WriteLab February 6, 2017
Helping students improve their writing requires patience and persistence. As a teacher it’s easy to find mistakes and offer corrections—but how do you inspire students to look critically at their writing choices?
Although some students have a knack for expressing themselves through writing, many struggle to communicate their ideas accurately and appropriately. Whether they’re writing a lab report for a chemistry class, an analysis of a Shakespearean sonnet for an English class, or even a personal e-mail—you can use the following strategies to stimulate their thinking and get them candidly focusing on writing essentials.
Keeping Purpose in Sight
You might receive a concise, logical, and well-written piece of writing only to discover that it does not truly fulfill the assignment. In a high school or university essay, a lack of purpose often stems not only from a vague or missing thesis statement—but the student missing the mark when it comes to informing and persuading their audience. The student may have a general sense of the topic that they’re going to write about, but they progress through the writing process without ever clearly identifying the rhetorical situation.
To mend this, spend time showing students writing examples that cover a wide range of writing modes. Next, ask them to work on producing these modes themselves in a low-stakes environment so they can practice navigating rhetorical situations without the pressure of evaluation.
Students often need direct instruction in adapting their writing to suit their intended audience. For example, students should write lab reports that appeal to scientists and that adhere to the principles of scientific writing. There may be more room for lightheartedness in a work of fiction or an opinion piece, where the casual reader is expecting to be entertained. Before any piece of writing is considered to be finished, students should be able to articulate who they were writing for and what techniques they used to appeal to that specific reader.
Have students work in groups with various activities to help them define audience. For example, start by asking: “What should you do if you don’t know who your audience is?” Then give them several writing samples and ask them to identify the audience of each. Another helpful activity is to give them a list of audiences and ask them to identify what content would be considered inappropriate for each.
Improving Word Choice
The wrong word can completely change the meaning of a sentence or even a paragraph. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
- “After the president’s speech, the audience felt incredible.”
- “After the president’s speech, the audience felt incredulous.”
In the first, the audience is inspired by their leader’s words. In the second, the audience doubts that their leader’s words are true. Word choice errors are often caused by students trying to enhance their writing by using a thesaurus or translator without the necessary background knowledge to assess the suitability of their chosen word. Other common word choice errors include vague pronoun use, failing to understand the connotations of a word or phrase, and simple homophone mix-ups.
Students can improve their word choices by focusing on context and reading their work aloud. It’s also very important to make sure to create a class culture where trying to impress the audience with big and fancy words never comes before concision and clarity.
Crafting Stronger Sentences
Although the basic rules of writing a sentence are usually taught in elementary school, it doesn’t take long for students to begin submitting work that is full of non-sentences. Students often produce sentence fragments: “Because the Egyptians built the pyramids.” And run-on sentences: “The Egyptians built the pyramids they built them in Giza which is outside Cairo in 2550 BC and today the Egyptian pyramids are World Heritage Sites because they are of cultural significance to Egypt and the world.” Sentence fragments and run-on sentences confuse the reader, leaving them focused on deciphering what the writer had intended to say instead of appreciating the insight and artistry of the author’s ideas.
While you can give lessons on sentence fragments—and pass out an array of handouts/exercises—there is another strategy. Identify a couple problematic sentences each student has crafted. Put students into groups of two or three and have their peers edit these sentences. When a student’s peer shows them their fixes and improvements, the student feels inspired to get the most out of each sentence moving forward.
Placing an Emphasis on Ideas
While you want to see students making minimal spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes—it’s important to let them know you truly value their ideas. A great way to place emphasis on their concepts and analysis is to make freewriting the cornerstone of the writing process. This helps students feel comfortable forming and communicating their ideas. You then want to encourage them to bring those ideas into their drafts. From there, take time to closely review their biggest ideas. Your careful feedback is crucial here. Ask them questions about their claims. Offer alternative perspectives. And make sure they’re relating their ideas to any on-going conversations present in class readings.