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What It Takes to Teach Students to Be Strong Writers

By Meg Kinlaw
 | Dec 10, 2021

Many parents and caregivers look at their children’s math homework and say it looks nothing like the math they learned as kids. Today, students use more strategies to solve problems and focus on conceptual understanding of math rather than just relying on memorization and tricks. But what appears to be less obvious to parents is that literacy instruction has evolved dramatically too—particularly when it comes to how we teach writing.

Integrating reading and writing

I remember, not too fondly, one writing assignment I gave my students in which I asked them to write about the most disgusting thing that happened to them. It led to giggles and students were paying attention that day. But were they learning much to support their success in school and beyond? Not really.

I’ve since come to understand that good writing instruction should integrate reading and writing, connecting writing assignments to great books, articles, and texts students are assigned to read. For example, in schools I’ve worked with in recent years, students in third grade study oceans and read related books and other texts, including works of art. The students learn about one of my favorite woodblock paintings, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai, and read about Jacques Cousteau and giant squids. At the end of the unit, students work on a writing assignment in which they explain why humans explore the sea. The students have so much to say and write.

By connecting an engaging writing assignment like that to high-quality reading material, students work on their writing skills—such as sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar—and they also build knowledge on worthwhile subjects.

If you are interested in learning more about rethinking writing instruction, we recommend checking out our ILA Intensives hosted by Steve Graham, the 2021 recipient of the ILA William S. Gray Citation of Merit. There are two separate Intensives, one for educators who teach students 4 to 8 years old and the second for educators who teach students 9 to 12 years old.

I also love a fourth-grade lesson in which teachers ask students to write about what makes a literal and figurative “great heart” after assigning them to read the scientific book all and other texts about Clara Barton, the nurse who founded the American Red Cross. Students learn about biology, anatomy, and an important figure in American history while developing their writing skills at the same time.

No more blank stares

This approach is very different from the writing prompts I used earlier in my career that were based only on the students’ personal experiences. Those might have included assignments like, “Write about what you did this weekend” or “Write about a memorable moment in your life.”

The truth is, when I asked those kinds of questions, I often got panicked stares. Many students would say they didn’t have anything to write about. This was especially true for students who felt their home lives weren’t as colorful or interesting as that of their peers. This raised concerns about equity and whether we were ensuring all voices were heard in the classroom.

I started to shift my instruction when Tennessee adopted new college and career standards about a decade ago. The standards showed me the value of connecting reading and writing assignments. Now, thankfully, classroom resources and practices are catching up with the standards, and we’re seeing much more robust literacy instruction across the grades in our schools.

Steps you can take

So, if you’re an educator, explore how curating rich texts around a meaningful knowledge-building topic will support all students in becoming stronger writers. Consider moving away from having students draw on their own experiences as writing topics and toward offering equitable access to shared knowledge. You will be amazed at the insightful writing your students will create.

Encourage parents to look at the assignments coming home and consider whether they look like the writing tasks of their school days. Hopefully, they’ll say they are different and better. The homework should encourage students to engage with great books and build their knowledge on important topics, all while developing strong writing skills.

Students have been through a lot this past year and a half, particularly when it comes to educational disruptions. But if we keep making progress in the English language arts classroom, I’m confident we can help young people develop the skills and knowledge to be great readers and writers. That’s something to feel thankful for as we settle into this school year—and beyond.

Educator Meg Kinlaw, a new ILA member, is a curriculum developer for Wit & Wisdom, an English language arts curriculum published by Great Minds. She previously taught middle and high school students and served as an English language arts consultant with the Tennessee Department of Education. You can follow her on Twitter at @meg0701. 

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