If you’re teaching writing and are wondering how to begin the overwhelming task of getting students engaged in the process, I’ve got a tip for you: use more short assignments and fewer long ones. Is this less rigorous? Absolutely not. In fact, teaching writing with short assignments leads to better student work in the long run.
Let’s start with this question: is it more important that students write a certain number of essays that can be checked off a list, or that they leave a classroom knowing they have the skills to write well? Producing five poorly constructed papers does not mean students have learned the skills they need.
Let me show you what I mean:
The way I used to teach writing
When I started teaching, I approached my classes with a list of things I had to cover: short stories, poetry, novel studies, etc. It was the same with writing: narrative, persuasive, literary, and research essays needed to get ticked off the list. If I had time, we’d dabble in creative writing – but we rarely had time.
So I raced through the semester, ticking things off my list. And I spent many frustrating hours wading through essays that were unfocused and poorly developed. Students were getting the essays completed, but they weren’t demonstrating that they’d master the skills they needed to do it well.
They essays were painful for them to write and painful for me to read.
One day, amid a pile of papers at my dining room table, I decided something needed to change. It made no sense that my students were completing these essays if they couldn’t do them well. I needed to scaffold the skills they needed for success.
But how could I do that when I never had enough time – and when the grading was already too much?
Shorter assignments build skills
I’m going to pause here for a minute to give you a sports analogy. I like to use them a lot which is funny because I’m not that great at sports. But perhaps it’s because of my feelings of inadequacy in this area that the one I’m going to share makes sense to me.
Imagine you take someone new to a sport and put them on a court, a golf course, or a field. You give them the equipment they need and a quick overview of the game, and then send them off to play. Most will get through it, but not very well because most games have a lot of complexity.
Golf is certainly not as simple as just getting the ball in the hole; a successful golfer needs to be able to drive, chip, putt, etc. and to know how to do it without sending the ball sideways or missing it altogether. The successful basketball player needs to be able to dribble while moving, pass without passing to the wrong person, and shoot the ball in the net while others are trying to grab the ball.
Coaches and phys ed teachers know this to be true, and that’s why they practice and work on single skills at a time. Michael Jordan famously practiced free throws for hours, and Kobe Bryant spent his workouts perfecting only one move. They were isolating the skills they needed for success and working on them. They didn’t read a handout, try it once, and head off to the court to play.
Shorter assignments allow students to practice and build the skills they need for success in the big game – the longer assignments they need to do. They also take less time to grade and so students get feedback faster – when what they did is still fresh in their minds.
So how do we do this and still keep the appropriate level of rigor in our classrooms?
Create a list of writing skills students need.
If you are going to scaffold writing skills, you need to know which ones you are going to focus on.
I had my Big Four, skills that students need to write effectively in any genre. We worked on these one step at a time at first and then with almost every assignment we did. Students knew that these were the building blocks for effective writing and they became very familiar with the language and writing strategies for each area.
- Effective word choice (including sentence fluency)
- Focus and organization
- Idea development
- Intros and conclusions
I started each semester with word choice and how it affects meaning. We discussed it in the texts we read and I encouraged students to choose words deliberately when they wrote. We did several collaborative activities to reinforce the concept and after every quick-write or journal entry students did, I asked them to read it over and circle any tired words or weak verbs – and then revise a couple.
Other times, they would read an entry and cross out ideas that weren’t focused on the topic. Or they’d underline one that needed more explanation and add details in the margin. Or they might read what they wrote and think about one or two ways they could draw the reader in with a great opening sentence – or ways they could wrap it up more effectively.
This quick revision process took only a few minutes, but it built the all-important habit of thinking about what they wrote. It gave students practice honing the skills for my Big Four, and so when it came time for longer assignments, they knew what they had to do.
You can grab this free activity that you can use to help your students build the habit of revision and if you want more of these, check out this resource: Writing Prompts for Building Skills and Stamina. It has over forty prompts that you can use as bell ringers, for skill building activities, or for writing workshop.
Scaffold skills with short paragraphs
My first long writing assignment was a personal narrative essay that was completed six weeks or so into the semester. In the weeks leading up to that, students did several short writing assignments that allowed them to practice what they needed to be successful in their upcoming essays.
The first was a paragraph that focused on openings. They brainstormed “chapters of their lives,” picked one, and wrote an opening paragraph. It needed to be focused on introducing the student’s “chapter” and needed to have carefully chosen language. When I graded them, I highlighted two places where they used effective language and circled two words that could be stronger. They got the paragraphs back, revised the circled words, and explained their choices to a partner.
After we discussed the importance of setting, they wrote a paragraph about a setting that was important to them. It had to be focused with lots of showing detail. It had to have carefully chosen language. Later, we added in a lesson on point of view & perspective and how it affects setting. Students rewrote their setting from the point of view of someone who might not like it as much as they did. They chose one of them to pass in for feedback.
I repeated the process of highlighting and circling word choice, but this time I added in another layer: I underlined a sentence or two that needed more showing detail. When students got the paragraphs back, they did their revisions and shared with a partner. Then, they left their work on the side of their desk and I came around to look at it while they were reading or working on something else.
I was teaching writing with short assignments, and they were learning so much more than my old way of doing things.
Skill building happens during class activities too
We English teachers often think that we need to give students written feedback on everything. We don’t. And in class, just-in-time feedback can be much more effective.
For example, my students did a lot of skill building exercises in their notebooks and I did not read every entry. They did the daily revisions that I described above, they shared with partners, and when they passed in the notebook, I chose one or two entries to read and give feedback on.
We also did a lot of engaging collaborative activities that focused on one or two skills at a time. While they were working, I could give them feedback right away to show them whether they were on the right track or not. One of my favorites focused on how to write an effective outline – you’ve probably heard me reference it before because I loved it! If you haven’t, click here to get the details.
Skill building leads to success in longer writing assignments
We followed a similar process leading up to the persuasive research essay and the literary analysis: short, focused paragraphs that allowed students to work on the skills they needed for success. The short nature of these assignments allowed them to focus on a few skills without getting overwhelmed and allowed me to give them fast feedback.
One of my most successful short assignments was the quotable quickie, one I started using to teach students how to make an assertion about a text and to back it up with a quotation and their own analysis. You can read all about it here and grab a quick lesson you can use with your class.
And, if you’re thinking “I teach high school and students should be able to focus on multiple things at once,” I refer you back to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, masters in their game who focused on one skill at a time.
Want more ideas for teaching writing?
If you like the idea of teaching writing with short assignments, check out these: