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Tom On: Teaching Writing

My quick and accessible advice for new and growing teachers

Just because one can write does not mean one can simply teach writing. It was during my third year teaching (not very well, mind you, but earnestly and ever-improving) that I realized what a deep and expansive field the teaching of writing is, with decades of research, models, and stories. In fact, nothing I was encountering in my classroom was an original problem. None of it. It had all been examined and written on before. That realization was both liberating and humbling.

Teaching writing is not something you do for a test, nor something you do via some formula fed by graphic organizers and sentence starters. I appreciate that those kinds of tactics are helpful for new and emerging teachers. I also respect the value they add for many educators whose teaching loads and student rosters are flooded, leaving little head space for anything other than something–anything–that appears to work. At the same time, as a teacher you want to grow beyond such short-term fixes. Below I offer some quick suggestions based on the needs I see and hear in my work with teachers and principals. What you find below should be read as only an opening line, and an imperfect one at that.

Texts I Love

If you are eager to learn more about teaching writing, here are some of my favorite texts on the topic that I use with teachers in schools and in my methods courses (there are many, many more):


In the Middle by Nancy Atwell

English Companion
by Jim Burke

The Dynamics of Writing Instruction by Peter Smagorinsky et al.

Blogs & Websites

In addition, these blogs and websites are wonderful, teeming with illustrative anecdotes and resources related to teaching writing and beyond:

    • Writers Who Care: A blog collective of teachers and education researchers who share stories, resources, and just straight up insight on teaching writing.
    • English Companion Ning: Started by English guru Jim Burke, this site has tens of thousands of English teachers from around the world sharing experiences and resources. Including a Teaching Writing group.
    • Cult of Pedagogy: Educator and coach Jennifer Gonzalez maintains this thoughtful and useful blog with tons of great suggestions for teaching. She also has podcasts and videos.
    • National Writing Project: I have immense admiration for this nationwide nonprofit with satellites divisions across the country. Few are doing as much as NWP to help teachers teach writing better.

Quick-and-Dirty Advice

Finally, if forced to offer blunt advice on teaching writing, a kind of quick-and-dirty response to a question posed in a pub, here’s what I would say:

  1. Give students opportunities to just write–to describe or to wonder or to reflect. Avoid the temptation to tightly tie every prompt to an explicit content standard. It’s actually counterproductive.
  2. If your school uses things like Do Nows and Exit Tickets, modify your prompts to open opportunities for students to connect with their lives and the worlds. For example, don’t use the prompt, “What is the definition of an argument?” but rather something like, “Describe a time you had to argue for something you really wanted.”
  3. Provide students time to draft. Drafting does not mean recopying phrases from one’s graphic organizer into a writing template. Drafting means shortening the distance between one’s mind, heart, memory, and imagination–and the paper. It’s about creating a low-stakes place to write everything one is thinking and remembering and wondering about a topic. Then the revisions begin.
  4. Cease and desist the separation of writing from reading. The two are necessarily intertwined. If students are reading a particular text, they should try emulating the author’s style, rewriting sentences and sections of the “official” text, and exploring why the author of the text they are reading chose to write the text the way she did.  The more students do that, the more they will write like readers and read like writers. (And, yes, students’ literacy test scores likely go up.)

Bonus: While I have some experience and chops with teaching writing, others know so much more than I do. See what the educational research community says about teaching writing in NCTE’s official position statement on teaching writing here.

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