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Writing Instruction Considerations

Writing Instruction Considerations, by Carl Anderson and Matt Glover

Carl Anderson and Matt Glover are the authors of How to Become a Better Writing Teacher released in Fall 2023. Join them this summer for a two-day virtual institute on How to Become a Better Writing Teacher. Register here!

Almost everywhere we visit, schools and districts are making changes to their literacy curriculums and instructional practices, or are considering making them. Although one of the main drivers of these changes is the teaching of reading, this means that instructional approaches to teaching writing are also in flux. In this action, we’ll help you think about how to evaluate an instructional approach to writing.

You can find a downloadable PDF of the questions to ask of an instructional approach at the end of this post.

Action: Assess an Instructional Approach to Teaching Writing

In our work with schools and districts, we’re frequently asked about our thoughts and advice regarding various instructional approaches to teaching writing. This is because the school/district is:

  • examining how they teach writing
  • considering the purchase of a commercial writing program or curriculum
  • evaluating the writing component of a commercial reading program
  • adopting a collection of writing units.

How do you evaluate an instructional approach to teaching writing? We believe that a discussion of an instructional approach should be grounded in the long-standing, well-established principles of good writing instruction. By considering these principles—and asking questions about how an instructional approach is aligned to them—the merits and deficiencies of the approach will become apparent.

Here are the principles of good writing instruction we think you should keep in mind while you think about a particular instructional approach. 

Does the instructional approach take a parallel approach to composition and conventions?

Parallel approach to composition and conventionsComposition and conventions should have a parallel, rather than a prerequisite relationship, and teachers should be helping students with them side by side.

Students don’t have to be able to produce conventionally correct writing before they can compose – and teachers shouldn’t ignore children’s compositional thinking until they can encode at a certain level. Instead, students should be encouraged to write from the get-go, so they start learning to compose right away. Then, as they compose, instruction on conventions should be given so that students start using them as they write.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the approach encourage children in all grades to start writing from the very beginning of the school year? Or does it hold kids back from writing until they achieve some level of “readiness”?
  • Across the school year, do students receive instruction on how to apply writing conventions to their writing?

Does the instructional approach have students writing for long periods of time?

Students need time to writeBottom line: in order to become better at anything, a learner needs to engage in sustained practice. It’s difficult to get better at something by not doing much of it! To become better writers, students need to write regularly for long periods of time.

In the best of all possible worlds, students should have a dedicated period for writing (about 45 minutes), five days a week, just as they have dedicated time for reading and math every day. And during each period, students should be writing for much more of the time than they are together for a whole-class writing lesson.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that some instructional approaches provide for a shockingly small amount of time for students to write! Students simply will not learn to write well when they don’t have the time they need to practice and try out the writing lessons they’re taught.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • How much time does it suggest devoting to writing instruction each day?
  • How is this time used? Do students write for most of the time, or is the time filled with a series of activities instead?
  • How much time is devoted to writing in a typical week? What percentage of this time is actually devoted to students writing?
  • Is whole group instruction focused on a single teaching point in a limited amount of time, thus allowing student the maximum amount of time to write?

Does the instructional approach include instruction on how to write better?

Students need instruction on how to write betterFor students to get better at writing, they not only need sustained time to write, but instruction in how to write better. This may seem obvious, but there are instructional approaches that are chock-filled with writing activities, such as writing journal entries from the point of view of people involved in an historical event, that are designed to help students think about and make sense of what they are learning from their reading and other content areas. While we think that these kind of “writing to learn” activities are useful tools to support learning in other subjects, they don’t usually include instruction on how to write better. For example, these activities aren’t usually paired with lessons on how to write better introductions, or strategies for revising a draft.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the approach include lessons that will help students learn to craft the writing they do better—e.g. lessons on how to organize writing, how to write with specific detail, how to get voice in writing?
  • Does the approach include “process” lessons that teach strategies for navigating stages of the writing process, such as how to make a plan for a piece of writing, and how to edit a draft?

Does the instructional approach provide for differentiation of instruction?

Differentiation of instructionSince students learn and grow at different rates, they don’t all need the same thing on the same day at the same time. Therefore, it’s important to look closely at how an instructional approach provides for differentiation.

The most powerful and effective way of differentiating writing instruction is by conducting 1:1 writing conferences. Small-group instruction is another way to differentiate.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the approach prioritize 1:1 writing conferences?
  • Does the approach value small-group work with students in addition to 1:1 conferences, especially in large classes when it will difficult to confer with all students as frequently as we would like?

Does the instructional approach support teachers and students in studying a stack of published mentor texts to provide children with a vision for what they’re writing?

Provide a stack of published mentor texts to provide children with a visionWe learn most things by studying how more experienced people do them. It is no different for young writers. Students need to study the writing of more experienced writers to have a clear vision for what they’re composing, as well as what they can do to become better writers.

In a writing unit, teachers and students should become familiar with a “stack” of 4-6 published mentor texts, a stack that’s in alignment with what students are writing in that unit. For example, if we want students to write realistic fiction short stories, there should be a stack of realistic fiction short stories (rather than novels or picture books). If we want students to write informational feature articles (rather than reports), then students should study a stack of feature articles from children’s magazines.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the approach recognize the importance of students learning from mentor texts?
  • Do suggested lessons have teachers show and discuss mentor texts?
  • Does the approach suggest or provide grade-appropriate mentor texts, or give teachers guidance on where to find them?

Does the instructional approach support teachers in teaching rather than (or in addition to) reminding, telling, correcting, hinting, or commenting?

Teachers need to teach rather than remind, tell, correct, hint, or commentStudents need precise teaching where their teachers show them how to do something, such as using a craft technique, a strategy for navigating the stage of the writing process, or a writing convention. Teachers should use published writing to demonstrate/model/teach how a published author did something, how we ourselves did it as a writer, or how a student tried something out.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only giving students reminders, telling them what to do, correcting something, or only commenting on what the child has done. Instead, feedback should be coupled with explicit and precise instruction.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • During whole group instruction, does the approach support teachers teaching with published texts, teacher written “process texts,” and student writing to show students what writers do?
  • During individual conferences, does the approach support teachers in deciding whether to teach/demonstrate/model using a published piece of writing, a teacher-written process text, a student sample, or having student in the class show what they did as a writer?
  • Over the course of the school year, is there a balance of lessons that focus on craft, process, and conventions?

Does the instructional approach prioritize student engagement through student choice of topic?

Prioritize student engagement through student choice of topicWe know that students who are highly engaged in what they are doing learn more, and retain more of what they learn, than those who aren’t that engaged. Thus, it’s important to ask how an instructional approach supports – or may dampen – student engagement. One of the factors that increases student engagement is students choosing and writing about meaningful topics.

Often instructional approaches require students to write about an assigned topic or to a prompt. A prompt isn’t needed, and only decreases engagement, since all students won’t have the same level of energy for the same topic. Furthermore, the ability to find and develop a meaningful topic is an important writing skill in and of itself! If students are usually given topics, it will be difficult to learn how to find them.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Do students usually get to choose their own writing topics?
  • Does the approach support students by teaching strategies for generating meaningful topics?
  • If the approach is integrating writing with a content area, and students are writing to a topic related to that content, do they first write to a topic of choice before writing to an assigned topic?
  • If students have to write to a topic/prompt on a high stakes test, does the approach teach students how to write to a prompt after first teaching them to write well?

Does the instructional approach prioritize student engagement through students sometimes having choice of genre? In the units that are genre studies, which genres are being studied?

Prioritize student engagement through students choice of genreIf we care about student engagement, we also must consider how often students choose the genre to write in. While instructional approaches should certainly have genre studies, it’s important to understand that not all students will have the same level of energy for the same genre. Unfortunately, in some instructional approaches, every unit of study is a genre study.

Students should have opportunities to write in genres of their choice. Students have favorite genres, and they are highly engaged when they write in them. Many of these favorite genres are underrepresented in writing curriculums. Therefore, in some units of study, students should be able to choose their own genres.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • In some units of study, can students choose their own genres? Does the approach include studies that focus on aspects of authors’ craft or process which allows students to choose personally meaningful genres?
  • When students study genres, are those genres highly engaging? For example, we know that some narrative genres, such as short realistic fiction and fantasy, are highly engaging for students, yet some instructional approaches prioritize frequent studies of personal narrative at the expense of more engaging narrative genres.

As part of the instructional approach, do children usually write in authentic genres that can be found in the world?

Children should write in authentic genres that can be found in the worldStudents should write in genres that writers actually compose in the world – informational books, feature articles, poems, how-to books, fantasy stories, memoir, op-eds, arguments, etc. – so that there are real-world models they can study. Doing the work that writers really do in the world can also be engaging for students.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the instructional approach ask students to write in real-world genres?
  • Or does it have students only write in genres that exist only in schools, such as isolated paragraphs, five paragraph essays, or reports?

Does the instructional approach provide support for teachers to make responsive decisions regarding the sequence and modifications of whole group lessons to meet the needs of children in the class?

Sequence and modifications of whole group lessons help meet the needs of children in the classEvery class doesn’t have the same collective needs as others. While many instructional approaches include units with a projected sequence of lessons, it should be understood that teachers will need to modify units to meet the needs of the children in front of them in different ways. These modifications may include revising the order of the lessons, or swapping some lessons for others.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Does the instructional approach support teachers in making modifications to suggested units so that they better fit student needs?
  • Does the approach give teachers guidance on how to modify any suggested units of study based on ongoing assessment of students?

If the instructional approach utilizes AI, does it enhance teaching, not supplant it?AI should enhance teaching, not supplant it

Students learn best when they have a strong connection to and personal relationship with a teacher who knows them as people, writers, and learners. If an instructional approach includes an AI component for giving students feedback about their writing, it should supplement the work that the teacher does in the classroom, not be a substitute for it.

AI shouldn’t be the primary way that students get “help” with their writing— it’s the teacher’s role to teach students—and AI should be seen as one way to get feedback. Students giving each other feedback should still be valued and students should still get instruction on how to give peer feedback effectively.

Questions to ask of an instructional approach:

  • Will the AI component be used as a feedback tool for students when they are unable to have access to their teacher (i.e. when the teacher is conferring with other students in the class)?
  • Is there an understanding that typical feedback AI components give tells students what they could do with their writing (“You should make your ending more interesting.”), but doesn’t teach them how to do it?
  • Does the approach support teachers in producing their own process/demonstration text, instead of having AI do it for them? Writing their own texts allows teachers to understand what students are experiencing as they write, and also allows teachers to analyze their own process so they can generate process related teaching points. 

Acting On Your Assessment

In the best of all possible worlds, you’ll find that the instructional approach you’re assessing aligns well with most principles of good writing instruction. In this case, it’s important to have a conversation with colleagues about ways you can modify the approach to bring it into alignment with these principles. For example, if the approach gives students writing prompts, you could instead teach strategies to help students find their own topics.

However, you may find that the instructional approach falls short, perhaps seriously so. And while we hope that you’re in a position to argue for a different approach, you may not feel you’re not able to do so. In this case, what can you do? There are many answers to this question, and we’ll address them in a future blog post.

Download the questions guide below!

Download the Writing Consideration Questions Guide

How to Become a Better Writing Teacher: A Summer Institute for Educators

Anderson_Glover_HowToBecomeaBetterWritingTeacherPlease join Carl Anderson and Matt Glover for a two-day virtual institute. This institute is designed for the K-8 teacher who wants to improve or strengthen their writing instruction skills, as well as for theCarl Anderson literacy coaches, administrators, and curriculum specialists who support them.Matt Glover

The theme of this institute is mentorship, the principle of learning that’s an important way people learn to do something by studying what more skilled people do. This principle is an important focus of Carl and Matt’s new book, How to Become a Better Writing Teacher.

Register Here

Listen to Carl Anderson and Matt Glover discuss incremental steps to becoming a better writing teacher on the Heinemann podcast.

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Topics: Matt Glover, Carl Anderson, Professional Development

Date Published: 04/08/24

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