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October 11, 2018

5 Steps to Individualize Writing Instruction

Because most teachers have little formal instruction in how to teach writing—in teacher preparation programs and beyond—they often lack the skills and resources necessary to teach students to write well. They might not have learned how to recognize effective writing (because it can be subjective), how to give effective feedback, or how to balance whole-group and individualized instruction. It also seems that students are doing less long-form writing than ever before. Today's social media use encourages communication with scant punctuation and a combination of emojis and abbreviations, which can add even more challenges to teaching writing.
As two educators who have specialized in both special and general education at different points in our careers, we know that instructional strategies work for some students and not for others, even those with similar disabilities or those who are in the same grade level or classroom. We should teach writing by organizing instruction tailored to each student's specific needs, in the same way we provide special education students with an individualized education program.
Although it may seem like good practice to teach all students the same writing skill simultaneously, the fact remains that students will always be at different levels of mastery. Students who are adept at a specific skill, such as voice, story plot, sentence fluency, or grammar, should be able to spend more time working on those skills they haven't mastered.
Teachers can follow these steps to individualize writing instruction for all students:
Use instructional strategies designed to improve specific areas of writing.
In our book Tools for Teaching Writing (ASCD, 2014), we present a variety of strategies for doing so. One of our favorites is showing students how to edit irrelevant information. They use a checklist that asks them to delete unnecessary words and sentences that do not relate to the topic. Another strategy is the "rich language generator," by which students master descriptive language. Students consider aspects of the object they are describing, such as its feature, what the object resembles, and its human-like qualities. Then they string the features together into one descriptive sentence. Alternatively, teachers can create instructional strategies that help students develop the traits that are not apparent in their writing.
Make sure students write daily across content areas.
Students should not perceive writing to be a monotonous assignment done only during writing time. Instead, teachers should plan for writing assignments that are meaningful to students, such as writing about a popular movie, song, video game, or trend; writing about a current event that affects their age group; or writing about news or an event in their community. Teachers can also survey students to determine topics they want to write about and work to connect those topics to the content areas.
Our colleague Helen Vassiliou, a teacher in Ohio, has found that one of her most popular writing assignments allows students to research a person they hold in high regard and write a journal entry pretending to be that person. This project can cover a wide variety of content areas depending on the person they choose, including history, social studies, science, and math.
Remember that visuals, such as photographs and videos, can be valuable tools.
Time magazine's Lightbox, The New York Times's What's Going on in This Picture?, the Library of Congress, and National Geographic offer a wide range of photographs and visual images that can easily be incorporated into a writing lesson. Vassiliou uses visuals as a nonthreatening way of motivating students to start the writing process, especially for learners who need added support to understand text.
"Presenting a visual first and then asking students to write under three columns what they think, what they see, and what they wonder helps them assemble their ideas, which they can use to kickstart their writing," said Vassiliou.
Differentiate this strategy by having students write a caption, a dialogue, a word list, or questions about what they see. For those who need more structure, provide guiding questions in four columns:
  • Observe: What do you notice first? What is the physical setting?
  • Reflect: What's happening in the image? What can you learn from examining this image?Question: What do you wonder about?
  • "I Know": What do you now know about the image after examining it?
Use graphic organizers on a regular basis.
Visual displays of the relationships between concepts and ideas prompt students to document their thinking. For example, when Vassiliou's students have a hard time starting their drafts, she provides them with an organizer called Alpha Blocks, a visual of six blocks with the alphabet divided among them. She asks students to write a word or phrase that shows what they know about an assigned topic. This exercise gets thoughts flowing and generates a vocabulary bank students can pull from in later drafts.
Ask another teacher in the same department to evaluate students' writing.
This approach can help guard against any biases teachers may have toward students—either being too lenient on those they like or being too critical of those with challenging behaviors. Although writing is a subjective process, exchanging students' papers for evaluation allows teachers to maintain objectivity. From our own experiences, we found have that some teachers think of their own students' writing in terms of "good" and "bad." However, when another colleague offers a second opinion, it can provide a unique perspective on the work unaffected by other classroom experiences. Try our protocol for rating students' writing on eight specific traits, each with a set of descriptors, such as "writes a well-developed topic sentence" and "uses consistent voice throughout the written piece." Teachers can also create their own evaluation rubrics for the writing skills they think are most important.
Learning to write can be tough, but teaching writing might be tougher. These steps can help teachers reach out to students who continue to struggle with writing.

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