Best Practices for Teaching Writing

I want to thank everyone who commented on my previous post, “Writing: Best Practices.” I said I would share my own thoughts, but wanted to hear what you all had to say first.

First of all, I am a firm believer in teaching students how to write using the process model. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who tried to turn in first drafts that had not only not been edited, but hadn’t even been outlined or planned first, and it always shows. Their writing tended to be disorganized and weak on development. I think, however, that we have to help students find a prewriting format that works for them. One student of mine never did prewriting until I showed him how to organize his papers using webbing. He mentioned offhand some time very much later that he found it very helpful and used it all the time. I utilize peer editing, and I have to give credit to the Reflective Teacher who comes up with great peer editing activities. I found great success with peer editing in my class last year.

Depending on the assignment, I like to try to book the computer lab so that we can write the essays in class. Conversations that happen between the students and me as I look over their writing are invaluable. They can catch it if they’re way off track early on. Also, if they are on the right track, they feel more confident continuing if I can tell them so. They can ask me questions about something they’re just having trouble with. I think writing in class is especially valuable if you are dealing with younger writers or weaker writers. I teach a writing seminar course, and last year, our class became quite close as we shared our writing and helped each other improve. It was a wonderful teaching experience.

One thing I am still working on is an effective way to deliver feedback. I would like to do more conferencing, but I also think having written feedback so that when the students walk away to do revisions and forget what we said (which happens to the best of us), they have written suggestions. I admit I usually write comments in cursive, which many of my students have trouble reading. It’s not that my handwriting is bad, but I am finding that my students are arriving at high school in increasing numbers without being able to read or write cursive. I suppose it’s going the way of the dinosaur, but it frustrates me that a mode of communication I have successfully used so often in the past is now becoming closed to me. One thing I do occasionally — not with each essay — is type comments and attach them to the essay. These comments are usually quite long — anywhere from a half a page to a page single-spaced. I’m a very fast typist, so sometimes these comments take me about as much time as handwriting about a paragraph’s worth of comments on a student essay.

One thing I have found extremely effective is to use models or pull samples from students’ own writing to share. In a recent class, my students who had read A Lesson Before Dying wrote persuasive essays about whether or not we should abolish the death penalty. I pulled example paragraphs from three student essays (with their permission, of course) using statistics and the Torah to develop arguments. I think it really helped the students to see what a really good paragraph written by one of their peers looks like. I showed the same paragraphs to another class with students who have more writing problems before they began their essays. It will be interesting to see what effect seeing the models beforehand has on the student writers. What I don’t do well and need to improve is saving examples like this from year to year so I have a repository of examples. Frankly, now that I have a SMART Board, I have no excuse for not saving these samples from year to year. There’s nothing like seeing a model to help a student realize how they can improve.

I like to ask students to reflect, which I admit I don’t do often enough. I think portfolios are valuable. Something I am trying this year is to allow students to revise one graded essay each nine weeks for a higher grade. I will ask them to attach a reflection to these pieces, although I haven’t yet determined what sorts of questions I will want them to answer for the reflection. I do think using guiding questions will be important.

Basically, I was just curious to see what others are or were doing. I knew I was getting good results based on what I was doing, so I wasn’t worried about my practices. I suppose I just wanted to collect some data. Thanks for sharing if you did, and if you didn’t, feel free to chime in.

3 thoughts on “Best Practices for Teaching Writing”

  1. Dana,

    I was looking forward to this blog piece and it was everything I had hoped for. Sounds like to me you figured out how to teach writing early in your career, I was in my 18th year of teaching before I did.

    As God would have it, I had to share a room w/ another teacher.

    I was able to observe- and absorb- her ways.

    She asked (very) guided questions on the written peer conferences. Each of the 2 peer conferences addressed some new questions too. That, in turn, gave the writer tangible suggestions that he could take home for the next draft.

    I agree w/ you that kids forget a lot on oral conferences.. w/ teacher or peer.

    I appreciate the commentor who mentioned the portfolio. Your comments too are right on target.

    I absolutely endorse this method of authentic assessment. Portfolios. We started using portfolios.. and passing them from grade to grade…the same year I began sharing a room w/ that girl. It was her idea (an idea she brought to our school from a conference, I think)

    There were (required) reflections on everything! (from test grades to study guides)

    For more formal writing assignments and projects.. there were always 5 'graph reflections attached (guided format)

    Each quarter a writer compared/revised one piece.

    Kids kept a portfolio in each of the 5 disciplines and combined them into one large one at the end of the year.

    These got fairly large from middle through high school!! I think they have narrowed them to basically writing assignments now.

    Anyway, I Just wish I had had this knowledge wayyyyy earlier in my career.


    sorry this is lengthy

  2. You mentioned bringing your students to a computer lab to write essays, which is something I've thought of doing from time to time but often don't because of classroom management issues. Granted, I've only been doing this for three years, but I have often found myself very frustrated with the ritual of two days in a computer lab and a lot of "we need more time" at the end of the second day, or a lack of time to help individual students because I'm chasing others off of gaming websites that somehow have slipped through the firewall.

    The only way I'm able to justify not working in a computer lab these days is that a lot of my students really need to improve their handwriting (they have an SOL writing exam in March and while they're not graded on penmanship, good penmanship helps) so I have them write in class.

    But I'm totally with you on teaching the writing process. 75% of good writing is rewriting, right?

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