Have you ever experienced this? You announce to your class that they are going to start writing an essay, and the mood in the room shifts. Arms cross. Faces close off. Groans and grumbles are heard. This is what happens in my classroom the first time students write an essay, but then we embark on a two week journey through the writing process, and I change many of their minds about whether or not they can write a good one.
There’s a reason why students don’t get excited about writing an essay: they have struggled in the past or have not felt successful. And I think that’s mostly because they get overwhelmed. They leave it til the last minute and then they are faced with the big task of getting it all done quickly. And that’s difficult and frustrating.
Many moons ago, I decided to change that scenario and provide my students with the time and scaffolding they needed to feel success when they write their first essay for me – and when I do that, I get much better writing (and attitudes) from them.
Devote time to the pre-writing process
Early in my career, I gave students outlines and told them to complete them before they began their essays. I mean, that’s what I always did, and it worked for me.
But I knew how to make an outline work for me because somewhere along the line, someone showed me, or my desire to do well pushed me to figure it out myself.
So, I thought that giving my students a piece of paper with OUTLINE on the top of a whole lot of empty lines would help them too. But it didn’t. Their essays were still unfocused and disorganized and underdeveloped.
I decided to spend more time on this stage of the process and the first few times I did, I felt a little guilty, like I was wasting precious time in a semester that never had enough of it. However, I soon discovered that spending more time on the prewriting stage resulted in better writing on not only that assignment, but on other ones throughout the semester.
That’s because writing is a thinking process as much as it is a writing one.
One of the best activities I’ve ever done to emphasize the writing process is the one I do to show them the power of the outline. It takes a good portion of a class, but the focus and organization of my students’ essays have gone up exponentially. If you’d like to try this exercise with your students, click here.
Provide lots of models and mentor texts
We know what a good essay looks like, but the students may not – even if we’ve done a good job of explaining what the components are. For that reason, the more models we give them, the better.
And, they need to see models of what an essay looks in terms of the writing process. If we only show them polished good copies, they are seeing the work that goes into getting one to that stage. When students only see the end result, they may feel like it’s beyond their capabilities or that they aren’t really sure what to do to produce an essay of that quality.
For that reason, I show them my first draft of an essay, one that I purposely did not tweak when I was writing it, so I could show them that even English teachers don’t come up with a polished draft the first time they write. Instead, a well-written essay is the result of a lot of thinking as a writer works through the process.
Give mini-lessons on strategies to improve writing
After I’ve shown my students what an essay looks like, I give them time to write a draft, usually a couple of days or more. Then I start each class with a mini-lesson on different strategies they can use to improve their drafts.
The first mini-lesson is on strategies for supporting their ideas. I show them, using lots of mentor texts, how writers can develop a point, and then, as they work on their drafts, they try to use several of them. (When it’s a research essay, we take time to add in outside sources, but only after they’ve gotten their own ideas down first).
The next day, the lesson is on using transitions to tie all of those ideas together. After the lesson, students will look to ensure that they have a transition at the beginning of every paragraph but the first, as well as within each paragraph to make connections between their points.
Next, we move onto lessons on word choice and sentence variety. At this point, I get out the highlighters and colored pencils so student can note words that need to be stronger and a lack of variety in their sentence openings and lengths.
Model the revision process
Once students have completed a first draft, I show them mine again, and model the revision process I would go through. We look at places where I could add more detail, use a metaphor or image to make a point, and circle verbs that need to be stronger.
Then, students will revise their drafts and get feedback from peers before writing a final draft.
The final stage of the writing process in my classroom is not the good copy, however. It’s a self-evaluation where students reflect on what they did well and what they struggled with.
I’m well aware that they are mostly interested in the grade I give them, but it’s also important that they think about their process and what worked for them and what they need to continue to improve.
I get great reviews from students on this process, with many telling me in their evaluations that it’s the first time they really felt like they knew what they were doing. And that’s because we took the writing process one step at a time.
It does take time, but it’s very worth it.
If you’d like this process all laid out for you in a print-and-go resource, complete with mini-lessons, slideshows, mentor texts, and rubrics, click here.