How To Teach Writing: A Framework For Developing Great Writers


Key takeaways

  1. Explicitly teach writing. Don’t just assign writing tasks and hope for the best. Instead, break writing instruction down into manageable chunks for students to tackle using deliberate practice activities.
  2. Teach students how to write great sentences. Sentences are the building blocks of excellent writing, so writing instruction needs to give students plenty of practice at sentence-level writing
  3. Embed writing into the teaching of content. Don’t see this as another thing to teach on top of content; instead, use writing instruction to deepen students’ engagement with what they’re learning.
  4. Teach grammar as you teach writing. Stifle the yawn and let your students in on the secrets of excellent writing, this includes teaching the proper structure and function of great sentences while they write.

Want research-informed answers like this direct to your inbox?
Sign up to our mailing list.

Knowing how to write is an essential skill. Constructing written work that effectively explains, informs or persuades helps students succeed in school, and later in their working lives. People spend a lot of time at work using network tools that require them to write. Email, social media and text messaging mean that whatever path students choose in life, their ability to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively in writing sets them up to thrive. Unfortunately, schools don’t always teach writing very well. Teachers often ask students to complete a lot of writing but less frequently carve out instructional time to explicitly teach students how to build effective sentences and combine these sentences into effective paragraphs and essays. Thankfully, Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler have a book that tells you exactly how to teach your students to be better writers. The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades provides a comprehensive school-wide framework for developing better writers and is jam-packed full of classroom-ready activities and strategies. Let’s have a look at some of the high-level principles from the book and a couple of activities that you or your teachers can use to teach writing more effectively.

Explicitly Teach Writing.

Simply writing more does not help students become great writers. It’s too easy to think that if students practice lots of writing, they will get better at it. That is not to say that practice isn’t important, practice is an essential ingredient in the learning process, but practice of any type won’t do. Research by Anders Ericsson into how people become experts has shown that deliberate practice, a specific type of practice,is what helps people get better at a skill. Ericcson’s work is often misunderstood in the simplified “10,000 hour rule” popularised inaccurately by people like Malcolm Gladwell and the rapper Macklemore. This simplification is tempting. It’s easy to think that if you assign students a lot of writing activities, that through this practice they will become better writers. It takes more than this though, building great writers requires more intentionality in the exercises you assign students.

From The Writing Revolution:

Deliberate practice… is quite different from having students practice writing by giving them, say, half an hour to write and simply turning them loose. Merely doing something over and over is unlikely to improve performance. To make their writing better, they need a series of exercises that specifically target the skills they haven’t yet mastered while building on the skills they already have, in a gradual, step-by-step process. They also need clear, direct feedback that helps them identify their mistakes and monitor their progress.

To help students become great writers takes more than just assigning writing, you need to teach writing. You may already teach your students some of the elements of good writing, but it’s challenging to do this well. For many students, seeing worked examples, or the ‘must haves’ of a good writing piece is not enough to teach them how to create great pieces of writing. Similarly, telling students to write in a way that “sounds right” or “reads well” favours students who through luck, or some element of their upbringing have a better understanding of what good writing sounds like – often these are not the same students who most need to improve their writing. Hochman and Wexler’s model demystifies the writing process by breaking it down into manageable chunks that students can tackle in deliberate practice exercises. This model saves teachers from having to give students general in-the-margin feedback like “be more specific”, “use more evidence”, or “too vague”. Feedback like this tells students what good writing looks like but leaves it up to the student to figure out how they actually do it. The Writing Revolution framework equips teachers with specific writing strategies for improving different elements of students’ writing. Let’s have a look at some of these strategies.

Teach students how to write great sentences.

Sentences are the building blocks of all writing, but often teachers want students to jump to longer-form writing before they can properly write quality sentences. Students do need to write extended compositions, especially in a high-stakes testing environment, but they are never going to do this well if they are not taught how to write good sentences in the first place. Even students who can produce acceptable sentences benefit from sentence-level work because it provides the targeted, deliberate practice needed to work on higher-level writing skills like summarising, paraphrasing or synthesising content.

From The Writing Revolution:

Sentence-level work is the engine that will propel your students from writing the way they speak to using the strategies of written language. Once they begin to construct more sophisticated sentences, they’ll enhance not only their writing skills but their reading comprehension. And sentence-level work will lay the groundwork for your students’ ability to revise and edit when they tackle longer terms of writing.

Hochman and Wexler provide numerous activities for working with sentences. The framework starts with activities that help students define and re-order sentences as well as understand the functions that different sentence-types can serve. Once students have mastered this, they can move onto activities that help them develop different sentence types and combine them into more sophisticated language. Finally, students can use sentence level work to think and write more deeply – using words like “although” and “since” (these are called subordinating conjunctions) as well as appositives (these are nouns, or noun-like phrases) to add detail and information to what they write. Each activity targets a specific mechanism of written language and the book is organised into a logical scope and sequence to act as real ‘how to’ guide for effective writing instruction

Because, But and So is one sentence-level activity in the book. This is excellent for helping students expand simple sentences, use conjunctions and think analytically about the content they’re studying. The book explains how it works.

From The Writing Revolution:

You’ll give students a sentence stem – the beginning of a sentence – and ask them to turn it into three separate complex sentences, using each conjunction in turn. This approach requires them to engage in far more specific and focused thinking than just asking them to respond to an open-ended question. Think about the difference between asking students, “Why do seeds need light to grow?” and framing the assignment as follows:

Seeds need light to grow because______________________…

Seeds need light to grow but _________________________…

Seeds need light to grow so__________________________…

Doug Lemov recently wrote a field note on this activity, that includes an example of how it can be “boosted” using direct quotations.

It’s easy to ask students to respond to a writing prompt, and then pull your hair out when they only write a couple of words or nothing at all. The sentence-level activities in The Writing Revolution save you from asking students to “try again” or “write more” by providing opportunities for them to practice the parts of writing they haven’t yet mastered.

Embed writing into the teaching of content.

So how do you find the time to do sentence-level work with your students? It’s easy to dismiss the teaching of writing as a nice idea, but something that you don’t have time for given the log-jam of content you need to “get through” to properly teach the curriculum and prepare for external assessments. Hochman and Wexler urge against thinking of writing and content instruction as separate. When done well, writing should be one of the ways your students learn the content they need.

From The Writing Revolution:

Writing isn’t merely a skill; it’s also a powerful teaching tool. When students write they – and their teachers – figure out what they don’t understand and what they further information they need… when students write about the content they’re studying they learn to synthesize information and produce their own interpretations. That process helps them absorb and retain the substance of what they’re writing about and the vocabulary that goes with it.

When writing instruction is embedded in the teaching of the curriculum, particularly at a whole-school level, it means that the teaching of writing doesn’t only fall to teachers of English. The Writing Revolution offers a powerful way to have all students learn to be great writers while they pursue the different learning areas of the curriculum.

Teach grammar as you teach writing.

We probably lost a few of you earlier when we started talking about things like subordinating conjunctions and appositives. If your pre-service training didn’t include a lot of grammar (and most teacher training does not), then the use of this sort of “technical” language can make writing seem more complicated than it needs to be. Grammar is a powerful part of helping students become great writers. Teaching students how to use structure their writing correctly, especially in sentence-level deliberate practice, lets them in on the secret of good writing. Without being taught explicit grammar skills, students are left to “crack the code” of good writing themselves. Importantly, this doesn’t mean teaching grammar for grammar’s sake, and certainly not by rote learning grammar definitions or through sentence diagramming. Instead, Hochman and Wexler argue that grammar is best taught in the context of student writing. Rather than learning the rules and then applying them, students are better served by learning the rules while they apply them to the sentence-level activities they are undertaking.

From The Writing Revolution:

[A] technique for teaching grammar that has been shown to produce excellent results in numerous studies – and that is incorporated into TWR activities – is sentence combining. Rather than breaking down preexisting sentences students create their own complex sentences by combining two or more simple sentences in a variety of ways… Students often find this approach more engaging than diagramming, and it eliminates the need to devote mental energy to memorizing and remembering grammatical terms.

Most of this grammar stuff isn’t that hard. Whether you know the technical terms or not, chances are, that by the virtue of the fact that you’ve succeeded in post-secondary study, you know most of these rules and use them in your own writing. What The Writing Revolution does is help you share the secrets of good writing in an effective practice-based manner, rather than hoping that your students pick up writing skills through a kind of osmosis. So stop just assigning your students writing assignments and hoping for the best and start teaching them how to write.

Key takeaways

  1. Explicitly teach writing. Don’t just assign writing tasks and hope for the best. Instead, break writing instruction down into manageable chunks for students to tackle using deliberate practice activities.
  2. Teach students how to write great sentences. Sentences are the building blocks of excellent writing, so writing instruction needs to give students plenty of practice at sentence-level writing
  3. Embed writing into the teaching of content. Don’t see this as another thing to teach on top of content; instead, use writing instruction to deepen students’ engagement with what they’re learning.
  4. Teach grammar as you teach writing. Stifle the yawn and let your students in on the secrets of excellent writing, this includes teaching the proper structure and function of great sentences while they write.

Want research-informed answers like this direct to your inbox?
Sign up to our mailing list.