How to Teach Writing to Elementary Students: 6 Key Areas of Focus

A local policeman recently explained to an elementary school class, “In 20 years, I have shot my gun twice. I use my pen every day. If you want to be a cop, you have to learn to write.”

This was good advice. Today, more than 90% of white-collar and 80% of blue-collar workers’ jobs involve writing. Writing also enhances our lives beyond the workplace. Capable writers have a powerful tool for learning and personal development, compelling communication, social and political engagement, self-expression and self-advocacy, and more.

Skilled writing is complex, requiring extensive self-regulation of a flexible, goal-directed, problem-solving activity. Becoming a good writer takes time and development, but what should elementary students know, believe, and be able to do on their path to becoming thoughtful, effective, and fluent writers? State and national standards, as well as the research we have on writing and its development, pinpoint six critical goals for all of our students when it comes to developing their identities as writers.

1. Facility With the Writing Process and Writing Contexts

Basic components of the writing process include prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Skilled writers use these parts of the process recursively and thoughtfully—not as a simple sequence of events! By the end of the elementary grades, our students need to be engaging successfully in each aspect of the writing process. The research is clear: students who know and use the writing process well become stronger writers.

However, students cannot come to use the writing process effectively unless they have had time and opportunities to write. Our students also need explicit instruction, support, and experience writing to learn to self-regulate this complex process, including orchestrating goal setting and self-assessment of both process and product. Our young writers are learning to focus on factors such as organization, form, and features; purposes and goals; reader perspectives and needs; and evaluation of whether their multiple goals are being well met. It’s a lot, but given opportunities to collaborate with peers and their teachers in a supportive and motivating writing environment, research shows elementary students can use the writing process effectively.

2. Powerful “Know How”

By the end of the elementary grades, students need to have developed powerful knowledge and capabilities that enable them to write for multiple purposes. Writing to tell a narrative, inform or explain, and persuade are each important to success in and out of school, although not all that our students need to learn about writing. Each of these genres has its own structure, conventions, and language. Skilled writers use strategies appropriate either across genres—for example, an opening that catches the reader, or good word choice—or specific to a genre, such as use of emotional appeal to persuade a reader. Further, much as a jazz musician first learns a melody before rifting, twisting, and improvising, our students come to own the genre knowledge and strategies they are learning and develop their own voice and approach across writing tasks, genres, and audiences.

3. Academic Language and Vocabulary

As students become immersed in the writing process and develop “know how,” they develop powerful academic language that will be invaluable as they continue to develop as writers in middle and high school—and beyond. By the end of the elementary grades, our students should have a solid foundation in the language used in discourse about writing. This foundation should be developed across listening, speaking, reading, and writing. We know that students who can use academic language effectively are more likely to succeed in and out of school. Learning how to choose words carefully when writing to maximize communicating with your reader, and developing word learning strategies, will set our students on the path to expand and deepen their vocabulary and their effective use of language when writing. 

4. Writing to Comprehend and Learn

Reading and writing are two of the primary cornerstones for building content learning across the curriculum. Until recently, writing effectively to inform or persuade after close reading of source texts was not a common expectation in the elementary grades. Many state and national standards now require fourth and fifth graders to write logical and compelling informative or persuasive essays based on close reading of source text—referring to text that can be read to obtain facts, definitions, details, quotations, ideas, or other information.

Additional writing activities that teachers use to enhance learning include writing a summary, writing to apply content learned, using writing to connect content to one’s personal life, and defending a particular point of view about what has been read. Creative teachers find many meaningful ways to integrate reading and writing, and research shows integrating the two leads to improvements in each. Teachers and researchers have shown that even early elementary grade students can learn how to write based on what they have learned by reading and discussion!

5. Competence and Fluency With Writing Conventions, Sentence Construction, Digital Tools, Handwriting, Spelling, and Keyboarding

Skilled writers rarely have to think about handwriting, keyboarding, or spelling. Explicit development of each of these skills is critical in the elementary grades. Further, by the end of the elementary grades our students should have a sound foundation in use of writing conventions, creating effective sentences, and use of digital tools.

6. "I Am a Writer!"

Sometimes writing is hard, but we can help our students develop positive attitudes about writing, and learn how to deal with emotions and challenges all writers face. Our students need to leave the elementary grades knowing they can write. When students have developed as writers in each area addressed here, they will leave the elementary grades with the knowledge, capabilities, and beliefs needed to learn and grow further as writers.

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Karen Harris is an advisor on HMH’s READ 180 Universal blended literacy intervention program, which is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration.

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