The secret to helping students write better

The problem with a lot of the so-called writing instruction students encounter at school is that it doesn’t actually teach writing. Teachers say things like “Write an outline that shows the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Write one like this story you just read.”

But the problem is poor writers aren’t able to evaluate their own writing the way a good writer, like a teacher, could do. So a poor writer might think she has a topic sentence or a concluding paragraph in her writing. But when the teacher reads it, it’s clear that there isn’t enough information.

So even though teachers might show models of good writing and encourage students to used transition sentences like this author or use dialogue like that author, poor writers don’t have the ability to evaluate what they read or what they’ve written and decide if they’ve met the requirements. Poor writers don’t need more practice with their current skills. Teachers need to teach students to write better!

It just makes sense that what poor writers need is explicit instruction on how to write. A little league coach doesn’t say go out there and hit the ball like Manny Ramirez. A coach says, “Stand with your feet together. Hold the bat over your shoulder. Watch for the pitch. When you see the pitch come over the plate, swing your bat. Make sure you take a big step forward as you swing.” That level of explicit detail is missing from a lot of writing instruction, but it’s just what students need.

Poor writers need clear, predictable structures that they can use to complete writing assignments. It might seem boring to have them follow that formula for paragraph after paragraph but it’s just what a poor writer needs to write a decent essay. For a lot of us, it comes naturally to have a topic sentence that introduces what we’re going to write about in a paragraph. A poor writer may not intuitively include a sentence like that at the beginning of their paragraph. Therefore teaching them that a good paragraph starts with a topic sentence and that a topic sentence goes something like… helps them to organize their writing in a way other people can understand it.

Just like there are steps for solving a math equation, there are steps for putting together a paragraph in many different genres of writing. There are formulas for writing a persuasive paragraph. I like to use the POW+TREE structure. For elementary students learning expository writing, I use POW+TIDE. Most of these structures focus on organizing at the paragraph level, because once a student knows how to write a good paragraph, it’s easier for them to string those paragraphs together to write an essay or even a longer research paper.

Besides paragraph level structure, students also need to learn to write good sentences. For many students, controlling the grammatical structures in a long sentence and making sure the subjects and the verbs agree with each other can be and a very abstract topic. Some schools still give formal grammar instruction that teaches the names of all the parts of speech but even then students may not be able to put them together in a grammatical way in their own writing.

One way I help students learn to write more complex sentences is by teaching them the strategy of sentence combining and sentence decombining. By having students start with simple sentences like “Bob has a red shirt. Jim has a red shirt.” and combining them to make “Bob and Jim have red shirts,” students learn how to combine the building blocks of simple sentences to make more complex ones. On the flip side, I teach them how to take complex sentences and separate them out into their component parts. Like a mechanic taking apart an engine, students understand better how a sentence is assembled once they have taken it apart. 

Editing is another frequently challenging area of writing for students. Although many of them can tell me that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, they have difficulty seeing these things in the middle of a paragraph and correcting them. It’s the same for run-on sentences. They may understand what a run-on or a fragment is, but when it comes to identifying them in their own writing they have a lot of difficulty. One of the main strategies I recommend for this is not a popular one with students. One of the best ways to catch errors in your writing is to read it out loud.

Another strategy, which I teach to students who make mechanical errors, is COPS. Students learn to read a whole paragraph checking each sentence for capital letters, then read it again checking for overall appearance, which includes neatness and letter formation. The third time they read the paragraph they look for punctuation at the end of every sentence. And finally they read the paragraph from the last word backwards until they get to the first word to see whether all the words are spelled correctly. While it is time-consuming, this focused structure helps them make sure that they have not overlooked any errors.

This process of learning the building blocks of writing can be a time-consuming one and it can be frustrating for students, especially those who have been getting by without this knowledge for years of school. But for many students in middle school and high school they find that they can’t get by with what they knew about writing anymore. The assignments get complex and longer. Teachers are no longer as forgiving about mistakes in spelling grammar and organization. Many classmates have internalized features of good writing and seem to be getting good grades effort effortlessly. Students might feel frustrated or cheated, but really the problem is just that they haven’t learned the rules for this kind of writing yet. An academic writing is a rule-based process that can be taught!

If your child struggles with writing and needs some strategies that work, contact me today for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Students continue to struggle with writing when all they get is practice because they are practicing the wrong things!

6 thoughts on “The secret to helping students write better”

  1. Hi Beth, I have an 8th grader that is very behind with writing and quite insecure. I would love more information and/or guidance to help her. I’m just not sure where to begin.

  2. I think your article is spot on with the educations system. You can’t expect someone to just know how to do it because you spoke of it. I’m sure teaching a child to write is a difficult task. I would love your advice on how to help my son. He is in grade 7 & has struggled with writing ever since elementary school. We are now into junior high & the expectations are overwhelming.

    1. Ila, thank you for your comment! It’s hard to make specific recommendations without knowing your son, but for some of my middle school writers, I offer them multiple choices. Sometimes I say, “OK, your assignment is to compare to characters. You can say, ‘While Character A is mostly ___, Character B is more ___.” Or you can say, “Character A and Character B both __ but Character A is ___ while Character B is ___.” Struggling writers don’t come up with those phrases, which seem common to us, on their own, because the research shows that they don’t notice what makes good writing “good” and they don’t absorb those techniques into their own writing. Over time, I give less and less guidance, sometimes just giving a list of words.

      If you want more specific ideas for your son, please contact me at beth@readingwritingtutor.com and we can chat.

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