How to teach writing so students actually make progress

This book changed the way I teach writing – and everything else.

When I went into my first year of teaching last year, I brought with me a hodge-podge of different approaches to teaching writing. I believed, contrary to what people kept telling me, that it was important to teach grammar explicitly and systematically, but I didn’t really know how to do that. I wanted my students to see the power of being able express their own ideas clearly, in ways that people would pay attention to, but I didn’t know how to do that either.

Most of my writing “instruction” took the form of journal-writing tasks, or the writing that was required for my seniors to complete their assessments. I set individual goals for my year nines based on each piece of writing they did, but didn’t actually get them writing often enough for that to help. I addressed grammar with proofreading exercises (which research suggests don’t help) or by going through individual students’ work, while they avoided my eyes until I gave in and told them exactly what they needed to do. It was massively frustrating, and my students’ writing didn’t improve.

And then, as they do, a book came along to save me. I’d seen lots of people on Twitter mentioning The Writing Revolution, by Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman (NZ Link | US Link [these are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!]). Around term three, I ordered a copy and read it feverishly, scribbling notes in it about how I could use it in the time-poor, assessment-driven context I was working in. Term four would only be a few weeks long, so we were really in crunch time for getting all those internals finished, and it looked like some of Wexler and Hochman’s suggestions could be the cure I needed for my students’ incessant “I don’t know how to put this in writing” issues.

The core of The Writing Revolution‘s approach is an emphasis on good sentences as a prerequisite for paragraphs and essays. This explained much of the problems my seniors were having; the instructions they were given told them pretty much sentence-by-sentence how to structure their writing, but they didn’t know how to turn each part of that structure into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. So, obediently, I gathered up a few of the most promising-looking sentence tasks from the book, and started giving them to my classes as Do Nows:

A typical Do Now activity for my year eleven class. We hadn’t been studying The Hate U Give, but a few students who I was particularly struggling to engage had read it, and I thought this might get them interested.

For the most part, my students muddled through these okay. Really, though, I was too short on time to do the thing properly. The reminder to “use commas and conjunctions where they are needed” wasn’t backed up with teaching on how to actually do those things. I was using the exercises, but I’d missed the key point of the book, which is that you have to explicitly and systematically teach students how to use these different sentence structures.

The magic of The Writing Revolution is in the sequence, specifically the emphasis on single sentences. Most writing teaching, Hochman and Wexler argue, rushes far too quickly into writing paragraphs and longer compositions, without establishing the building blocks – sentences – that paragraphs are made of. The Writing Revolution lays out a sequence of activities, beginning with identifying sentence fragments and building up to a variety of ways to form more interesting sentences, like starting with a subordinating conjunction or adding an appositive.

This sequence is now a major part of my tutoring. My students spend most of their time with me reading challenging texts, and writing about them using TWR tasks. I use the sentence tasks to help students unpick what the text is saying, as well as practice articulating those ideas in their own words. The students I started with at the beginning of the year are now moving into paragraph-writing tasks, which help them consolidate their understanding of the text and prepare for essay-writing. I’ve tried skipping parts of the sequence, but I’ve had much better results when I start at the beginning, even with more advanced students who can get through the first few steps quickly. Of course, most students are continuing with longer-form writing at school, and sometimes that means I temporarily jump ahead in the sequence to give them a basic foundation for tests and assignments.

What I love about this approach is that it makes progress so visible, for me and for my students. Rather than just being told to write and then getting vague feedback about “adding more detail” or “checking your punctuation” (common in the feedback I used to give), students are taught the specific, concrete moves they can make to improve their writing. Here’s an example of the improvement I’ve seen in one of my students’ writing:

First tutoring session

Instructions: write a paragraph using at least four words from the word bank (he used calendar, governor, and character)

Dave Woke up one morning and Looked at his calendar it was a very important day he was acting he jumped into his car with exitment and drove to the studio they put him on the cameras imidiatly he was playing the govenor he was the main character and the cameras went on.

After one term of tutoring

Instructions: Write an extension to the ending of the short story “Autumntime.”

The acorn was an oak brown it was Slipery and rough at the same time. On the way back I was thinking any way I could bring back a tree. When we arrived home I droped the acorn on the marble floor! I picked it up and asked Mum and Dad What it was they said it was a seed for a oke [note: this is how “oak” is spelled in the story] tree They said it was a food delicasy and said they would cook it for me. When dinner came it didn’t taste like the acorn but just synthetic beef.

Clearly, the more recent writing is still far from perfect. There are still plenty of run-on sentences, which we’re still working on correcting (this is, perhaps, a bit of a gap in TWR, but the various sentence types students learn help develop their sense of what is, and is not, a sentence). But this student now understands that a paragraph is a group of sentences, and there’s more variety in the types of sentences he’s using. In both examples, the student wrote the paragraphs you see without my guidance; in both cases, we went through and improved the sentences afterwards. It’s worth noting that Hochman and Wexler would probably have advised against these tasks, as the student hadn’t finished the sequence of sentence tasks that ought to precede such vague paragraph-writing assignments.

Another thing I love about Hochman and Wexler’s approach is that it keeps content central. They emphasise the importance of using their activities across the curriculum; I can’t attest to how well the sequence works outside of English, but the book is full of promising examples from science, maths, and history. As I said, I use the activities in the context of reading, so they do double-duty by building reading and writing skills simultaneously. Writing about a topic is one of the best ways to solidify content knowledge and ensure understanding, and the sentence-level tasks are brief enough to use consistently, even when you’re not teaching “a writing lesson.” I’d love to hear from teachers of subjects other than English who can comment on whether this approach is actually helpful, not just for incorporating literacy teaching into your classes, but for actually improving students’ understanding of your subject’s content.

Outside of tutoring, The Writing Revolution has made another major difference in my life: it’s finally got me actually planning my writing. As a student, I always wrote in order to figure out what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really plan ahead, because I needed to articulate my ideas in sentences in paragraphs before I had any idea what point I was trying to make. My essays, and even my masters’ thesis, started as a random assortment of half-finished paragraphs based on brainwaves I’d had while reading or thinking, which would gradually coalesce around a thesis, and could then be rearranged into a logical sequence. This is a super-fun way to write, and it’s why I love research work so much. But it’s also hugely time-consuming. Now that I’m trying to blog regularly, I can’t approach everything I write like it’s an essay worth 60% of my grade. I also usually sit down to write these with a good idea of what I want to say, and so using the straightforward outlining system in The Writing Revolution is much more efficient. Had I tried to write this post, or my last, without outlining it first, it probably would never have been written.

In short, if you’re frustrated with your students’ inability to string a sentence together, or you feel as if the lack of variety in their sentences is making it hard for them to express more complex ideas, I can’t recommend The Writing Revolution more. It’s completely changed how I teach writing and reading. It turns writing into a set of discrete skills that can be practiced and mastered, rather than a magical talent that you’ve either got or you don’t. If I’d been trained to teach writing this way, I think my classes last year would have made much more progress with than they did.

You can purchase The Writing Revolution here to find out more: NZ Link | US Link. These are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!