"Building" Awesome Writers & a Freebie!

Building Great Writers

Over the past 15 years of teaching English to middle school students, I have worked diligently and rigorously on alleviating my frustrations when teaching and reviewing writing.  Every year I start out with the same expectations (alright, maybe a dream) that my students will write an articulate first essay that is sprinkled with strong verbs and adjectives, constructed with a solid structure, and speckled with flowing sentences that are craftily placed. However, my hopes soon become a pipe dream, as my students still struggle with the same skills-writing a solid introduction, conclusion, and lengthening their sentences to sound more fluid, refined and sophisticated. I know they learned these techniques the year prior, and I ask myself, why are these skills not sticking, and what can I do to fix this…quickly? I thought I would share with you how I have learned and created successful and fluent writers, as well as the techniques, tricks, and tips that seem to work.

First, my motto is to engage, simplify and excite.  Let me be frank.  As much as we want to think so, most middle school students do not like to write, especially structured essays; therefore, creating exciting and engaging writing lessons, which simplifies the process, is always my first task.  I have turned the parts of an introduction into a silly acronym-Give The Toddler The Cookie (Grabber, Transitional Sentence, TAG, Thesis Statement and Concluding Sentence). The acronym for the body paragraph is TALES-Topic Sentence, Add an example/Claim, Lift a line/Cite a line from the text, Elaborate and Sum it up. I have my students repeat and practice this over and over until it is engrained in their mind, and crazy enough, they can recall it very easily!

Secondly, scaffolding the writing process is so important, and as teachers, we can’t always expect them to know everything. One can easily use the metaphor that writing is a building process.  A teacher has to start from the foundation to build higher-level writing techniques; in other words, a teacher has to start with the basics, practice the basics, to move to the next step or floor. Therefore, I start all the way in the basement with more sophisticated words and sentences. We work on replacing “dead words”, lengthening sentences with compound and complex sentences and choosing more sophisticated words. In essence, these small techniques produce better paragraphs.  I then move onto technique and structure.  I build the foundation of an introduction, a body paragraph and a conclusion. This does not happen overnight.  This is a good week and half process that consists of a lot (A LOT) of practice and mastery.  Once we practice this, we move onto the harder items like citations and elaboration.

Lastly, when I was in elementary school, I distinctly remember practicing skills repeatedly until I mastered the skill (Do you remember writing the script “S” over and over?).  Unfortunately, because we are short on time and our curriculums are more complex and riddled with work, we don’t have the time to spend with our students to teach them how to master a skill.  In education today, it is about teaching a skill, quickly moving onto the next subject and covering the curriculum.  I firmly believe in mastering a skill.  How can I expect my students to write well if I only taught and practiced the techniques of writing once? Therefore, when I teach writing, if I have to quiz my students every day for two weeks on the acronym “TALES” and what it stands for, this is what I will do until all the students get it correct and MASTER the skill.

 FREEBIE!         Right from the beginning of the year, I have my students write out a model-planning page for themselves, that they can apply to any class.  As a “Do Now”, I will have them practice writing their planning page over and over without any assistance, until they have it completely memorized. Sometimes I will grade their planning page, and sometimes I will have them just write it out for practice.  All in all, the repetition is essential to commit these items to memory.

If you notice, there is a common theme here, and that is scaffolding, practice, and repetition.  If you are constantly and consistently jogging your students’ memory on the same skills, it will eventually become embedded in their brain bank. It’s easy: build a writing structure for your students, practice, and repeat the process again until it is mastered. You will then begin to see the amazing changes in your students’ writing.

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