Thursday, October 11, 2007

Improve Writing Ability.

by Bruce Saddler

Academic progress in school depends on students' ability to write fluently (Martlew, 1983). Furthermore, writing is the principal medium by which teachers evaluate performance (Christenson, Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & McVicar, 1989; Graham & Harris, 1988). Unfortunately, many students struggle with the complexities of written expression (Saddler, Moran, Graham, & Harris, in press). Writing well requires a great deal of cognitive energy. As one young writer profoundly observed, "In order to write a compound sentence, a person must have at least one comma." (Linkletter, 1962, p. 8)

Teachers often face the daunting task of helping students grow as writers. We may feel unsure of how to nudge our students up the ladder of writing ability and even less comfortable with our ability to assist students who have great difficulty with written expression. Following are 20 ways to improve your students writing ability.

1. Invest time. To write well requires time. Show your students the importance you place on writing by allocating time daily to compose. Make your mantra, "No days without lines written." Writers need to work at the craft often for their skills to improve. Give students many opportunities to engage in the various stages of writing, such as planning, generating content, reflecting and revising, and editing. For students to improve their writing skills, they will need more than just increased opportunities, but without these opportunities, there is little chance of growth. Writing instruction should not be something that is accomplished when time permits but should be planned as a daily ritual.

2. Model writing. Writing is considered a problem-solving process in which writers attempt to produce visible, legible, and understandable language reflecting a knowledge of their topic or thoughts and feelings (Berninger, 1993). Because this is a complex process, young writers need to observe how it unfolds and need to be shown how a good writer might navigate the complexities they face. You can facilitate this process by helping students see how you compose. Tell them your thought processes as you pick topics, set goals, solve problems, and maintain a positive attitude while writing on the old, trusty overhead projector. While modeling, show students how an experienced writer would plan, formulate a draft, revise text to match his or her ideas and audience needs, and edit.

3. Weave writing and content areas together. Writing helps students reflect and reveal what they have learned about a topic; therefore, use writing to monitor students' learning in content areas. For example, instead of asking your students multiple-choice questions on a test, have them write a short summary of what they have learned about a topic. They might also write a persuasive piece from a certain historical perspective or viewpoint.

4. Use reading to build writing competence. Consider reading the fuel that powers good writing. Many good authors are voracious readers. They use reading as the cognitive input that helps them produce better writing. Use reading to spur responses or commentaries, as information to summarize or expand, or as a springboard to create something new or different.

5. Teach students that writing is like telepathy. Help your students realize that writing is making their meaning known to others and that the endgame is conveying ideas and emotions to someone else, most likely an absent other (Graham, 1982). Explain to your students that as they write, they must ask themselves "How might what I have written sound to my audience? How will it make them feel?"

6. Improve skills. Writing is primarily a mental activity, but it is reliant on physical tools. Make sure lower-level skills such as handwriting and spelling do not interfere with higher-level skills such as planning, content generation, and revising. Teach skills in context when possible. Use minilessons when necessary.

7. Improve vocabulary. Just like a symphony is built on notes, a story is built on words. Expose students to vocabulary choices by displaying word banks of transition words, synonyms, antonyms, and colorful (million dollar) words.

8. Teach sentence construction skills. A first sentence that causes a reader to want to read the next and so forth is one element of structuring a well-developed essay. Sentence combining is one way to directly teach sentence construction skills (cf. Strong, 1986).

One simple way to include such practice is to take a writing selection and break it into short, simple sentences; then have groups of writers reconstruct the passage in their own way. Ask students to share their ideas on the overhead. The class can then compare the different versions for rhetorical impact.

9. Let students know what is expected. Provide rubrics to guide grading and analysis. Rubrics should be created for the different genres the students will produce. Make the requirements as specific as possible. Provide examples to model what to do. You might also have students develop their own rubrics for certain pieces as a way to promote their critical thinking about the necessary components of a well-written piece.

10. Promote independence. Skilled writers often use self-regulatory behaviors to guide their writing (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Saddler, 2002). Teach your students to use self-regulation skills (goal setting, goal monitoring, reinforcement) to manage their own writing behaviors just as skilled writers do. Model how you would use these skills to direct your own writing process.

11. Create a community of support. Make sure the students have ample opportunity to see and hear what their fellow classmates are composing. Have students assist each other with planning, revising, and editing.

12. Make writing tasks shared and authentic. Share writing orally or through a classroom display. Find opportunities for students to write for real purposes outside of the classroom. Use dialogue journals.

13. Give students a choice. Self-selected writing topics are often much more stimulating for students. You may want to provide a general area, for example the colonists at Jamestown, and then have your students select their particular areas of interest. You could also schedule open writing topics where students set both the genre (persuasive, narrative) and the topic.

14. Teach revising. Explain to your students the importance of revising. Many students consider a piece finished after the first draft; however, for most writers it takes multiple drafts to convey one's ideas to others in a way they will understand and appreciate. Explain that skilled writers spend considerable time revising what they have written to make the meaning clearer to others; the more skilled the writer, the greater proportion of time he or she will give to revising (Hayes & Flowers, 1986).

15. Teach the four structural levels of revision. Include practice with revising four levels of text:

1. overall text structure,

2. paragraph structure,

3. sentence structure (syntax), and

4. word structure (Rohr, 1994).

Your choice of which level to start with will be dictated by problems your students experience with their own writing. However, you could start with more global issues at the beginning of the year, such as overall text structure, and work downward through a series of minilessons.

16. Talk about writing through conferencing. Although writing is primarily a solitary activity, in that a writer may work alone, it is also a collaborative effort as the same writer needs to draw on ideas of others while using a language evolved within the greater society (Sharpies, 1999). Help your students draw on the ideas of others by establishing a system of external feedback through classroom writing conferences with you, their peers, or outside experts. Use short, frequent conferences with students to plan what to write, monitor progress of writing, discuss content, and evaluate finished products. Have students' conference with each other also. The feedback they receive through these conferences can then become the fuel for revisions your students make in their text.

17. Conduct whole-class revising sessions. In addition to peer conferencing, whole-class revising can also be a great method to strengthen your students' revising abilities and help create a community-wide support network for authors. Work through sections of sample student papers line-by-line and word-by-word if necessary on the overhead projector. Provide copies of revised stories as guides or partially revised stories that could be completed. As classmates suggest revisions and point out sources of confusion, the author of the paper learns where his or her ideas are ambiguous or where words are unclear or imprecise; the entire class benefits from the dialogue. This activity could also be conducted in small-groups or dyads that report back to the whole class.

18. Create an assembly line. Plan to have multiple pieces of writing being composed in your classroom at all times. Students should have several pieces in various stages of composition, with something always being planned, written, revised, or published, much as an assembly line will always have products in various stages of assemblage. Students may be writing a short mystery story while at the same time crafting a poem or creating a telegram to a historical character. Having multiple pieces in progress simultaneously allows your students to break from a problematic piece and clear their minds while focusing on something else. Students, however, still maintain the habit of producing text.

19. Integrate reflective pauses. By having multiple pieces at work simultaneously, you can incorporate reflective pauses between episodes of writing and revising a certain piece. Students might begin one piece, then break to start another. When they return to the first piece, their minds may be clear and refreshed, and they may be able to push the piece further along. They should review and reflect on the decisions they have made to that point, then incorporate the responses they received during conferences with teachers and other students. Before they finish a piece, they may rewrite through several reflective pause intervals until they are satisfied that the piece reflects what they intend.

20. Teach the difference between editing and revising. Help your students understand that editing and revising are related, but different. Revising includes making a message fit what you want to say and what an audience needs. Editing is actually polishing the already finished product by correcting punctuation and checking spelling. Keep these two processes distinct in the minds of your students by letting them conduct a final edit only when all revisions have been completed and checked by you or a peer.

Persons interested in submitting material for 20 Ways To ... should contact Robin H. Lock, College of Education, Box 41071, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 76409-1701.


Berninger, V. W. (1993). Preventing and remediating writing disabilities: Interdisciplinary frameworks for assessment, consultation, and intervention. School Psychology Review, 22, 590-594.

Christenson, S. L., Thurlow, M. L., Ysseldyke, J. E., & McVicar, R. (1989). Written language instruction for students with mild handicaps: Is there enough quantity to endure quality? Learning Disability Quarterly, 12, 219-229.

Graham, S. (1982). Composition research and practice: A unified approach. Focus on Exceptional Children, 14, 1-16.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (1988). Instructional recommendations for teaching writing to exceptional children. Exceptional Children, 54, 506-512.

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., Mason, L., & Saddler, B. (2002). Developing self-regulated writers. Theory Into Practice, 41, 110-115.

Hayes, J. R., & Flowers, L. S. (1986) Writing research and the writer. American Psychologist, 41, 106-113.

Linkletter, A. (1962). Kids sure rite funny. New York: Random House.

Martlew, M. (Ed.). (1983). The psychology of written language: Developmental and educational perspectives. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Rohr, H. M. (1994) Writing: Its evolution and relation to speech. Brockmeyer, Germany: Universitatsverlag Dr. Norbert.

Saddler, B., Moran, S., Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (in press). Preventing writing difficulties: The effects of planning strategy instruction on the writing performance of struggling writers. Exceptionality.

Sharpies, M. (1999). How we write: Writing as creative design. New York: Routledge.

Strong, W. (1986). Creative approaches to sentence combining. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and the National Council of Teachers of English.


Bruce Saddler, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include writing disabilities, self-regulation, and inclusion. Address: Bruce Saddler, Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222.