One of the best things about talking to other teachers is the reassurance you find in shared experiences. Like knowing you’re not the only one with a secret stash of wine in their desk––I mean candy. Did I say wine? Weird. I absolutely meant candy. I’m clearly overtired from too much marking, and feeling the effects of too much… candy.
Recently I got an email from a fellow teacher and when I read it, I got that disorienting, time travel vibe. You know, like when you find an old journal in the attic. Instantly, I was transported back to my first year of teaching, but instead of it being a cringey, ohmygosh-I-can’t-believe-I wrote-those-words moment, it was strangely comforting. Because I recognized the words in the letter; I had pulled my hair out over the same exasperating problem.
This was the email:
I’m finding that my students’ writing is HORRENDOUS! I’ve talked with the other ELA teacher in Jr. High, and for some reason, this group is lacking the fundamental skills of writing. Any advice/suggestions, lesson plans, etc. that you would be willing to help me with, or direct me to, would be greatly appreciated. I’m pulling my hair out with this group.
(Anyone else relate? I do have a few suggestions I think could be helpful, but I’d also love to hear about your own experiences and any tips and tricks you’ve discovered.)
You see, I think this teacher put her finger on the deeply entrenched, knobbly root of the problem: students lacking the fundamental skills of writing. So I like to get back down to the very basics, before working up to the heady heights of full length essays and narrative discourse.
That’s Genre, Audience, Purpose and Style to you and me: the very first stop on our path.
Before anything else, students need to know what their goal is. Is it to inform? Entertain? Persuade? Once they know that, they need to identify who they’re writing for and what genre the piece falls under. All this will help them choose the most appropriate style of writing.
Lesson Idea: Get your students to look at examples of formal and informal writing (perhaps articles from Time magazine compared with a Buzzed article) and discuss the differences between them—and the possible reasons for that.
This is what I meant by ‘the basics'. Dial it all the way back and zoom right in for a closeup on the building blocks of writing: words.
I usually spend a good few lessons on this, looking at the impact of well-chosen, precise, descriptive words. I encourage students to play around with verbs, adverbs and adjectives, before experimenting with tone and diction.
Bonus Round: If you’re getting encouraging responses, I’d even dare you to push your students to think about the ways word choice helps to create distinctive narrative voices…
FREE: Click here to get an exclusive freebie to help students think about creating tone through word choice.
Once your students grasp the possibilities of word choice, it's time to journey down the path a little further and get them to look at how those words link together in sentences.
A really fun way to get students thinking creatively about sentences is to introduce them to the concept of variety. Get them to mix it up! Challenge them to start every sentence a different way. Encourage them to play around with sentence length.
Sneaky Suggestion: Use this opportunity to teach the sometimes tedious topic of grammar in a practical way. Improve fluency by looking at similar sentiments expressed in simple, compound and complex sentences.
FREE: Click here to get an exclusive freebie to help students think about the impact of sentence length.
The next stop on our path: looking at how sentences structure paragraphs.
At this point, I introduce transition words and discuss how to structure thoughts and develop arguments. For analytical or literary writing, I include lessons on how to write thesis statements, embed quotations, make claims and back up those claims.
Top Tip: Don’t be tempted to journey past this stop too quickly. Let your students focus purely on paragraph writing until they’re really comfortable—and you’re happy with their great paragraphs. Each lesson, or paragraph, get them to focus on just one aspect at a time.
Your students are now perfectly primed to journey all the way down the path and start looking at the big picture: the essay as a whole.
But don’t let them run wild just yet! They are far less likely to lose the thread of their argument if they’re following a well-constructed map, so this is when I get my students to really think about planning. (The same principles apply to narrative writing; just swap argument for plot.)
Visionary Tools: mind mapping, paragraph planning, idea generation, theme identification, pinpointing focus… it all makes it so much easier and less daunting for them when they come to writing their essays.
I’ve seen great results from this ‘pathway method’ and I think it’s because it has three significant benefits for nervous, confused or insecure students:
1. No more tangles: writing a whole essay or narrative can be intimidating in the extreme. A lot of students are paralyzed because they just don’t know where to start or what is expected from them—or, alternatively, they write themselves in knots. By deconstructing writing into its component parts like this, students can break down a daunting task into more manageable activities.
2. A confidence boost: by allowing students to journey to the higher tiers of writing only once they’ve mastered the ones below, we can help build their confidence. Which means this is a double benefit! After all, we all know that confident students make eager, enthusiastic, more creative students.
3. An unshakable core: when students start from a solid skills base, every aspect of their writing is made stronger as a result. An original, imaginative story will lack impact without carefully chosen words or a distinctive voice. A brilliant argument will crumble without a well-supported structure. But writing built on these fundamental skills will stand strong and proud.
In short, no more horrendous writing! No more teachers pulling out their hair. And—most importantly—less reason to delve into that secret stash of candy.