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8 Strategies for Improving Student Writing

8 Strategies for Improving Student Writing

Dr. Rebecca Branstetter

I often get inspiration for my job from the little sayings on my tea satchel. What? I work in a large, urban school district, I gotta get inspiration everywhere I can. At least I’m not reading the tea leaves for what to do, right? The other day, my tea told me that “If you want to know something, read. If you want to learn, write.” Or something like that. Hm. So writing is how we know we are learning? I suppose that writing is a more active process than reading in a way. I mean, when I sit down to write a blog post, I become acutely aware of what I don’t know because I sit there with hands over keyboard, waiting for inspiration. I also solidify my thinking when I write. That being said, I have to say that the initial driving force behind me writing this blog was (in a Viktor Frankl sense), to find meaning in my suffering. I jest. Not really.

Anyhoo, back to writing. As olde-timey readers will recall, I have had a penchant for written expression since a young age. In fact, my mom sent me another round of my early writing that she found in her garage, and I have really enjoyed retroactively diagnosing myself. But I digress. Writing. See how rambling writing is an indicator of not knowing what to write? I have been suffering from a case of Writer’s Blogque lately. Ever since those 5 people started subscribing to my blog on Kindle*, I have been putting pressure on myself to write something good. Then, you get two paragraphs o’ rambling.

I’ll make it up to you in the next few paragraphs, I promise.

I think I mentioned before that I am working on curriculum for special education teachers on how to be effective in working with students in special education. It’s a daunting little project. I have been in a round of revisions about the session on writing, and I have been thinking about the writing process. Or to be more accurate, I’ve been thinking about the revision process. Part of me is like my students, once it is written, I feel like it is done. But then after 4 rounds of revisions with multiple readers (like an adult writer’s workshop!) it really is much better. Without further ado about nothing, here are some of the strategies that have emerged for helping students with writing. Most of the strategies are for late elementary and middle school, but some can be adapted up or down in age. Again, snaps for the New Teacher Project for a good portion of the strategies. The others are ones I’ve collected over the years, and I invite you to contribute more

1) For students with visual-motor integration difficulties, (poor eye hand coordination) you want to strike a balance between remediation (making them practice the physical act of writing) and accommodation (freeing up the physical burden by using by-pass strategies so they don’t get held up on developing good written expression).

2) For remediation, I have seen “Handwriting without Tears” work for some elementary students. You could also consult with an Occupational Therapist (OT) about other strengthening activities. I rarely get to interact with OTs at my school sites, but I imagine they have some great tips.

3) For reluctant writers with good ideas, but who hate pencils and all things writing, I suggest trying some accommodations. I recommend providing the option to orally dictate writing ideas to a peer or adult to transcribe or type, just to get out the writing ideas. Then, the student can work on revisions, improvements, and organization of ideas from the transcription. I am also a big fan of technology (MacSpeech for Macs and Dragonware for PCs) in which a schmancy computer program transcribes the student’s voice into typed text. Super fun and surprisingly accurate. And how cute do the students look with their little 1-800-DENTIST-esque headsets? So cute.

4) For students with difficulties with writing conventions (spelling, grammar, etc), I recommend having them start a personal spelling and grammar dictionary to help them with frequently used or misused words or grammatical rules. I would like it if they can keep such a log on their iTouch or phones. I know, I know, no phones in school, but I really think that kids would be more likely to jot down a frequently misspelled word or the difference between their/there/they’re for reference in their phones than in a notebook. But if you’re old school, they can have a little notebooks too.

Related Discussion:Is Cursive Writing Worth Teaching?

5) Metacognitive Writing Logs. My middle school does this with great success. The kids learn to make connections with what they have read to themselves, to other texts, and with the world through their writing. A key point about this is to not say, “Just write whatever” when a kid is stuck. Why? Because it sounds like it isn’t important what they write. Take an interest in the writing by asking probing questions, using sentence starters (e.g. I thought the best part was… This reminds me of when I….). For reluctant writers, start with text-to-self sentence starters, because most kids like to talk about themselves.

6) For students with organizational difficulties (rambling paragraphs, unorganized ideas) I’m a fan of graphic organizers and pre-writing activities. Integrate drawing and art, and you may find a reluctant writer is more engaged. Seriously, just google “graphic organizers” and one million different great ideas will come up. Also, I like writing strategies checklists that walk students through the writing process. There are some good ones in Harvey and Chickie-Wolfe’s book “Fostering Independent Learning.”

7) To teach different genres of writing, there are a bunch of fun ways to do so. For example, teaching persuasive writing can be really engaging, because the students can take a stand on an issue that is important to them. They can do class debates, mock trials, “Take a Stand” activities in which they go to certain parts of the room to represent how they feel (left side of room is agree, right side is disagree, middle is no opinion, etc).


8) I recently read a really interesting article about how kids today have a great sense of “audience” because of social media. The Greeks called it “Kairos” which is a needed skill in persuasive writing. These kids, through Facebook updates, are learning when something is inherently interesting to others by the feedback/comments and when nobody cares that you just had Rice Krispies for breakfast. I am working on that skill as well in my Facebook Fan Page updates. I am thinking that students could do a variation on the metagcognitive journal and write status updates for characters in books, for themselves, etc. How fun is that? See, writing is fun.

There are many more, but I want to hear your stuff too! Be sure to share what age group/grade level and/or what type of disability the strategy addresses. Aaaaannnnd, Go! Let the Resource Fest-a-Polooza 2010….begin.

*What? You want to know how to subscribe because you got a Kindle for Christmas? I’m glad you asked. Click here.

**Sometimes, I forget Kairos and let boring updates slip in, like my riveting series on staplers (e,g. “Sometimes I feel like Schmeagal from Lord of the Rings looking for my precious….stapler.”) Most of the time, I try to make the updates useful or funny. Working on my Kairos. I really thought that stapler theft was a hot issue in education that day. I shouldn’t have switched to half-decaf. I can’t think straight.

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