How to teach your students to be better writers
Know the old saying that “good writers are born, not made”? In classrooms from kindergarten through senior high, instructors prove that’s not necessarily the case.
“Even if you’re not a born Hemingway, there are so many ways you can improve your writing,” says Jeff Martin, who holds a master’s degree in education and is area chair for teacher education at the University of Phoenix College of Education at the Phoenix Main Campus.
Here are six ways to teach good writing skills to your students:
Build students’ self-assurance early.
“From the start, children have to be encouraged so that they have confidence in writing,” says Ginny Read, an instructor in the elementary education program at the University’s Colorado Campus. “The teacher needs to create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes and where everyone asks questions.”
During more than two decades of teaching pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, Read, who also has a master’s in education, observed that students who were nurtured during their early years of school found it easier to absorb guidance about writing. “Build on their excitement to learn,” she advises. “If they believe they’re not good writers, those skills are much harder to teach.”
Start with conversations.
“We used to learn to write when someone handed us a grammar book and a pencil. Now it begins with a conversation,” Read says. With younger students, teachers can ask a question, transcribe the students’ replies on a board, and then point out the mechanics of the answers, such as spelling or punctuation.
With older students, conversations help develop critical-thinking skills, which contribute to good writing. “I’ll run through what-if scenarios with students,” says Martin, who has taught English in middle and high schools since 1995. “I stress how to evaluate information and how to support opinion with facts.”
Introduce new words.
Good writing depends on a broad foundation of language. “You can communicate your thoughts so much more clearly when you have a rich vocabulary,” Read emphasizes. Teachers should consistently use new words and explain them. “If you see from [your students’] expressions that they didn’t get it,” she cautions, “then pause and make sure everyone understands.”
She encourages teachers to build a vocabulary culture. In two of her previous schools, she started “word walls” in each classroom and in a central school hallway. Every day, staff and students added new words to the walls that were incorporated in daily announcements and class discussions.
Hook students on reading.
Expose students to great writing — whether literature or nonfiction — and they’ll absorb its qualities, Martin and Read agree, from narrative flow to plot pacing.
“Explore what makes the writing good,” Read counsels. “Analyze those pieces and ask, Who is the audience? What is the author’s purpose?”
Make writing relevant.
Choose topics for students to write about that relate to their lives. One option is to focus on shared experiences, such as field trips.
Martin uses current events as starting points for writing exercises. “I find editorial articles about something kids are interested in,” he explains. “We’ll get down a short response [to the editorial], which breaks the ice for writing. … They get used to writing a paragraph or two every day, and writing becomes less intimidating.”
Encourage creative expression.
Good writing isn’t simply grammatically correct — it’s also individualized. “Students can learn a formula,” Read says, “but ultimately, they need to bring in their personality.”
Martin acknowledges that teaching students to add more personal style to their work requires care. “It’s important to encourage the ideas, even if the mechanics aren’t right,” he says. “If a student’s writing is stiff, I’ll say, ‘Just talk to me on paper.’”