Three Ways to Support Educators Who Hate to Teach Writing
“Another English teacher just switched to gym because she couldn’t do it anymore,” a teacher from Georgia recently told me. “I love teaching and helping kids grow,” she added, “but I hate that writing instruction takes up hours and hours of my life.” She’s not alone in her sentiments. A 2016 study of 3rd to 8th grade educators found that only 55% of teachers said they enjoy teaching writing.
I spent years working at Google, and the skills that were critical to my success may surprise you.
9% of writing assignments in grades six to eight include long form writing. The lack of practice adds up; by 8th grade, just 27% of students are at or above a proficient level of writing.
This issue is only going to gain significance as writing becomes more crucial to college and career readiness. In my own professional life, some of my most challenging work is coordinating across different teams, writing clear communication and project plans, and problem solving.
I spent years working at Google, and the skills that were critical to my success may surprise you. In a rigorous analysis of employee performance, Google found STEM skills have the lowest impact on employee success. Instead, the organization values traits like critical thinking, empathy, and thoughtful communication—above STEM competencies. This echoes findings from other research, which has shown that workers with better writing skills make fewer mistakes overall and get paid more, and that employers list writing as one of the top three skills they look for on a college resume.
From a survey of 92 sixth, seventh and eighth grade teachers from two large urban schools in the U.S. Source: Checking In: Do Classrooms Assignments Reflect Today’s Standards? by The Education Trust, 2015.
So what can we do? I’ve spent the past year at eSpark Learning, researching how writing is taught nationwide and identifying areas in which technology can address some of the challenges educators face in building stronger writers. I’ve spoken with hundreds of teachers, and along the way I’ve seen a few creative ways that districts are tackling these challenges and supporting effective writing instruction. Here are highlights from these conversations:
To learn how to deepen writing instruction in your district and build 21st century skills at scale, download the ebook, Writing for Creative and Critical Thinking.
1. Challenge: “Kids hate writing.”
One teacher from Pennsylvania told us she organized a “book tasting” for students, complete with tablecloths and candlesticks.
I hear this over and over again from teachers. One sixth grade teacher told me, “Many of my students are reluctant writers. In sixth grade, we focus on grammar, which can be boring for students.”
Another teacher from Pennsylvania told me her students struggle with writing because the tasks and prompts they are given to write about don’t relate to their interests or experiences. Some of the writing prompts haven’t changed for generations. How many kids want to write yet another essay on whether the cafeteria should serve chocolate milk?
Solution: Provide students with choice—and topics that interest them.
Many of the topics in standard curriculum aren’t engaging or meaningful to students. Teachers I talked with said their solution is to “trick” students into writing by giving them engaging choices that make them forget that their writing project is an assignment. Students get excited when they are writing about real world issues like extreme weather, mars exploration or sports heroes—especially when they have some choice in the process.
One teacher from Pennsylvania told us she organized a “book tasting” for students, complete with tablecloths and candlesticks. Students were able to choose different books to taste and were excited about writing responses. Another sixth grade teacher made up a mystery about Bigfoot and had students write the ending.
Technology can also go a long way towards addressing issues of student engagement. Many teachers told us that their students simply prefer writing on computers versus on paper. Google Docs and Slides, especially, allow them some creativity and the ability to easily revise and edit their drafts.
I believe the first step in building better writers has to be getting kids to start enjoying the process but teachers often don’t have enough time to create all the resources necessary to do this themselves.
2. Challenge: “I am just not comfortable teaching writing.”
I believe the first step in building better writers has to be getting kids to start enjoying the process . . .
One teacher shared, “I personally have not had tons of training on how to teach writing. It’s uncomfortable.” According to a 2016 study, only a third of third to eighth grade teachers have taken a college class specifically about how to teach writing.
A fifth grade teacher from Wisconsin told me that there’s a lack of consistency in classroom instruction. “What writing looks like in one classroom is so different than another,” she explained. “With reading or math or science we are all covering the same curriculum so it looks the same. Writing instruction is so dependent on teacher and comfort level.”
Solution: Give teachers relevant tools, time and training.
Teachers often have multiple professional development sessions and resources to support instruction for reading and math. But most teachers aren’t receiving the support and tools they need to lead strong writing lessons. Providing teachers with direct training is critical to growth.
Elizabeth Forward, a visionary school district in Pennsylvania, is using a strategy school leaders call “cold writes” to build writing skills in both teachers and students. Four times a year, the district’s teachers give all their students a writing prompt about something they have already taught. The teachers then bring those responses to a professional development session where they read work across the grade level and discuss strengths and areas for development. This helps teachers understand how how to evaluate student work, while providing feedback that nurtures growth and motivation.
To empower teacher-leaders to nurture a culture of writing, watch the webinar, How to Build a District Culture of Writing.
3. Challenge: “I dread grading papers all weekend.”
. . . most teachers aren’t receiving the support and tools they need to lead strong writing lessons.
Nearly every teacher I spoke with brought up the challenge of giving students feedback and monitoring writing growth. Kristen Stowers, a teacher from Georgia, said, “measuring writing progress” is difficult. And “grading writing is very subjective.”
Another teacher told us that grading was “the most painful horrible thing,” and that consequently “kids are not writing enough—only one major paper a quarter” in her classroom.
Solution: Establish clear goals and monitoring to help guide instruction.
Grading can be a lot faster when it is more objective. Many districts start the process of measuring writing by identifying a consistent writing rubric or student exemplars. This can be a big relief to teachers who struggle to create student-friendly guidelines around grading expectations.
Stowers recommends that teachers hold writing conferences with students in order to gauge where they are and help them improve. The DOE’s What Works Clearinghouse suggests clustering students according to the mistakes they commonly make and tracking progress at the group level.
Technology can make evaluating and tracking easier. It can also facilitate sharing feedback with educators across a grade, school or district. For district leaders used to relying on the state assessment for data on writing performance, implementing a consistent way to digitally track student writing can be transformative. “It is hard to know how we are doing on writing and where specifically we need to improve,” an administrator in Georgia told me. “There are so many tools to track reading and math, but very few for writing.”
Theresa Conley, a 6th grade teacher at Propel Schools in Pittsburgh wanted to give teachers the feedback and support they need to become stronger writers, but there weren’t enough hours in the day for her to get through all the papers she needed to grade. “I only have 40 minutes to prep each day, and that’s often taken up by meetings. I’d like to be able to give more specific feedback, but I am often only able to skim and scan,” she told me.
. . . implementing a consistent way to digitally track student writing can be transformative.
To help teachers like Theresa, my team at eSpark Learning built Frontier, a platform of engaging digital lessons that guides students and teachers through every stage of the writing process—from online research to extended revision. I love going into classrooms and seeing kids asking to spend more time on Frontier; they’re so wrapped up in learning more about topics like self-driving cars or the NBA that they don’t even realize they’re building writing and critical thinking skills.
It’s also been exciting to see teachers thrive as the more stressful, time consuming aspects of writing instruction are taken off of their plates. After receiving a writing feedback report for her class, Theresa felt less overwhelmed and more excited to teach writing. She shares, “One of my students who typically flies under the radar was finally able to get some well deserved recognition. Frontier helped me address specific issues with other students, things like transitions and run-on sentences.” Automating complicated, subjective processes like grading and initial feedback frees up teachers to provide students with the targeted support they need to become thoughtful, confident writers.
Through my research with teachers and district leaders, I’ve learned that writing is a subject that deserves a unique approach, resources and training. Perhaps most importantly, we need to find ways to make writing fun and approachable in the classroom—for both teachers and students.
Sample Writing Lessons for Your Teachers
- 3rd Grade Informational Writing: How do we describe the earth’s oceans?
- 4th Grade Informational Writing: Can plants and animals survive without each other?
- 5th Grade Narrative Writing: How do germs help or harm us?
- 6th Grade Narrative Writing: Who were the Greek gods?
- 7th Grade Informational Writing: How is social media used in times of crisis?
- 8th Grade Informational Writing: What makes “Hamilton: An American Musical” so unique?
Author: Priya Mathew
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