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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teaching Writing Requires Leaving Students With an ‘I Can Do It!’ Spirit

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 21, 2021 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used to teach writing?

In Part One, Jenny Vo, Michele Morgan, and Joy Hamm shared wisdom gained from their teaching experience.

Today, Regie Routman, Luiza Mureseanu, and Jeremy Hyler “wrap up” the series.

‘Teaching Writers— Not Teaching Writing’

Regie Routman is an educational leader, mentor, coach, and teacher who is passionate about improving the literacy and learning lives of all learners. For full information on Regie’s many books, articles, podcasts, videos, and resources—and to contact her—go to www.regieroutman.org and @regieroutman on Twitter and Facebook:

Let’s first define what we mean by strategy. Typically, strategy refers to a method and/or intentional action that leads to a desired outcome. I suggest we amend that definition to: A strategy is a deliberate, thoughtful action that contributes to the learner’s positive mindset and competency regarding achieving a desired goal or task.

The latter definition makes the learner central and evolves from a lifetime of teaching and learning in underperforming schools. If we apply that definition, the single most effective strategy to successfully teach writing is: Focus on the writer first and the writing second.

In my most recent book, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners, I deliberately titled the chapter on writing “Teaching Writers”not “Teaching Writing.” That is because we teach learners; each one is a unique human being. If we want each learner to excel in what we are attempting to teach them, then authentically engaging with the learnernot just the piece of writing—must be highest priority. Here’s why.

Writing can be difficult, messy, unpredictable work—even under favorable circumstances. Because we start with a blank page or blank screen, we feel vulnerable. As writers, we have to conjure up on our own what to put in those blank spaces. It’s scary for many and requires a courageous, risk-taking spirit along with stamina and support. Then add in the social and emotional issues in these uncertain times when many of us—students, teachers, familiesare feeling scared, lonely, and isolated. All of the aforementioned requires we strive to make personal and positive human connections front and center of all teaching and learning, regardless of where the teaching and learning are situated—whether it’s in person or at a distance.

As well, equity issues are now—as they have always been—paramount to expert teaching and joyful learning. Depending on how we teach, respond to, and assess writing, writing can be the vehicle to a learner’s success or an area where we do actual harm. Uppermost in our minds when we confer and interact with a writer must be the goal of leaving the writer intact and hopeful, that is, with a sense of self-worth and an “I can do it!” spirit that propels the learner forward with dignity and energy to do “the work.”

10 Actions and Attitudes That Focus on the Writer Firstand Promote Excellent Writing

  • Ensure equity for all.

Holding high expectations, on the part of the writer and the teacher, is a necessity for the learner to be successful and fulfilled. However, any system, school, or teacher that fosters and/or condones inequitable access to expert teaching and first-rate resources—even unconsciouslyshortchanges students, often permanently. First and foremost, focusing on the writer in ways that promote and encourage competence and confidence requires we create and sustain a personal and caring culture of sensitivity, opportunity, and possibility for every learner.

  • Look for, acknowledge, and celebrate the writer’s strengths.

Regardless of age, the learners we teach need to know we see them as capable. That is, through expert and meaningful demonstrations, shared and guided experiences, and independent opportunities to “try and apply,” we “see,” name, and utilize each learner’s strengths and build upon them. Frankly, it’s difficult for a reluctant writer to fully engage and make a genuine effort to improve in writing or any subject matter without that emotional safety net of ongoing guidance, support, and reassurance.

  • Choose language and actions carefully.

Monitor and silence your critical self. Maintain a mindset that beholds each student’s full potential. Honor the writer’s intentions and efforts. Facing a blank page can be daunting for many, especially our most vulnerable learners. We must make a deliberative effort to leave the writer “whole.” That is, any feedback or stance we take must give the writer the energy, will, and purpose to go on writing.

  • Create a trusting, respectful culture.

An equitable culture includes a peaceful, organized, and safe environment. Avoid “gotcha” moments which deter students from taking risks, such as trying out something new that has not been modeled. Do provide sustained time for writing every day, including sufficient time for revising, redoing, and chances to do better. Students deserve second chances and grace, especially these days when life is so unpredictable for so many.

  • Co-create writing criteria with students.

Knowing the writing expectations in advance—the criteria or traits often referred to as a rubriccan help ensure students’ success. Develop these criteria with students and be cautious not to treat required criteria as isolated skills. That is, view the writing as a whole piece. Rely on the rubric once a first draft is completed, primarily as a way to assess, including students’ self-assessment of their strengths, needs, and next steps. Otherwise, individual indicators/traits can easily become the focus of the writing, for example, when students are told to “work on” one “trait,” which can remove the writer from the writer’s intentions, meaning making, and the “whole” of the writing piece.

  • Encourage an innovative spirit and more choice.

Is the writer courageous enough to reveal his true voice and thoughts? Why not encourage more topic choices along with original formats, ideas, and unique ways of thinking about the writing? With student input, consider, as well, audiences and purposes we may not have considered plus various and equitable ways to assess.

  • Listen more.

When conferring, when possible, have the student first read aloud his writing or the portion on which he wants feedback. On this first reading, try not to look at the paper, which may be messy and include obvious grammar and spelling issues. Think, focus, and listen: What is the writer trying to say; how can I best support those efforts? Seek to gently guide. Adopt a facilitator stance; encourage the writer to take the lead in the conferring conversation. Become a discerning listener. Listen for the writer’s voice.

  • Honor and respect the writer’s intentions and efforts.

It’s so easy for us to take over and direct students on what to do or even do it for them. If necessary, sit on your hands to avoid writing on a student’s paper when conferring. When a teacher’s marks and remarks predominate on a page so they become the first thing we notice on a student’s writing, the writing no longer belongs to the student. Even with very young students, where we might have difficulty reading the invented spelling, ask the student if it’s OK to write a conventional spelling lightly in pencil.

  • Write more short pieces.

It’s easier for the writer and the teacher to work on completing a piecerevising, editing, and publishingif the piece is just a page or so. Poetry works well for that, so do book reviews, commercials, memoir snippets, news summaries, rap and song lyrics, about-the-author pieces to accompany a student’s writing, and much more.

  • Save editing for last.

Finally, focusing on the writer first means setting editing aside, for now. Even when you are demonstrating writing for your students, focus on the content. Do not stop to say, for example, “I’m putting an exclamation mark here because. . .” Just do it. Writing is hard work. Put all your energy in what you are clearly and succinctly trying to say to your readers and model that for students. I learned that lesson the hard way. When I first started writing books, I would request that my reader-responders remark solely on the content and ignore editing issues. Nevertheless, some readers felt compelled to bring my attention to every error in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Those “correctness” notations and marks on the manuscript were so distracting, I became convinced that focusing separately on content and ideas is a necessity if we are truly to prioritize the writer before the writing.


Visual-Thinking Strategy

Luiza Mureseanu is an instructional resource teacher - K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario, with over 17 years of teaching middle and high school students in Canada and Romania:

One strategy that I find generally very effective and engaging for teaching writing is the visual-thinking strategy, used either in cooperative writing or individually. The benefit of VTS comes from the scaffolded supports that will take the learner step by step through the process of writing with the use of visual supports.

Students select from a collection of images and choose one they like for brainstorming ideas. In the case of cooperative writing, all students have to use the same picture to generate ideas, and they start writing collectively about what they see, adding ideas and sentences on each other’s work. Cooperative writing based on VTS is always an effective strategy to use with reluctant writers. Students find it easy to make a connection to the image and to describe what they see. In the process, they go beyond the picture to make inferences and build more content for writing.

The strategy provides a starting point for writing, a framework for paragraph writing, and it can be use for both prewriting and writing process. The VTS is an engaging, easy, and nonthreatening method to get students interested in showing their thinking and express their ideas in writing.


‘Being Vulnerable’

Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and science teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education), From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his website jeremyhyler40.com:

Being a teacher of writing opens the door for so many possibilities when it comes to instructional strategies. Year to year can be different depending on the group of students that is in front me. Furthermore, each hour can be just as different. It wasn’t until 2010 when I went through the summer institute for the National Writing Project, that I found a strategy that works year after year and with a multitude of students.

Since 2010, I have been a very active teacher-writer. I learned I cannot teach writing unless I am actually doing it myself. So, I take the step of being just as vulnerable as my students are when it comes to sharing writing. In the past, I have gone through the assignment I have given my students and did it myself but in front of my students so they could see the writing process I have gone through.

I want them to see and hear me think out loud. This means putting my writing on the projector and talking to the students as I go through my writing. I have done this with brainstorming, drafting, and revision/editing. By being vulnerable myself and talking through the different steps, my students are more willing to take a chance with their writing and can see that I struggle in certain areas of writing as well. After all, writing is not easy.

Being a published author also is a benefit, too. Throughout the times I have co-authored my books, I have not only shared how my co-author and I work together on a Google Document, but I have shown students where I have had complete chapters written and had to delete them and start over because it wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in with our writing. Furthermore, when I have been given proofs back, I have shown my students the revision and editing process my co-author and I have had to go through. Again, I want them to understand that writing is not easy, and sometimes two rough drafts are never enough.

My students are always amazed at the processes I have had to go through to be published. I tell them that writers need to be able to handle criticism and have the perseverance to get to the finish line. At the conclusion of every writing assignment, I always share a bit of wisdom that was shared with me. I tell them: “Your writing is never done, it is just due.”


Thanks to Regie, Luiza, and Jeremy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this 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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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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.


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