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Learning to write – it’s time to change how we teach

Author Helen Walls discusses the benefits of learning to write, reevaluates current teaching approaches and uses research to identify methods that better serve students.
How to teach writing

Learning to write brings many benefits to education, work and life yet achievement rates are low. Teachers, it’s time to re-evaluate current teaching approaches, and look to the research to identify methods that will better serve our students.

Why prioritise learning to write?

Writing instruction contributes to the development of a wide range of skills and attributes. Teaching handwriting helps to secure letter knowledge in long-term memory; teaching spelling enhances decoding skill; and writing about what we read improves memory and comprehension.

More profoundly, writing has long been acknowledged as a tool for thinking, in that when writing we articulate reasoned arguments and gain opportunities for creativity and self-expression.

Learning to write – the ongoing influence of process writing

Given the importance of learning to write, low rates of achievement in many countries are cause for concern. A contributing factor appears to be the continuing influence of process writing – Donald Graves’ approach to teaching writing that was influential during the 1970s and 1980s, despite a lack of empirical evidence to support it. While the term ‘process writing’ has now fallen out of favour with classroom teachers, research suggests that use of some of Graves’ methods is still widespread.

Here I present five such methods for learning to write – common in many classrooms – that limit student progress in writing. For each of these methods, I also present an evidence-based alternative. Practising this suite of small changes could positively transform student achievement in writing at your school.

Change 1: Swap out personal recounts for more interesting topics

Graves told teachers that personal experiences were the best inspiration for writing. Yet this kind of writing encourages an unsophisticated ‘recall and write’ process, and often results in a boring story.

Instead, set tasks that relate to the big, wide world: reports about dinosaurs, volcanoes, apex predators or the solar system; narratives set under the sea, in a dark forest or among ancient ruins. Plan these tasks carefully. For non-fiction topics, integrate writing with other curriculum areas so that students work with the knowledge before writing about it. For narratives, prepare your model carefully and consider the challenges your students will face as they come to write their own.

Change 2: Instead of a free-flow drafting process, teach your students to read and check every sentence as they write

Graves told us that writing was a staged process: plan, then draft, then edit and finally publish. As part of this process, the first draft happens in a ‘free flow’ way.

In contrast, empirical researchers have described the writing process as a ‘juggling act’. Skilled writers plan and modify their planning, even as they come to write their final paragraph. They re-read and revise throughout the drafting process – from the very first sentence. This continual checking and refining increases self-awareness, which leads to higher-quality writing for both surface and deeper features.

So, instead of encouraging free-flow drafting, we must teach students to think of a sentence, write it and check it immediately, asking questions such as: Does it sound the way I want it to sound? Does it have a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end?

Change 3: Prioritise technical skills in the early years and teach them explicitly, every day

Theorists such as Graves de-emphasised the importance of teaching handwriting and spelling, telling teachers to instead prioritise the expressive aspects of writing.

However, numerous empirical studies have shown that if a student does not master the technical skills, implementing them will occupy all of the student’s working memory and make it impossible for them to focus on anything else (including the ideas they wish to express).

So teach handwriting and spelling every day. Teach these skills explicitly and closely monitor your students as they practise. This will have massive pay-offs for writing achievement and motivation, and will support reading development too.

Change 4: Instead of invented spelling, use co-constructed spelling

In many classrooms, when students ask how to spell a word, the teacher tells them to listen to the sounds and write what they think. And while it’s true that listening to sounds is a good starting point for spelling, what happens if a student doesn’t have the knowledge to record those sounds? At best, this approach leads them to record an incorrect approximation. At worst, it’s a killer for motivation, as the student sits anxiously, reluctant to try in case they make a mistake.

A much better option is to use co-constructed spelling. When students ask you how to spell a word, support them to segment the word into sounds, prompt them to apply their existing knowledge of sound–letter correspondences and then show them the rest of the word.

Erase mistakes instead of crossing out mistakes when learning to write

Change 5: Teach students to use erasers, rather than crossing out, to make tidy corrections as they write

Graves told us to have students cross out errors instead of erasing, supposedly to keep up the ‘flow’ of the first draft. However, skilled writing is not free-flow writing – checking and correcting are important skills in the writing process. Unfortunately, crossing out makes checking difficult as the page becomes cluttered, messy and difficult to read. This practice can also be a problem for motivation as many children want a tidy page and feel self-conscious about sharing writing when all their errors are still visible.

So teachers, it’s time to bring back the eraser. Keep one in your pocket for the first few months of the year and give students their own when they are ready.

Make these changes and students will love learning to write

Process writing practices are so pervasive that teachers and leaders often take them for granted, failing to consider other options. But rates of student achievement are at an all-time low, and many students are reluctant to write at all. Have a go with these suggested changes and watch your students thrive. Teaching writing will feel exciting, and writing lessons will become a highlight of every school day.

About the author

Dr Helen Walls is a professional learning facilitator and educational researcher, with 20 years’ experience working in schools. She is committed to raising achievement in writing by sharing evidence-based, practical methods to engage every student. Helen is managing director of The Writing Teacher, a consultancy that provides writing workshops and resources for teachers, all accessible online. She is also a member of the Massey University school support team. For her PhD thesis, Helen conducted two empirical studies into the teaching of writing, which included a trial of the Fast Feedback Formative Evaluation System outlined in this book. She has published with The Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties and The Education Hub.

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5 thoughts on “Learning to write – it’s time to change how we teach”

  1. Jannette Harrison

    Am interested in doing a writing workshop on how to teach writing in a junior school

    1. Essential Resources

      That’s great to hear Janette, we have one coming in the next few months. In the meantime, we can highly recommend Helen Wall’s latest book How to Teach Writing, Spelling and Grammar, as it includes clear steps for building the teacher knowledge required to teach tricky aspects of writing (such as sentence structures) and makes workable recommendations for classroom practice.

    2. Hi Jannette – thanks for your interest. I have two online workshops coming up. More will come later with Essential Resources. Check out my website for details: thewritingteacher.net

  2. Hi

    I am really interested in purchasing Helen’s book mentioned in the comments above. Can you please tell me where this is available from and cost.

    Many Thanks
    Sharyn

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