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Helping Students Believe That They can Write

Helping Students Believe That They can Write

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I am an extremely fortunate teacher. My classes are filled to the brim with bright, capable and hard-working students. I am constantly impressed by the arguments they construct in essays and the points that they raise in class discussions. Although it might sound cliche, I can honestly say that I am proud of every single one of my students. Sadly, I am regularly told by some of my students that they do not have the ability to succeed in my class. When I ask them to explain why they think this might be the case, I am usually told that it is because they do not know how to communicate their knowledge. Due to the regularity with which I am confronted with these sort of statements, I have spent the last four months trying to help my students improve their self efficacy by showing them how to write. Based on the feedback that I have received so far, these strategies have been quite successful. Thus, I thought I would share three such strategies. 

Discuss the Question 

I recently read an article by Christopher Reddy (2015) on the curse of knowledge. Reddy’s central thesis — that teachers often forget how difficult it is to learn new concepts — is true on so many levels. Given the varied demands facing teachers on a daily basis, it is easy to assume that students ‘get’ the question immediately. However, this is rarely the case. Thus, teachers need to spend time explicitly discussing the question with their students. On the one hand, this involves showing them how to break apart the question. Furthermore, it also involves explicitly discussing the types of things that they might talk about when responding to the question itself. By explicitly discussing the content that they can use when responding to the question, my students feel less overwhelmed. Thus, they are more inclined to give the activity a go.

In addition to this, it is also important to explicitly discuss the type of language one might use when responding to the question. For example, if I ask my students to use a stimulus, then I tell them that they can use words such as shows, reveals, suggests or supports. Likewise, if I am asking them to explain something, I suggest that they use words such as because, generated, fostered or resulted in. In fact, I keep these words on display at the front of my classroom. As these words are easily accessible, my students are more inclined to use them in their writing.

Show them Samples 

If we want our students to construct sophisticated responses, then we need to show them what sophisticated responses look like. This can be done in a few different ways. For instance, it is helpful to give your students exemplars that they can deconstruct. Alternatively, you can provide them with average responses and ask your students to suggest the ways in which these responses can be improved. 

That being said, I have found that my students benefit the most when I explicitly write a response in front of them. I prefer this approach for a few different reasons. Firstly, my students are able to see that writing is a process. Rather than always looking at the final product, they get to see me rewrite sentences and change my response where necessary. Secondly, by writing the sample response in front of them I am able to explain the thought process behind my decisions. For instance, I can tell them why I have used words such as firstly, additionally and therefore. Furthermore, I can explain why my topic sentences look a certain way and why I am supporting my ideas with evidence. When used effectively, this method helps my students see that it is ok to make mistakes. Additionally, it helps them develop strategies that they can use to improve their own writing.

Feedback and Feedforward 

As shown, students need to be given the opportunity to deconstruct questions and see how responses are written. However, they also need to be given the opportunity to discuss their own writing with their peers. Arguably, there is an implicit assumption within some classrooms that feedback comes from the teacher alone. This is simply not the case. As such, I regularly ask my students to provide feedback to one another. 

To begin this activity, I ask my students to write a short response. For instance, they might write an introduction, a conclusion or a short paragraph. I will then ask them to exchange their response with a peer that they trust. Next, I ask my students to highlight all of the wonderful things that their peer has done. For example, I ask my students to highlight any pieces of evidence, any dates or any terms that their peer has used. From there, they are asked to provide one another with written feedback. Specifically, they are instructed to start by outlining what they loved about the response. Furthermore, they have to provide one comment on what their peer can do to make this response even better.

I recently completed this activity with sixteen year olds. One of my students wrote “I really liked the depth and detail of your paragraph. Your choice of words strengthened your statement. I liked your use of evidence and how you supported it. However, there could be more evidence used. Remember to use historians.” What I love about this piece of feedback is that the student who wrote it has thought critically about the strengths and limitations of the piece before them. They have developed their ability to revise texts and they are able to use this knowledge to edit their own response.

Ultimately, these strategies have helped my students develop as writers. As such, their marks have improved and they are producing texts that are of a higher quality. Additionally, these strategies have helped my students recognise that they have the ability to construct sophisticated responses. Thus, they have started to see how capable they truly are. While these strategies might not work in every single context, I would strongly recommend giving them a try.

* Reddy, Christopher. (2015, December 18). The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About. Retrived from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-curse-of-knowledge-chris-reddy 


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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Great post Sally, I like your suggestion about modelling writing for students in order to see the process happen for themselves. I know when I did that they always commented about how many times I changed the sentence, words, ideas, style etc. In this way, it helps them to see that it's okay to change, edit, delete and wrestle with words before they come to life on paper.

Sally Johnstone's picture

Thank you for your comment, Rusul. My students have given me similar feedback over the last few weeks. Additionally, they seem to be more motivated and engaged when we do writing activities.

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

Sally....great post. I do all of these things with my third graders. I think it's important for all grade levels to write and learn how to write in the classroom just like this. I hear too many stories of how the older grades don't give kids time in class to write. It's the English thing. English is reading and writing, but most teachers in the upper grades (in my district anyhow) only concentrate in the reading, but expect kids to write with great confidence and depth. My students have a pile of examples that I wrote in front of the class.

Thanks again!!

Sally Johnstone's picture

Hi Gaetan. Thank you for your comment. It is fantastic to hear that students in year three are learning how to write with confidence. I work with students in the last two years of high school. Sadly, I too have heard of teachers who do not feel it is their responsibility to show their students how to read and write.

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