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How to improve writing in any subject

New York Teacher
A teacher wearing a mask assists a student with writing at her desk

Expectations become more tangible when students are asked to evaluate and grade sample responses based on established criteria.

Addressing writing gaps in our classrooms is easier said than done — especially at the middle and high school levels, where the expectation is that skills will translate seamlessly across curricula. Too often, however, content specialists are left to cover both their subject and writing. The good news is that regardless of the content or grade you teach, you are not alone, and there are some best practices that can help bring your students’ mastery of writing to an age-appropriate level.

Modeling is always an effective tool. In my middle-school science classroom, when students are completing short-answer questions, I find reminding them to revisit the question, target relevant vocabulary and generate a response with evidence is not always enough to help them earn full credit.

Instead, I find it helpful to provide students with examples of responses to a particular question; then they have to determine whether, based on the established criteria and the state’s grading rubric, the student has earned full credit. The expectations become more tangible when they are established and applied by the students themselves.

Generate examples of responses related to your content — and if possible, to the exact assignment at hand — that fit multiple criteria on a scale from exemplary to needing improvement. Break the students into heterogeneous groups and have them use a rubric you have created to rate each response.

They can pay particular attention to the details you’re seeking, such as terminology, use of pronouns and justifications or supporting evidence. Once the responses are rated, the student groups can then work collaboratively to revise the sample in which they scored the lowest in an attempt to hit on all of the target points and elevate it to role-model status.

This growth opportunity allows students to be placed in the reader’s — your — shoes, witnessing firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of submissions that are perhaps too vague or in need of revision. The students are then better equipped to revise and hone their own writing.

As an alternative, you can provide student groups with a few sample responses and ask them to determine which is more effective and why. They can then work collaboratively to revise the weaker sample or work independently on strengthening their own pieces.

Checklists are another useful tool. While rubrics do provide clarity on ratings, some students may find the quantity of instructions overwhelming. Providing the students with a concise list of tasks or targeted skills (such as the aforementioned components of a strong essay) can help students monitor their own progress. You and your students might also find it useful to have examples that coincide with the items on the checklist to clarify expectations.

Writing skills also stretch beyond the written word. In math, demonstrating the steps for solving an equation, justifying a claim with proofs and extrapolating on how or why a particular answer was obtained are all rooted in written literacy.

A colleague who teaches 7th-grade math assigned students to “be the teacher” by grading a hypothetical exam on solving two-step equations. The students not only had to determine the correct answers but also find the mistakes and provide their fictitious “classmate” with clear, cohesive and constructive feedback. This exercise gave students the opportunity to practice verbalizing instructions in a systematic way before writing them down. It’s especially helpful for English language learners to be able to talk with a partner before writing.

Teachers at all levels can use these practical strategies to help their students express themselves clearly — and succeed academically.

Erin Schneider is a science teacher at PS 232 in Howard Beach, Queens.

Related Topics: Pedagogy