by Carl Anderson and Matt Glover
The subject of curriculum is currently at the center of conversations about student achievement in the United States. Teachers are being told that the answer to the complex question of how to boost student achievement is a simple one—to adopt different curriculums.
However, in our work around the world as writing consultants, we’ve noticed that in the schools and districts in which we visit, many of which often use the same commercial writing curriculums, results vary widely. Even teachers within individual schools can get very different results. If curriculum is the answer to lifting the level of student achievement, how then to account for these differences?
Of course, there isn’t one answer to this question, but many. One of them is that some teachers are better writing teachers than others. For example, new writing teachers don’t have the skillset of experienced writing teachers. Or teachers who have had access to professional development about the teaching of writing are able to teach writing in ways that teachers who haven’t have this access aren’t yet able to do.
Yet in the current conversation about curriculum and achievement, there is little or no attention given to how to help teachers become better at teaching. The underlying assumption is that given the right curriculum, all teachers will be able to help students achieve at dramatically higher levels.
We do think that some writing curriculums are better than others, especially ones in which students have plenty of time to practice writing, that include high-engagement units of study that prioritize student choice of topic and genre, that incorporate the study of well-crafted mentor texts, and in which students get personalized feedback to their writing. However, whether a school adopts a commercial curriculum or designs their own, the question of how to help teachers become good writing teachers must still be addressed.
In our forthcoming book, How to Become a Better Writing Teacher (Fall 2023), we focus on this question.
As part of our answer, we identify core competencies that we find are shared by excellent writing teachers with whom we work. We’ve observed that these teachers are able to:
- Get to know students as people and as writers, and use what they learn to enhance instruction;
- Create the conditions for engagement in the writing workshop so that students learn at an accelerated pace;
- Develop an extensive repertoire of craft and process teaching points needed to meet the needs of students at many writing levels;
- Become curriculum decision-makers who can revise units of study with the needs of students in mind, as well as develop their own units;
- Help students learn about the craft of writing and conventions, as well as the process of writing, from studying mentor authors who include published writers, their teacher, and fellow students;
- Individualize instruction for students in writing conferences and small-group lessons;
- Teach clearly and precisely in whole-class, small-group and 1:1 lessons;
- Help students develop the skills necessary to write independently.
And for each competency, we describe a series of high-impact actions that teachers at all levels of experience can take to get better at it, either individually or together with colleagues.
Let’s see how this works by discussing one of the competencies.
Teaching Clearly and Precisely
Just like good writing, good teaching is clear and precise when it’s focused and contains specific detail. This describes the teaching of excellent writing teachers, who know the content of what they’re teaching, and how to translate that knowledge into beautifully specific teaching (C. Anderson 2018, 2022a; Angelillo 2008; Brunn 2010; Eickholdt and Vitale-Reilly 2022; Marchetti and O’Dell 2021).
Working on the clarity and precision of teaching is something good writing teachers do every day. As they learn about writing and teach new lessons, they figure out how to teach them well. And even when they’ve been teaching a particular lesson for years, they continue to refine it, making it better and better.
What are the benefits of this ongoing work?
- When teachers can break down and explain a craft technique or convention, highlighting each aspect of how writers use it, students are more likely to add the technique or convention to their repertoire.
- When teachers can describe precisely how writers use a strategy for navigating a stage of the writing process, students can make these strategies part of their writing tool kit.
The ability to teach well, however, is not something that teachers are born with; rather, it’s something they get better at over time, by taking specific actions. Here are two of them:
Teach Precisely with Mentor Texts
One of the most important teaching skills teachers can hone is their skill with describing craft techniques and conventions precisely when they teach with mentor texts in minilessons, small groups, and writing conferences (C. Anderson 2022a; Eickholdt and Vitale-Reilly 2022; Marchetti and O’Dell 2021). This crucial skill makes their teaching accessible to children of all ages.
Getting better at talking precisely about craft and conventions happens when teachers work on their ability to read texts like a writer. This kind of reading has several steps that help teachers analyze what the author of a mentor text is doing (Ray 1999, 2006; C. Anderson 2022a).
1. Reread the excerpt of the mentor text that contains the crafting technique.
2. Ask yourself, What exactly do I notice the author is doing as a writer?
3. Ask yourself, Why do I think the writer used this technique?
By practicing reading texts like writers, both individually and with colleagues, teachers get better at breaking down and thus explaining the craft techniques they want to teach students. The result? Minilessons, small-group lessons and writing conferences in which the teaching is much clearer and more precise.
Teach Precisely with Process Texts
In process lessons, teachers teach students about how to navigate the stages of the writing process—how to find a topic, how to plan a piece, how to revise, how to edit, and so on (C. Anderson 2018; Eickholdt and Vitale-Reilly 2022).
In these lessons, teachers don’t use published texts as mentors. While the authors went through all the stages of the writing process while composing them, it’s not usually possible to know the strategies they used to plan their writing or to edit the text for spelling errors.
Instead, teachers use the writing of authors whose writing process they do know. Who are they? Themselves, of course! And their students. In these lessons, teachers show the writing they or a student did at a stage of the writing process. For example, they can show their class the list of topics they brainstormed when they were trying to pick a topic. Or they show the revisions a student made to their draft.
The key word in a process lesson is how. When teachers do a process lesson, it isn’t enough just to show some writing they or a student did at a certain stage of the writing process. As they do these things, it’s essential to explain exactly how they or the student did the work, both on the page and in their minds.
Figuring out the how of a process lesson is challenging, and involves the ability to read your own or students’ writing like a writer to notice the steps taken while using a writing strategy:
1. Reread the work you (or a student) did at a stage of the writing process.
2. Ask yourself, What strategy did I (or the student) use at this stage of the writing process?
3. Ask yourself, What steps did I (or the student) take as I used the strategy?
4. As yourself, What was the thinking I (or the student) did as I (they) used the strategy?
By practicing this kind of reading, either individually and collectively, teachers improve their ability to explain with clarity and precision how they or their students navigated a stage of the writing process. This improved ability will help them strengthen their process lessons.
These are just two of many actions that teachers can take to improve their ability to teach with clarity.
We hope you’ll read How to Become a Better Writing Teacher when it comes out in November, where discuss teaching with clarity and precision in more depth, as well as how you can get better at the other competencies named above.
Carl Anderson is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for grades K-8. He works as a consultant in schools and districts around the world. Carl is the bestselling author of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences and How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers.
Matt Glover has been a teacher, principal, author, and consultant for over 30 years. His latest book is Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre. He is the coauthor with Kathy Collins of I Am Reading, the author of Engaging Young Writers, coauthor with Mary Alice Berry of Projecting Possibilities for Writers, and coauthor with Katie Wood Ray of Already Ready and Watch Katie and Matt…Sit Down and Teach Up, a video-enhanced ebook that combines video and text to examine conferring with young writers. Along with Ellin Keene, Matt is the coeditor of The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching. An internationally known literacy consultant, Matt frequently speaks on topics related to nurturing writers including engagement, choice, conferring, unit design, and oral language composition.
Anderson, Carl. 2018. A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences, K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
_________. 2022a. A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, K–5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
_________. 2022b. “Four Steps to Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing.” Heinemann Blog, November 8, 2022. https://blog.heinemann.com/four-steps-to-using-mentor-texts-to-teach-writing.
Anderson, Carl and Matt Glover. 2023 (in press). How to Become a Better Writing Teacher. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Angelillo, Janet. 2008. Whole-Class Teaching: Minilessons and More. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Brunn, Peter. 2010. The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning. New York: Scholastic.
Eickholdt, Lisa, and Patricia Vitale-Reilly. 2022. The Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Minilessons, Grades K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Marchetti, Allison, and Rebekah O’Dell. 2021. A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, 6–12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Ray, Katie Wood. 1999. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.