Anchor your writing instruction in big ideas students can remember

Writing, like teaching, is an art form. You often learn what works best from doing the work itself. When I was a new teacher, I made several newbie mistakes when it came to writing instruction. And when I saw what my students were writing, I knew right away I needed to change my approach.

Years later, when one of my journalism students won a Los Angeles Times award for news writing, I thought more deeply about the instructional changes I had made. I also thought about the social and emotional factors that likely enabled this once-timid reporter to tackle tough issues and blossom into an adept writer. What I realized from this exercise is that many of my instructional shifts had more to do with “leaning in” and getting to know my student as a writer, along with “letting go” of some outdated notions about what good writing is.

These are the three most important lessons I learned that I’d like to pass along.

Lesson #1: Writing instruction begins with a shared language for talking about writing and a shared understanding of the purposes for writing

Anchoring your instruction in a few big ideas that students can remember helps simplify the experience for everyone—and writing is always an experience.

As a new English language arts teacher, I often made writing more complicated than it needed to be. In my journalism classes, things were simple: we focused on the 5Ws and H (who? What? When? Where? Why? How?). It was easy for every student to remember and internalize these guiding questions.

If only there were a similar list of questions I could apply to other writing tasks! Over time, I found that there was. And at NWEA, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with current and former teachers to hone that list of essential questions down to the following five.

If anchoring your instruction in big ideas students can remember resonates with you, like it did for me, I encourage you to try incorporating these five essential questions into your writing curriculum.

We’ve even compiled these big ideas for growing writers into a free resource aimed at building a shared language for talking about writing with students. To that end, we’ve created a student version, too.

1. Why am I writing?

This question encourages students to ponder their purpose for writing. Often, their immediate response to this question is, “I’m writing because my teacher assigned me this essay/report/research paper.”

If we can get students to push past the idea of writing as an assignment and toward writing as a form of communication, we may see a dramatic increase in their motivation and writing quality. “What do you want to accomplish with this piece of writing?” becomes the question, not “What kind of writing does your teacher want from you?”

Writing is always the intellectual product of the writer, and the more we can encourage students to see themselves as writers and to take ownership of their writing, the better the results. Before students write, it’s critical they know and understand their purpose for writing, as this purpose informs so many other choices they will make.

2. Who are my readers?

This question forces students to consider their audience. When writers can anticipate the needs of their audience, they increase the effectiveness of their communication.

If the only audience a student ever has for their writing is a teacher, they lose the opportunity to make writerly decisions based on different audiences, such as considering their unique feelings and opinions about a topic, their different vocabularies (e.g., familiarity with code switching, idioms, or jargon), and their varying degrees of background knowledge. This is why giving students authentic writing tasks is so important. Authentic writing engages students in the same cognitive processes they use to write for real-world situations, such as applying for a job, taking civic action, or even communicating with family and friends.

3. What am I writing?

This question gets students to think more deeply about the task, genre, and form for their writing. While some of this information is likely included in the writing assignment, it’s still important for students to work through the task details on their own.

Students will make more informed writing decisions when they are able to clearly articulate the expectations and success criteria for a writing task. The writing genre provides another framework for students to think about their purpose for writing. Each genre’s unique features have developed over time through socially agreed-upon conventions, and experienced writers understand how to use these features to communicate more clearly with their audiences. Finally, form—or format—describes the type of text to be produced, and today’s writers have more forms to choose from—both analog and digital—than ever before.

When students put time and thought into their purpose, audience, and task, they have a greater command over their writing and what they want it to accomplish. And that’s when we get to see students’ communication skills and creativity truly shine through.

4. How am I presenting ideas in my writing?

This question addresses the myriad of choices a writer must make when they embark on a task, including decisions about writing development, organization, style, and conventions. Too often, this is where we ask students to start, and it can be overwhelming to make all these decisions before a student has wrapped their head around what they plan to write and why. In addition, while these writerly decisions are important, we may place too great an emphasis on a student’s final written product when a focus on their writing process may have more instructional utility.

My advice to students is, “Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to presenting ideas in your writing.” The ideas themselves are what’s most important. They’ll have numerous opportunities to practice and hone their writing development, organization, style, and conventions with every piece they write and over an entire lifetime.

5. How am I using the writing process?

This question reminds students that writing is both a product and a process. And the writing process is where much of the learning and critical thinking takes place.

Though writing is often taught as a sequence of forward-moving steps, the writing process is recursive and iterative, not linear. For example, writers go back and forth between planning, drafting, translating, reviewing, and revising to meet their writing goals, and writing goals can be self-generated or revised at any time during the writing process.

Writing itself is a work in progress that includes collaboration, self-regulation, and self-evaluation in addition to the other steps students typically learn. The more frequently students engage in and reflect on their own writing process, the more likely they are to develop productive and efficient writing habits, as well as growth mindsets that can help them overcome writing challenges in their school, career, and personal lives.

Lesson #2: Writing instruction is most impactful when it extends through professional learning communities (PLC) that offer students school-wide support for writing

As students move from grade to grade, a strong and coordinated PLC can help them build on what they already know about writing and focus on becoming even more expressive and effective writers.

In my first year of teaching, a colleague and I had an opportunity to attend a professional learning summit on writing. One session led by Harry Noden taught us how his Image Grammar could help students expand, vary, and improve their sentence structures. The majority of our student population was multilingual learners, and we rightly suspected that focused practice on writing, even at the sentence level, could increase language development in English. In part, this is because writing has a slower pace, provides a permanent record, and calls for greater precision in word choice.

We accurately assumed that sentence writing would benefit all our students, too. And once we were satisfied with the results, we leveraged our PLC to encourage a school-wide adoption of teaching grammar with Noden’s “brushstrokes.” We saw students quickly embrace the concept of “brushstrokes” because it positioned them as “artists” painting with words. This artistry was reinforced by the quality of their sentence writing. Often shared aloud, these sentences could be chill inducing they were so beautiful. For many students, this was their first proof they could be excellent writers, once they learned how.

Lesson #3: Writing outcomes can be improved through the use of common assessments and common rubrics at the school, district, or even state level

Common assessments and common rubrics help educators develop a shared understanding of how to evaluate writing. This includes providing students with meaningful feedback and grading writing more consistently across a school, district, or even state.

Coordination among teachers can help establish a school-wide writing community that all students can tap into for peer review. It can also lead to greater consistency in writing instruction and evaluation. Such consistency builds trust between students and teachers, which in turn can strengthen students’ view of themselves as learners and increase their motivation to learn.

When students don’t have to figure out individual teacher preferences for writing—and they feel confident every teacher will grade their writing for substance not style—they can focus their mental energy on becoming better writers. This includes developing their own sense of how to use language(s) effectively for personal, academic, and civic purposes.

One way to foster student-teacher collaboration is to encourage students to enter writing contests. Student writing contests can range from local to national, and it’s worth some extra effort to find ones that are a good fit for your students. Once my journalism students began entering (and winning!) writing contests, these events became an annual tradition. My students also became more willing to work on their digital portfolios throughout the year.

At the district level, common assessments and common rubrics can help leaders identify schools that need more support, such as more professional learning for educators or more high-dosage tutoring for students. They can also identify schools that have model instruction and can serve as resources for others. If you’re looking for a place to start in your district, the Literacy Design Collaborative offers common analytic rubrics for several writing genres, and the New York Performance Standards Consortium provides a robust set of performance-based assessments and rubrics.

Districts that use state rubrics in their common writing assessments help ensure all educators have similar expectations of student writing. If your state assesses writing, check the state department of education website for newly released writing assessments and their accompanying rubrics. And if your state doesn’t assess writing, they may still offer writing materials for teachers to use.

Finally, NWEA is often asked about the connection between MAP® Growth™ and writing. MAP Growth does not include writing prompts, so it can’t take the place of high-quality formative assessment in the classroom; it simply wasn’t designed to assess students’ writing. But MAP Growth can provide insights into students’ strengths and opportunities for growth, and these insights are especially helpful when educators use an integrated approach to reading and writing instruction.

The MAP Growth instructional areas for reading, for example, offer some information about how well students understand literary text, informational text, and vocabulary. Students who are performing below grade-level for vocabulary would likely benefit from more explicit vocabulary instruction, including more strategic exposure to roots and affixes. This expanded vocabulary knowledge can later be applied to students’ writing. One approach is to have students “speak in synonyms,” a kind of oral rehearsal that can be done with peers or small groups and then integrated into a piece of student writing. Meanwhile, students who struggle to comprehend informational text might benefit from a self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) approach to writing. This method teaches students to recognize, internalize, and utilize important genre features in writing. And since reading and writing are related, SRSD can help improve students’ comprehension of informational texts, too.

A recap of lessons learned

Writing is hard, and teaching writing may be harder still. As educators, we continually learn new lessons about how to help our students (and ourselves) become better writers. I hope the three lessons I’ve shared here are helpful to you and bring you closer to having every student see themselves as a capable writer or, better yet, an artist painting with words.

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