One of the best ways to help students attain proficiency with evidence-based reading assignments is to develop young writers who flourish when asked to compose evidence-based writing. In no uncertain terms, one hand (reading) washes the other (writing), and vice versa. As the research shows, “high-quality writing instruction can improve students' reading comprehension, reading fluency, and word-solving skills.” (Graham & Hebert, 2011)
Yet, how do we provide “high-quality writing instruction?” This is our grand challenge. We have academic objectives that demand rigorous, thoughtful compositions, and we also have students who sometimes believe meaningful expression is best conveyed through the selection of a good emoji.
As the author of 20 books—most recently Mastering Short-Response Writing: Claim It! Cite It! Cement It!—as a California Teacher of the Year award winner, and as the father of two young student writers, it is my mission to help. Here are four fruitful strategies I’ve gleaned from working on the front lines with developing student writers.
Forget the Shoulds
Of course, this is tremendously challenging, but we must first forget the “shoulds.” They should know how to capitalize a proper noun or They should know how to use an apostrophe or They should know how to develop a richly expressed narrative that demonstrates an ability to structure event sequences in a logical and cohesive order. These beliefs about what ought to be are hampering our goals.
As much as we may have certain notions about what our students should be able to do, the best way to improve performance is that we, as teachers, meet them where they are and build their abilities upwards from there. There is no should; there is only what is. (Pretty zen, huh?) The sooner the "should" sentiment is kicked to the curb, the sooner we will be able to set to the task of building competent, confident, capable writers.
No one asks a neophyte automobile driver to race laps around the Indy 500 track in a Formula One when they don’t have the skills to drive a Honda safely through a parking lot. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to ask neophyte writers to pen multi-paragraph, nuanced, and complex essays before they can compose a sure-footed paragraph. It short-circuits our primary goal—to improve our students’ writing skills.
The good news is that a solution exists: slow it down! Put quite simply, multi-paragraph essays are composed one paragraph at a time. Paragraphs are composed one sentence at a time. A student who struggles to compose single sentences is not prepared to craft long, extended essays.
You may want to jump ahead. You may feel compelled to zoom to lengthier writing assignments, but before a student masters extended response they must first master short response.
Go One-Smart-Step at a Time
Right now, we very often assign one long writing task that asks students to demonstrate mastery over eight different standards-based skills at the same time, as opposed to assigning eight different writing assignments that ask students to demonstrate mastery over one unique standards-based skill one step at a time.
For a neophyte writer with developing skills, it’s hard to absorb commentary when there is even one “issue” with your work. But where there are eight issues, it’s almost impossible to absorb any feedback whatsoever. Be focused about your teaching objective and work to build confidence in developing young writers by building skills one-smart-step-at-a-time.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Avoid clichés like the plague. However you want to frame it, making this shift allows writing teachers to work smarter, not harder, and better sets the stage for driving measurable growth once kids have the tools to put it all together.
Provide Consistent, Deliberate Practice
Great writing performance is a by-product of great writing practice. And not just practice, mind you, but deliberate practice. What’s the difference?
Practice is grabbing a basketball and shooting jump-shots for 45 minutes. Deliberate practice is shooting a five-foot bank shot off the glass 50 times in a row, with a coach making adjustments along the way.
Practice is nebulous; deliberate practice is precise. More significantly, deliberate practice spread out across a consistent schedule reaps big gains.
It’s important to be aware that teachers who achieve exceptional success in writing instruction recognize the importance of frequent and sustained writing (Graham & Perin, 2007). In other words, it's preferable to hold five short writing blocks per week rather than two long writing blocks per week.
Have your students write every day and seek small gains. Incremental growth is sustainable growth.
In a nutshell, if you take a measured approach, manage your expectations, and provide conscientious, methodical instruction—all while remaining faithful to the process—you will soon see your social-media-loving students evolve into competent, academic writers who can make a claim, cite textual evidence to support their assertions, and then cement their reasoning by logically tying their proofs to their contentions.
Remember, neither Rome, nor Instagram, was built in a day.
Graham, S. & Hebert, M. (2010). “Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading.” Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 81. No. 4 Winter.