Before we can or should characterize a student writer as “struggling,” it is essential to consider what steps have been already taken to develop and support the writer. When we think about response to intervention models, considering the instruction provided for the student is key. Students should not be labeled if their weaknesses resulted from deficits in instruction. Therefore, the type of writing instruction provided in the regular classroom should be evaluated.
But what does quality writing instruction look like in the regular classroom environment? The following questions are important to consider when evaluating classroom writing instruction.
- How often are students provided with opportunities to write? Are students writing daily? Weekly? Rarely? Only for assessment purposes? Is there a culture of writing in the classroom or is writing just an item to be checked off in a daily lesson plan?
- What types of writing are encouraged? Are students limited to short responses to their reading? Do they just write to complete worksheets and to answer questions? Are they encouraged to write in a variety of genres? Do they produce only formulaic pieces? How much choice is offered?
- Are students engaged in writing across the curriculum? Is writing separated from all areas of the curriculum or is it integrated through the school day?
- How are students provided with feedback about their writing? Do students have opportunities to confer with the teacher about their writing? What do conferences look like? How does the teacher approach conferences with student-writers? Does the teacher provide written feedback? Verbal feedback? A combination of written and verbal feedback?
- Does the teacher provide whole-group instruction? Small-group instruction? Mini lessons? Does the teacher provide a combination of these instructional formats?
- What does the writing process look like in the classroom? How are students guided through this process? What types of support are available to students? Are students provided with modeling and guided practice?
- Do students have the opportunity to share their work with others? What opportunities are provided for this purpose? Are these opportunities limited to the classroom?
- How is technology incorporated into writing instruction and activities? What tools are available for teachers and students?
- Has the teacher been provided with ample opportunities for professional development in the area of writing? Does the teacher take advantage of these opportunities?
- Is the teacher a writer? This statement doesn’t mean that the teacher has to be a formally published author or have certain credentials, but teachers who write serve as powerful models for their students by not only writing with their students, but also through sharing their writing. They can “practice what they preach.”
The answers to these questions can stimulate conversations and encourage an honest assessment of classroom writing instruction. We have to provide students with the best environment in order for them to grow as writers. Our students deserve nothing less.
Writing is a topic that either instills joy or fear in teachers. For some educators, teaching writing may feel like a daunting task. The awareness of the importance of writing is often tempered by feelings of inadequacy. How do you teach writing? Which methods or approaches are the best to use with students? How do you teach writing if you do not consider yourself to be a writer?
For most of my life, I’ve described myself as a writer. In the second grade, I entered the PTA Reflections contest and won an honorable mention for a piece of writing. My dream was to be a published author. During elementary and middle school, I filled up notebook after notebook with stories. There was a blip from high school to my mid-twenties when I didn’t write, but that’s a story for another time. However, when I first started teaching, I knew little, if anything, about providing writing instruction for students. As a teacher working with students who struggled with literacy, many of my students found writing to be a challenge. I knew my personal history as a writer, but I didn’t know what to do to not only encourage my students to see themselves as writers, but also to develop their skills and strategies. I also discovered that some of my “struggling readers” had amazing ideas and grasped storytelling, but their limited ability with the mechanical aspects of writing often meant that their thoughts were lost in a maze of grammatical and spelling errors. Handwriting issues also affected their messages. Those children had so much to share, but didn’t have the tools to do so.
When provided with opportunities to push into classrooms, I recognized that the struggling readers in my intervention groups were not the only ones who found writing challenging. Students described as “average” or “above average” were not always comfortable with writing. Their writing sometimes mirrored that of the students in my intervention groups and they needed additional support. While these students do not need to participate in reading interventions, they do need writing. Thankfully, my master’s and doctoral programs did address writing. I discovered research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and others. I also discovered online communities that supported and enhanced my writing professional development (twowritingteachers.org, teachwrite.org). I look forward to sharing this information in future posts!
Providing quality instruction is a basic tenet of response to intervention. This emphasis, however, may not always include or address the type of writing instruction provided for all students. We need to examine writing instruction in addition to reading instruction to ensure that all students receive quality writing instruction. Therefore, teachers should be provided with opportunities for professional development that reflects best practices in writing. Administrators, reading specialists, and coaches at the building and division levels can provide support for classroom teachers to ensure that all student writers benefit from exemplary instruction. I look forward to sharing information and ideas about how we can all collaborate to create environments where our student-writers can thrive.