Teaching Writing: Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian, cleric, and human rights activist, once said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” This famous analogy can help teachers in many ways: when they are stressed, when they have a seemingly impossible amount of work to do, and even when they are faced with the daunting task of helping their students become strong writers.

Writing is a multi-faceted art, and teaching students how to write, mainly, how to write well, is quite a challenge.

One piece at a time

One successful strategy I’ve employed in my classroom is focusing on just one small aspect of writing at a time. Yes, it takes time, but it also gives students the time they need to master a writing concept. I don’t teach, nor do I grade, the entire elephant at a time. I only focus on one bite at a time, and it works.

When I do this, I teach just one concept, and then I assign a small writing assignment. I start this process at the beginning of the year during our short story unit when I teach students how to correctly embed quotes in their writing. For each short story we read, I assign a short three-sentence prompt. For example, the prompt might be as follows: How does the author include foreshadowing to create a suspenseful mood? Click HERE to sign up for the free download!

Provide immediate feedback

For their response, students answer the prompt and give relevant information in their topic sentence, include a properly embedded and cited quote for their second sentence, and finish the prompt with one sentence of commentary. I grade the paper as a 10 or a 5. A 10 signifies that a student has mastered the concept I just taught, and a five means they attempted it but fell short.

Since the student response is so short, I can quickly assess my students’ writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. As my students work on their responses, I circulate throughout the room and grade each response as students finish. If they didn’t quite show me that they understand the concept, I point out to them in a one-on-one setting at their table what they did well, what they need to work on, and how they can fix it. Also, since the 10 or 5 grade is so harsh, I give my students unlimited opportunities to revise their work throughout the week until they get a 10. I’ve done this for a few years now, and the vast majority of my students revise their papers to 10s.
Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers
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Practice makes perfect

I typically repeat this process 2-3 times with short responses before moving on to a more substantial writing assignment. By the time my students have completed a few different three-sentence writing responses, they are ready to demonstrate mastery in a full-length essay. When I grade the essay, I take a look at other writing concepts, but I really focus my efforts on assessing the concept I just taught. If I recently covered properly embedding and citing quotes, that is the concept in which I want my students to do well.

When I finish a unit with my students, I move onto a new writing concept with them. Each new writing concept builds on the previous concept.

Another writing concept that I single out and focus on is commentary writing. After reading my students’ commentary from their previous passages, I’ve noticed that so many of them write “this quote shows” or “in this quote” at the beginning of their commentary sentences. To help my students move away from this, I teach my students how to write about quotes. I urge them to refer back to a word or phrase from the quote rather than saying “this shows.” And we repeat the same process, but this time with new writing assignments. 

With each new writing concept I teach, I add that concept to my list of elements to grade in student writing. I find this strategy is more comfortable to manage for my students; it does not overwhelm them. Also, this helps me with my grading time. Rather than marking up every single error in an essay, I focus my efforts on just one concept at a time. In doing so, I can provide all 170 of my students with meaningful feedback that helps them become stronger writers.

This strategy might take a bit longer to get to all of the writing concepts I want to cover with my students, but this slow and steady strategy sticks. My students become stronger, more confident writers one bite at a time.

More Writing Resources:

Paragraph of the Week by Presto Plans
Word Choice by Room 213
Sentence Fluency by Stacey Lloyd
Free Writing Anchor Chart by Tracee Orman

Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

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