Across school districts, students’ grades, scores, and standardized test results indicate a widespread drop in foundational skills, some of the more critical skills affiliated with academic writing. Writing is not just an English-specific necessity. The ability to construct cohesive, clear, organized thoughts in written form is essential for all aspects of college and career readiness. As educators, we must prioritize these foundational writing skills to ensure that, even in the midst of virtual or hybrid learning, students are still being set up for success.
Daily cross-curricular opportunities
Writing is one of those skills that is strengthened by repetition and practice. Exposure to different styles of writing and opportunities to compose different written forms helps students to recognize the importance of writing in all subject areas. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for students to practice composing various genres and for different purposes. These do not necessarily have to be long, involved essay prompts; teachers can use these ideas as warm-ups, exit tickets, lesson activators, etc.
For example, science teachers might ask students to write and submit lab reports, compose directions for science experiments, or draft project proposals for a final project. History, civics, or social studies teachers should consider prompts that require students to compare and contrast two or more cultures, time periods, land forms, or branches of government. Math teachers can help students with procedural or sequential writing skills by asking them to compose an error analysis for any questions that they missed on a quiz or assessment. For a task such as this, students are subconsciously learning the skills necessary to craft written work that follows a problem-solution or cause-effect format. The key here is to demonstrate that writing skills, even short practices, lend themselves to all content areas, not just English.
Peer review sessions are extremely beneficial, especially during virtual learning where students do not have day-to-day interactions with their peers. Dissecting someone else’s work can be a very enlightening practice for young writers. It allows them to see how another student interpreted and approached the same task in relation to their own response. Viewing another’s writing also sheds light on different writing styles, provides ideas for varying sentence structure, and demonstrates how others interpreted a text or quote. In evaluating another’s writing, students begin to grasp, not only how their own writing measures up, but how an instructor might evaluate a written response. It forces students to consider the prompt, the rubric, and the overall objectives with regard to their final composition. Peer review sessions also prompt student discourse, which, during these trying times, can help stimulate social skills, collaboration, and motivation.
By embedding formative feedback into weekly writing instruction, educators send the important message to students that writing is a fluid process—students are not expected to craft perfect writing on their first, or even second attempt. One of my most beneficial practices to help students with essay writing is to formatively assess the introductory paragraph first, before students continue on with their entire essay. By pumping the breaks and providing specific feedback on each student’s intro paragraph, I am able to accomplish several things at once.
First, looking at the intro paragraph gives me an inside view of the foundation of their essay; I’m able to see students’ interpretation of hook statement, bridge statement leading into their thesis, and the final thesis statement, around which the entire essay will be framed. If students’ introductory paragraphs are a mess in any one of these categories, I can quickly provide necessary feedback and scaffolds for them to revise and reset before they have gone too far down the wrong path. Looking at the intro paragraph also shows me whether students actually understand the writing prompt or not. If multiple students seem to be off track or missing the mark, I can easily intervene and provide supports, interventions, and reteaching to ensure that everyone understands the prompt and how to approach it.
Educators can also capitalize on one highly underrated teaching strategy: student choice. When at all possible, I try to provide my students with latitude for their written responses and essays. Of course, with a curriculum to follow, grade books to align, and cohorts that prefer to plan in “lock-step,” this is much easier said than done. Therefore, I make a concerted effort to plan for student choice when designing the writing tasks, as well as the instructional lessons leading up to those tasks.
Below are several methods for implementing student choice while providing writing instruction:
Set up a NoRedInk classroom for students to join, explore, and practice various aspects of sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc. The platform is set up for self-directed, student-driven, asynchronous work. Therefore, the activity options in NoRedInk can provide students with interventions, scaffolds, and supports, as well as enrichment and rigor for those working ahead of the group. NoRedInk allows students to choose from grammatical, sentence-level practices, standardized English prompts, and guided essay support. They can also participate in peer or self-review, depending on their level of comfort with collaborative feedback.
One of my favorite warm-up activities is to provide students with several gifs on a Google slide. I try to choose gifs that relate to students and their interests, such as The Weekend’s Superbowl Halftime performance or the latest State Farm commercial. They get to choose the gif they’d like to caption. Then they must incorporate a sentence structure or grammatical concept that we’ve recently discussed in class somewhere in their caption. Not only do students get to pick the gif they want to caption, but they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of subordinating conjunctions, for example. Teachers can quickly sift through the gif response to make sure that clauses are punctuated correctly and that students are understanding the purpose of the dependent clause in relation to the independent clause.
For writing instruction involving essay revision, teacher feedback, or peer edits, ask students to consider which section or paragraph of their essay they’d like to really rework or revise. Teachers can then use strategic grouping to organize students into groups with peers who are looking to revise the same portion of their essays. I might organize small groups as follows:
Group 1 should be students who would like support/guidance with the thesis statement.
Group 2 should include students who need help finding appropriate quotes from the text or texts.
Group 3 should consist of students who need support with a concluding paragraph and/or transitions between paragraphs.
Group 4 should be for students who need help with elaborating on their analysis or further developing their own explanations.
Student choice with writing samples/models:
Providing teacher models at the beginning of a new writing task is another beneficial strategy for incorporating student choice. Depending on the writing task, teachers should find (or create) a few various examples of the final essay or product for students to read and review.
These samples can also include student essays from previous years. Provide students with options and require them to read, review, and assess at least one of the sample essays. This activity serves several purposes—it allows students to see how others have approached the essay prompt, either successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on the samples you collect. It also shows teachers if students truly understand the criteria for success after viewing a teacher model or student sample.
If students review a mediocre or poor essay model as “great” or “topnotch work,” then teachers immediately see that they have missed the mark on fully explaining the task and the learning goals attached. Conversely, if students are unable to articulate why the model essay was unsuccessful or sound, then they truly do not know how to approach the task successfully either.
These are just s0me of many strategies teachers can use to optimize their teaching approach when it comes to virtual writing lessons, in particular.
Wendy Taylor, M.Ed has extensive experience working with students of all ages and abilities, with a focus on learning differences and disabilities. Prior to founding Learning Essentials, she served as a faculty member at Saint Petersburg College, a supervisor of pre-service teachers and a Montgomery County Public School teacher. A certified educator and qualified educational diagnostician, Wendy holds a B.S. in Social Science and Secondary Education from Frostburg State University and a M.Ed. in Special Education from George Mason University.