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Your Bag of Tricks: What Strategies Are You Using to Teach Writing?

At the beginning of one particular school year, I assigned a diagnostic essay to a middle-school level class. I had a student who asked me if he could include pictures in his essay. This student had a medical diagnosis that resulted in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him which included some recommended modifications based on concerns about his cognitive processing and writing skills. I allowed the pictures. What I discovered was that he really wanted to write only about a sentence or two followed by mostly pictures. Seven months later, this same student proudly presented me with a beautiful five-paragraph argumentative essay complete with a counter-argument paragraph. Yes, paragraphs. No pictures. How did I facilitate that while also teaching to the rest of the class?

1. Collect a diagnostic writing sample. The teacher should give the students a writing prompt that is parallel to the type of prompt which is being taught. Is the goal to teach an argumentative piece complete with counter-arguments and responses? Assign an argumentative piece that is similar. Give students very little direction or intervention. Encourage them to use all of the writing skills they have previously learned in their academic career including their preferred style of pre-writing and/or organizer. A diagnostic piece should not be used as a grade that could negatively impact the student, but a participation grade is acceptable. Review the results. Document which issues stand out among the students? Are they blocking paragraphs? Are there issues with punctuation? How about sentence structure or organization, etc…? Use the results as a checklist of items to address as you plan the lessons that follow.

2. Complete a guided writing piece together. Start by modeling pre-writing and an organizer that makes sense for your particular assignment. The guided writing piece is one that the teacher has planned a basic structure for, but allows for some variations based on the responses in that particular class. No, don’t just let the class write whatever they want like a game of “whisper down the lane.” This essay should be a perfect example of what the teacher would like to receive, complete with proper paragraph blocking, punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure. This essay should be one the teacher would mark with a perfect score upon completion.

3. Give the students their essay topic. You will have to review their progress shortly after they begin to make a determination about who needs more intervention. Use sentence stems and /or small groups to trouble-shoot at this stage. Review student work samples as a whole class while students are in the middle of writing. There are a few ways, logistically, to do this. I will tell you how I have done it: I have looked through the progress of my writers (google classroom or some such platform is helpful for this), then I identify between three and five areas where students in the class are struggling and/or excelling. I pull the class together and put these examples up on the screen for all to see (it’s wise in most cases to exclude names). As a class, we discuss the issues and make some corrections and offer praise where appropriate. If there is a concern about anonymity, rewrite the portion to be discussed while replicating what you are trying to highlight.

4. Offer boosters. If you have a small group of students who are struggling with the same issue, can you run a pull-out group or use writing stations in the classroom? Can a writing station be led by a student who is excelling in that particular skill? Should the teacher lead a particular writing station? If a pull-out group is not possible, consider offering some booster lessons for these students. In the past I have provided an instructional video (consider making your own with something like screencastify), article, or practice sheet for students who are struggling with a singular issue that I want to work on with them.

5. Don’t correct everything. It’s best not to overwhelm the students by picking out every single error in their writing. For each student I will pick two or three things to work on. They might be different things for different students. Student A might be focusing on commas and capitalization, while Student B might be working on paragraph blocking and organization. It might take some willpower to let those other errors go, but you can always make a note to address those things on the next writing piece with the student.

6. Meet the students where they are. Some students may need more sentence stems. Some students might benefit from choosing a different topic altogether. Can you be okay with that? Is there a parallel topic that would open the door for that one kid? Some students might write one paragraph and some might write five. Be creative: Can you color-code the required elements for some (or all!) students? While the writing is in progress, look at each student’s paper and decide what it will take to move them up one level in their writing. Go from there and celebrate that success!

What are some successful strategies you have used?

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