It’s somewhat ironic; just as I was about to post this about helping struggling writers, I read “Best Practices: Students in the Driver’s Seat” by Anthony Cody. Cody promotes inquiry-based instruction and problem-based learning, two practices that give students a great deal of control over their learning.
Certainly, struggling writers and learners need to be thoughtfully engaged in learning, but, unfortunately, just giving them the keys to the car isn’t enough. In an extremely enlightening and helpful book, Strategies for Struggling Writers, James L. Collins identifies key challenges facing struggling writers in urban schools. In order for these students to progress as writers, these challenges must be addressed—which may mean more teacher-directed instruction than some of you may be comfortable with. Here are some of things that I’ve gleaned from Collin’s study:
The World of the Struggling Writer
- Struggling writers often lack the life experiences to address a wide range of topics. Some of them may never have seen another city, state, or region of the country. (Of course, the Internet has expanded the scope of their knowing.) With limited knowledge outside of their immediate experience, don’t expect them to jump at the chance to write about organic farming or the benefits of biodiesel fuel. So, at least in the beginning, be sure that they write about topics that they truly connect with.
Best Advice: Keep things real and give them as many new experiences as possible.
- Struggling writers need freedom while they work—freedom to explore their own thoughts, freedom to take a few risks, and so on—but within that freedom, they also need structure, the structure that the writing process affords them. Breaking writing projects into series of steps makes it more manageable for struggling writers.
Best Advice: Keep things under control, using the writing process.
- However, don’t expect struggling writers to produce great work just because they follow the writing process. Students often struggle because they haven’t internalized the necessary moves needed to develop thoughtful, in-depth writing. So, at different points during the writing process, implement minilessons that address important writing skills and strategies (answering the 5 W’s, writing effective beginnings, and so on). It also helps if you write along with the students, so they can see how an experienced writer works.
Best Advice: Keep things in perspective; struggling writers need to learn a lot about writing.
- It’s safe to say that struggling writers are often careless with their work. Unfortunately, that’s how many of them are programmed; just look at the condition of the notebooks and papers that they bring to class (if, in fact, they bring anything to class). So just keeping track of their writing from day to day is a challenge, big time. Having them do their work on a computer helps; compiling a writing booklet for them to work in is another way to go. (The booklets should, of course, stay in the classroom.)
Best Advice: Keep things very organized for the students, at least during the first part of the year.
- Struggling writers are often visual learners. As a result, they respond favorably to graphics such as Venn diagrams, clusters, line diagrams, and so on. So give them experience with a variety of these organizers. Also use graphics to remind them what step or stage they are working on.
Best Advice: Keep things visual; graphics appeal to struggling writers.
- Just because some students struggle as writers doesn’t make them less sophisticated than their classmates. So don’t “dumb down” instruction. Instead, keep tasks simple and manageable but without making them sound or appear elementary. It can be done with a little thought and creativity on your part.
Best Advice: Keep things age-appropriate; your students deserve it.
- At the end of a writing project, it’s important to have struggling writers reflect on their work. This could be something as simple as answering a few questions about their writing: What was the easiest part of your writing? The hardest? How did you organize your details? What part do you like best? Why? Doing this helps students internalize the different things they have done, and in the process, build their repertoire of writing moves (You might also have students reflect on their work at strategic point during their writing.)
Best Advice: Keep things informative and beneficial; the point of all of this is to help your students improve as writers.
One of your unfortunate challenges (if you are a writing teacher) is preparing students for writing tests. When faced with a room full of struggling writers, the challenge may seem more like “mission impossible.” However, if your instruction incorporates the advice in this blog, a writing foundation, of sorts, will be established that your students can draw from during test preparation.