How to foster good student writers | Jeannette M E Lee Parikh, PhD | 8 Min Read

By the time most students enter high school, they have already developed a fixed mindset about who they are as readers and writers. They will describe themselves as bad writers, bad at analytical writing but good at creative writing, a slow reader, a non-reader, and/or a reader of only YA, etc. While their relationship with reading reveals whether and why reading for pleasure is part of their free time, their disclosure about writing only shares their level of (dis)comfort with writing. In fact, research shows that many students’ attitudes towards writing decline as they move up in grades.

Despite their increasingly negative perception of writing, students’ attitudes don’t actually concede that they are truly bad at writing. Rather, it more likely suggests that they are unpracticed, reluctant, or developing (pick your adjective) writers who feel overwhelmed by their discomfort. As writing teachers, we should ask ourselves: How do we get students to embrace writing? And what kinds of structures need to be in place for students to develop as writers and have confidence in their writing?

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, one needs 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials. Gladwell’s insight comes from a study of ‘deliberate practice’ in the success of violin students co-authored by Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. Even though Gladwell popularized the notion that one needs to spend a quantifiable prolonged period of time to develop mastery, he left out that this ‘deliberate practice’ has to occur under the guidance of a good teacher who is able to personalize instruction for and individually assess students to determine what they need next to improve. It is important to note that, as reported in this study, students’ progression stalls despite prolonged practice if good teaching and feedback is not available. The two key takeaways then are that mastery requires a prolonged period of ‘deliberate practice’ and under the guidance of a good teacher.

But, what is a ‘deliberate practice’ and what does it look like in an English department? For any department, a ‘deliberate practice’ is one that the entire department collaborates to create and universally practices not merely for consistency and transparency, but also for good pedagogy because we share students. And since we share students, our students need to move seamlessly among our classes. (The ideal would be to achieve this friction-less movement within a school.)

In English, the best practice in teaching students to write is a writing process model that includes peer and individual workshops, revision, metacognitive questions, and mini-milestones that move students toward the final deadline. The writing process model requires time. It’s not a one and done the night before, but it shifts students away from inauthentic teacher-driven writing to authentic writer-owned writing. 

This method begins with choice. After reading a text, students should choose the topic of their essay. Kelly Gallagher in Teaching Adolescent Writers explains that choice creates ownership and investment, especially when it comes to revision. Along with choice, use frameworks like the heart map (by Georgia Heard that can be adapted to any text, writing assignment, and grade level) that allow students to determine their authentic interest in a required text. Students then use their heart maps to craft thesis statements and outlines. From outlines, they move to body paragraphs, an introduction, and a conclusion. They answer a series of metacognitive questions — open-ended how and why questions — on their process of writing the first draft. This course of action doesn’t have to be linear; in fact, it can be recursive. After a first draft, a series of workshops (individual and peer) interspersed with metacognitive questions transport students through a revision process, which addresses idea development, conciseness, and grammar. But not grammar in the traditional way. Instead, this is grammar as meaningful rhetorical choices driven by the writer’s intent. Finally, the last stage is always a series of metacognitive questions that focus students on their intentions, choices, and execution. I reiterate that the writing process is time-intensive. 

However, this structure allows us, as teachers, to navigate a tension in trying to cultivate a ‘writerly’ disposition in students. Even though we are the graders, we want students to establish a sense of purpose, an awareness of an audience, and their sense of style. To do so, we need to construct our classes as writing communities in which students write for one another and other imagined readers, but not us their teachers. You see, teachers are artificial readers because we evaluate students’ writing. We may also be interested readers, but the evaluation of their writing for a grade is what creates a power imbalance that doesn’t exist in the ‘real world’ of writers and readers. Our contradictory role in the writing process is a worthwhile tension for students because they also need to practice how to negotiate competing audiences, explicit and implicit, in completing a task.

To further reinforce the shift away from teacher-centered to student-centered writing, departments should create explicit learning objectives and grading rubrics to establish a transparent learning ecosystem. A few years ago, my department collaborated to design learning objectives, knowledge, and skills for each type of course we offer, and an adaptable universal grading rubric that has seven elements — the elements are defined based on the type of assignment (sometimes we even define the elements with students) — and must be used for every assignment. The combination of a writing process, learning objectives, and grading rubrics enable students to take ownership of their writing; they pivot students to focus on their writing.

A ‘deliberate practice,’ therefore, needs teacher collaboration, a transparent structure, student intentionality, and the most important variable — time. If we create the time in our departments, we can help students approach writing as a space for learning, as Deborah Dean explains in Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom. It is a place where students can learn about themselves and one another. Students can question, explore, and broaden their thinking. By practicing different kinds of writing because they should be exposed to a wide range of genres, students become well-versed in the role of purpose, audience, style, and context (Gallagher). 

When we expose students to myriad writing forms, our classes should model ‘spaced practice’ (spacing the lesson over a longer period of time) and ‘interleaving’ (practicing several related skills together). These two learning techniques combined further invite students to make connections among multiple genres and show them how writers stretch, cross, and blend various forms (Gallagher). (See Powerful Teaching: Unleashing the Science of Learning for greater articulation of spaced practice and interleaving.) Such a learning architecture empowers students to consider and consequently make meaningful rhetorical choices. And the best way to examine meaningful rhetorical choices in action is in reading.

It is beyond clichéd to posit that there is a connection between reading and writing. While good readers can have challenges with writing, it is ‘rare for a poor reader to be a good writer.’ In fact, reading, writing, listening, and speaking are all skills that develop interdependently. It’s why discussion-oriented classes that foreground the Socratic or Harkness methods should be part of classroom learning. If students practice speaking, listening, and responding to one another’s ideas in a collaborative community, then class discussion serves as preparation for a student-centered writing community process. Discussion loops back and motivates students not only to think and interpret but also to read and write. What reading and writing share in common is that both depend upon knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, reasoning, critical thinking, analytical skills, and background knowledge. They are complex activities that require self-regulation, goal setting, flexibility, problem-solving skills, and effective strategies. How they are different is that readers draw on their knowledge to decode and comprehend while writers draw on this same knowledge to create.

Becoming a good and even a masterful writer is a developmental process that takes time and explicit instruction within the writing process. It requires exposure to a range of mentor texts that are what Roland Barthes describes as ‘writerly texts’ as opposed to ‘readerly texts.’ For Barthes, ‘readerly texts,’ such as popular fiction, engage readers passively in the enjoyment of reading whereas ‘writerly texts,’ such as literary fiction, positions readers creatively as writers. Because literary fiction defamiliarizes readers through narrative and sentence structure, figurative language, and expectation, readers are challenged into meaning-making with the author and characters.

It is precisely because of these features that readers of literary fiction, argue psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, develop Theory of Mind, which is “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” Essentially, literary fiction invites us to mind-read, construct character through inference, an awareness of multiple and diverging perspectives, and recognize human complexity in relative safety (Kidd and Castano): “It poses fewer risks than the real world in considering the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement” (Kidd and Castano). In other words, literary fiction is a safe place to meet new people, encounter unfamiliar ideas, and experience unusual contexts.

This is precisely why English curricula need to be diverse and inclusive. Students must read a combination of classics and contemporary texts in which students see authentic representations of themselves and others in the text and the author. Students need exposure to the full range of humanity and human experiences in literary fiction to cultivate empathy for others, help them see how we are all similar despite our differences, and expand their knowledge as well as reduce the strangeness of others. Using a diverse and inclusive range of mentor texts to hone their writing skills using the writing process is the ideal interweaving of learning by doing.

The question is not so much can our students become good writers, but rather: Can we be the good teachers who can foster masterful student writers using a ‘deliberate practice’?

Jeannette Parikh

Jeannette Lee-Parikh English Department Chair & Head of Community Reading The Cambridge School of Weston (MA)

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