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Preparing Students to be Better Writers

Prepare Students to Be Better Writers

In our last blog post, we described the shift to reading untraditional texts in the Common Core ELA Standards. This week, we are looking at another important shift in the Standards to three types of writing based on the new Writing Frameworks and assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): Argument/Persuasive, Informational/Explanatory, and Narrative.

The ELA Standards were developed in part based on the results of the NAEP and Writing Frameworks assessments of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders (only 8th and 12th for the latter). The results from 2011 are eye opening: only 27% of 8th graders were proficient, 54% were basic, 20% were below basic, and 3% were advanced. For 12th graders, the results were similarly disappointing: 24% were proficient, 52% scored basic, 21% below basic, and just 3% were advanced (note: NAEP rounds these percentages up, which is why they add up to 104%).

While these results show the need for greater and more effective writing instruction, there were some key takeaways. Students who write 4-5 pages per week for English class scored higher than those who didn’t, and students who used computers more frequently to draft and revise their writing scored higher.

Since these are just a few of the best practices associated with greater writing ability, we have compiled some other key strategies to get your students ready for writing – whether you teach English, math, science, or social studies/history.

1. Know the Percentages

The chart below shows the focused writing types and percentages for students by grade level on the NAEP assessment. Regardless of the subject matter you teach, you can engage your students in writing in any of the three writing types several times a week. If you are a math teacher you can ask students to write about how an equation was solved. If you teach science you can have students write a persuasive piece about a hypothesis, or if you teach history teacher you can engage students in writing a pro or con essay based on a key historical event.

GradeArgument/PersuasionInformative/ExplanatoryConvey Experience/Narrative
430%35%35%
835%35%30%
1240%40%20%

2. Know the Assessment 

While we do not promote teaching to the test, the NAEP website has many sample prompts, which you can use in your classroom to provide opportunities for writing practice. We have provided a few of our favorite examples below.

Grade 4 Persuasive Writing Prompt Sample:

Imagine that students at your school are going to select a new school mascot. A mascot is an animal or object used to represent a group. For example, many sports teams have mascots.

Four choices are being considered as your school’s mascot: Tigers, Rising Stars, Dolphins, and Rockets. You have been asked to choose one of the four mascots and to support your choice in a letter to the school principal. Write a letter to your principal convincing him or her that your choice should be the school mascot. Be sure to include reasons and examples in your letter.

Grade 8 Narrative Writing Prompt Sample:

Teen Life, a magazine for young adults, has announced a writing contest for middle school students. The theme of the contest is “Achieving Goals.” The magazine has published the following contest instructions: Teen Life wants to hear about the experiences of young people who have achieved goals. To enter, write about a memorable moment in your life when you achieved a goal you set for yourself. All successful responses will need to clearly convey the experience of achieving a goal so that the reader can fully understand the experience and its importance. The staff of Teen Life will select a winner, which will be published in next month’s issue. Write a response for the contest, describing an experience of achieving a goal and the importance of that experience to your life. Be sure to include details in your response that help readers understand your experience and its importance.

Grade 12 Explanatory Prompt Sample:

Members of your community, including local leaders and the mayor, are concerned about civic awareness and town pride. In order to open a dialogue with area residents, your local newspaper is inviting residents to respond to a question civic leaders have debated: “What makes a good community?” The newspaper wants those who respond to define a good community and to explain what elements are needed to create a good community. Responses to this question will be read by members of the city council, including the mayor, and used to support their efforts to improve civic awareness and town pride. Write a response for the newspaper in which you define a good community and explain what elements make a good community. Be sure to use specific examples and details to explain your ideas.

3. Show Exemplars

In order to be successful, students need to know what they are being assessed on and what success looks like. You can do this by sharing the NAEP’s Holistic Scoring Guides (Appendix C2) with your students as well as by sharing some of the student sample responses. We suggest providing students samples and rubrics of a prompt, so they can self- or peer-assess.

4. Collaborate

This shift to an increased focus on these three types of writing requires increased collaboration between English and content area teachers. We suggest setting up a Professional Learning Community or collaborative group focused on improving writing instruction and learning. English teachers can share rubrics, graphic organizer, and protocols and content area teachers can provide key strategies and prompts to support informative/explanatory writing tied to their subjects.

5. Use Technology & Supports

One of the easiest ways to encourage student writing is to allow your students to use technology. For many students, revising a draft on a computer of tablet is much easier that doing so manually. In addition, you can provide graphic organizers to your struggling writers to scaffold the writing process. The International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English have hundreds of excellent online resources.

For more information or ideas about teaching writing, check out the National Writing Project, the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, the Reading and Writing Project, or one of our writing courses

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