How to Boost Your Students’ Writing Skills: What the Experts Say

You teach math, science, PE or history but are still expected to boost your students’ writing skills. In fact, the district wants higher writing test scores.

Teachers know they need to focus on writing, but that doesn’t make teaching the concept any easier. There’s a lot of “you should” advice that doesn’t actually provide the tools teachers need.

Let’s focus on the how.

Here are some proven, tangible methods to make writing more enjoyable for students and to effectively improve their skills. Start by rethinking how you approach writing and then apply these tools to your lesson plans.

Focus on Teaching Writing as a Skill

The first thing to consider when you are directed to raise writing scores is how you teach writing. While writing is a muscle that grows the more you use it, students need skills and strategies to put those muscles to work. Too often, teachers aren’t equipped to actually teach writing as a skill.

“Students need support in their writing,” says Dana Robertson, an associate professor of reading and literacy at Virginia Tech. “They need to be taught explicitly the skills and strategies of writing and they need to see the connections of reading, writing, and knowledge development.”

Approach writing with the same thought process as driving a car or using a computer. Unless someone shows you how to check your blind spot or how to choose search terms in Google, your ability to use either tool is limited. The same goes for writing. Without clear instructions on how to write, students can’t use the tools they are given.

“Partway through my teaching career, when I stopped to think about how many cumulative hours I spent teaching them stuff in a school year, I realized that the amount of time I spent teaching them how to write well was alarmingly small,” writes Meghan Brubaker at The Dock.

Once students have these skills, they can apply them throughout their school careers and their lives. They can effectively sort their thoughts and place them in logical formats that communicate their ideas.

“Writing is the foundation skill that students require to understand and communicate what they are learning across all their school subjects, and one of the most important skills in working life,” says Jenny Donovan, CEO of the Australian Education Research Organisation.

Girl writing in notebook outside; students writing skills concept

Writing Across Curricula

So how do you actually teach students to write? Start by establishing a connection between ideas and words. Writing is a superhighway for communicating emotions, beliefs, desires and plans. Students first need to gather their thoughts before they can write them.

“Think of the writing-across-the-curriculum definition as a set of teaching and learning strategies that were designed to encourage educators across all content areas to use writing as a tool for thinking,” writes Troy Hicks, a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University.

There are many ways to actually teach kids how to write as a way of thinking. One option by K-2 teacher Susan Jones is to have students say what they want to write first. “Saying our ideas aloud is often used as a pre-writing strategy, and students tend to benefit from telling stories orally first before moving on to drawing and writing,” she explains.

What starts in kindergarten can be applied to almost every grade. If you are teaching high school seniors how to write persuasive essays, start by having them state an opinion out loud and give three reasons why they think it’s true. Now that student has a thesis and outline they can use to write their essay.

Teaching students how to think about their writing allows them to take a step back from sorting sentences and creating systematic essays. This method will allow them to learn the rules of writing — and then discover when to break those rules effectively.

“Writing is more than a skill that can be subcontracted out to a computer,” says Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It.” “Teaching students to write is tantamount to teaching them how to think clearly, logically, and analytically, and it moves their reading comprehension to a higher level. No bot-created paragraph or essay can do that.”

Make Writing Enjoyable for Students

While writing is a muscle, you can’t force students to exercise it. To get students writing, you need to make it enjoyable.

“Writing may tend to be functional and assessment-driven but how do we ensure it’s also enjoyable and engaging?” asks Clare Feeney, a secondary school English teacher. “What scope is there for creating authentic, purposeful writing opportunities?”

There are many ways to make writing assignments more fun for your students. Cindy Martin at Teacher’s Brain recommends “would you rather” writing prompts as warm-ups. These prompts teach students how to defend their statements and think creatively while organizing their thoughts into clear ideas. An example prompt: “Which superpower would you rather have, flight or invisibility? Why?”

Then have students read and defend their answers to the class. You might be surprised by some of the reasons they come up with. You can also tie these prompts to books you are reading or topics you are studying as a way to prove that students understand the material.

Former elementary school teacher Jamie Sears suggests letting students choose their own topics when they are writing. This can also benefit you as an instructor. “When students are forced to write about a topic that they aren’t interested in, they start to dislike writing,” she writes. “Then it comes time for you to grade all of these projects. You get to read 25 papers about the exact same topic. BORING! Grading is already tough enough, but this just seals the deal.”

If you are using writing as a warm-up for the day, consider freewriting. Students write whatever they want for five minutes without stopping. Some might give you a journal entry while others a poem or short story.

Student taking notes from textbook; students writing skills concept

Rethink What Counts as Writing

While students need to learn how to put together essays, these formal pieces of content don’t have to be the main drivers of writing assignments. Neither do journals, summaries or other long-form texts.

“Writing needn’t be a long exercise,” writes high school English teacher Jason DeHart. “I used to think that teaching writing had to be an overwrought process of going through the multiple steps in composing essays. Now, I think about writing in a variety of ways—on-the-spot responses, short jottings, and even doodle notes all count as writing.”

For students to find a love of writing, show them how they can use writing in the nooks and crannies of their lives to communicate ideas. This will help them organize their thoughts — especially if they only have limited space to make a clear statement.

Edutopia’s Research and Standards Editor Youki Terada profiled a math teacher who uses writing to help students learn new material. Instead of telling students how to define certain concepts, he asks students to look at a math-related idea and create their own definitions and rules for it.

Instead of telling students what a polygon is, for example, ask about its characteristics, and how you can recognize it — and why should you care. These writing activities give students a fresh approach to math, and also allow them to show what they already know and what they still need to learn.

Occupational therapist Colleen Beck has several non-traditional ways to incorporate writing into your classroom. Students can write jokes on index cards related to the subject discussed in class, write letters to celebrities or pen pals, and even pass notes. Having students write their thoughts about a lesson on scraps of paper that you draw at random still counts as writing.

Each of these exercises ties writing back to its core concept: sharing ideas in a planned and effective manner. If students can’t gather their thoughts and share them in a few sentences, how can you expect them to turn those thoughts into metaphors, arguments, poems and other written formats?

Person seated at desk, starting to write on a blank page; students writing skills concept

Tie Writing to Social-Emotional Development

As you rethink how you teach writing, remember that writing can be an emotional process. You can tap into students’ passions so they want to share their thoughts and ideas.

“Every teacher should be apprised of one of education’s best-kept secrets: Analyzing, then arguing the issues in a text may have more impact on student motivation and writing quality than any other factor,” says Mike Schmoker, an education writer and former English teacher.

This is where the “would you rather” type of assignments come in. Have students write about whether tater tots or french fries is the better option. On a more serious note, you can use writing reflections to ask students to share how they feel about and voice their frustrations with certain assignments or concepts.

“Reading student writing gives teachers valuable insight into how students are progressing in class and also who they are as people—what their likes, dislikes, concerns, and dreams are,” says Emily Anderson, a copywriter at Carnegie Learning and former English teacher with a doctorate in American literature. “The more we know, the more we can invite students to share all parts of themselves, which builds an asset-based classroom.”

Writing is just one way to express ideas. There’s also singing, dancing, speaking and other art forms. Sometimes expressing ideas comes with failures. Writing can be messy or convoluted and needs to be sorted out — and there is no one way to write something.

“Making students understand that writing is a lifestyle, not an end in itself, is excellent for putting your ideas into words on paper,” says Saniya Khan, a copy editor at EdTechReview. “In addition, let them know that writing is a complex, disordered, non-linear process full of false starts.”

Any author will tell you that writing is frustrating, disheartening, and (at times) the last thing they want to do. But getting over these blocks allows them to create beautiful prose.

Teaching writing is a challenge because it goes way beyond subject-verb agreement. At its core, writing is a tool to express ideas through chosen sentences, words and arguments.

Try to focus on this big idea in your writing lessons. Are your students expressing themselves effectively? If they aren’t, what’s holding them back? This big picture focus can help guide your writing lesson plans and make them more effective.

Images by: milkos/©, milkos/©, Wadi Lissa, Kenny Eliason