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In 2017 there was a significant drop in NAPLAN results for writing amongst adolescents. This left many of us wondering ‘how to teach writing to adolescents’.
I searched the available research for an answer. Specifically, I looked for meta-analyses on the topic. I didn’t merely want to know what works but rather what works best.
Luckily, I came upon a review by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin. 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 to Adolescents: 6 Proven Ways to Help Adolescents Improve Their Writing
How to Teach Writing: The 5 Star Approaches
1. 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.
Explicit teaching involves:
Writing strategies include specific ways to go about:
Writing strategies can be generic (e.g. brainstorming) or genre specific (e.g. a plotline).
So, when you decide how to teach writing to your adolescents, I recommend explicitly teaching writing strategies.
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).
2. Teaching Students to Summarize
Summarising involves creating a shortened version of a longer text in your own words. The new, shortened version keeps the main ideas or key events contained in the original. Yet, it leaves out the detail.
Teaching your students to summarise boosts their comprehension. It also forms a key part of broader strategies such as Reciprocal Teaching (d=0.74). What many people fail to realise is that it is a potent way (d=0.82 tied first) to help your students improve their writing.
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.
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
3. 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:
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
4. 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.
In today’s jargon, product goals can take the form of learning intentions and success criteria. For example, when teaching a Year 7 class, I had a learning intention, which I phrased as We are going to learn ways to persuade an audience.
My success criteria were that students must:
It is vital that your students understand what the success criteria mean. So, over several lessons I:
My students then wrote a persuasive text as a practice task. I used the 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
5. 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 to Adolescents: A 3 Star Approach
6. Sentence Combining
Sentence combining involves explicitly teaching students to combine two sentences as either a:
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 Brief
In short, the research showed that the most effective ways to teach writing involved.
It also revealed the potential power of setting product goals. This included personal goals based on formative assessment.
And, the moderate impact of using a word processor, along with sentence combining.
Other strategies reviewed had a low (<0.4) impact on the quality of students’ writing. These included: