Teach writing skills without grading essays


There are many English teachers who insist that students must write multiple essays every year so they can master the skills needed for post secondary writing. I used to be one of these them. However, assigning too many essays can be hard on not only the students who need to write them, but on those of us who have to do the grading. So, after years of trying to figure out the most effective way to help my students learn (while I stayed sane), I found ways to teach writing skills without grading essays.

This might seems like a wild - even irresponsible - idea. After all, students going to college and university need to be prepared. Yes, they do. And my students did write essays in my classes. However, I learned, with lots of trying and tweaking, that there are many effective ways to teach students the skills they need that don't require a full paper.

It is very true that students need to practice the skills they need for success. And they need lots of feedback from us. But they will build those skills more quickly when they can learn them in a way that they engages them and keeps them from getting overwhelmed.

If students have not been successful with essay writing in the past, the thought of diving into yet another one is not that appealing. But a fun, collaborative activity just may be. And while participating in that activity students will have the opportunity to hone their skills and build their confidence, making them more ready to be successful with the next writing assignment. You can also give students lots of just-in-time feedback during these activities, rather than taking home a pile of papers that take you days or weeks to grade.

How? Read on for specific activities you can use for teaching the skills for writing the literary, persuasive, argumentative, and research essay.

Strategies that build essay-writing skills

I have read too many poorly executed essays from bright students in the past, ones that left me scratching my head over why they couldn't get the job done well.

And then I realized that many were skipping the most essential step before they started their first drafts - they wanted to just pick up their pens and write to get it done. They did not take the time to think and plan and organize.

This began at the prewriting stage where they might do an outline just to get it filled in - rather than approaching it thoughtfully. One of my favorite class activities was showing them how to do this right with the "human outline." It takes a good portion of a class, but the focus and organization of my students’ essays went up exponentially after doing it. That's because they all got feedback on how to approach this prewriting step - and I didn't have to take their outlines in to give it to them.

If you’d like to try this exercise with your students, click here.

Teaching students to outline

This activity was so successful that it lead to me planning more collaborative activities that slowed students down so they could focus on the skills they needed to write an essay.

Skill-building activities for literary analysis

I spent more time brainstorming ideas for teaching students how to do literary analysis than anything else in my career. That's because it was the area where they struggled the most (and hence the most painful essays to read).

We did two activities that were very successful because they took students through the thinking, planning, and organizing stages of writing literary analysis essays. The first involved these character strips:

teach essay skills without grading papers

I began with the question How is Jane Austen using this character to critique a convention of her society? Note that the question focuses on how the character is used in the story, and pushes the kids beyond a basic character sketch.

Then students were grouped and assigned one of the characters. They had to look at the evidence they had in their notes, have lots of discussion and debate, and finally, come up with a topic sentence that answered the question I posed. Once I ok'd their topic sentence, they got chart paper and markers, wrote the topic sentence at the top and had to present their evidence (in logical order) below.

Essentially, each group created a detailed outline for a paragraph that would be in a focused literary essay. A group rep presented their information to the class, and then we discussed the best order for each paragraph in an essay.

The activity took a couple of days, but by the time they were done, my students knew a lot more about the process they needed to write a good, focused, well-developed essay. Read more about this activity here (and grab a template for the strips)

We did a similar activity with another full class text. I like to talk about theme as a giant puzzle. Students don't have the picture on the box of this puzzle they are doing, so they need to collect the pieces as they read in order to fit them together at the end.

So when my IB class finished reading The Merchant of Venice I wanted them to discuss Shakespeare's overall message in the play.  I gave them actual puzzle pieces where they filled in what they knew about certain aspects and characters in the text. Then, they worked together to see how all of these pieces fit.

The visual aspect of the activity really helped them figure out the essential themes of the play, and allowed them the chance to organize and support an argument they would like to present.

And once again, they learned essential essay writing skills and got to practice the prewriting steps for a literary analysis without having to write the whole essay. They did write one later in the semester, and these two activities gave them the skills and confidence they needed to write it well.

Get more detail about the puzzle piece activity here.

Building skills for persuasion and argument

Another area that I worked hard on improving was persuasion and argument. If you teach teens, you know that they can be very passionate about their opinions, and they sure do love to argue. However, this ability did not always transfer well to the essay.

Once again, our students need guidance in the process of collecting, focusing, and organizing their ideas. So I started doing activities that honed these skills in the weeks before my students wrote persuasive or argumentative essays. Here's what I did:

  1. Started with an engaging topic and an initial reflection
  2. Provided relevant mentor texts – on both sides of the issue
  3. Gave students an opportunity to discuss ideas with their peers
  4. Required groups to come to a consensus & support it during full class discussion
  5. Gave students lots of feedback during the process

Because we were using interesting and debatable topics, students were engaged and learning important skills for persuasion. And, I was able to give a lot of on-the-spot feedback during the process, instead of giving it after the fact on an essay (Find out more here).

persuasive and argumentative writing skills

To teach them the difference between persuasive and argumentative writing, we did the Argument Challenge where students learned the process in an activity they found quite fun. And because they were engaged, they learned. And because they learned they built the skills they needed to write when the time came.

Teach writing skills

If you'd like to grab some lessons and activities that are all ready for you to use, I've got you covered. Click here to get one for persuasion and here for argument.

Building skills for research essays

Research essays can also be a hard slog to read when students don't have the skills to do them well. In order to build those skill, as with any type of writing, they need practice. And you don't have time to practice with multiple essays.  

A very effective strategy that allows students to hone the skills of focusing a topic and collecting evidence to support it is the one-pager or one-slider. They need to pick a point they'd like to explore and find quotations and images to support it, just like they would in the paragraph of an essay.

There's something about the visual and digital aspect of this activity that pulls students in in a way that no writing assignment ever does. Mine were always so proud of their finished product and it was much more enjoyable to grade too!


Ask yourself this question:

When a student finishes your class, is it better that they write four or five mediocre essays or a couple of really strong ones? The answer was clear to me, and that is why we spent so much time on skill building activities.  And you know what? If this hadn't worked, I would have gone back to writing more essays. However, luckily, I saw the difference it made in my students' abilities.

So there are ways to teach writing skills without grading essays. You just need to take a close look at the areas where your students struggle and create opportunities for them to practice in class when you can give them on-the-spot feedback. Give it a try!

Check out more activities for skill-building:

Quotable Quickies: very short writing activities that allows students to learn to write analytically

Hexagonal thinking - an excellent skill-building activity for making connections in texts

Snowball Writing from Presto Plans

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