How to Teach Writing to Adolescents

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 19 July, 2021

If you are responsible for teaching writing to adolescents, you need to what the research says about how to teach writing to adolescents. A review by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin summarises much of this research. It was called A Meta-Analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students. This review statistically summarised 123 pieces of research on how to teach writing.

Here are the practical things they found.

How to Teach Writing: The 5 Star Approaches

Explicitly Teaching Writing Strategies

Teaching students learning strategies is one of the most powerful teaching approaches you can use in any subject. Explicitly teaching writing strategies is the single most effective way to teach writing. The effect size (d) is 0.82.

Writing strategies include specific ways to go about:

Planning what to write. For example, teaching students how to brainstorm ideas, how to select the best ones, and how to organise them.

Writing, for example, following your plan, taking heed of personal goals, writing continuously.

Revising what you have written. For example, adding persuasive devices, enriching the vocabulary and checking for transition words. Other examples include reworking sentences, along with checking grammar and punctuation.

Explicit teaching involves:

Modeling and explaining

Joint construction

Individual practice

Feedback and practice at incorporating the feedback

Writing strategies can be generic (e.g. brainstorming) or genre specific (e.g. creating a plotline).

Explicitly teaching students strategies for planning, writing and revising their work is markedly different to process writing.

In process writing, students plan, write and revise their work with a little incidental and individual support from the teacher. In process writing, there is little, if any explicit teaching of strategies to plan, write and revise their work.

Note: The process writing approach, on its own, had a low impact (d=0.32) on the quality of students writing.

One approach to explicitly teaching writing strategies worked particularly well. It was SSRD (d =1.14).

So, when you decide how to teach writing to your adolescents, I recommend explicitly teaching writing strategies.

Teaching Children to Summarise

I’ve always thought of summarising as a way of helping my students to comprehend a text. However, the meta-analysis by Graham and Perin revealed that summarising is potent way to improve your students writing (d = 0.82 tied first).

While many teachers ask their students to summarise texts, teachers seldom teach students how to go about summarising a text. It is a bit like the difference between teaching students writing strategies vs engaging students in process writing.

Yet, summarising is a complex skill. Many students don’t master it without explicit instruction. You need to explicitly teach students (modelling, joint composition, etc.) what summarising entails. Then gradually release responsibility until you finally let them loose to write summaries of their own.

It involves:

Analysing the text to find important vs. unimportant bits (or main ideas vs details)

Organising ideas in ways that follow the structure of the text or the structure of a paragraph – perhaps using graphic organisers

Looking for signal words in non-fiction texts (e.g. therefore, however, because, in conclusion)

Paraphrasing main ideas or important points

Striving to reduce your list of main ideas or important points even further

Stringing your key points together into just one, short text

So, when thinking about how to teach writing to your adolescents, explicit teaching gets a big tick. However, this time it is the explicit teaching of summarisation strategies.

How to Teach Writing: A 4.5 Star Approach

Peer Assistance

Peer assistance means working with peers to plan, write, and revise texts. It is an integral part of explicit teaching in the form of joint composition. However, you can also use it for individual tasks. For example, students may:

Brainstorm writing ideas individually and then in small groups before organising their final ideas on their own

Giving each other feedback before revising their own work

When done well, peer assistance has a high impact (d=0.75) on the quality of students’ writing. For example, if you want peer feedback to be useful, each student needs to know the criteria for judging draft compositions. This includes understanding the:

How to Teach Writing: A 4 Star Approach

Product Goals

Product goals provide specific criteria that you will use to judge the quality of your students’ writing. Providing students with product goals has a high impact (d=0.7) on the quality of their subsequent writing.

For example, I once taught a Year 7 class how to make persuasive case in their writing. While their are many aspects to consider, product goals enabled me to focus my on one aspect, persuasive devices.

More specifically, I wanted to teach my students how they could use different persuasive devices to:

Spark desired emotions

Make a rational case

Emphasise key things

To help them do this, I introduced them to 12 specific devices. Over several lessons I:

Explained each of the specific devices on the table below

Modelled and gave examples of each device

Had the students find examples of each technique in samples of writing

My students then wrote a persuasive text as a practice task. I used this rubric I had explained to them earlier to mark their practice tasks. I then set specific personal goals for each student 1-2 levels higher on the same rubric.

These personal goals are an individually tailored form of product goals.

My students then completed their summative persuasive task.

Setting product goals at both the class and individual levels is another useful way to teach writing to adolescents.

How to Teach Writing to Adolescents: A 3.5 Star Approach

Word Processing

This one needs little explanation. It involves your students using a word processing program such as MS Word to plan, write and revise texts.

It goes against my grain to include it, as I always preferred to get my students doing their drafts by hand. Maybe I’m old fashioned. However, as part of my commitment to evidence-based teaching and letting the evidence from research fall where it may, I included it in my list.

Allowing students to use word processors has a moderate impact (d=0.55) on the quality of their writing.

How to Teach Writing: A 3 Star Approach

3 star approach to teach writing to adolescents


Sentence combining involves explicitly teaching students to combine two sentences as either a:

Compound sentence (two main clauses)

Complex sentence (a main and a dependent clause)

Teaching students to combine sentences in different ways had a moderate impact (d=0.5) on the quality of students’ writing.

How to Teach Writing to Adolescents in a Nutshell

Given the above, I would start by setting and explaining relevant product goals.

Then, I would teach students to summarise texts similar to those you want them to write. When doing so, I would teach them to outline their summaries using a graphic organiser that they can later use to plan their own writing. This could take the form of a mind map or nested bullets within MS Word.

Next, I would model planning a text using the same graphic organiser, before having students plan their own text.

After that, I’d demonstrate how to use an outline to write a text. Then, I’d have students do the same.

I would then show students specific ways to revise their text, including:

Using a MS Word’s proofing tool to revise spelling, grammar and writing

Combining some sentences

Self-marking against the rubric

Using MS Word’s read aloud tool as a final check

Finally, I would show students how to use my formative assessment feedback to further improve their writing.

Low-Impact Strategies

Some of the strategies reviewed had a low (<0.4) impact on the quality of students’ writing. These included:

Prewriting (d=0.32): This involved brainstorming, planning and organizing ideas before writing – with no explicit instruction on how to go about such strategies.

Inquiry (d=0.32): This involved engaging students in activities that help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task by analysing immediate and concrete data (e.g., comparing and contrasting cases or collecting and evaluating evidence).

Process writing (d=0.32): This involved students planning, writing and revising their work on their own, with minimal guidance from the teacher.

Study of Models (d=0.25): This involved exploring a sample of a specific type of text and then trying to emulate it on their own. Again, students do this with minimal guidance from their teacher.

Explicit Teaching of Grammar (d=-0.32): Explicitly teaching students grammar had little impact in some studies and a negative effect overall.

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(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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3 thoughts on “How to Teach Writing to Adolescents”

  1. Buenas tardes Shaun, el artículo es de gran ayuda para un curso propedéutico de habilidades de lecto-escritura que estoy diseñando, Me ha dado muchas ideas para las actividades, saludos, excelente tarde.
    Irma Osnaya S.

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