Teaching Opinion

Response: Helping Our Students Become Better Writers, Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 24, 2012 10 min read
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(Note: This is the second post in a multi-part series on teaching writing. You can see Part Two here)

Katie Ciresi asked:

What advice can you give to help teachers be more effective in helping students become better writers?

This series is a companion to last year’s five posts on Helping Our Students Become Better Readers.

I began this series last week with guest responses from Mary Tedrow, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Today, another three educators -- Aimee Buckner, Carolyn Coman and Tanya Baker -- are contributing their ideas.

There will be three more posts in this series over the next two weeks. I’ll be publishing my own thoughts (as well as comments from readers) in the last post but, in the meantime, I’ve gathered what I believe to be all the best writing resources online in one place. Feel free to contribute suggestions for sites I’ve missed.

Response From Aimee Buckner

Aimee Buckner taught grades 3-6 for nineteen years. She is currently a full-time consultant and author, working with teachers in grades 2- 8. She is the author of Notebook Know-How, Notebook Connections (both from Stenhouse Publishers) and several articles on the Choice Literacy website. Aimee is finishing her book, Nonfiction Notebooks, which is due out in the Spring of 2013 with Stenhouse:

On the surface, teaching writing can seem easier than teaching a subject like math where there are some unbreakable rules and some clear right and wrong answers. While areas of math can seem black and white, writing is fifty shades of gray. Writers are constantly trying new things. The old rules have been bent into new rules and most of the great American writers have broken them all anyway. In math, if you make a mistake, it can get you into a lot trouble. In writing, mistakes often work out better than what you had planned.

How can we teach writing in ways that give students the opportunity to explore the gray areas while learning basic strategies? The best format I have remains the workshop structure. This class structure provides students time to write on a daily basis. After a 5 or 10 mini-lesson that is truly mini, students have uninterrupted time to write, enabling the teacher to confer with each student in a differentiated manner. If you aren’t already doing this, implementing a writing workshop with your students would be an effective first step towards improving their writing. And whether or not writing workshop is already a part of your daily practice, here are some tips you can put into place immediately to start improving student writing.

1. Plan and protect time for students to write at school every day. Writers are readers, and writers need time to practice their craft. If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing at school. Find the time for students to write and protect it. When we do this, we are saying to our students that writing is really important and it takes practice. When we skip writing or only write one piece a month, it sends the message that writing isn’t very important and it’s not very hard to do.

2. Show students how to take words out of their writing. Students often write a lot by repeating themselves or adding unnecessary details. Teach students to reread their writing and take out what isn’t necessary. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Writers rely more on nouns and (active) verbs.

3. Show students mentor texts. Encourage students to explore strong models of writing. Often people think this means mentor texts have to be published pieces. However, student samples as well as teacher writings can be equally powerful.

4. Teach the writer not the writing. I have to be careful with this, as there are times I want to take a pen and just FIX the writing - whether it be an issue with the content or the grammar. I constantly remind myself that fixing the writing will not help my student write better the next time. The student will likely make the same kind of mistakes. For every lesson or conference I do, I try to remember that my instructional decisions should make the students better writers for the future - not necessarily for just the current piece.

Response From Carolyn Coman

Writer and teacher Carolyn Coman is the author of acclaimed books for children and young adults including What Jamie Saw, The Big House, and The Memory Bank. Her book on teaching writing, Writing Stories, was published by Stenhouse in 2011:

It’s a tall order, helping students evolve as writers--one that requires courage, discipline, and perseverance. Here are some of the touchstones I hold on to, in both my writing and my teaching.

Trust the process, and have patience.

Remember, above all, that writing is a process--for you and for your students. Writers develop over time, with consistent practice, in a safe and nourishing environment. There are no short cuts, quick fixes or one-size-fits-all approach. Meet each and every student at her particular starting point, and proceed respectfully from there, one thing at a time. Divine each student’s particular strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge in choosing how and what you say in responding to their work. You hold their hearts in your hands.


Listen intently to your students, to their words both on and off the paper, to their unique and revealing voices. Listen for the core of what they are trying to communicate. Of all the many possible ways you might respond to a given piece of work, think of the single most helpful comment you can make, something the writer is capable of hearing and acting on.

Make Connections

Work with your students to help them find their point of connection to what they are writing. They need to care about their material in order to invest in working on it. If a writer is not interested in or engaged with what she is writing, there’s little chance a reader will be.

You write, too

There is no substitute for developing as a writer yourself.

With consistent practice over time you, along with your students, will become a better writer, too. You will also be constantly reminded how challenging and daunting writing can be. Your struggles as a writer will encourage compassion and patience in your teaching. Be honest with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, your own attitudes and expectations when it comes to writing, and don’t ask less of yourself than you do of your students.

Guest Response From Tanya Baker

Tanya Baker is Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project and co-author of Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy 6-12:


At the National Writing Project, teachers regularly write together. It starts in the Invitational Summer Institute, a 3-4 week intensive professional development experience in which K-university teachers across the content areas hone their skills as teachers and as writers, writing and thinking about writing for various audiences and purposes, in different structures and about different kinds of content. While each invitational institute is hosted by a local university- based Writing Project, and each may not be exactly the same, they all include opportunities for teachers to write, to read about the teaching of writing, and to share practices in the teaching of writing. We know all three aspects of the summer institute are important to developing a theoretical base and a sound practice in the teaching of writing, but the part that is often left out of other professional development experiences for teachers is the practice of writing itself.

As my friend and colleague Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, chair of the English education program at Colorado State University, and director of the CSU Writing Project, said in a recent blog post at The Atlantic:

“The best writing teachers are writers themselves. Why? Because we know the writing process inside out, we can support our students’ work in authentic ways. . . . As a parent whose children have been taught by NWP teachers, I know firsthand that these students are the lucky ones, for they see themselves as writers, too. With that identity comes the bonus of scoring better on standardized tests than students who haven’t been taught by writing teachers. More importantly, though, they learn that writing is hard, joyful, worthwhile work that is meant to be shared with others.”

Of course, in the world of the read-write web, many students are engaged in the hard, joyful, worthwhile work of writing on the web more than they are in school. Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, all offer students the opportunity to say something to a large, potentially global, audience.

Because it’s at least possible, if not downright likely, that students already have more experiences than their teachers at writing in digital platforms, these platforms can seem intimidating to some teachers, or (maybe worse) juvenile to others. As Keri Franklin, director of Ozarks Writing Project at Missouri State University, suggests in #PleaseHelp: Learning to Write (Again) on Twitter, writing in a new genre can be an experience of learning to write again that is both painful and pleasurable, that can help remind you how your student writers feel as they tackle a genre new to them, that can remind you of the kind of supports we all need as writers.

And it isn’t simply that you need to catch up with what students are doing out in the world, or be empathetic to them as learners. In truth, it is also important that you bring the expertise that you have, about purpose and audience and context, to help students navigate the experience of putting their own voice out into the world via the world wide web. Students need help to manage their virtual identities and portfolios of work, and to develop control over their ever growing sense of who they are, and might be, in the world.

Antero Garcia, a teacher for seven years at Manual Arts High School, a high-needs school in south-central Los Angeles who is now an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, wrote Redefining Romeo and Juliet: Reclaiming the “Ghetto” after searching You Tube for student made video projects and discovering a wealth of examples of “ghetto Romeo and Juliet videos” made by white suburban youth. Garcia wonders how to help his urban students ‘talk back’ to those videos, realizing, “As educators, our role is changing; the power of student production is a necessary tool for critical analysis.”

I agree. Students need opportunities to create as well as teachers, guides and mentors to help them think critically about what they create, who will see it, and what it says about them. It isn’t enough to leave students to their virtual lives and ask them to write schoolish assignments for an audience of one. Teachers have to guide students to developing their online presences responsibly.

Finally, this advice to write something is not only about being a better teacher. In his book Better, Atul Gawande, a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a staff writer for the New Yorker offers five suggestions for becoming a ‘positive deviant,’ that is, for making sure that you (and your work) really matter. One of those suggestions is to “write something.” He offers several reasons in support of his argument that writing helps us to live meaningfully. For instance, he says that the act of writing “lets you step back and think through a problem.” He concludes, “most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience. . . you make yourself part of the larger world . . . . an audience is a community.”

So, join the community. Write something. Maybe something you’ve never written before. Keep a teaching diary, send someone you love a letter, start a blog, open a Twitter Account. Just write something. Today.

Thanks to Aimee, Carolyn and Tanya for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including them in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Look for Part Three in this series on Thursday....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.