Contrary to what many students believe, writing well is a craft that can be learned by anyone. It isn’t just a talent that is the exclusive domain of those ‘good’ at English. It’s a skill. And, like any skill, it can be broken down into a series of subskills that can be taught, practised, and ultimately mastered. The ability to write with proficiency will reap rich rewards for students across many subject areas, as well as life beyond the school gates.
In this article, we’ll explore some specific high school writing skills that can be worked on in isolation to help your students develop into capable and confident writers in the shortest time possible.
So, without further ado, let’s get write into it and learn the seven essential skills that make a difference within the high school writing curriculum.
1. Build Strong Foundations
It all starts with the basics. If our students are to become skilled writers, they’ll need a firm grasp of the mechanics. In writing terms, these are foundational skills such as handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
These are broad areas, and student knowledge of these will be built up over time, but students will struggle to express their thoughts and ideas coherently without a solid understanding of each.
For emergent writers, areas such as handwriting, spelling, and basic punctuation will form the basis of most of their writing work. But, some high school-aged writers will still need support in these areas at times.
For most of us, grammar is a life’s work! Be sure to take every possible opportunity to reinforce student understanding in this area, regardless of age, in literacy-specific lessons and other areas of study too.
- Do a baseline assessment of foundation skills.
- Identify gaps in learning.
- Fill in the gaps!
2. Read – a Lot!
Reading is the mirror image of writing. Where writing is considered an active skill, reading is often viewed as its passive counterpart. But, in truth, reading should be anything but a passive experience for our students.
As writing apprentices, students should approach reading with a curious, investigative mindset. Reading the work of skilled writers is an opportunity to witness how they solve the problems of expression and communication via the printed word.
It’s not just a chance for students to reinforce their understanding of foundational skills such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but to gain knowledge on text organization, writing dialogue, the use of literary devices, etc. Students should approach their reading with a magpie’s eye – what shiny jewels can they pluck for their own writing nest?
Remember, there’s a reason why we learn to read before we learn to write. We need to know the destination before we depart on our writing journey.
- Read poetry out loud in class.
- Create a class book club.
- End the day with quiet reading time.
3. Improve Understanding of Text Types
Writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of tool. Students need to learn to select the right tool for the task. This is why we teach the different criteria for each text type or genre.
The more knowledgeable our students become about each text type’s purpose, structure, and the specific features that define it, the more able they’ll be to construct well-written texts that fulfil these particular requirements.
Of course, students can explore many different text types, from nonfiction genres such as procedural and persuasive texts to narrative fiction and poetry. It will take time and lots of practice to master all of these. Be sure to take every opportunity to reinforce student understanding in these areas, whether engaged in reading or writing activities.
- Explicitly teach the purpose, structure, and features of each text type.
- Create criteria checklists for each text type.
- Use checklists when reading, writing, and editing.
4. Teach a Writing Process Model
Writing well has nothing in common with winning a jackpot. There’s no Lady Luck involved here. Tight writing results from proper planning and the excellent execution of that plan. To help our students create texts that are the cat’s meow every time they put pen to paper, we need to teach them a writing process model.
There are many different versions of writing process models, but each describes writing as a series of distinct sequential steps to be taken when producing any written text.
Our 5-step writing process model includes the following steps:
Each step of the process requires students to master several skills specific to that step. For example, students will need good research and planning skills to complete the prewriting stage successfully. Here’s a quick overview of some of the primary skills students will need for each step:
Stage 1: Prewriting
Related Skills: Research and planning
Stage 2: Drafting
Related Skills: Writing to an outline, timed writing, writing to a word count
Stage 3: Revising
Related Skills: Close reading, using a checklist
Stage 4: Editing
Related Skills: Knowledge of text and sentence structures and organisation, grammar, word choice, and punctuation
Stage 5: Submitting
Related Skills: Punctuality, a positive outlook on criticism
One of the best ways for students to get to grips with this process is to start by modelling each stage explicitly for students.
Then, they can work on the related supplementary skills, some of which we’ll cover later in this article.
The Writing Process Model is a much bigger topic than we can cover here. If you want to learn more about it, check out our comprehensive article dedicated to the subject here.
- Teach the 5-Step Writing Process Model
- Model completion of each step of the process
- Create opportunities to practice the various related skills
5. See Feedback as an Opportunity
For our students, the writing process doesn’t end when they pop their essays onto your desk. The feedback of the student’s teachers and peers should be an essential part of the writing process.
The old saying among coaches and athletes that ‘there is no losing, only winning and learning’ applies to writing too. Just as knowing how to give feedback is a skill to be learned, so is learning how to receive feedback, which is essential for students to develop.
When done correctly, feedback provides the student with up-to-date information about the level of their writing skills are currently at. It will identify areas for improvement and help students to focus their efforts in a targeted manner.
This is an area where we, as teachers, can assist enormously. For students to incorporate feedback effectively for improving their writing skills, we need to ensure the feedback we provide is optimal.
To do this, we need to follow some best-practice guidelines for giving feedback:
- Be as specific as possible – students won’t know what to fix unless the feedback is detailed and specific. Avoid useless general statements such as ‘Must try harder!’ or ‘Well done!’. These aren’t helpful.
- Strike while the iron is hot – research shows that immediate feedback results in a more significant increase in performance than delayed feedback.
- Identify a goal – longer-term goals should be broken down into a series of smaller, more attainable goals, which should be communicated to the student in their feedback.
- Involve the student – students need to understand the feedback to implement improvements; make sure you’re available if they have any questions or need advice.
6. Revise these High School Writing Skills – Rigorously!
Drafting, revising, and editing are all part of the writing process. Students must learn to approach these aspects of writing with the same focus and energy they bring to their first draft.
Just as with many other steps of the writing process, when students develop effective routines to follow they will eliminate much of the guesswork.
The first round of revision should employ a broader perspective on the writing. It should focus on organisational elements of the writing, answering questions such as:
- Does the article follow a logical, coherent structure?
- Are paragraphs used effectively?
- Does the text contain the characteristic structural features of the genre?
- Does the text contain a compelling opening, body, and conclusion?
This leads us on to an ever-narrowing focus in the subsequent editing rounds. It’s also important to remind students that the act of editing is as much about what they take out as it is about what they put in.
Students start by focusing on text structure and organisation, moving on to sentence construction, and, finally, the proofreading stage.
7. Proofread Closely
Proofreading has a much narrower focus than the prior rounds of editing. Here, the student’s primary focus will be vocabulary, punctuation, and spelling.
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Words are the very building blocks of a text. Learning to choose just the right word for the job is a crucial skill for students to develop. Getting good at this requires the student to develop a strong vocabulary that must be built out over time.
One of the best ways to build a broader active vocabulary is to encourage students to read frequently and widely. However, in the meantime, the thesaurus is an essential tool for every student writer to use.
Not only will it help students widen their vocabulary and deepen their ability to express more subtle shades of meaning in their writing in the long term, but the thesaurus can help the student select the right word on the fly too. Encourage your students to get into the habit of using a thesaurus during the drafting, editing, and proofreading stages.
Precise use of punctuation helps the writer accurately convey their intended meaning. It allows the writer to create pauses and indicate an emphasis on certain words or ideas.
Sometimes, students know what they want to say perfectly well in their head, but there is something lost when the thoughts are transcribed onto paper. Often, this is just the result of our ideas flowing faster than our pens can keep up. It is this that the proofreading process is geared towards correcting.
A practical method of ensuring a sentence has been punctuated correctly is for the student to read it aloud and carefully listen as they do so. The student may even wish to record themselves reading their work on a sound recorder like those on most modern cell phones.
When reading aloud, the student must be careful to read the text exactly as written, pausing where the punctuation dictates and flowing through where there is no punctuation. This will soon reveal to the student not only the meaning of what they’ve written but the rhythm too. They can then identify any mistakes and make the necessary corrections.
As word processing increasingly becomes the norm, spelling (not to mention handwriting) is becoming something of a lost art. However, spellcheckers are not yet infallible. For example, spellcheckers won’t catch typos that are actual words. Not only that, but spellcheckers can lead to laziness and don’t allow students to learn from their mistakes. The lesson here is clear – students shouldn’t rely exclusively on software to do all the heavy lifting!
Usually, we think of learning to spell as one of the first skills students develop as emergent writers. However, English is far from consistent in its approach, so it is worth revisiting high school spelling strategies.
Here are some simple strategies to help your students improve their spelling skills quickly.
- Review the basic rules of spelling
- Take note of the exceptions to these rules
- Use the Read-Write-Cover-Check method to learn new spellings
- Keep a notebook of new spellings
- Read – a lot!
To Wrap Up
There’s no doubt that writing plays a big part in any high schooler’s life. As it’s a highly complex process, it’s vital that we break that process down into its various component skills for students to practice in isolation.
While the development of these skills should be consistently linked with their writing practice, reading also provides students with a model for how these skills express themselves in a text. Encouraging your students to adopt reading as a daily habit will go a long way to lifting the level of their writing.