How to Help Young Writers

This evening, I was interviewed about how to teach writing by an East Carolina University student, Mikel Peterson. I've written the questions from Mikel below, along with my answers. 

How do you get student to explore relationships with literacy?

Half the job is modeling, the other half is giving students rich literacy experiences. The real way to gain an understanding of literacy is by processing through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing tasks, followed by reflection. Kids are more likely to internalize skills and concepts when there is an experience + reflection.

How do teachers teach those students who come in with low level writing skills and weak preparation?

The literacy continuum from k-12 is pretty consistent. All kids follow a similar developmental journey. Regardless of grade level, you have to diagnose where the students are (through formative and summative assessment) and then figure out the next steps to advance their writing. The next step is the thing they can change that will have the biggest impact on their composition skills. Thinking through that process, once they have done it a bit, allows teachers to make pretty fast decisions about how to be helpful to struggling writers.

Why do students not take advantage of prewriting?

Students think that it's more work to go through the steps. They think that leapfrogging back and forth between prewriting and editing will get them finished faster. But shifting back and forth between idea generation and critique of ideas is mentally exhausting. Also, many kids don’t know the writing process. I’m surprised by how few college juniors can actually discuss any of the stages.

Do you believe peer review is a process that works?

You can’t put kids in groups and say, “Help each other.” Peer critique takes explicit instruction on the part of the teacher. If a teacher spends the time to help kids effectively review each others’ work, that can save time down the road and also teach students diagnosing skills that will transfer to their own compositions.

What do we need to know about writing?

 If writers, at any stage, aren’t able to rattle off what their strengths and error patterns are, than they aren’t being metacognitive enough.

What are the best practices in teaching students research?

The mega-long formal research paper is too costly in terms of student time and stress. Kids hate writing them. Instructors hate reading them. They are also often produced through creative plagiarism. I’m fond of two alternative approaches that still build inquiry skills: the MGRP and the I-Search paper. Kids are far more motivated with these formats because they allow a degree of creativity.

What is the best way to help students recognize the significance of the critical element in rhetorical situations?

I think they need to adopt the perspective of their potential readers and ask, “What expectations might the reader bring to this genre? What would really impact the reader positively? Negatively?”  Then, being Captain Obvious, it’s useful to share model work (good and bad) with the students and have them critique it.

If you like my writing, you'll love my funny teaching memoir, Dinkytown Braves, free on Kindle Unlimited and $10.33 as a paperback. Also check out Rethinking Classroom Design (Rowan & Littlefield) co-written with Blake Wiggs or The Best Lesson Series: Literature: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works, edited by Brian Sztabnik. Please leave a review on Amazon to make my day!
Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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