As an English teacher, I calculate that I have assigned over 128,000 pages of student writing through the years.  From free writes to personal essays to reading responses to research papers to literary analysis, my students wrote all the time.  I realize that there is plenty of evidence that more writing doesn’t always make for better writing, but in my experience, the more practice students have the better.

It sounds like I would have to spend hours after school every day reading and grading. But here’s the thing: I still went home at the end of the day, and I spent at most a few hours on the weekend grading.

It’s not always about grading less or grading faster either. Sometimes it’s about seeing grading in new ways, and sometimes it’s about actually spending more time reading student work, but figuring out how to do that during class time rather than at home.  

Here are three tips for getting students to write more without overloading yourself:

1. Write to learn every single day. When students see write-to-learn as something normal and common, they will be less likely to ask when I’ll be grading their free writes or reading logs. I start just about every class with a five-minute free write, and I end most classes that way as well.

This might seem paradoxical—how could assigning more writing actually make less work for a teacher? But it does. The less special that writing is, the more likely students will see it as part of the routine, and not something that they expect a gold star and a hand-written comment for each and every time.

2. You choose some, I choose some.  I do eventually collect those write-to-learn pieces, and when I do I actually love to read what students have written. Since the pressure is off, and I have never uttered the dreaded word “essay,” their work tends to be more insightful and better written. But I can’t read it all. So when I collect their notebooks or reading logs, I have them choose two of their favorite pieces.

This way, I get to see which prompts they liked as well as read the work that they are most proud of. Just for good measure, I choose a third piece that they don’t choose. Often, I just pick the question that I liked the most so I can see what they had to say on it. And of course, reading what I want makes the grading much easier.

3. Teach writing in a writing workshop format. This might not be an obvious time saver as it seems like it just means more writing for me to grade. But when the writing happens in class rather than at home, that means the teacher conferences, peer conferences and revising all happen in class as well. Besides saving grading time, when students have class time to work on their writing, they see writing as something that is prioritized and valued. It’s not just a homework assignment that they’ll finish and have checked off.

And as they are working to draft or revise or edit their work, I can read it in real time and offer feedback and suggestions. When we talk in person, I can see if my feedback is helpful or if I need to pull out some examples of thesis statements or revisit my lesson on citation. And when students have the chance to ask their own questions, I learn where they are really struggling and we can address those issues together. But what’s great is that none of this happens after school hours.

Some of these changes might take some time. Kids who see writing as a herculean task that they are only required to complete every few months or so will likely balk at the idea of writing every day. Students who are used to being validated for every piece of writing they create might not be happy about not getting grades on all that paper. Those who see the task of creating an essay as consisting of writing a first draft the night before the deadline and being done with it will at first not understand the purpose of most of the writing workshop activities.

Yet, these changes are so worth the effort. They make writing more fun for everyone, and they mean that student writing improves…and I don’t burn out in the process.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Just as reading is not prioritized in the average student’s mind as something they would choose to do in their leisure time, writing is something that students almost always look to with contempt. It is essential to make students much more excited about writing as well as look at writing as something essential to future success, as it is an important skill that most if not all people need at some point later in life.

    As far as the points that this article discusses, I do agree with the “You choose some, I choose some” format, as I think that it would facilitate not only the teacher having some sort of control, but it would also allow the students to take a hold of what they are presenting as their best or favorite work. Also, I do think writing workshops that involve children working together and bouncing ideas off of each other and the teacher could be critical in growth in writing. Having the experience of writing at the forefront of their mind during class time rather than it being shoved aside as part of a homework assignment could be critical to students acknowledging writing’s importance as they should.

    This leads to a factor part of what I believe is a large issue today in teaching writing. The article mentions how the word “essay” is never brought up, and in the first point about writing to learn every day how “[t]he less special that writing is, the more likely students will see it as part of the routine.” While a major goal is to make students actually excited about writing, at the same time writing should be seen as special, not simply routine. A mindset of monotony that can stem from routine can lead a student to not consider writing as important as it truly is. In his research on the results of practice, K. Anders Ericsson points out how some types of experience, such as merely executing proficiently during routine work, may not lead to further improvement, and that further improvements depend on deliberate efforts to change particular aspects of performance (Ericsson 2006). Although it is important to have students practice writing often, it is essential that feedback is provided for as much as they write as possible. If they are only provided input on certain aspects or certain types of writing, it is likely that they will fall in the aspects they are not receiving feedback in.

    Focusing on certain areas and building performance up part by part can potentially lead to greater results and create not only an excitement about writing but also a respect for the art and the fact that being a good writer can take one far.

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