5 Solutions to Teaching Students Writing

When I think about punishments for students, one of the first images that pops into my head is of Bart Simpson writing on the blackboard over and over. (In the running gag of ever-changing chalkboards during the show’s opening credits, once Bart writes, “This punishment is not boring and pointless.”)

As a culture, we tend to see writing as something to avoid. For teachers trying to get students to engage in writing, the process can be doubly painful—so much so that it might seem easier to just give up the fight. But teaching writing doesn’t have to be so bad. In fact, with lesson plans designed to make it easier on everyone, it can even be lots of fun.

Here are five reasons why many teachers avoid writing like the plague—and my simple solutions to those problems.

1. Students see writing as lots and lots of work. Sometimes it seems impossible to get them to do one. more. thing. Why assign an essay when they could just fill out a worksheet? This perception that writing is so difficult isn’t helped by the infrequency of writing assignments. When students see writing 500 words as a herculean task that they will complete once a month, it’s definitely not easy to get them going.

But when they see writing as something that happens all the time and in many forms, and when they engage in the writing process, then they will see that essays can happen even if they don’t have the strength of a Greek demigod. So if you want to push students through that block, get them writing every day, and get them to craft their writing in pieces, not one grand effort.

2. We have been made to believe that writers are born, not made. People who are writers know their calling from birth; you write because you have to, not because you want to; writing is something that’s just in the blood—all of these incorrect ideas actually downplay the skill of the craft as well as serve as an excuse why more people don’t write. When we believe that great writers are born, not made, then we do ourselves a disservice.

Instead, all you have to do is to look over the drafts of famous writers to realize how much writing is about effort and how little it is about natural talent. Just because the final draft seems effortless doesn’t mean it was. Showing students all of the revisions that famous writers have done on their work will go a long way towards teaching them that writing takes work, even when it seems that it doesn’t, and that we can all revise our way to better pieces. .

3. All those quotes about just opening a vein. If we often believe that writing is something that people are born to do, we also often believe that people who spend their days writing are tortured, driven souls. The famous quote about writing being similar to the act of opening a vein and letting it bleed on the paper has been attributed to many people, from Thomas Wolfe to Red Smith to Friedrich Nietzsche to Ernest Hemingway. In other words, lots of people describe the process of writing as something that hurts a lot—so much so that we feel it as physical pain.

But when students have plenty of opportunities to see writing as fun, they will realize that it doesn’t have to be torture. Playing, experimenting, just trying things out—that’s how I get my students to see writing in a new light. The more opportunities they have for fun, low-key writing, the more likely they are to change the associations they have about writing being painful.

4. In the end, the grading is subjective. I think that many teachers are afraid to assign writing because in the end, grading writing has to be subjective. If you are accustomed to simply tallying points to get grades, then it will be tough to explain why this thesis statement was a B+ and that one was an A-. I know that teachers don’t need any more anxiety when it comes to grading, but it’s not really possible to get past that reality.

So my best method to combat the seemingly arbitrariness of grading writing is to use rubrics and to get students familiar with those rubrics as soon as possible. In fact, I always have students grade some sample pieces using the rubrics at some point during the unit. What they usually find is that when they use a detailed and specific rubric to grade, they actually agree a great deal about the quality of the writing. Grading writing doesn’t have to be such a mystery.  My favorite rubrics are the ones put out by turnitin.com; you can check out the rubrics here.

5. Then there’s that stack of papers. Grading essays is my absolute least favorite part of teaching—and I would guess that I’m not alone in this. Yet it has to be done.

It doesn’t have to be so painful or take all that long, though. By adopting a few hacks, such as using rubrics, writing minimal comments, and spending their time and effort on student-teacher writing conferences rather than grading final drafts, teachers can make grading less onerous.

I know that teaching writing is intimidating, but it is also one of the best ways to get to know students on a deeper level. Helping them to form their ideas and communicate them effectively is so rewarding that it’s worth the struggle. And hopefully, with a few changes to the way we approach the teaching of writing, the struggle doesn’t have to be that bad.

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Christina Gil

Christina Lovdal Gil is a former classroom teacher, current homeschool teacher and an education blogger.

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1 Comment


A suggestion that I’d like to offer to help students gain interest and improve in their writing skills is establishing a “portfolio” consisting of the outlines, drafts and final works compiled over the school year.
A portfolio is part of the process-oriented writing pedagogy, which has recently become pretty popular in the U.S. educational system (Hedgecock, 2005). The traditional practice is assessing a student’s writing through examination—providing a prompt or a sample of prompts to choose from and writing with a time limit (Lucas 2007). Other teachers use writing samples from “good” writers to establish the ultimate goal that students are expected to reach by the end of the year (Chung, 2012). The problem with these often-used methods is that it does not focus on the “product and the process” of a student at an individual level (Ozer & Tanrıseven, 2016). Additionally, it does not allow the student to visibly see the positive development in their writing skills over time (Lucas, 2007).
Using a rubric (as mentioned in #4) could be beneficial in helping students get a sense of what is expected of them, but there is no guarantee that every student will be able to reach the minimum requirements for each paper written. With portfolios, the student can make the decision about the quality of their works with their errors pointed out by their teachers (Hamp-Lyons & Condon, 2000). This allows the teacher to assess where each student stands, and also allows the student to have control over fixing their own errors and learn how to improve their quality of writing. Because of having to create a reference point for each student based on their first piece of writing, it may be a bit time consuming for the teacher in the beginning. But over time, as evaluation of each successive work is done, and errors are pointed out by the teachers, and then given to the student to decide how to improve upon their previous work, less time is needed for focusing on each individual student and more time is focused on developing better instruction for the benefit of all students (Lucas, 2007). The process continues for each assigned paper, until the end of the year, when each student can visibly see the positive progress of their vocabulary, grammar, and writing skills (Javed et al., 2013). Based on a study conducted to see if students indeed significantly benefit from the portfolio method of instruction, students became more confident in their writing abilities, and saw writing not as a daunting task, but more of a process that involves constant improvement until a level of satisfaction is achieved (Ozer & Tanrıseven, 2016).
Utilizing the portfolio method for the development of writing skills allows the student to view themselves as a language learner and gives them the idea that there is always room for improvement rather than the perspective that there is a “right and wrong” way of writing (Ozer & Tanrıseven, 2016). Thus, it gives students the opportunity to experiment with their writing and expand their skills to other content areas. Nevertheless, in order for students to benefit from this method, a competent teacher, who can determine the strengths and weaknesses of each student’s writing skills, is necessary.

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