10 tips on how to teach writing

This is part 2 of my blog on this topic. Read part one here.

1.  Provide models or exemplars for them.  These can come from any where but the best ones are ones that the students have written themselves.  I will copy parts of essays and put them on the screen for the students to view and analyze.  I save examples from previous classes which are helpful when you are demonstrating what not to do. Sometimes I write my own.   Oddly enough, writing textbooks never seem to have examples of student-written literary essays.

2.  Kelly Gallagher recommends something he calls RAGs- Read Around Groups.  Students remove their names from a piece of writing and then the writing is passed around the group until every group has read every piece of writing in the class.  He has the students rank the best pieces and explain why.  I have done this using the ranking idea and not doing so-either way, the real benefit is that they read multiple pieces and are able to get ideas about how to structure something.  I have seen definite improvement in a student’s introduction, as an example, after they have read different versions.  Some teachers may fear that they are copying others but the reality is that students need to absorb stuctures before they can produce them themselves.

3.  Another Kelly Gallagher idea is called Pass the Reflection.  In this activity, the students write for a few minutes in class about a topic.  I usually will write a statement for them to reflect on; it can be about the literature or just an idea.  After they have written , they pass their paper behind them or sideways and the receiver reads their reflection and comments on something that they have written.  This happens multiple times.  What it becomes is a silent class or group discussion and the bonus is that they are writing for about 30 minutes.

4.  The best idea that I have taken from Kelly Gallagher is the notion that a student’s piece of writing is not finished until the student wishes it to be.  This has changed how I approach essay writing especially with senior students.  My goal is to have them improve so that they can go off to university with the correct writing skills; it is not just to get a mark for that essay.  To that end, I allow students to re-write essays after I have marked them so that they can improve in the areas that are lacking.  It does create extra work for me but, I know this is one of the best practices I have used.

5. Use templates to help students who struggle with certain areas of writing such as summaries or analyses.  Giving them the form as well as sentence starters helps students organize their ideas or to get started on a topic when they don’t know how to do it.  For example, a summary template would start with the sentence: This article ( story, essay ) is about ____________________(student states the main idea).  Students often struggle with not re-telling something chronologically so a template that gives them the steps helps to circumvent this.

6.  Reader’s response is one of the most authentic pieces of writing a student can do.  It is a far better way of ascertaining how well a student is reading a text than a test and it has the advantage of not telling a student how to think.  But in order to ensure that students don’t just write plot summaries, the teacher must give guiding questions or set the parameters.  I often give my students very specific instructions with a series of questions they can ask themselves about the text.  They may begin with a 2-3 sentence summary but the majority of the response has to deal with the ideas that were generated by the questions.

I have taught novels using only reader’s response instead of chapter questions.  It means a lot of reading on my part but the advantage is that they are doing a lot of writing.  I will use some of their ideas or questions as discussion points in class to ensure that they are getting the whole picture as they are working through the novel.

7. And None of it was Nonsense is a unique book that I read quite a few years ago. Betty Rosen writes about teaching under-performing, hard-to-reach students in England and describes a successful method of using storytelling to teach writing.  The teacher tells a story such as a myth and the students listen.  The students then map out the story or storyboard it.  After doing that, they re-write the story themselves.  This is a form of modelling but what makes it unique is that the students are listening rather than reading and they are being given the plot.  I have done this many times with variations and it has always been successful.  I have asked students to re-write the story from a different viewpoint, for example.  The writing that is produced will always be good because they have something to work with.

8.  The best writing I have ever seen in my many years of teaching has come from the students’ personal experiences.  When students get to tell stories about themselves, their voices are real and the writing is easier for them.  Instead of asking for a short story, ask for a memory.  The structure of a short story can be more easily taught this way.  I also find that personal essays are invariably better than the more academic ones.   This is not a new concept but it is one that most teachers forget.

9.  I am a huge fan of writing poetry in school; I have whole blog about it.  When I was in teacher’s college in 1976, I was introduced to a book that championed the idea of giving students forms and poetry starters rather than telling them to write a poem about something.  That is by far the best idea I have seen with respect to writing poetry.  If you want them to write poetry ( and trust me, some of them do) give them models to follow but not difficult forms like sonnets. This website is a good place to start.

10.  Finally, 21st century students should be blogging, using Google Docs and other applications that offer many possibilities.  See this.

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