Tips for teaching writing: Improve student skills by making learning visible
The importance of writing skills is something that has risen to the forefront in today’s workforce. In fact, a recent survey revealed that 44 percent of managers feel writing proficiency is lacking among college graduates.
But college professors shouldn’t be solely responsible for teaching writing skills students need to be successful. Laying the foundation for good writing starts as early as elementary school. Early writing instruction can aid greatly in helping kids learn to read. In fact, students who lack proficient reading skills by the end of third grade are at a much higher risk of struggling academically or even dropping out of school. Low literacy rates have even been linked to adverse outcomes related to poverty and crime.
It’s obvious that educators like you play an important role. As you teach your K-12 students how to develop their written communication, you might find it helpful to see some concrete evidence that shows the importance of writing skills. Join us as we outline some data on this topic and provide a handful of tips you can take back to your classroom.
Exploring the importance of writing skills
National data suggests that young students’ writing competency is not where it should be. The most recent “Writing Report Card” released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) assessed writing skills among 24,100 eighth graders and 28,100 twelfth graders. Results indicate that 54 percent of eighth graders and 52 percent of twelfth graders have only partially mastered the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at their grade.
Substandard writing skills can have a lasting impact on students’ career prospects. In fact, more and more employers are seeking candidates who are skilled in this area. The Job Outlook 2019 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports written communication skills are the most sought-after attribute today’s employers hope to see in job candidates. Strong writing skills even outranked desired traits like problem-solving skills, the ability to work in a team, initiative and strong work ethic. Developing masterful written communication skills can help future-proof a person’s career in an increasingly automated workforce.
Dr. Ruslana Westerlund, an associate researcher at WIDA Consortium, instructor at the English Learner Portal and host of University of Massachusetts Global’s webinar, “How to improve student writing by making language visible,” has plenty of experience teaching writing given her former role as an ESL instructor. Dr. Westerlund also recognizes how in-demand writing skills are. She notes that employers are looking for professionals who know how to do the following:
- Explain things concisely
- Support their writing with evidence
- Understand the appropriate shifts in tone necessary for different audiences
- Realize how language works in different contexts
Dr. Westerlund also mentions that many teachers feel that their teacher education coursework did not adequately prepare them to teach writing. If you can relate, know there are some steps you can take. Read on to glean some of her top tips for teaching effective writing skills to your students.
Tips for teaching writing skills to young students
Writing well involves more than simply documenting ideas as they come to mind. It’s a process. The writer needs to carefully examine the purpose of their writing, plan what to say, determine how to say it and understand which details are important for the readers to know.
“Successful writers do more than just follow the rules,” Dr. Westerlund suggests. Skilled writers, she says, possess the following attributes:
- They have a strong sense of purpose for writing the project in question.
- They know their subject matter.
- They know their audiences well enough to anticipate their needs.
- They understand that spoken language is different from written language.
- They know language well enough to manipulate it for their purposes, understanding which rules apply to which contexts.
“Teachers need to become observers of language and how language works in different contexts,” Dr. Westerlund explains. She adds that writing is best learned when teachers and students take a collaborative approach.
The most effective way Dr. Westerlund has learned to teach writing is to adhere to the Teaching and Learning Cycle. She outlines the six-part framework in the following way:
- Plan with the end in mind: The teacher considers students’ needs, reviews standards and chooses a genre focus from the standards.
- Build knowledge about the topic: The teacher designs activities to build knowledge on a topic through reading, talking, research, experiences and videos. If a topic is new, students need time to learn it.
- Deconstruct text with a language lens: The teacher guides students in reading as a writer to learn about the language of a text.
- Jointly construct a text with students: The teacher and students write a text together as a class. They discuss how language creates meaning, making language choices together.
- Independently construct texts: Students write independently, with the teacher providing support as needed.
- Review and assess: The teacher reviews student work and determines future areas to address.
Teachers can help facilitate effective writing lessons that leverage a variety of techniques, such as using content mapping and instructing students to read across a variety of document types. These tactics also help generate questions and stimulate discussion. Participating in this process alongside students, Dr. Westerlund explains, can be an effective way to make language more visible. Visible learning — coined by education researcher John Hattie — emphasizes that learning must be seen and obvious, not assumed. Dr. Westerlund notes that it’s important to show students what you mean when teaching students about writing.
When asking students to add detail to a piece of writing, for example, you can teach them to expand the story arc by displaying the following elements on a whiteboard or on pieces of poster board in the classroom:
- Actions refer to a character’s outer world — things like events, problems and solutions.
- Reactions refer to a character’s inner world — things like feelings and thoughts.
- Interactions refer to a character’s relationships — things like what characters say to others and what others say to your characters.
- Description refers to setting the scene — things that contribute to what characters and their environments are like.
Above all else, Dr. Westerlund encourages educators to stay cognizant of a warning from author and educator Maria Brisk:
Don't ask your students to write something you never taught them.
Amplify your tactics in teaching writing
If you’re eager to help your students develop the strong writing skills that can nourish their careers years down the road, you might want to absorb even more tried and true techniques from experienced educators. You can review Dr. Westerlund’s full University of Massachusetts Global webinar, “How to improve student writing by making language visible.”
Of course, it can also be helpful to arm yourself with some hands-on resources when teaching writing or even other disciplines. University of Massachusetts Global has a number of extended education offerings catered specifically to teachers. Head over to the Professional Development for Educators page to learn more about your options.
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