Although writing is a ubiquitous feature of students’ schooling experience, its complexity is often overlooked.
The purpose of this article is to discuss some ways of navigating writing instruction that make life easier for both teachers and students. The strategies shared are largely drawn from a 2019 qualitative school study, which builds on the growing body of research that underscores the value of student talk to learning (Alexander, 2008).
What do I mean by academic writing?
Nonfiction prose that conventionally takes the form of a sentence, paragraph, essay, report, or multimodal presentation.
Writing is often taught in a didactic fashion. There is a tendency for educators to make many of the decisions when dealing with writing tasks in the classroom. We all know that feeling of having rich discussions in our weekly lessons only to make a switch during assessment crunch time to more teacher-driven lessons—a switch that tends to coincide with the introduction of a writing task. This often comes from a desire to help students to succeed and feel supported throughout the writing process.
Here I make a radical proposal: place the writing onus back on students.
How you might ask? Where and when is there time to do this? Can my students really be trusted with this level of responsibility? Yes, your students really are capable of doing this. It just might require a few shifts in how you think about and approach writing instruction.
Step 1: Help students see all writing as an argument
One of the central challenges facing student writing is a lack of understanding. Even though students write across all year levels and subjects, it can feel like they are scrambling to grasp what is required of them each time. While they might be able to recite the latest catchall phrase or acronym, this by no means necessitates that they understand what they are doing.
A simple but powerful way of clarifying students’ understanding of academic writing is to frame this type of writing as a process of argument. In other words, regardless of the particularities of the genre, the common requirement that runs across writing tasks is staking a claim and providing an explanation and justification for this claim, i.e. the provision of reason.
Whether students are writing a report, a paragraph, or an essay a fundamental component of their jobs as writers is to make a case to their reader regarding the given topic or task.
If students can grasp the importance of arguments to writing and are given the opportunity to engage in argumentation with one another, then they will be well on their way to constructing a logical piece of text.
Step 2: Involve students in the decision-making
When it comes to writing tasks provide students with the opportunity to think things through for themselves before you do any telling. For example, let us say your students are writing an essay. Assuming that they have written in that genre before, you could ask them to come up with a structure in groups that could be used to guide their essays. Then, as a class, share the various proposed structures and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Throughout this process, not only are students refining their own understanding of essay writing but you, as the teacher, are also provided with a powerful window into your students’ understanding of the task.
This, in turn, provides an opportunity to front-end and troubleshoot any areas of confusion, enabling your students to proceed with greater clarity during the planning and drafting process. This is just one example of the many ways that we can provide students with the opportunity to collaboratively think things through when writing prior to formal input.
Step 3: Empower students with a language of feedback
A final recommendation is to speak a common language when discussing writing. The aim here is to develop students’ capacity to both give and use feedback meaningfully. While there are various ways of doing this, I recommend the values of inquiry (Ellerton, 2016), which consist of the following qualities: significance, relevance, depth, breadth, accuracy, precision, clarity and coherence.
No matter your subject, criteria sheet or ISMG, for a piece of writing to be effective it needs to fulfil these qualities. By helping students to recognise that they want to explore the most significant information in depth in their paragraphs, or that they should only include relevant information in their reports, we can empower them to make more informed decisions throughout the writing process.
While academic writing will never stop being difficult, there are a range of things that we can do as teachers to support students to be more engaged and cognisant throughout the process. This article is just a starting point. The real action happens in the classroom.
Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogical teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (Fourth). Dialogos UK Ltd.
Ellerton, P. (2016). The skills and values of inquiry: Realising critical thinking in pedagogy. The Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education.