Conventions and Craft: Recasting Conventions as Craft Elements

As educators, we care about the conventions of written language, such as grammar, sentence structure, word knowledge, capitalization, punctuation and spelling. And we are not alone. The parents of the children we serve, the community, and the nation expect children to show growing expertise in those conventions.

Unfortunately, conventions have traditionally been taught through worksheets, drills, and “red-lining” that leave children believing that conventions are about “correcting” and “being right.” This is a dangerous stance because it can lead children to perceive that writing in general is about correcting and being right. When they’re overly focused on correctness, writers may emphasize spelling over ideas. They may use simplistic sentence structures to be certain everything is “right.” This approach limits a child to what he or she can already do, rather than letting language flourish through his or her evolving sense of meaning and imagination. However, if we recast conventions as craft elements—tools that allow writers to add clarity and interest to their work—children can make writing sizzle, and they soon begin to “craft” their work, rather than just “correct” it.

How to Help Student Writing Sizzle

Using research that supports the power of short, highly interactive windows of instruction, I began working with elementary-age students to see the impact on their writing when they experienced daily “micro-workshops” focused on conventions as craft elements.  I selected one convention each week, which I focused on over five days—across a variety of contexts and applications. The weekly plan went as follows:

Monday: Study a Mentor Text

I have learned to trust in the power of wonderful mentor texts—nonfiction trade books, magazine articles, and student pieces—to expose students to literary language, form, and craft. A mentor text is one of our most potent tools for helping children notice and celebrate the interesting ways writers use sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. By reading aloud from a well-crafted, high-interest mentor text, I demonstrate conventions in a rich and meaningful context. I also project a few passages from the text so writers have up-close visual access to the way the author used particular conventions.

Tuesday: Model the Target Understanding

It has been proven that students benefit from observing as an adult composes a piece of writing in front of them, so a great deal of modeling is critical. I think aloud, so my reasoning is transparent as I use the target convention in my own piece. As is true of a read-aloud selection, modeled writing should set high expectations for complex and well-crafted student work. 

Wednesday: Analyze Student Work

This micro-workshop provides partners with a chance to analyze a student writing sample for the week’s target convention. First, writers praise something about the piece and then decide if the convention is present. From there, partners analyze the piece more closely for possible revisions, adding the target convention if possible. The sample could be from a student in class or from the Conventions and Craft website.

Thursday: Invite Application

On the fourth day, students survey their writing folders, science logs, writers’ notebooks, and other sources of their own writing, to see if they have used the target convention. If they have, they mark it with a sticky note or highlighter. If they haven’t, they consider options for adding it. Finally, writers partner up and share their reflections on their writing.

Friday: Power Burst Review

The Power Burst Review that concludes each lesson cycle is designed to provide an interactive experience in which students review the target understanding of the current cycle or a previous one, depending on students’ needs. Writers love doing Secret Sentences, Scavenger Hunts, Expanding Fragments, Sentence Combining, and other Power Burst experiences. Day 5 is a celebration of what they know and can apply in many contexts. 

What I’ve Learned

Devoting ten minutes a day on the write moves with conventions brings high energy and excitement from students. Ten minutes is long enough for writers to focus on a target understanding, but not so long they get overwhelmed or bored! And with rich conversations about how to “craft” writing rather than just “correct” it, both writing and conventions flourish!

This learning sequence—weekly lesson cycles made up of five 10-minute micro-workshops—forms the backbone of Conventions and Craft, a full year of instruction in grammar, sentence structure, word study, and other conventions. In addition to weekly lesson cycles, it contains mentor texts to share, student writing samples to analyze, and a wide array of energy-building Power Burst Reviews—as well as video lesson demonstrations for professional learning. We hope you will join us is helping writers to recast conventions as craft elements!

Autism Awareness, School Libraries, and Summer Reading

The month of April offers us the opportunity to share a lot of rich content for educators, as it's Autism Awareness Month and School Library Month. It's also time for educators, libraries and community partners to pre-register for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, our free online/mobile reading program dedicated to stopping the “Summer Slide” by encouraging kids to read throughout the summer months when school is out. 

Autism Awareness Month

Barbara Boroson, author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD, published an article with ASCD's Educational Leadership. In "Inclusive Education: Lessons From History" Boroson explores the "meaningful inclusion of individuals who are different from the majority." She begins by taking a look at the history of inclusion (and exclusion) in the US educational system, and moves on to consider in particular the treatment of students on the autism spectrum.

Boroson encourages an approach that meets students where they are. She writes:

"Offer and accept a variety of ways for students to express their knowledge. Many students assimilate far more knowledge than they are able to demonstrate through conventional means. Whenever possible, let students choose to speak, write, act, sing, dance, pantomime, illustrate, videotape, collage, montage, podcast—or whatever vehicle drives them."

To read the full article, go to ASCD (and go here to read Boroson's EDU post 10 Things Educators Can Do Before Day One to Support Students on the Autism Spectrum.)

School Library Month

We learned from the Kids & Family Reading Report that 95% of parents agree "every child deserves to have a school library" and 95% of parents also agree "every community needs to have a public library." We also know that "across ages, children turn to teachers or school librarians (51%) to get the best ideas about books to read for fun." School librarians play a critical role in establishing a culture of literacy in schools, and supporting students' literacy achievement.  

One way to recognize the powerful work of school librarians is to submit nominations to the School Library Journal 2017 School Librarian of the Year award. A panel comprised of SLJ editors, Scholastic Library Publishing staff, the 2016 School Librarian of the Year , and a school administrator will judge nominations based on creativity in programming and use of content, demonstrated student engagement, exemplary use of technology tools, and more. Learn more here.

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge Pre-Registration

We know that reading during the summer helps stop the "summer slide." Summer is coming, and it's time for schools to sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge, a fun (and free) way to help motivate kids to read during the summer months. This year, we libraries and community partners can register for the Challenge! They can create "classrooms," register kids, monitor reading progress, and access free summer reading resources and booklists in both English and Spanish. Go to to learn more and pre-register!


For Family Engagement, Not All Information Is Created Equal

Over the last two months, Ron Mirr and I have written about the pathway to effective family-school partnerships. I kicked the series off by sharing how schools can welcome families to campus to become learning partners, and Ron shared how best to communicate with families. What is next on the pathway to engaging families in meaningful ways?

If the focus of communication looks at how we communicate—the systems that are in place for effective home-school communication—information is what we communicate: the information families need to know to support learning.

It may come as a bit of a shock to some, especially as the national dialogue around education shifts and evolves, that children spend significantly less time at school than they do at home. That’s why it is so important to focus on the information families receive that supports their role as an effective and engaged partner in their child's learning. It is about providing the right information, not necessarily about asking them to do more. (Frankly, who has extra time to do more?)

What do families need to support learning at home? This is what they need to know:

  • What their child should know and be able to do by the end of the school year

  • How well their child is doing, and

  • How to support their child’s learning at home.

If you are an educator, ask yourself whether you regularly share this information with families. While the question is rather simple, I would guess that we have room to increase the number of families that consistently receive this information and can answer these questions. 

These three questions should become the yardstick by which we measure what we display around the school, send home to families, or post on the school website and on social media.

Let me share a couple of easy ways to ensure families receive the information they need to stay current on their child’s performance and actively engaged in learning at home:

Use a consistent color to help families know what information is most valuable or directly related to their child's learning

A school I recently worked with used bright green paper to print all publications aligned to student learning. Anytime a family member saw a green document, they knew it contained valuable information connected to student learning. Families could quickly scan their child’s folder and know which materials needed more attention or a more thorough review. 

Share a quarterly curriculum outline with families

Many schools provide a curriculum overview at Back-to-School Night. However, for many families (including this parent!), come January, we’ve either lost or forgotten the information we received back in September. It might be more beneficial to encourage staff to share a quarterly curriculum outline with families. It is easier to keep track of something for nine weeks rather than 36! As we learned in Ron’s blog post last month, we need to make sure to place the curriculum outline in newsletters/class bulletins or on teacher web pages. Include a section on the outline for strategies and tips for families to support learning at home.

Utilize wall space to showcase and spotlight progress and achievements towards schools and student learning goals

The interior of a school should always resemble a house of learning! Know the difference between displaying student work and evidence of learning. The picture on the left displays student work (which is good), while the picture on the right showcases evidence of learning (which is great). Can you see the difference?

Family resources

Enhance your school website to include a family resource section with updated links to grade-level tips and tools that connect family engagement strategies to what is happening in the classroom. 

Information is powerful. What you communicate to families makes all the difference in establishing effective home-school partnerships. Make sure what you provide to families focuses on the right things to impact student outcomes. 


My Favorite Question for Students and Teachers

As a teacher, my day is filled with asking questions. Some are benign, like asking a student, “How is your day going?” While I never seem to lack questions to ask, I must admit that improving my skills in this area has been a goal since I started my teaching career. The really great, meaty questions will not only lead you to a better understanding of a student’s ability, they will inspire critical thinking and creativity. Best of all, these types of questions will lead to even deeper questions and discussions.

There is one question that has become my all-time favorite: “If you could do this again, what would you do differently?”

First, it helps my students become better musicians. Recently, I asked my second graders this question after they accompanied a song with xylophones. I got a wide range of responses back. Some students focused on the technical aspects of holding mallets while others honed in on maintaining a steady beat while performing. At the same time, I had students emphasize aspects of their singing. After our discussion, we performed the piece again and it was evident that the students had applied their recommendations.

Second, asking my students what they would do differently encourages them to be more creative. My third-grade students had taken part in a small group composition project for boomwhackers (a pitched instrument made out of plastic tubes). They had done a great job of writing and performing their pieces. When I asked them to identify what they would do differently, many suggested adding movements to their piece.

In addition to improving musicianship and encouraging creativity, I love this question because I can use it many different situations. When speaking to students about behavior concerns, it helps them think through their actions/reactions and find better ways to respond in the future. It also makes my reading interventions fun. I’m currently working with six kindergarten students that need help with identifying letters and sounds. The flash cards can be incredibly monotonous. By asking the question, the students have kept it interesting by using high/low voices, loud/soft voices, and singing.

This strategy is not limited to the lower grades; I believe it can be helpful to any teacher in any grade level. A high school science teacher could pose the challenge to students following a science experiment. Math teachers can ask students to find another way of solving a problem. ELA teachers could ask students to read a story again utilizing a different strategy.

And while this is a useful question to guide students, it is also important for teachers to ask themselves. Following each lesson, I ask myself, “If I could teach this lesson again, what would I do differently?” It helps me reflect on and improve my own teaching. In the end, it has made me a better teacher.


We Read Big: Reading as a Way of Life

Early one Monday morning at the beginning of January, a sixth-grade student approached me as I entered a classroom to chat with one of my English teachers. “Hey, Mister. Hey, Mister. I want to show you something,” he said in a secretive and hushed tone. This young man called me to the side of the room, and motioned to his zipped jacket. As I approached him with curiosity, he unzipped and began to open his jacket as if we were in a gritty 80s TV show, and he was trying to sell me a watch on a street corner. Yet, inside his coat was, of course, not a knock-off watch, but a book from our district’s new literacy initiative. He couldn’t wait to tell me what he discovered on the shelves, and to express excitement about his new treasure. 

Our district

Reading diverse, high-leverage (high-interest and culturally relevant) texts will transform our schools by igniting our students’ imaginations and interests. This belief is the guiding principle behind our literacy initiative, We Read Big. My district, Southbridge, MA. (located in Southern Worcester County), is in the first year of state turnaround work. We are a rural district with urban challenges, and at the moment, we are one of the lowest-performing school districts in the state. Yet, this is not where our schools or our students will remain.

Our students need to read more, and more often

Research suggests that increasing reading frequency results in students’ ability to better interpret text. Therefore, an increase in the amount of time our students spend reading—and talking about reading—should yield big changes in our schools and in our students’ futures. 

These changes include an increase in state test scores (necessary for high school graduation) and communication skills that will provide our students with more competitive positions in the global job market. But it’s not just about quantifiable results. Beyond raising test scores and giving students a competitive edge, we believe that when students read big, they gain the tools to dream big—which, frankly, can sometimes be a challenge in Southbridge. We believe that by visiting new worlds on the page, our students learn to imagine a world for themselves that is richer because of reading. All students deserve this opportunity.

We Read Big: reading as a way of life

In December, we launched We Read Big in Southbridge Middle School. The purpose of this campaign is to begin a discussion around literacy and to inculcate a love of literature. We used the first person common plural—we—because it suggests that literacy is not only for students. It is something that teachers, staff, and students can actively enjoy, and together we can create a culture of literacy. It is something that we all do. Reading doesn’t stop at the conclusion of the school or work day, but continues as a way of life.

Getting the whole school on board

To get this message across, we polled our staff about their favorite books in order to design doorway posters showcasing their favorite texts. Next, we made a video in which our teachers, support personnel, and students talked about their favorite books and why they resonated with them. The purpose of these posters and short video was to illustrate to our entire student body that so many of us have been shaped powerfully by books. When we talk about literature we begin to build a culture that celebrates the words, which opens up a world of possibility. 

More books

We then purchased over 1200 lbs. of diverse, high-interest texts to outfit our 6th, 7th and 8th grade English classrooms. This means that each classroom has roughly 500 new books. These books include classics, some gross (yet scientific!) books about the natural world, “wicked” histories of notorious world leaders, and best-selling young adult novels. We gave our students a wide variety of reading material—diverse in subject, level and genre—so that every child could find something that will excite them. We purchased beautiful shelves and display cases to create the ideal book nook for each ELA room.

Sharing the written word

Before December break, we had a kick-off event in the Middle School. Speakers shared their experiences with reading, their struggles, and their eventual triumph with the written word. However, the highlight was our brave student poets. Young authors took to the stage to share the words they crafted about their life experiences and adversities that they have conquered. The link between author and text was so powerful that many people in the auditorium were moved to tears by these expressions.

Moving forward

With diverse books and fantastic displays in place, the groundwork has been laid for success. Now we ask students to read 20 minutes every night. Teachers are beginning to conference with students around their reading choices to provide accountability and to help students practice a healthy discourse around books. In addition, we will provide professional development for our staff around this practice for the remainder of this year and next.

Reflecting back on that 6th grader’s experience, that child found a book—a book that matched his interests and excited him. He became an evangelist of this literature, telling the first person he saw about his discovery and why it was so cool. His interests have been ignited, it is up to us as educators to continue to put rich content in front of him to keep the flame of learning aglow. We want this student and others like him to dream big through the opportunity of reading big.

Access to Books Is at the Heart of a Strong Literacy Plan

In any school or district, the foundation of a strong literacy plan is a flexible strategy for reading instruction that adapts to the individual needs and interests of diverse readers. At the heart of this strategy is access to books.

We know that access to a wide variety of reading material helps establish a culture of literacy in school, which supports students as they gain strong literacy skills and discover the joy of reading. Access to books has a positive impact on academic achievement, especially in kindergarten through third grade, those critical early years when students are acquiring literacy skills. And yet we also know that so often, there are simply not enough books: the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report reveals that while 89% of teachers have classroom libraries, 31% have fewer than 50 books to serve their students all year.

Even in robust classroom libraries, it is not enough simply to have books—the collection must be diverse in genre, subject, and reading level, meeting the individual needs of all students. From the same research, we learned how varied the needs of so many teachers and school libraries are to fill their bookshelves; in particular, teachers report needing titles that are culturally relevant, recently published books and high-interest, low-reading-level titles. Readers of all ages and levels need to be able to find their “just-right” book. This is seen throughout academic research as well as through many one-on-one conversations that I’ve had in my travels throughout the country to visit schools and districts of all sizes. For example, when working with teachers who are implementing Guided Reading in their classrooms, one of four “must-haves” in balanced literacy instruction, teachers need multiple copies of leveled books, as well as the right teaching support.

In terms of how many books, in many ways there can never be enough but I encourage educators to think big. Think in the thousands for your students and expect connected teaching resources for each title. Scholastic was recently amazed by the power of educators coming together with their community to provide just that. Together, they raised the resources to bring a Scholastic Leveled Bookroom to their school in order to meet the needs of both students and teachers. Students school-wide now have critical access to titles and texts, teachers have instructional support for helping students select books they want to read at the appropriate level, and support them in their comprehension.

Our understanding of the importance of access to books must be informed by a nuanced view of literacy instruction: that students must have access to books at a variety of levels that are interesting to them; that independent reading is not just free reading, but must be supported by a teacher’s ability to guide students as their interests and skills change. Access to books supports the creation of what Fountas and Pinnell have called a “community of readers,” in which the evident culture of reading (and rereading), and the lively discussion of books lays the foundation for a lifelong love of reading.

Family Engagement Supports Literacy Achievement

Paul Liabenow is the Executive Director of Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA).

Right now, Michigan is at a crossroads when it comes to supporting the literacy achievement of our third graders. As we know, third grade is a critical year for students wherein reaching certain benchmarks of literacy achievement is a must.

And yet during the 2014–15 school year, M-STEP assessments revealed that 53,481 of 107,178 Michigan third graders were not proficient in English language arts. Because research shows that the literacy skills developed from Kindergarten through third grade are predictors of later reading achievement, it is clear that in Michigan we need to increase support of our students as they become readers during those critical early years

Our plan of action must be a concerted, strategic effort—not only around classroom instruction, but also around family engagement. Over the summer, young readers are vulnerable to the summer slide, the loss of reading skills while school is not in session. Regular independent reading and reading aloud with families is an important tool for preventing the summer slide. In fact, we know from the Kids & Family Reading Report that the majorities of both kids (80%) and parents (96%) agree that summer reading will help kids during the school year. But parents need the necessary tools to support their children. And educators need to know how to support parents. 

Getting parents and families involved in their children’s reading lives is a necessary component of literacy instruction. As family engagement expert Dr. Karen Mapp has noted, parents want to be partners and “co-producers” of their children’s academic success. Yet, family engagement is often treated as an afterthought or add-on, when it must be integrated into a robust curriculum and schoolwide culture. As Dr. Mapp has said, school leadership must drive this change.

In order to stop the summer slide and support literacy achievement, schools and teachers need the right tools to help kids and parents. With strong, targeted professional development in the areas of family engagement and literacy instruction, educators will know how to help parents, allowing parents to become true learning partners, fully invested in their children’s success.

It is through a strong, equal and two-way partnership with families that we will be able to turn Michigan third-graders’ reading lives around, beginning with support around summer reading this year.


Equity in Education: Children Who Are Overlooked for Gifted & Talented Education

As part of our ongoing exploration of equity in education, we are joined by M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Gifted and talented children are found in all demographic groups. However, many qualified children—those who live in poverty, have some disabilities, are from racial and ethnic minority groups, or are learning English—are overlooked for gifted programming.

Fortunately, our nation's educators—teachers and principals—recognize that we must fight for equity in education. The Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education shows that 97 percent of teachers and principals agree that equity in education should be a national priority.

A summary report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) published in 2016 shows that there is unequal access to gifted programming for Black and Latino students. The report shows that “Black and Latino students represent 42 percent of student enrollment in schools offering gifted and talented education (GATE) programs, yet only 28 percent of the students enrolled in GATE programs.”

Further, the report offers the following findings:

  • While 11 percent of students are English learners in schools offering GATE programs, fewer than 3 percent of GATE students nationwide are English learners.

  • Similarly, students with disabilities served by IDEA are 12 percent of all students in schools offering GATE programs but represent fewer than 3 percent of GATE students nationwide.

What is challenging for our nation is that many are misinformed about the reasons for this disproportionality. Some may think that the reason children living in poverty, from racial and ethnic minority groups, or English learners are absent from gifted programming is that they are not qualified. This is absolutely not the case.

According to federally-funded research from the National Center for Research on Gifted Education, children who are living in poverty, are from racial and ethnic minority groups, and are English learners are 2.5 times less likely to be identified for gifted programs, despite achieving at the same exact levels as their peers in gifted programs. This statistic is unacceptable, and we must all work together to eliminate this barrier to access to services needed by these children. Our nation can and must do better!

It is clear that educators are staunch supporters of equity and advocates for children from diverse backgrounds. They are committed to finding ways to remove barriers that exist outside of school and work for solutions within the school's walls. Like great leaders, they start by calling for support to improve their practice. The Teacher & Principal School Report shows that teachers (97%) and principals (100%) agree that they want ‘effective, ongoing, relevant professional development’ to help them improve their ability to address the needs of diverse learners. 

All of us should rally around teachers’ call for support as they work to improve equity in excellence for our nation’s diverse students with gifts and talents. Let’s respond with effective professional development that addresses gifted identification and learning needs.

Without adequate professional development, too many children with amazing potential are being left behind. The Gifted Knows No Boundaries campaign shines a light on the unique needs of gifted and talented children, and highlights the importance of investing in training for our nation’s teachers so that these children have access to the services and support they deserve and need to thrive.


Beyond the Newsletter: Effective Family-School Communication

Effective family-school partnerships begin with strong relationships. When families trust the school, they are more likely to support their child’s learning both at home and at school. The first step is welcoming families as partners. If welcoming families starts schools on the pathway to effective family-school partnerships, what is the next step? Before your school examines what information you share, you should first think about how you communicate with families.

“What is the best method for someone to contact you so that you will likely respond?” I always ask this question when I travel around the country talking about family engagement. The answer is always the same—no single method works for everyone. Some people prefer an email or a text, others say a phone call or a tweet, while others say that an in-person conversation works best for them. I have never, however, heard anyone say a 6-page newsletter is the most effective method.

As you consider how your school communicates with families, start by identifying the methods you currently employ. Do you primarily use a single type of communication—newsletter, email, robo call—or do you ask families what works best for them and then use their preferred method? You will be most successful if you employ multiple methods of communication to reach all of your families. Make sure you keep in mind that you will likely need to adjust your communication methods to accommodate the changing needs of families. Don’t get stuck in a communications rut!

As you expand the number of ways you communicate with families, keep in mind your methods of communication must be “two way.” Two-way communication is more than your school sharing information with families; it involves feedback from the families back to you.

I recently visited a school where I asked the front office staff if their school had a suggestion box. My intention was to understand if families had the opportunity to share their ideas safely. The secretary told me there was no suggestion box but there was a complaint form families could complete if they had something to say. In another recent training, a family resource coordinator told the group his school had to remove their suggestion box because families made unreasonable requests. To have a true partnership with families, educators must help families believe their opinions and ideas are valued. Some effective strategies for engaging families in two-way communication include a suggestion box (real and virtual), teacher/family journals, and all types of social media. If families don’t believe they can freely and safely share their thoughts, they won’t ever feel truly welcomed as partners in learning.

After considering the use of multiple methods to foster two-way communication, you must ensure you reach every family. The more methods of communication you employ, the more likely you will connect with all families. It’s not enough to send information out without ever checking to see if your information is received and understood. Throughout the year, periodically contact a random sample of families to see if your message was successfully received and understood by everyone. Don’t just ask families who show up to events at your school, make sure you reach out to families you don’t see or hear from. Make sure to check to see if your message reaches and makes sense to everyone. If you discover families who haven’t received or understood the information or, if you find that families don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas with you, ask them how you can improve. One strategy successful strategy I recently saw in a middle school is to have families review and provide feedback on communication materials before the school sent them out to all stakeholders. 

A deep knowledge of the communities represented in your school or district will be at the heart of an effective communication strategy. This knowledge will inform the methods of communication, how you spread your message, and even the types of information you provide or ask for from families. Of course, acquiring this deep knowledge may require a bit of flexibility, agility, and even on-the-ground research as you discover how your families are most comfortable interacting with their children's school. 

Partnerships can be made or broken through communication—create strong partnerships by using multiple methods that are two-way and reach every family in your school.

Four Fruitful Strategies to Teach Evidence-Based Writing

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.

Stop Over-Assigning

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.


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