To improve writing instruction, help teachers understand it
American education places a great deal of emphasis on literacy. And that’s great! Literacy is perhaps the most fundamental academic skill there is. But too often, literacy seems to mean reading and the flip side of the coin, writing, gets limited attention.
In fact, most teacher preparation programs don’t even include a requirement that teacher candidates receive any specific instruction in how to teach writing at all.
Good writing instruction teaches students to read text with an author’s eye. It’s about learning to deconstruct text in order to reconstruct it. To ensure that our students are learning to write, and in turn, read to their full potential, we must provide teachers with the instruction they need. Putting a focus on professional development that builds reading into writing instruction, a common language and assured experiences around writing, and extending writing across the curriculum wherever and whenever students interact with text is the foundation of strong PD.
Writing instruction doesn’t start with pencil to paper
Much writing instruction seems to rely on the old adage that practice makes perfect—that if students do a lot of writing, they will become skilled writers. But that’s not necessarily true.
Think of someone who wants to play one song on a piano but doesn’t know anything about performing music. If their piano teacher simply tells them to just sit at the piano and practice for 30 minutes a day for a month, how much progress are they likely to make in that time?
Just like playing a musical instrument, writing is a series of discrete skills that can be learned and improved over time by anyone.
Without being taught any foundational skills or being given any lessons on the keys, the scales, or how to read music, there’s absolutely nothing that is going to change in that month. Likewise, before students put pencil to paper they need to understand the basic concepts of writing, such as genre, author’s purpose, organization, and the discrete skills needed.
There’s a tendency to think that writing, unlike performing music, is an inborn talent, that either people are good writers or not-so-good writers. But, just like playing a musical instrument, writing is a series of discrete skills that can be learned and improved over time by anyone.
More importantly, it is in understanding those discrete skills that both the teacher and the student begin to look at reading and writing in a much deeper way. The knowledge of how a piece is constructed enhances the ability to reproduce it, understand it, and respond to it.
Moving the understanding of the author’s purpose, organization, and development to all text experiences. The growth in reading and comprehension is exponential when teachers know how to expand the learning that takes place in the “writing block” to all content areas. Good professional development demonstrates how to do that.
Some people seem to assume that a good teacher is also a good writer, but that is not necessarily true. Even in the cases where a teacher is a good writer, they may not be very skilled at teaching students to write. Often times the connection to understanding the way a piece is constructed and the critical thought process of the author is lost on the teacher. Professional development that looks at writing through the eyes of the author and breaks down the development into discrete skills benefits both the teacher and the student.
Think about teaching long division. We all understand that in order to teach a student how to perform long division, the teacher needs to model it. They go to the front of the class and write the problem on a chalkboard or a whiteboard, and then they work through it step by step, explaining as they go. The teacher is articulating the thought process of problem-solving. Repeatedly.
Similarly, to teach writing, the instructor should be able to model it—to stand in front of the class as the author and talk through the process of writing. Ideally, they do this skill-by-skill so students build on their understanding and gain confidence.
First then, teachers need to be able to view themselves as writers. By working through the components of good writing—say, creating suspense or including elaborative detail—teachers not only learn how to break up writing instruction for their students, but they gain insights into offering specific feedback on writing rather than what we often see, which is a teacher looking at student writing and saying it’s either good or not-so-great.
Common language and assured experiences
In addition to breaking writing down into its component skills, it’s important that teacher PD in writing instruction use a common language and shared experiences across and between grade levels and subject areas. This builds a powerful vertical alignment.
Typically, we only have a student in class for one year, then they get shuffled and put into new classes the next year. Without consistency throughout the school, each teacher is using their own methodology and all the language that comes along with it. If students have to piece together that Mrs. Brown means the same thing when she says “narrative writing” that Mr. Blue meant when he talked about “fiction writing” last year, it’s going to slow progress, especially when multiplied across all the specialized vocabulary attached to writing.
If, on the other hand, students encounter common language and experiences from kindergarten all the way through elementary school, they’re going to pick up each year where they left off and hit the ground running.
Former classroom teacher Dea Auray is the founder of Empowering Writers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.