After last week’s post, I received a few questions about when it is a good time to include teacher-directed writing into writing instruction. One argument for teacher-directed writing is the standardized tests that students need to take and the need to prepare them to respond to the types of prompts that will be on those tests. While I believe that students need to to be able to decide what topics they want to write about, I am not against giving prompts or more directed writing once in a while because this is a skill that students will need in the future – when taking standardized tests, when responding to interview questions, and when writing college application essays. I want students to feel like they are in charge of their own writing by supporting them and allowing them to choose topics and genres that are exciting to them because if students want to write, then it is more likely that they will write! However, because it is also important to consider what students need to learn and that they need to write in more than one genre in order to be a well-rounded writer, I am sharing some ways that I balance student choice when writing with more teacher-directed writing:
Offer Ideas or Suggestions for Writing Topics
For some students, an open-ended topic is reassuring and helps them ease into the writing without worrying about what they will write about. Therefore, when modeling writing with students, I offer ideas and suggestions for writing topics that they may choose to write about. For example, when teaching the genre of personal narrative, I often write about my cat, Hemingway. There are many stories that I can decide to share through my writing about Hemingway, and often this helps remind students about moments with their own pets or special people in their lives. When I have taught how-to writing, I have shared the steps involved in shoveling snow (as someone from Buffalo – I can say that there are clear steps to shoveling!). This example helps students recognize the activities they perform in their lives that have certain steps. The suggestions I provide to students are meant as just that – options if students are struggling with what to write about rather than assigned topics.
Assign a Certain Number of Prompts a Year
In order to assess the students’ writing, I would administer anywhere from five to eight writing prompts a year. These more formal writing prompts give the students the experience of responding to a predetermined writing topic, which is similar to the writing that they will be asked to complete on standardized tests as well as in other areas of their lives. These prompts also allow me to assess what the students know about writing through a particular genre, see if students are making progress, and see if students are meeting the writing standards for the grade level.
Direct Writing During the Content Areas
During social studies and science I would direct the students’ writing more. For example, when I was teaching fourth grade, we studied the life cycle through butterflies. We raised butterflies and observed them at each stage of the life cycle. I wanted the students to write in order to think and learn about the life cycle so I would provide more direction with the writing that they completed during this time. Some of the writing I asked the students to complete included, “Write about what you observe during this phase of the life cycle” or “Write about what you notice” or “How does or doesn’t your observation match what we have read about?”
While it is important to prepare students for more directed writing, not all of the writing that they work on and share in the classroom must be predetermined by the teacher. It is possible to have a balance of both student selected topics as well as teacher-directed writing. Again, my goal is for students to become confident writers who enjoy writing about the things that matter most to them and that are important to their lives.
*Photo: Hemingway the Cat living his best life!