Over the past few months, a central initiative in our school has been improving writing, with a special focus on helping students learn to develop their ideas. We’ve discussed countless strategies, from teaching them to incorporate specific material, such as a statistic, to examining model paragraphs. Here are a few strategies that have helped my students:
Practice, Practice, and More Practice
Often, I find that students don’t develop ideas in their writing because they lack fluency of ideas. What does that mean? Just as we want students to become fluent readers, we want them to be able to adeptly formulate ideas and get them into written form. And just as reading fluency takes daily practice, building writing fluency requires frequent practice. Students need to write about their learning and their ideas, in some way, every day. This does not have to be fancy, difficult, or hard to grade. Three sentences on a concept. A short paragraph on a reading. A directed prompt – What is the central idea of this text? How do you know? It’s all practice, and it all builds fluency.
Formula, Formula, Formula
As an English teacher, I’ve read my share of poorly written, formulaic writings. So why suggest teaching kids a formula for writing? The same reason I give when a student finds a fragment in a novel and asks why he can’t use them. Because in order to break the rules as a writer, you have to understand the rules so you can break them effectively. Plus, using a formula to teach development presents my expectations for their writing up front. If I want students to state an idea, follow it up with evidence, explain that evidence, and perhaps elaborate on the explanation . . . I need to tell them that. I need to teach them that formula – Idea, Evidence, Explain, Elaborate – then provide them with plenty of opportunities to practice. Once they’ve mastered the basic formula, we can begin to explore creative ways to combine those elements in well-developed, well-written pieces.
Remember that one of the strategies we tossed around as a faculty was modeling well-developed paragraphs. Color-coding takes that idea one step further. With a model paragraph, the class assigns colors to the different pieces of the paragraph – topic, idea, evidence, explanation, elaboration, conclusion. This allows them to see the construction of the development. Then, they color-code their own writing. I can check this formatively to see who understands the parts, and the students can easily see where their paragraphs lack development as well as what type of development is needed – evidence, explanation, etc. As one of my eighth graders said, “Color-coding helped me to see what I was doing wrong.”
As a result of these strategies, I can see my students growing as writers, and their writing is more developed than back in August.
What strategies do you use to teach writing development?