Keys to Improving Student Writing in Big Ways

We’re hearing a whole lot about reading instruction right now.  Much research is finally being shared with teachers, and a lot of attention and funding is being devoted to implementing it.  For many reasons, reading instruction gets the biggest share of our time, energy, focus, and resources. There’s a definite need.

But what about writing?  After all, for a very long time, we’ve known the importance of the reciprocity of reading and writing.  One supports the other.  Not only does writing support spelling development, as Louisa Moats reminds us, it also improves reading comprehension.  Way back in 2010, respected literacy professors Steve Graham and Michael Hebert wrote a report called Writing to Read:  Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading.  In it, they share findings from as far back as the 1980’s that have shown us that “the evidence is clear: writing can be a vehicle for improving reading.”  Sadly, Graham and Hebert say, that despite this long-standing knowledge, writing is an “often-overlooked tool for improving students’ reading.”  

And it hasn’t gotten much better since the article was written almost 15 years ago.  

@Christin_Lola via Depositphotos

In 2017, Graham went on to write a report on writing instruction for The Review of Research in Education journal.  Citing not-so-hot NAEP scores in writing (which are somehow being totally overshadowed by similar scores in reading), he found that “writing and writing instruction in most classrooms are inadequate.”  

Which means we need to give writing instruction the attention it deserves.  Graham and Hebert are very clear in their findings:  “infrequent writing and lack of explicit writing instruction minimize any sort of effect on reading” (Tracy, 2013).

A sobering thought. 

And a rally cry for getting it right.  

So what are the keys to improving student writing?

First, understand what writing instruction really means.  It goes far beyond letter formation and sentence and paragraph construction, although this sort of explicit instruction is for sure an important building block.  Writing is a process–a big one–from idea generation to drafting to revision. 

This takes dedicated time every day to develop.  

Writing is complex, and leaves kids (and even teachers) feeling vulnerable.  Writers are left to their own devices, making every decision–and that takes not only skill development but also confidence.  Writing is a skill that’s built through ongoing modeling, feedback, and practice.  Lots and lots of practice.  Confidence breeds competence.

This is another reason dedicated time every day is a must.

“Writing should be a tool used for learning as well as a tool to empower students to use their voices in school and throughout their community.” 

 Dr. Kamisha Childs,Texas A & M 

It’s also important to understand that writing doesn’t happen in just the silo of “writing time.”  How writers write–their craft moves–can and should be authentically examined through reading.  Examination of what authors do to convey meaning is a big key to improving student writing.  From there, modeling of writing can and should also happen throughout the day through shared and interactive writing, across subjects.  These tools are not just a tool reserved for literacy instruction!

But wait, there’s more!

Writing is often done in response to reading–a sure-fire way to boost comprehension.  But students should also write to communicate their own ideas.  Choice and voice are important aspects of writing.  

So, knowing that writing improves reading comprehension, and knowing that it’s a process that needs dedicated time and attention, take a look at a typical week for you.  Are you giving writing instruction the time it deserves?  Are your students writing as much as they’re reading?  Are you teaching kids how to write as much as you’re teaching them how to read?  

Image via Canva

No one is going to ever find more time in the day, so ensuring that we’re giving our students what they need as writers will likely require some adjustments in time allocation.  It might take a little creativity.  Remember though that writing should  happen all across the day–thinking about it this way can greatly increase the opportunity for writing.  

Here are just 5 ideas to get you started:

  1. After reading/learning about what led to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, have students write a summary of the causes.  (Littles aren’t left out here–they can simply write the next part of a story retell you’ve started together).
  2. Have students answer a question through writing during or after an interactive read aloud.  Next week, for example, I’m using the book Six Dots:  A Story of Young Louis Braille.  I’ll be asking kids to respond to the question who had the greatest impact on Louis’ life?  
  3. In science, students can explain why the results of an experiment occurred.
  4. In math, show an example of an incorrectly solved problem.  Rather than just discussing the error analysis, students can write about it.  
  5. To tie to music, you might have students explain the meaning of the lyrics to the refrain in a song.

But here’s the biggest key

You can’t stop at just assigning these types of responses.  Assigning is not teaching

Students need explicit instruction.  Show them how, through shared and interactive writing.  Pull powerful sentences from the interactive read alouds you’re already using.  

Explain.  Demonstrate.  Provide practice opportunities.

Ensure there’s a mixture of these sorts of tasks as well as authentic writing, where students are in the drivers’ seat. Where there’s a real sense of purpose and audience.  

“Authentic writing involves more than just reactions and rehashing or summarizing. Authentic writing tasks allow students to create, question, explain, and even challenge their environments.”

Dr. Kamisha Childs, 2020

Importantly, one of the biggest keys to improving student writing is that they’ll also need feedback.  Is the writing clear?  Do their reasons fully support the main idea you’re looking for?  Does their sentence structure need improvement?  Use this data for your next instructional steps.  And be sure to share this feedback with students, so the next time around (like later in math class), they improve.  You’re their coach–this step is critical!

Here’s maybe the most important piece.  And it’s the one key to improving student writing that is probably most neglected.

Image via Erin O’Byrne @LinkedIn

Hold them accountable!  

This means that all across the day, expect what you’ve taught.  Have you explicitly taught writing complete sentences?  Then they’d better be doing it every time they write, whether it’s “writing” time, social studies, or even math.  Have you taught students to elaborate by adding strong adjectives?  Then they’d better include these in all of their drafts, including explanations that require detail.  Have you provided teaching and feedback on proper use of punctuation?  Then demand it.  All.  Day.  Long.  If kids aren’t doing what you expect, then you cannot accept it.  If it’s going to become a habit for them, you’ve got to hold them to it.  

What’s one key to improving student writing you want to focus on next?  I’d love to hear about it!  Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or simply leave a comment below this post!

Related Posts:  Why Teachers are So Afraid of Teaching Writing (and Simple Solutions to Conquer It), Boosting Student Growth:  Writing Volume and Choice, How to Revolutionize Your Writing Workshop, How to Quickly Assess Student Writing, Easy Method for Teaching for Transfer in Writing

Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls

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