For educators and parents, helping students become better writers can seem like a difficult task. I can remember many times during my school days where I stared at my one word, “The”, on my document, devoid of motivation and dreading the task of writing an essay. In my years as an educator, I saw that no generation escapes this particular type of anguish, but there are several ways to change the narrative of how to write and make it an easier, more fulfilling task. These are my top 4 tips, for both parents and educators, on how to support students in becoming effective, dread-free writers.
Where possible, always opt to give assignments/practice work where the prompt is somewhat open. Not only does this give students the opportunity to explore and engage with an aspect of the subject that interests them, but it also helps ELL/ESL students hone their language skills. An open (but still structured) prompt encourages ELL/ESL students to be creative with their compositions, while also honing grammar and vocabulary skills.
The 5 paragraph essay format with a central question/thesis statement might seem boring and formulaic, so stress to your students that it’s just a guideline to follow while they learn to write. The first paragraph introduces the question/thesis and purpose of the essay. This is followed by the three body paragraphs, which make points and show evidence to support/refute the thesis, and the last paragraph summarizes the points made and includes a final statement, typically about how the findings relate to the initial question.
Often students can benefit from writing an outline to make their points clearer. The outline can also serve as a writing roadmap, especially if research must be done, and can help students manage their time more effectively. Personally, outlines still keep me on track and out of rabbit holes when I write today, and I consider it one of the most helpful skills I have ever been taught.
An outline can simply be:
Paragraph 1: Introduction, thesis statement, purpose
Paragraphs 2-4: Topic sentence (main point of this paragraph), explanation of the point and its relevance, and evidence to support the claim or idea
Paragraph 5: Summation of points, final statement(s)
There are many tools available to aid in the writing process, the most helpful of which include grammar and spelling checkers, paraphrasing tools, and tools which can create a text summary. All students benefit from learning to utilize these types of tools, but ELL/ESL students find them particularly useful as they work to master and work within a second language. Paraphrasing tools, like Quillbot, function as a full-sentence thesaurus where students can take awkward sentences from within their work and see options for other ways to articulate their point and make the language seem more fluid and fluent. Summarizing tools are especially useful for research-based writing because they help students quickly digest large amounts of information and take away the key points. This makes it easier to focus on clear writing and building robust arguments.
Distance learning provides a unique opportunity for educators and parents to provide more private, specific feedback to students. This is an important opportunity to build a love of writing (rather than distaste!) and also foster connections with students. A student who feels cared for and encouraged is more likely to see constructive criticism as a challenge rather than an admonition. My preferred strategy here is to point out my favorite thing about their writing, such a great topic sentence or thesis statement, and then tell them that if they put that same focus and thought into the weaker parts of their essay then they would become one of my top writers. The reason this works is because students are more willing to work towards things they have a knack for--so, tell them what is great, what needs improvement, and that they are 100% capable of becoming a great writer.
Parents who don’t feel like they can give meaningful writing feedback should understand that simply taking the time to read a students work and point out something they like is going to boost the student’s confidence tremendously, as long as the sentiment is genuine. If parents see a clunky, awkward, or unclear part of the essay, I suggest using a paraphraser to help guide the student in ameliorating the phrase or clause--no English degree necessary!
Assigning relatively open prompts, teaching students to utilize outlines for structuring their ideas, demonstrating best practices when using writing tools, and giving upbeat, constructive criticism go a long way in supporting students to become better writers. The goal should be to show writing as a form of individual expression in order to change the perspective from one of dreading writing an essay to being interested in exploring topics and articulating student ideas. Following these few tips will help educators and parents teach students to become more effective writers and communicators.