Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday's Five - Developing Better Writers

When I've talked to college professors, high school teachers, local business owners, and others who deal with our young adults I'm often told that the ability of these young adults to express themselves in writing is sorely lacking.  Even in my fifth grade classroom I've seen an increase in students who struggle to write complete sentences, cannot use correct punctuation, and find it difficult to express themselves.  Some of the causes are probably an increase in "textese" and  the increased shift from a balanced curriculum to one that focuses solely on  math and reading during the last decade of NCLB testing.  Instead of looking at causes, however, let's look at five ways we can develop better writers in our classrooms and schools.
Photo Credit:  János Fehér
  1. Make a commitment to have each student write at least one complete sentence per subject per day.  At first, this sounds like something that must already be happening in our schools.  It's not.  Think about the average math or science classroom.  Often there is very little writing going on, and even less that is written in complete sentences.  Instead of having students raise their hands to answer questions, make every student write their responses in complete sentences.  Then choose a few at random to share their responses.  In addition to building writing skills, you'll be using formative assessment to check the understanding of all of your students.
  2. Get your students blogging.  When your work is being published to a wide audience, you are more likely to pay attention to the details of your writing.  The reading specialist and special education teacher in my building claim that their students' punctuation, capitalization, and spelling improved dramatically when they started blogging.  Blogging also is a great way to get students in subjects outside of language arts writing as well.  Asking students to share their learning ensures that they really understand the concepts being taught.  It's impossible to write about a topic well without understanding it.
  3. Grade less.  Not everything that an author writes gets published.  Students need opportunities to simply write for the purpose of writing.  I can't tell you how many posts I start and then scrap.  If I were being graded on each of my posts I'd stop blogging.  I'm sure many of our students feel the same way.  Just like students sometimes draw for fun, we should encourage them to write for fun.  
  4. Give opportunities for students to be creative.  In the past 10 years I've seen writing become much more formulaic in schools due to the rubrics on standardized tests.  We tell students, "If you do X, Y, and Z, then you'll get a '4' on the test."  I can't think of anything more detrimental to building a love of writing, nor more likely to destroy a student's ability to write creatively.  Allow students to illustrate their writings if they are artistic, write in verse if they enjoy poetry, or use web 2.0 tools to enhance their writings.  Give students writing assignments that lend themselves to creativity.  One of my favorite writing activities that I do with my class is to pass out cards with random narrative titles, main character descriptions, and settings.  I then ask my students to put together a good narrative using the elements they randomly received.  One student might have to write a story entitled "The Missing Day" that takes place in the old west about a pillow salesman, while another student gets "Elbow Soup" as a title, present day New York City as a setting, and an alien from the planet Oooff as a main character.  Since we spend a lot of time talking about how good narratives are composed in reading class, the stories they write are usually very good.
  5. Build a love of reading.  It's very difficult to complete a job when you don't have access to the right tools.  Students who don't read much often are lacking the vocabulary and figurative language skills to write well.  Because of that they often have no confidence in their writing abilities and shut down any time they are asked to express themselves that way.  For these students, helping them find the motivation to read is supremely important.
How do you develop writing skills in your classroom?  Have you seen a change in the writing ability of students entering your class over the past few years?  What else can we do to show students the power of well-written words?