When it comes to writing instruction, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Which of the many wonderful strategies out there should you go with? Writer’s workshop? The writing makerspace? Writing stations? Should you use peer editing? Self editing? Conferencing? How many types of writing should you teach in a year? How much should you differentiate your instruction, given that all your writers will be in different places?
Today’s guest, Caitlin from EB Academics, has a lot of clear and helpful ideas for improving your writing instruction. I believe you’ll find several ideas in today’s episode that you’re excited to try, like spiraling your writing instruction to improve its effectiveness, using mystery activities to help students get excited about writing argument, and using stations with specific tasks for better peer editing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
You can listen in on the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Sticher, Blubrry, or Spotify. Or simply read on for some top takeaways.
An Easy Switch: Give Prompts First
One quick and easy change for any writing teacher is to switch up their order when it comes to writing assignments. It’s quite standard to have students read a book and move through a unit, and THEN receive a writing prompt for a paper or in-class essay. This sends them back through the maze of text, in search of moments, themes, quotes that will help them support their big ideas in writing. That can be overwhelming for young writers. Caitlin suggests giving them their writing prompts before they dive into the text, so they can have the opportunity to store up ideas and evidence for their writing all along the way.
Practicing Writing vs. Teaching Writing
When it comes to helping students improve their writing, it’s important to make a distinction between practicing writing and teaching writing. If you’re having your students write often, but not guiding them on specific skills to improve, Caitlin suggests you may want to incorporate more mini-lessons along the way. What are you hoping they will improve during their practice? How could you break it down for them and provide models to show them what skilled writing of that type looks like? Building in more instruction alongside the practice can help your students become more proficient writers.
Spiraling your Writing Instruction
Writing instruction is often split into different units, perhaps covering argument writing in one month, narrative writing the next, informative writing the next. But what if there was more integration of these different types of writing throughout the year? Spiraling your writing instruction means continuing to bring in the lessons and genres you have already covered, as you move forward, so students have a chance to hone and develop (and remember) their skills from other units as they integrate new forms.
For example, while teaching The House on Mango Street, Caitlin taught an argument unit to her students, but they also worked on narrative writing. Both could easily connect to their text, and the layers helped them add new writing skills while also improving on base skills.
Using Stations to Improve Writing
Stations can be useful in many ways with writing instruction. One helpful option is to use them to review what students have learned in past years, making sure that they remember what you’ll be building on and also helping everyone to be on the same page moving forward.
Another solid option is to use them for peer editing. Rather than ask kids to “improve” each other’s papers, and getting a few spell check highlights, stations can give students very specific tasks for how to review and help improve each other’s papers.
For example, one station might be about leads. It might ask them to find their partner’s lead, identify which type of lead it is from the list you’ve discussed in class, and then write a comment about whether the lead is effective for this type of paper or whether the writer might want to experiment with something else. This specific work not only leads to a much higher level of peer editing, it helps the editor review key concepts for their own writing.
One of Caitlin’s Favorite Writing Lessons: Teaching Claim + Evidence with a Detective Story
Caitlin and her partner at E.B. Academics, Jessica, like to introduce new types of writing with a fun hook for students, and their argument writing introduction is one of their favorites! They give students a “whodunit” case, featuring an artistic rendering of a crime scene with various pieces of evidence, then ask kids to figure out who they think did it and make an argument with evidence.
There are many ways to interpret the evidence, and students quickly get passionate about their claims, tossing evidence into the debate eagerly. They hardly realize they’re creating arguments and backing them up with evidence. It’s a great way to help them see the real-world relevance of making an argument.
Another of Caitlin’s favorite writing activities is to have students write the realty listing for their dream home, describing in detail everything they imagine about it. They focus on strong images and strong vocabulary, so it’s a fun activity but there’s also a really specific thing they’re working on that they can share with mini-lessons along the way.
Children’s Books are Ideal Mentor Texts
A Children’s book can be an ideal mentor text for narrative and creative writing skills. Not only can you quickly model a concept for your students with a picture book, students can go back to it later and re-read it so quickly to review the concept you covered.
One of Jessica’s Favorites
Why Writing Instruction is like Teaching Yoga (Model it!)
It’s important to keep showing students the path of where they need to go with their writing. It helps to work on revision in class and model the process.
Caitlin suggests walking through a weak paper with your students and modeling how you might revise something really specific, like how to improve transitions between paragraphs. Once you show them how you do it, then let them work on their own transitions.
Then maybe move on to figurative language and show them how to take a lower level paper up a notch with better language. Have them try something simple on their own, like picking three of their weaker sentences, pulling them out, and adding some figurative language to make them more effective.
These specific step-by-steps make the process of revision far more approachable for students.
Fast Tracking Effective Feedback
Try using a really specific, detailed rubric that aligns with what you’ve been teaching. If you use each box in the rubric to show what a paper at that level looks like, with specific language, you’ll speed up your feedback process dramatically.
For example, one row on the rubric might be for claim. Then there is a box for each level from ineffective up to mastery. Inside each box, there is a description to show what a paper at that level would look like. As you grade, you can just be highlighting or underlining the language in that box that illustrates why the paper is at this level, then writing some overall comments down at the bottom.
I hope you’re excited to dive into one of these great writing instruction strategies (or two! or three!) from Caitlin at EB Academics. And I know you’re going to want to connect with her, so…