Sometimes, getting a student to write more than just a three-word sentence is like pulling teeth. Of course, more writing isn’t always better writing, but rarely is a three-word sentence an adequate response to the five-paragraph essay you just assigned. And yet, that’s what a student just handed in.

Now what?

Taking a Step Back

Writing has always been an important skill for students to develop, because it is so critical for effective communication. And in today’s digital age, it only has become more important. From texting on a phone to captioning photos on social media to composing formal emails, writing permeates almost every aspect of your students’ lives.

And yet, teachers have struggled with explicit writing instruction. How exactly should writing be taught? Where does it fit within an already-packed instructional schedule? Schools often expect writing to be taught within other subject area blocks, usually ELA, that primarily focus on that subject’s content. Such curricula often provide only cursory support for the teaching of writing within that subject area. As a result, teachers are left with not enough time and too few resources to engage students meaningfully and regularly in the practice of writing.

These realities are only reinforced by the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that showed that only 27 percent of 8th and 12th graders across the country performed at or above proficiency in writing. Clearly, students in the United States are struggling to develop strong writing skills. In response to this, education researchers have been grappling with the question: how do we teach students to write well?

Research Says

Many education researchers have come to the conclusion that the first step to teaching writing well is to get students engaged in the writing process. If students don’t practice writing, how will they improve?

In this article published by the International Literacy Association, four researchers focused specifically on digital literacy — reading and writing online. They concluded that effective writing instruction, particularly for the digital medium, must include engaging assignments that ask students to consider how they share information with a digital audience (basically: how they use social media). These types of assignments should mimic students’ actual experiences, from writing blog posts to hyperlinking articles to their work as a form of citing sources. By creating authentic writing tasks, students are more likely to “buy in” to writing, which is ultimately the first step to developing a regular writing practice and improving their skills.

Robert Slavin, the Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed over 60 studies on writing instruction with his colleagues to identify consistent best practices for teaching writing. In his  blog post summarizing their findings, he identified a few key themes across studies. Two critical best practices were: 1) encouraging students to write about topics that interested them and 2) focusing on ideas before mechanics. Without getting students excited to write (and then actually writing), he sees no way for them to improve.

Additionally, teacher, author, and National Faculty member for PBLWorks Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrote in Education Leadership about how teens need to connect to their learning through assignments that mimic real-world experiences in order to do it well. She focuses specifically on summative writing assessments, an area where she saw many students struggle. Her solutions? Use role play and choice. Specifically, she had students identify a professional (e.g., a doctor, engineer, etc.) from whose perspective they would write. Students then had multiple options for structures they could use for their writing, including outlines and graphic organizers. These creative opportunities encouraged students to engage with writing in new and exciting ways.

TpT Teacher-Authors Say

Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) Teacher-Authors are no strangers to the struggle of getting students to write. In fact, many of them have worked tirelessly in their classrooms and then in their stores to create resources that help teachers address this exact issue. On TpT, in fact, there are just over 400,000 resources for writing, including over 70,000 that were added to the site in just the past 12 months. In addition, consistent with the idea that writing is taught within other subjects rather than on its own, only about 30 percent of those resources were also tagged with ELA, with the remaining 70 percent tagged in other subjects including Math, Science, and Arts & Music.

Below, a few of these Teacher-Authors give their tried-and-true tips for improving student writing through engagement:

1. TpT Teacher-Author Keri Brown describes her most successful experiences teaching writing: “When I taught 1st [grade], I wanted my students to get excited about writing about different things. I started creating a story that went with a shocking/surprising picture. First I’d tell part of the story and then show the picture. For example, a shark coming out of the water. Then, I’d finish the story and ask ‘What would you do if you saw xyz?’ or ‘What would you do next?’ In their writing, they had to use words that they wouldn’t normally use. They were supported in writing more difficult responses each time we did this activity. They were more engaged in the story and their actual writing time. It was a serious game changer. Because of that, I created the ‘Listen. Draw. Respond set’ that included pictures, stories, and the writing templates.”

2. TpT Teacher-Author Kristin from Samsons Shoppe explains: “As a science teacher, I know writing skills still need to be incorporated in this subject area. Students need to respond to prompts, show their thinking in lab activities, and through inquiry- based activities to demonstrate their knowledge of scientific principles. In the past, hands-on station activities have helped to motivate short writing responses. I use the CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) strategy with my science students. This is a research-based practice where I use a ‘formula’ with my students. This formula helps my reluctant and struggling learners to be able to show their knowledge in a succinct way without having to write lengthy responses that will immediately turn them off.”

3. TpT Teacher-Author Gina from AP Lit and More – Literature and Writing Resources, offered this helpful tip from her high school class: “I’ve found that by removing a word or page count, students get less hung up on quantity and are able to focus more on quality. For our career paper, I include no word count requirement. Instead, we go over all of the content that needs to be included, as per the rubric. This motivates them to write for quality rather than quantity. Papers still end up ranging from 6-10 pages with this method, because they want to tell include all of the relevant details.”

In Conclusion

Writing instruction must start with getting students to put words on a page. While that idea may sound simple, as an educator, you know that it isn’t. We hope these tips help you continue to support your students on their respective journeys to becoming stronger and more confident writers.

Writing Resources to Check Out:

Authentic Writing Project: Creating Teen Magazines
Opinion Writing Prompts – 10 Prompts Ready to Print and Write!
Writing Task Cards – Grammar Through Writing (Level 2)
Personal Narrative Writing Unit {Small Moments}
5 Paragraph Informative Writing Graphic Organizer W.3.2
Writing Lessons – Engaging Writing – COMPLETE Writing Curriculum