Writing instruction at the elementary level needs an overhaul.
The last time the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) measured 8th-grade students’ writing proficiency in the United States was over a decade ago, in 2011.
As upper elementary teachers, to our dismay, the last time NAEP measured 4th-grade students’ writing proficiency was in 2002, over 20 years ago.
To make matters worse, we won’t get an update on student writing progress until 2030.
It’s clear that the US doesn’t prioritize writing as much as it prioritizes Reading and Math. To no surprise, Reading and Math are assessed and reported on every two years.
In 2011, only 27% of our nation’s 8th-grade students scored Proficient or above in writing.
As we know, the nation’s reading scores aren’t much better, with just above a third of 4th-grade and 8th-grade students scoring at or above the Proficient level.
The United States has a massive problem with both reading and writing instruction.
Currently, reading instruction is a hot topic as the Science of Reading is becoming increasingly popular and welcomed into the mainstream education spotlight.
This conversion is a good thing. The robust discussion on how our students learn to read and the emphasis on direct instruction is propelling us in the right direction.
However, the discussion about writing instruction is getting left behind.
The US has a major problem with writing instruction.
Students in the upper elementary grades have experienced disruptions during primary grades due to virtual learning and the pandemic. Missing this core instruction on developing proper sentences and paragraphs has taken the typical ability level gaps within upper elementary and amplified them significantly.
Here’s what we’re going to do in this article:
1) We will discuss the problematic way writing is taught in the upper elementary grades.
2) We will identify a better approach to writing instruction that allows our students to build a foundation that will stick with them throughout their schooling and beyond.
The United States has a Major Problem with Writing Instruction
If you observe a writing lesson in any upper elementary classroom around the United States, you’ll likely find students doing one or two things:
1) Students being taught to observe, identify, analyze, and implement stylistic behaviors in writing, commonly referred to as the author’s craft.
2) Students will likely be assigned a writing task. This task can be anything from a short response to a prompt to a one-paragraph expository exercise or a five-paragraph narrative to an opinion piece.
You may think to yourself, “What’s wrong with this? These are all rich writing tasks that provide value and practice.”
And you’re not wrong.
Our writing programs, especially in the upper elementary grades, are incredibly prescriptive.
We teach students to add things like voice and dialogue to their writing, and these things are essential, but something is missing.
Looking around our upper elementary classrooms, we can quickly pick out the struggling and intermediate writers.
These students usually make up a large group.
Also, let’s not forget that just because a student writes a lot, it does not make them a proficient writer.
So, what’s going on here? Why are so many students poor writers?
Why Current US Writing Instruction is Leaving So Many Students Behind
Herein lies the problem with US Writing Curriculums.
In the upper elementary grades, students are asked to jump headfirst into writing tasks. These robust tasks require students to formulate thoughts into coherent paragraphs and sometimes multiple paragraphs.
As upper elementary teachers, we know that students’ executive functioning skills, like organization and time management, aren’t yet fully developed.
However, we expect this from them within their writing without providing them with much support along the way.
When we organize our writing instruction by “units,” like so many writing programs do, we fail to provide our students with direct instruction on how to formulate and organize paragraph(s) properly.
Asking students to form lengthy written responses to text-based questions and write 5 paragraph narratives just after they’ve reviewed the classroom expectations isn’t cutting it.
The lack of direct instruction on how to organize sentences and thoughts within paragraphs is causing students to fall further and further behind in their writing skills.
Fixing Our Broken Writing Instruction: Why We MUST Lead by Example
In order to move students from basic writers to proficient writers, we have to offer students the ability to dissect good writing, or at least grade-level appropriate writing, first.
We cannot afford to continue skipping the basics of foundational writing in the upper elementary grades.
Additionally, we can no longer simply jump into our first writing unit at the beginning of the year.
As educators, we must advocate for our students and provide them with a solid understanding of what good writing looks like within their grade level and what our expectations of them are.
We need to take it all the way back to breaking down paragraph construction to build writing-based executive functioning skills.
Here’s how we can begin to do just that.
Step One to Better Writing Instruction: Dissect and Color Code Example Paragraphs
Upper elementary students must be given the opportunity to read, analyze, and hear grade-level appropriate paragraphs.
Yes, you may notice that hearing grade-level writing is essential here, and here’s why. At the upper elementary level, many students will write conversationally. It’s important to delineate the difference between spoken conversation and communicating using the written word for students. Students need to be explicitly taught the difference between the two. To do that, they must read AND hear grade-level appropriate writing where the differences can be pointed out.
Next, let’s talk about what it means to analyze paragraphs at the upper elementary level.
Students need to be explicitly taught to identify the following:
- Topic Sentences
- Supporting Ideas
- Conclusion Sentences
To do this, we dissect grade-level appropriate paragraphs, identifying each sentence as we go along.
In addition, we use a color coding system to ensure that students can visualize the order and process of writing before they even pick up a pencil and begin writing themselves.
Step Two: Identifying Types of Topic Sentences to Convey Purpose
Now that students have been refamiliarized with paragraph structure, they need to be taught how to communicate the paragraph’s main idea.
Students also need to know there are several ways and techniques to write a topic sentence.
To do this, we need to define the topic sentence’s purpose, introduce the different types of topic sentences, and give students the opportunity to read through dozens of examples.
Writing instruction is not like math instruction. We cannot simply ask a student to practice doing a task repeatedly with rote practice to ensure they “get it.”
After all, if a student is writing poor topic sentences over and over again, the only thing they’re doing is reinforcing poor writing skills.
Instead, we need to give students the opportunity to examine well-written topic sentences and even change them to identify the type of topic sentence used.
This way, students can fill up what I like to call their writing tool chest. From here, they can pull from the examples they’ve read, dissected, and identified to emulate this in their writing.
Step Three) Teaching Why Transitions are Vital to the Reader’s Understanding
Transitions are critical in well-written paragraphs, but we seldom teach students why.
Transitions signal to the reader’s brain that process and order are being followed. This helps the reader better comprehend what’s being conveyed.
This key step teaches a vital writing skill. It ensures students are writing with purpose but also reinforces that communicating conversationally and communicating in writing are different and must sound different.
Reinforcing the use of transitions also helps polish the writing process for students who have likely spent a summer without writing much more than a sentence or two, if that.
Step Four) How to Conclude without Repeating the Topic Sentence
This final step in explicitly teaching paragraph writing is a difficult one.
Students need to be taught how to signal to the reader that the paragraph has come to an end while reiterating the purpose of the paragraph without repeating it.
To do this, we can expose our students to well-written conclusions AND poorly written conclusions that need work.
Taking a poorly written conclusion sentence and turning it into a well-written conclusion sentence allows students to begin exploring the revision process.
Additionally, you can provide your students with a topic sentence and have them write the conclusion sentence for the paragraph.
This process allows students to explore the use of synonyms and rephrasing to emphasize the purpose of the paragraph.
Why Teaching These Four Steps First Works
Although these four simple steps only begin to crack the shell of better, explicit writing instruction, they’re a vital way for upper elementary students to begin the year with a solid foundation and understanding of a paragraph’s structure.
Taking time to teach and review these steps with students, explicitly, will help them fill their writing toolbox. This will allow them to emulate these essential components within their writing for years to come.
When students are given the opportunity to see and dissect age-appropriate writing, they build confidence in their writing skills. The end goal has now become achievable to them.
By starting the year with these four steps, there is no more ‘elusive’ goal at the end of the writing unit. Instead, the expectations are clear, concise, and, best of all, attainable for even the most struggling writers.
If you’re in need of teaching resources to support the four steps above to better paragraph writing, you can purchase The Teacher Next Door’s Complete Paragraph Bundle and use it for years to come.
Want a more detailed breakdown of each of the four steps included within the Complete Paragraph Bundle? These four posts will walk you through, step-by-step, to ensure that you writing instruction supports all students.