‘I’ll be offering feedback on transitions in this paper,’ or ‘The focus of feedback for this writing is on the amount of evidence.’” It’s an approach that’s particularly effective when paired with a mini-lesson on an area she wants students to focus on in their writing.

Expand Beyond Essays

Students need experience writing in a wide variety of genres and creative formats like audio and film scripts, comic books, and blogging, for example.  They should also write across the curriculum. When students practice writing in classes beyond English and history, it’s a powerful way to organically move their writing skills forward, with the subject matter driving how they approach the task.

“Including writing in other subject areas will naturally expand the genres in which students write, as they learn to write lab reports in the sciences and artist’s statements in art classes,” Benjamin and Wagner write. “Social studies classrooms are particularly fertile environments for writing and argument skills development.”

Beyond simply improving students’ writing abilities, research shows that writing across the curriculum not only provides teachers with a window for assessing how well students grasp the material, but it also improves kids’ ability to recall information, connect disparate concepts, and synthesize information in new ways.

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  • English Language Arts
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  • 9-12 High School

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