How to Teach Writing During Remote Instruction

Teaching Writing with Remote Teaching or Distance Teaching

Whether you are teaching 100 percent remotely, teaching in a hybrid setting, or teaching in a socially-distanced classroom, this school year is unlike any other. Because of all of the unique challenges that this school year brings, teachers must take a moment, step back, and reconsider every instructional decision.

One area of secondary ELA instruction that teachers should reconsider this school year is how to distantly teach writing, the writing process, and essay writing.

At the time of publication, I’ve been remotely teaching my high school English students for seven weeks, and I’ve also assigned, taught, graded, and provided feedback for a full essay assignment. Through that process of teaching students how to write an essay remotely, I learned some things. Above all, I learned reconsideration.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Assignment

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Assignment

Any way you cut it, distance teaching and distance learning are challenging for both teachers and students alike. Because of all of these unique challenges, we must reconsider assignments and only assign essential work. With the essay that I recently assigned to my juniors, my grade-level team and I significantly modified the essay to suit our students’ needs better. We looked at our objective for the assignment, evaluated which skill and standard we wanted to assess, and pared the assignment down. Featured in the picture: SMARTePlans Digital Controversial Essay Assignment

Considerations for Modifying Remote Learning Writing Assignments

  • What essential skills do you want to focus on?
  • What standard are you assessing?
  • Can the assignment be modified in terms of length requirements?
  • Can the assignment be adjusted in terms of how many sources you are requiring?
  • Can you provide the sources to the student in advance?

For our most recent essay, we shortened a multi-page, synthesis essay to just three paragraphs: an intro, body, and conclusion. Also, since teaching writing can be an overwhelming task, to begin with, try to focus only on one or two essential skills at a time and build from there. For this essay, I really wanted my students to understand how to embed quotes in their writing and write strong commentary. Why assign a three-page essay when you can assess the skills in just three paragraphs? During this time, we have to keep our most vulnerable students in mind. If an assignment is more accessible, students will be more likely to attempt the work and less likely to shut down completely.

By focusing on just a couple of essential writing skills at a time, your writing instruction becomes more focused. It provides students with more time to practice learning how to write academically. My digital Writing Spotlight series takes this instructional approach. Each unit focuses on a different writing skill, such as writing about the quote, writing in the third person, writing in the literary present, and focusing on including a quote in writing.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering How to Present the Assignment

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering How to Present the Assignment

Once you’ve modified your writing assignment to fit the needs and challenges of remote teaching, it is time to present the assignment to students.

I had a lot of success presenting my students with their writing assignment toward the beginning of the unit before reading some of the sources together. One of the main reasons I did this was because I wanted my students to see the end game. I wanted them to understand where our classwork during the prior weeks was leading.

I reviewed the assignment project in chunks. We talked about and discussed the prompt. To check for understanding, my students sent me a private chat message in Zoom telling me what the prompt was asking using their own words.

From there, I went over the requirements slowly and paused several times to check for understanding using the chat feature. I had my students type one requirement for the essay in the chat. With teaching 100 percent remotely, it is so difficult to gauge student reactions. It is tough to see if they are getting it. That is why I made sure that I had frequent checks of understanding in the chatbox.

Another benefit of assigning the essay early is that it provides you with ample time to revisit parts of the essay as you work toward it. Since our essay was a synthesis essay, we would take a couple of moments to discuss how the article related to the prompt after we read an article together.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Pre-writing Process

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Pre-writing Process

Writing is a process, and when we introduce large writing assignments to our students, we should always teach it as such -a process. Brainstorming and pre-writing is such a big part of teaching students how to write essays, and with remote teaching, I encountered another unique challenge. How was I going to complete group brainstorming exercises with my students?

Usually, with in-person instruction, I include various group brainstorming activities in my essay writing units. Some of the best in-person group brainstorming activities include a shared piece of large paper, a group of kids, and some markers. Easy peasy! However, this group essay brainstorming method just isn’t an option during the pandemic.

I used two different group brainstorming strategies to help my students prepare for their first remote essay. We used the discussion feature in Canvas, and I also went back to the basics and used my document camera to record students’ live ideas as they shared them aloud in our Zoom call.

Remote Teaching Group Brainstorming Part 1

First, to prepare students for the group brainstorming session, I provided them with a graded Canvas discussion assignment. I made the settings so that students had to answer before they could see their peers’ responses. For the graded Canvas discussion, students had to answer a question that was essentially the essay prompt and provide one piece of cited evidence. I gave them about 5-7 minutes to complete the discussion question in class. And, since our work leading up to this included a quote organizer, students should have had quotes ready to go.

If you don’t have Canvas or don’t utilize the discussion feature, here is a list of other tech options for this type of group brainstorming activities.
  • Google Classroom questions
  • Padlet
  • A Collaborative Google Doc or Slide
  • Jamboard
  • Flipgrid

Remote Teaching Group Brainstorming Part 2

Then, once my students completed this task, we moved onto another form of group brainstorming. For their essays, students needed two reasons to support their claim. Since the Canvas discussion board question only included one reason, I wanted to provide students with a list of potential supporting reasons from which to choose.

To introduce this exercise, I explained that we would be brainstorming reasons for our essays. Then, I showed students the Canvas discussion board assignment that they completed and pointed out that they could use any of the reasons in the discussion thread for this assignment. Then, I switched to my document camera, asked my students to unmute themselves when they wanted to participate, and told them to shout out the answers. We would typically do something like this in class on the whiteboard, but I had to modify it since we are remote. Students participated and shared. Together, we had a list of supporting reasons. It was awesome.

At the end of our group brainstorming session, I had the students select two reasons for their essay. Also, through the group brainstorming activities, students had quite a few different quotes to choose from for each supporting reason.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Writing Instruction

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Writing Instruction

When teaching students how to write an essay, I like to focus on specific sections of the essay at a time and then provide students with dedicated class time right after direct instruction.

For example, once students select their reasons and quotes, I begin with focused instruction on the thesis statement and introduction. Using various writing instructional strategies via Zoom and the doc cam, I try to provide students with as much detailing and scaffolding as possible.

Instructional strategies for remotely teaching essay writing:

  • Color-coding: Color code different parts of the paragraph or color-code corresponding reasons and evidence.
  • Mentor sentences: Provide students with exemplary mentor sentences to show students exactly what topic sentences, evidence sentences, and thesis statements should look like.
  • Scaffolding: Provide students with sentence frames and sentence starters to help them organize and write their thoughts.

Here is how I breakdown the multi-paragraph essay for instruction.

Each of my digital essay writing units breaks down essay writing instruction into manageable chunks for students and teachers.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Use of Class Time

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Use of Class Time

Whenever I assign essays, I always try to give students as much in-class time to work on the assignment as possible. Providing students with a chance to work on their essays in class is a great way to walk around and monitor student progress. It’s a great way to see how students are doing and provide much needed one-on-one support.

With remote teaching, I still provided my students with dedicated class time to work on their essays, and I attempted to have an online writer’s workshop. To do this, I sent every student to their own Zoom Breakout Room. I hopped from room to room, checking on on students, asking how they were doing, and reviewing their essays with them. Students shared their Google Docs with me, and I went over what they did well and how they could improve. 

With remote instruction, positive student affirmation is so important. Students need to know what they did well and why it was so great specifically. It will help them continue to try, make an effort, and be involved in your classroom. One of the best ways to streamline feedback is to keep it short and only focus on a couple of things. For each student, I pointed out one area of excellence and one area of growth. For the area of growth, I focused on an actionable step the student could take to make an immediate improvement in their essay.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Peer Editing

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Peer Editing

Just because we are teaching remotely doesn’t mean that we have to forgo peer editing completely. Peer editing is a critical part of the writing process because it allows students to see other students’ writing and read student writing in a different light.

For my peer editing activity, I assigned a digital Peer Editing station assignment and grouped students into breakout groups in Zoom of 4-5 students. In their breakout groups, students shared their essays and worked on finalizing them.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Grading Essays

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Grading Essays

Finally, the element of essay writing to reconsider when it comes to remote teaching is how you grade each essay. Since I can’t sit next to my students, since I can’t see if they are struggling or not, since I can’t help them in real-time at the moment they get stuck, I am grading with grace this year. I have EL students and SPED students and students struggling in other areas, and the last thing I want to do is bring them down with strict grading. Teachers can still have high expectations in the remote classroom without having unrealistic expectations.

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