My daily life is filled with writing, which I craft with care and satisfaction—correspondence with friends, reports about students, dealings with vendors, condolences. I have tried to create authentic writing experiences like these for my students, in order to motivate them to write with care and to understand and enjoy the power of good writing.
I used to encourage them to write letters to their favorite authors. Their writing was fine, but usually any responses that arrived were too late to be satisfying and too clearly just formulaic responses. Then, one night, I was looking back at a review I had just written of a friend’s book, already posted online. What better motivation, I thought, to do meaningful writing than to see it in print where it can influence others. And what better way to get students to analyze published texts, consider audiences, practice editing, and learn how to use a flexible writing format—all important writing skills.
Why and How to Teach Review Writing
A review or persuasive piece is a widely published form that suits the teaching of structured authentic writing. The advantage of reviews that appear online is almost-instant gratification, as they are often published virtually overnight. (I don’t tell my students that they are also rarely rejected, suggesting instead that the standard is high.) My students in grades 3–5 have reviewed restaurants for Yelp, movies for Rotten Tomatoes, and books and products for Amazon.
These are the steps we take to write a restaurant review.
Step 1: I choose (and sometimes edit) several reviews from Yelp that fit the format I want to teach. The students analyze them and discover that restaurant reviews usually assess three areas: food, atmosphere, and service. The models I show them also have introductory and concluding sentences.
Step 2: Students choose a favorite restaurant and brainstorm details about the three target areas. The models are useful for illustrating elements of atmosphere and service and the kinds of words writers use to describe foods.
Step 3: To organize this information, they use the TIDE paragraph planner, a format suggested by the evidence-based SRSD (Self-Regulated Strategy Development) approach to writing.
TIDE gives students an effective structure in which to select and organize the most important details in each area and to introduce and conclude their review.
Step 4: Students write their first drafts.
Step 5: Students edit their drafts, add details and transitions if necessary, sharpen word choices, and proofread them.
Step 6: I submit the reviews to the Yelp website. For privacy, I use my email account and put students’ first names or initials at the bottom of the reviews as well as their ages or grades.
Here is the Yelp review of a fifth-grader:
Use the Power of Persuasive Writing for Different Audiences
I explain to my students in advance that their glowing reviews provide two public services: They inform and attract customers and help a restaurant they love to succeed. Giving it the highest number of stars can also boost its overall rating. Very soon after writing, students are able to show familiar restaurant workers and owners what they wrote.
For movies, books, and products, the process is similar. We look at a model, identify main areas to assess, and brainstorm. Then, the students organize and develop their ideas with TIDE. These kinds of reviews offer an added satisfaction if readers rate them as “helpful,” and sometimes product reviewers are sent questions from potential buyers.
There are other markets for persuasive writing, depending on students’ interests. Although they may not result in publication, they can have a real-world effect. Writing to an elected official usually gets an immediate automated response, and politicians tally positive and negative mail on topical issues.
Parents are another possibly responsive audience. One student wrote about the advantages of the game Fortnite for the parents of a friend who was not allowed to play. Another addressed a well-reasoned argument to his mom explaining why he should be given a cell phone.
I know that the writing skills that students learn by doing these projects will serve them well in school and in whatever work they choose. But I also hope that seeing how their opinions can influence others will motivate them to keep on writing.