Few skills are more important to a child's success in and out of the classroom than writing skills. This article covers some of the many things I have learned from teaching writing and from working with other teachers (and students!) about how to help student writers improve.
Writing skills aren't learned solely through pencil and paper activities. Beginning the process of helping students improve their writing skills means teaching children to be positive.
- Cultivate positive attitudes. Often, kids who aren't good at writing are painfully aware of this fact. They say things like "I stink at writing" or "I'll never be a good writer" or "I hate writing". Any teacher knows it's nearly impossible to teach a kid with such low regard for his or her own ability in a subject. The first thing I suggest to anyone helping to boost a student's writing skills is get rid of all the negative self-evaluation. Remind the student that no one is born able to write, let alone able to write well. Anyone who is a good writer had to work hard to get that way - and the student can do the same.
Writing is a skill to be honed, not something you have or don't "have". I used to start all my English classes off with the reminder that "writing is power." Good writing can do anything from starting a war to getting a guy a job. It's worth putting in the effort to get better -- you get power in return! Plus, remind your student that he or she has things worth saying and those ideas deserve to be well expressed on paper. Once they (sort of) get the idea that being a good writer is important, students will be more open minded about trying to improve.
Writing well can impact their lives. Don't connect writing to punishment. I was told once by an older teacher, and I agree, that if you give kids writing assignments as punishment ('Write 100 words on why you should be quiet in class...") you're saying "Writing isn't fun, it's something you have to do when you're bad." Now, that is certainly NOT the attitude you want kids to have. So, ask your kids on their first day in class how they feel about writing. See what's inside their heads, what's holding them back, and then try to whittle away at their negative ideas about writing.
- Promote practice. This goes along with the aforementioned idea that writing is a skill that has to be honed. The single best way to get kids to write better is to have them write...and write, and write...and then write some more: essays, creative writing, journal writing, letters to others, etc. Often, we avoid things we don't like or don't do well. But nobody will ever improve with that attitude! Set up ways for your students to write a little everyday: guided journal questions to reading assignments, quick summaries of the day's lesson, warm-up responses to blackboard questions, recaps of current events. Get them writing. And when they write, have them keep in mind a certain element they may need to work on: pronoun usage, say, or punctuation, or avoiding fragments. That way they're accomplishing two goals: practicing writing in general and practicing a specific area where they need to improve.
What about free writing journals? I'm not a big fan of mandatory free-writing journals for middle school or high school students. I think telling kids to write whatever they want, express themselves, and have fun with it -- or else! - sends a contradictory message. And, as a writer myself, I have never found a personal reflection journal to be a consistent part of my writing life. However, if you have a student who likes that kind of thing -- go for it!
- Emphasize useful pre-writing. Most teachers believe one key to gaining good ideas and to improve writing skills is gaining good pre-writing skills: the ability to figure out the pieces before you put the puzzle together on paper. Many kids (and many adults) often believe the opposite. To them, it's easier, faster, and therefore "better" to just write as they go. Because of this, they often produce illogical, disorganized, poorly structured work. With kids at the paper-writing age, disorganization can often be a bigger problem than poor vocabulary or bad grammar. And often, the student writers don't recognize the problem is a lack of preparation; they just think they can't write. Teaching good pre-writing skills is essential if you want to help a child become a better writer. Help the kids see that "pre-writing just makes it easier!"
One way to get that message across: give them an assignment to write based on a bunch of jumbled information, then have them write another one from a clear and detailed outline. Which is easier? This is a great strategy for providing writing help.
Another way to improve students' writing skills is to give them practice in pre-writing. Create assignments which only require a pre-writing step - brainstorming, outlining, writing topic sentences or introductions, etc. No "final draft" needed. But keep them honest - don't let them hand in half-done pre-writing work. And also, make sure pre-writing is a tool that makes things easier and not an end unto itself. We teachers need to make sure not to emphasize minutiae and rules (what Roman numeral to use, don't use an 'a' if you don't have a 'b'...) over teaching kids HOW to use pre-prewriting to fulfill its mission: helping the writer complete the project! Sure, kids should learn to do formal outlines, but if the assignment becomes more about correct form than creating something that functions, there's room for revision in that assignment.
- Give students examples and rubricks. Teachers who know how to teach writing know that one way to get kids to improve is to hold them to high standards. If a kid is a "bad" writer, the chances are, he or she may not even know what "good" writing is. That's where, of course, reading comes in.
A reading in the genre or style of writing the student is about to tackle can be an enormous help. It says "Here's what to do." You can also give students a list of traits they should try to include in each piece they write. The list could be accumulated as the year goes on and start with basics like "Use only complete sentences" and move up to specifics like "Don't end phrases with prepositions." If students know what to do - and not do - before they write, it gives them the power to self edit as they go. And keeping yourself in check is a great way to retain information.
- Encourage Revision and Show Its Payoff. Part of improving one's writing skills means understanding that writing is re-writing! Kids may dislike having to write something over again, but revision is a great tool for helping kids learn from mistakes. Polishing a second draft can also be very rewarding for a student who gets to see how far he or she came over the progress of just one assignment.
Students who don't think they're good writers also may need some proof that investing in your "system" is going to pay off. A good second draft can serve as this proof that hard work will create better writing. A portfolio written over a period of time can also help a student's confidence grow by providing an example of long term progress: see, you're a better writer. Told you so!