(This is the first post in a four-part series)
The new “question-of-the-week” is:
What is the biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction, and what should they do instead?
We teachers make lots of mistakes in writing instruction. Just last week I “blew it” in my English Language Learner class by rushing and not showing them a model of how to write a paragraph in an essay. Even though we had done it before, many had forgotten. You can never go wrong with showing a model of what you want students to write.
Today, Lisa Eickholdt, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Mary Ann Zehr, Nancy Frey and Valentina Gonzalez share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with David and Jill on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
You might also be interested in this resource collection: The Best Posts On Writing Instruction
In addition, you can see all the previous posts in this column on Writing Instruction here.
Response From Lisa Eickholdt
Lisa Eickholdt (@LisaEickholdt) worked in various elementary schools as a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, interventionist, and literacy coach for over 20 years. Today, Lisa is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at Georgia Gwinnett College, consults in classrooms nationwide, and is the author of the Heinemann book Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. When she’s not hanging out with her family and friends, you can find her shopping for furniture or with her nose stuck in a book:
In an interview with Scholastic, master writing teacher, Donald Graves, was asked, “If you had to choose one thing teachers should do when teaching writing, what would it be?” Graves responded, “Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing...You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.” As a writer, teacher, and someone who believes as a friend once tweeted, “All great things go through Graves,” I think the biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction is not writing themselves. Writing yourself, even for a few minutes a day, offers you an insider’s look at the struggles and joys of writing and will profoundly change the way you teach. Here a few ways becoming a writer will impact your writing instruction:
You’ll gain an in-depth understanding of the writing process
We teach students to go through the writing process as they compose. Teachers who don’t write themselves are more likely to impose an inflexible process on their students forcing them to move in lock-step fashion through various parts. When you write yourself, you’ll realize your own process is recursive, fluid, changes with what you’re composing, and newsflash: might include lesser known parts of the process such as percolating. This realization ensures you’ll be empathetic as students try to determine how their process works and you won’t impose a prescribed and linear approach on your kids.
You’ll be better able to support your students
When you have an insider’s perspective on how writing works, especially if you write the kinds of writing you’re asking your students to write, and you should, you’ll be able to share strategies, techniques, tips, and examples of your in-process writing. For example, you could show your students some different strategies you tried out in your notebook as you planned; or you might offer advice on what to do when they encounter difficulties.
You’ll understand the things a writer needs and make room for them in your class.
As you write, you’ll notice the things you need to work successfully, and you’ll try to provide them to your kids. For example, you might notice how you look forward to writing with a Flair pen, or how helpful it was to receive some peer feedback, or how writing for an audience added new energy to your work. These realizations will prompt you to provide students with things like a broader choice of tools, a writing partner, and expanded forums for sharing their writing (just to name a few).
You’ll understand the importance of reading to writing and make time for it.
Before I write anything, I seek out examples of that writing to study. I begin reading these mentor texts to become familiar with the characteristics of the genre. Later, I reread these same texts paying close attention to the craft moves the writer used and envision how I might incorporate some of them into my work. When you write yourself, you’ll find yourself reading like a writer; constantly seeking out beautiful examples of writing (published and student-written pieces) to share with your kids. You’ll also make time in your schedule for students to study mentor texts before writing (immersion) and as they compose because you’ll understand how a great piece of writing influences your work.
These are just a few of the ways becoming a writer will impact your instruction. There are many other ways it will change you and lots of insights you’ll gain once you begin writing yourself. Below are a few places you can go to help you get started on your writing journey. Good luck!
Support for teacher-writers:
Response From Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is a 3rd grade teacher in Farmingdale, NY. She previously taught 6th grade and kindergarten. Kathleen is one of the co-authors of the Two Writing Teachers and the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project. She blogs at Courage Doesn’t Always Roar:
The title of one of Katie Wood Ray’s books is The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). I’ve always found this title enormously comforting because it really IS hard to teach writing effectively!
One mistake teachers make in writing instruction is trying to improve the student’s piece of writing instead of teaching the writer what he needs to develop. Lucy Calkins has said, "Teach the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing.”
Teachers might see all the errors in a piece of writing and want that writing to be “perfect” or at least more conventional in its spelling and grammar usage. We may be tempted to do too much to “fix” the student’s piece of writing. When teachers edit for the student or tell the student exactly how to change something in the piece, the student does not learn how or why those changes were needed. Most importantly, the student does not know how to do it better next time.
One example of teaching the writer and not the writing would be to help students generate ideas for writing. By teaching students ways to come up with ideas for their writing, you are providing the student with a skill that can be used again and again, for different genres and purposes, across their lifetime. If you were teaching to just the piece of writing, you might provide the student with an idea.
As teachers become more familiar with the concepts of Growth Mindset, we can let go of the idea of perfect writing pieces and appreciate the progress writers are making as they learn how to craft all different genres and writing pieces. By teaching the writer the concepts he needs to learn to write more effectively, we are focusing our efforts on the writer and not one piece of writing.
Response From Mary Ann Zehr
Mary Ann Zehr is an English and history teacher for English-language learners at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in the District of Columbia. I wrote a previous article for Ed Week titled How I Teach My English-Language Learners To Love Writing:
I will speak only for myself regarding the biggest mistake I’ve made in writing instruction. My biggest error has been to not give students enough instruction in how to structure their writing. In my six years as a high school English and history teacher, I’ve learned that teaching students how to organize their ideas is the most effective way to help them improve their writing. Increasingly my writing lessons focus on organization.
All of my students are English-language learners and they need to know what structures are appropriate for different genres. Argumentative essays, letters, narratives, and comparison essays all have different kinds of organization. What’s challenging is giving students enough practice so that they can figure out for themselves what’s needed for a particular writing assignment or prompt. At the start of the school year, I teach structure for a particular genre of writing step by step. I provide a lot of scaffolds, such as sentence starters for the topic sentences of body paragraphs in an essay. I provide options for a thesis. By the end of the school year, I provide fewer scaffolds, but most students still need some guidance on how to start a writing piece. I need to continue to find ways to build their skills so they can work independently.
The best case scenario for students to get sufficient practice in different kinds of organization is for teachers across the disciplines to teach writing instruction. I teach in an International Academy (using the model of the Internationals Network for Public Schools) that stresses collaboration between teachers. This past school year, I met 90 minutes a week with three other teachers of different disciplines who taught most of the same students as I did. Early on in the school year we agreed to teach the claim-evidence-reasoning structure for writing, which looked different in each discipline. But the structure worked for more than one genre. For instance, it could be used for both argument and comparison. In science class, evidence tended to come from results of experiments. In my English classes, quotes from readings often served as evidence. In social studies, students picked historical events as evidence. We teachers collected a writing sample at the start of the school year and end of the school year for each student and we were pleased that many students were able to produce this structure in their writing independently by the end of the school year.
It’s also important to help students improve their writing by giving them opportunities to express themselves. My students write in journals for 10 minutes at the start of class a couple of times a week. Students develop fluency in writing when they have a chance to write about their own lives or something they care about or to write for an authentic audience, such as the school principal or the author of a book they have read.
Yet I was disappointed with one glaring weakness I saw in my students’ writing after a whole school year of instruction. Many had a poor command of grammar and conventions of writing in English. Some students still used one long rambling sentence to create what they believed was a “paragraph.” Even though I provided instruction on the use of the past tense throughout the school year, some students still didn’t use it consistently where it was needed.
I reflected on a comment that one student wrote in his evaluation of my class. One way to improve the class, he said, would be for me to help students “to learn all the verbs and write nice sentences.” I think this student was on to something. I stress the organization for a paragraph or five-paragraph essay. But I don’t spend enough time making sure that students understand how to build a sentence. Some of the students who already knew how to build strong sentences before they came to my class in the 11th grade improved their writing by leaps and bounds (these students also tended to be capable independent readers). But I realized I haven’t served well students who don’t understand what a sentence is when they enter my class.
I believe in a communicative approach to teaching writing. I stress students’ ideas over their mistakes with grammar or the conventions of English. I don’t want to return to the methods of diagramming sentences that I was taught in elementary school. But my students could benefit from some lessons on how to write simple sentences and then combine them or add dependent clauses to them to make them more complex. They also could benefit from a review of the verb tenses. I need to meet students where they are at and help them build the skills that will enable them to write longer well-organized pieces.
Response From Nancy Frey
Nancy Frey is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High School. She is the author or co-author of numerous books, including Rigorous Reading (Corwin, 2013):
Literacy educators devote countless hours scouring collections to locate the best texts for their students. They make decisions based on sound indicators: the quality of the content, the way information is organized clearly, the means by which the author articulates coherent arguments. Many of these texts are destined for deep discussion and debate. Students and the teacher co-construct meaning and contend with the merits of the piece. Often, students engage in extended writing to articulate their own positions and opinions. But what happens to the original text? Too often, it is set aside. An artist would never lay down her best brushes. Why do we turn away from our best tools? Those skillfully crafted texts should be used as mentor texts for writers.
Leverage Mentor Texts
Reading and writing are reciprocal. Yet in the classroom these disciplines are viewed across a divide. But think about it. Why shouldn’t we examine the way an author skillfully turns a phrase that makes our hearts skip a beat? How about the writer who quickens the pace of a scene by using a series of short sentences that leave us breathless? How about the journalist who makes a claim, provides evidence, and wraps it in such devastating reasoning that we can’t help but act? All of these speak to the craft of writing. The same craft that we attempt to teach our own students.
Take a second look at the craft the writers of those pieces you love to use in your classroom. Don’t stop with the content of the text. Keep going by asking students to examine the structure of the piece. Ask questions that draw their attention to the writer’s use of sentence structure, or organizational features, or metaphors. Consider what it is that you are teaching to your writers, and help them find it in what they’re reading. Just a few samples:
- How does the poet use color words to suggest mood? How could you use that it your own writing?
- Did you notice how the writer used a colon here to set off a list? That’s a great technique for you to use in your essay.
- I appreciated how the headings and subheadings helped me organize this information. When you examine your draft, look to see if you can do the same to help your reader.
Deep Comprehension for Better Writing
My colleague Doug Fisher and I have long argued that an intentional pathway of questioning can build toward critical reading. We ask questions of the text in three phases (Fisher & Frey, 2014):
- Literal: What does the text say? (key details and general understanding)
- Structural: How does the text work? (vocabulary, author’s craft)
- Inferential: What does the text mean? (opinion/argument, reading across texts)
Use these same questions to help students critique their own writing. Equip them with the means, and the opportunity, to revise their own texts in the way all professional writers do. These question types can assist them in moving their writing forward as they find their own voices through the writing of others.
Response From Valentina Gonzalez
Valentina Gonzalez is a Professional Development Specialist for Elementary. Her 20 years of teaching experience include teaching second, third, and fourth grades as well as serving K-5 as an ESL specialty teacher and district program facilitator. You can visit her blog at elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com and connect with her on Twitter @ValentinaESL:
First, let me start by apologizing to all the kids in my first classroom back in 1997. Though I loved them dearly, I was quite guilty of expecting them to write without giving them enough support. They were the sweetest kids and wanted to please me always. But without the support they needed in writing, they just never were able to reach the goals that I set for them. And it wasn’t their fault.
The biggest mistake we make as writing teachers is that we ask students to write and we unleash them without giving them the support they need. “Today you will write about a time you felt proud. Take out your notebook and start writing.” Some kids begin right away while others can be seen sitting forever because they don’t know how to get started.
As teachers there are four critical things we can do to support our kids when it comes to writing: model, be explicit, leave a snapshot, and give them targets.
MODEL, MODEL, MODEL
Kids need to see how writing happens. Step. By. Step. We have to show them how we make an idea. How we grow the idea. How we write about the idea page after page. How we then revise our writing and edit it. We have to model the publishing of our writing. And modeling is most effective when it is in small chunks, clear and explicit using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: I do, we do, and you do.
Don’t leave anything up for guessing. Tell them what you are doing as a writer and thinker and what you expect them to do as well. They shouldn’t wonder what the process is. The kids should understand the steps very clearly. First I do this...then I do this...and last I do this. Their thinking should be about the content of their writing and not about the process of writing. In some cases students will need paragraph or sentence frames as a scaffold until they are able to write on their own.
LEAVE A SNAPSHOT
No, not a photograph...rather a remnant of your teaching. This is usually in the form of an anchor chart. Make an anchor chart in front of them demonstrating what you did during the modeling. Your anchor chart is like a snapshot of your teaching. Students should be able to refer to it once you are finished modeling and they are applying the learning. The anchor chart should be clear, explicit, and visual. Anchor charts should have less text and be supported with sketches or graphics. Some students will rely heavily on the anchor charts during their writing process while others may need them only during your first teach. Struggling writers and English Learners may benefit from a personal copy of the anchor chart in a mini form.
GIVE THEM TARGETS
I do better if I know where to aim. Don’t you? Most of the students in my class have different targets. They won’t all have the same writing goals. Usually in my class, I’ll have about 3-5 different groups with similar targets. I give these groups a piece of writing that they can use as a model. The more pieces I have to give them, the better. Some people call these pieces touchstones or mentor texts. They are best when they are written by other students, so kids can relate. When I use mentor texts by adult authors, my students have a difficult time reaching that type of writing goal. I use the targets or writing examples in a variety of ways. I can highlight sentence starters for kids who are having trouble getting started or I can highlight transition words for my kids who need support with how to move from idea to idea. I use them to meet my kids where they are and grow them from that point forward.
These strategies are really quite simple. There isn’t much leg work to them. Not a lot of prep overall. But there is so much to gain! You will set your kids up for writing success. When teaching students to write, we have to keep in mind that each student will have different needs and supporting them all is a juggle. But if we remember to model what we expect while being explicit with our instruction, we anchor the learning with a clear, visual chart, and provide our students with attainable examples, they will grow as students who can write with confidence.
Thanks to Lisa, Kathleen, Mary Ann, Nancy and Valentina for their contributions!
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