Are You Teaching Strong Writers or Strong Direction Followers?

Imagine this scenario.  You’ve just taught a weeks-long writing unit, leading your students carefully through the process, step by step.  You’ve checked their work every step of the way, and felt confident that YES…they were rocking it.  With just a few exceptions, everyone, in fact, was pretty much right on target, all the way through.  So you carried on, and now you find yourself at the end of the unit, when it’s time to see what your kids can do without your careful guidance.  So you gave them an on-demand writing assignment, and then stepped aside so they could show you their prowess.  But when you sit down after school to read their work, you are flabbergasted.  Stunned.  Frustrated.  Defeated.  None of these pieces of writing match what you were seeing all the way through the unit.  None of them live up to your expectations–expectations you were pretty clear about as you taught this unit.  There are a few glimmers of hope from your highest-achieving students…the ones who, if you really admit it, were already pretty strong writers. 

But that’s it.

And you probably feel like throwing all of it in the trash.  


Why is it that during the whole unit, your students were doing so well?  Why were they able to apply what you were teaching them every step of the way, but they cannot do it on their own?  

The truth?

Most likely, what you have on your hands is a group of strong direction followers, not strong writers.

Teaching kids to be strong writers is not easy.  There’s so much to it–from engagement, stamina, and focus, to planning, drafting, revising, and finally, editing.  And more often than not, teachers don’t feel like strong writers themselves.  Knowing all of this, many teachers break writing instruction down into very small pieces.  With this, what happens more often than not is that they then end up marching kids through a formulaic assignment.  

How do you know if this is you?  Well…

If you find yourself teaching introductions one day, sentence combining another, including figurative language another day, editing for punctuation on another, and so on, and never revisit these parts, you, my friend, are teaching students to become strong direction followers. 

If you show them these parts, have students complete them as a daily task,  and then put their work away until tomorrow’s lesson, then you’re definitely teaching them to be strong direction followers…because there is no actual writing of their own being done here.  

They can’t become strong writers if they’re not actually writing.  

If you explained these things to students using isolated sentences, outside of a real piece of writing, students missed out on seeing the whole picture.  Strong writers need to understand the pieces, yes.  But more than that, they need to understand how the pieces fit into the larger whole.  

It’s a lot like sports.  Basketball players aren’t going to learn to know when to dribble, when to pass, and which angle to aim from different points on the court if all they do is isolated drill work.  They have to apply the skills to the larger context–actual practice games.  Over and over and over.   

That’s how they become strong basketball players–so that they can perform on the court, independent of the coach. 

How DO kids learn to be better writers?

Simply put, through writing.  When we teach writing within the context of real writing…published books, articles, etc., it serves as a demonstration.  When we uncover the thinking of a writer, through think-aloud, and show them how by writing in front of kids, it serves as a model.  

“Practitioners choose the just-right move, based on individual goals and needs.” 

-Melanie Meehan & Kelsey Sorum, The Responsive Writing Teacher

In order to become strong writers, students need a mixture of modeling and demonstration. 

And then they need to apply it on their own. 

Many times.  Not just that one instance on one day.  They need to have the chance to apply whatever it is you’ve taught to multiple pieces.  They need to try it out, get messy with it, and go through the thinking process of it over and over.  In her foundational book, Teaching Writing, Calkins stresses this. She says that “kids need the opportunity to grow up as writers, writing a lot, just as they talk and read and do math a lot.” And they’ll need some feedback and coaching along the way, through 1:1 conferences and/or small group work.  


That over and over part, with multiple pieces of their own writing,  is so key.  That’s how it becomes learned–over time, with many independent iterations.  

As your students plan, draft, and revise, they incorporate what you’ve taught, so they aren’t just applying one thing, but many. As they practice with more and more drafts and revisions, these moves become part of their habits as writers.

And that’s the key to ensuring that your students are not just strong direction followers, but strong writers!

Does the idea of teaching writing intimidate you?  It’s a common fear–but I’m here to help!  If you could use a thinking partner to plan for effective writing instruction that sticks–so you will want to jump for joy instead of run for the hills, reach out for a coaching call.  I’d love to support you!  

For ongoing, quick support, about writing and ALL things literacy,  join my private FB groupIt’s a community of educators just like you to offer support right when you need it.  

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Related posts:  How to Quickly Assess Student Writing, Know Better, Do Better, Easy Method for Teaching for Transfer in Writing, Are You Having Problems with Words Their Way?, Teach vs Tell:  The Difference Between Strong and Poor Instruction


  1. Melissa Morrison

    This is an EXCELLENT article! Teachers, follow this advice and you will be rocking it as a teacher of writers!!

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