I recently received a message from a teacher asking for help with her struggling middle school writers.
She knew that all of her plans, units, and writing prompts were not going to be effective teaching tools if her students didn’t grasp the writing fundamentals they needed.
Perhaps you spent an entire in-service day planning your year. You have all your units set up and your yearlong plan is dreamy.
Then, you assign the first writing prompt, and your students crash and burn.
Assess Student Writers
Have your students provide you with a “cold” writing sample.
What’s a “cold” writing sample? This is a writing response that your students complete in class. They respond to a specific prompt and write for a specific amount of time.
This is a good way to get an authentic assessment of what kind of writing your students can do independently.
Once you have this writing sample, read through them and take notes on what your students can and cannot do. This is going to help you figure out where you will need to start teaching. (You can read step-by-step instructions on how to do it in this post.)
What Issues do your Struggling Writers Have?
We have a lot of standards to teach. But it doesn’t matter if we zip through writing an argument if our students can’t write a paragraph.
Use the cold writing assessment to determine where you need to start teaching.
Make a list!
As you go through the cold writing assessment, you’re going to find that there are students who can write above level, on level, and below level. I find it helpful to create groupings. (More on that later, though!)
Once you know the strengths and weaknesses of your class you can address where you are going to go.
Build their Foundation
Start with what your students need as their writing foundation. Is it paragraph structure, sentence structure, fluency, developing ideas, coming up with ideas?
By middle school, students should understand paragraph structure, but I’m often amazed when students don’t! They know what a paragraph is and when to change paragraphs, but when it comes to their own writing, that becomes difficult.
Make sure they have the foundation skills in place before assigning a long writing project.
Yes, this can be incredibly frustrating!! Sometimes you feel like you will be breaking everything down into the smallest pieces — but it will be beneficial to students (and save you from tearing out your hair!)
Write EVERY Day
Struggling writers often have trouble with writing fluency. Writing every day will help with this.
Using a warm up journal prompt each day is a great way to build up their writing “muscles.” Even if you can only provide five or ten minutes a day, make sure your students are writing every day!
Enlist Your Team
Ask your team to require more regular writing from the students.
And that writing doesn’t have to be a huge research paper or project.
Exit cards, notes, short answers, lab reports, journals…anything to get them writing. As students write in all classes, they will develop confidence and fluency.
Keep Adding to Their Toolbox
Struggling writers are a bit like Dumbo with his feather. With tools, they feel confident. So, give them tools!
Formulas are helpful. For example, showing them “S+P=sentence” or “S+P+c+S+P= compound sentence” provide simple visuals that students can refer to.
“S+P=sentence” or “S+P+c+S+P= compound sentence” provide simple visuals for reference.
As you add to the tools you provide students, tell students that as this is a something they can use whenever they aren’t sure what to do, but as they become better writers, they won’t need it.
Formulas and graphic organizers work to scaffold students from one step to the next.
I used a “spaceship” graphic organizer with my students. Even though some students still counted the number of sentences they used in each paragraph, they were able to construct a solid paragraph. Success!
Create Work Groups
Whole-class teaching is certainly easier, but your students will advance much more quickly if you use writing conferences to address their need. However, you don’t always need to work one-on-one with each student.
You can use through flexible grouping. That allows students to work together on a task.
If students are having trouble developing paragraphs, have a mini lesson with a small group of students. Smaller groups mean you will have more of your students’ attention, they will be more likely to ask questions, and you’ll be making a personal connection with them.
Students can create a single writing product as a group (though I don’t recommend more than two students in a group) or they can work independently and then confer with another student.
Get and Give Regular Feedback
You want to keep tabs on where your struggling writers are — so be sure to keep assessing.
I also like to get feedback from students. They can use exit cards as a simple way for them to let you know what’s working and what they’re struggling with.
Allowing students to answer just this simple prompt, “Something I want you to know” is powerful. Your students know that you care and are interested in what they have to say, what they are struggling with, and where they are feeling success.
Getting an exit card that reads, “I want you to know that I feel better about writing” is HUGE!!
What I Believe
I truly believe that anyone can learn how to write – and any teacher can lead his or her students to better writing skills!
Is it easy? Nope. Does it take a lot of time? Yes. (I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.) Is there a “one size fits all” solution? No. It’s a lot of trial and error.
But, you can do it! You’re a teacher!
With gratitude & confidence,