Friday, November 10, 2017

Teaching writing authentically: the WHAT, the WHY, & the HOW

This post was written collaboratively by elementary teachers enrolled in the Alternative Pathway To Teaching program at the University of Minnesota in partnership with Teach For America. The post was edited & stitched together by Ryan Higbea, one of their instructors. As part of CI 5214: Elementary Education Content and Pedagogy IV, teachers are working to understand writing and genre instruction in the elementary school. This post is a synthesis of chapters 1, 2, 4 & 6 of Reading and Writing Genre with Purpose in K-8 Classrooms by Duke, Caughlan, Juzwik, and Martin. Page references throughout the post refer to this text.

Introductory Thoughts

by Gwen

Teaching writing with purpose allows students to see connections between the writing they are learning and their daily lives, while explicitly learning key skills. Genres are not taught in a specific sequence but rather reflect the mixture of text types they’ll see in their daily lives. Writing with purpose allows students to become motivated to write and will engage students to work hard and become more curious about their writing.

The 5 principles (p. 3) that help guide writing instruction are:

  • Create an environment that welcomes all communication
  • Introduce, through exposure, different types of text
  • Explicitly teach genre features.
  • Explicitly teach genre-specific or genre-sensitive strategies
  • Offer ongoing coaching and feedback
These principles are designed to engage students at different levels to learn these main types of texts: narrative, informative/exclamatory, and persuasive.

What are narrative texts?
by Hannah Bates

Narrative texts share stories about a variety of experiences, for a variety of reasons. Narrative writing is authored by people who have knowledge about a particular experience and can be fiction or nonfiction. It's important to teach narrative writing to empower students to write about their own lived experiences, or historical experiences that have affected them.

When teaching narrative writing, create meaningful assignments that are "larger" than the students themselves. Make them collaborate about something meaningful that will allow them to truly engage authentically. Use mentor texts and modeling to expose students to the components of narrative. Teach genre features, such as setting, plot, details, language, etc. Teach strategies for effectively making sense of narrative texts, like visualizing or rereading for clarity, (p. 22-51).

In the Minnesota Academic Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) K-12, the third benchmark in the writing strand (x.6.3.3) is related to narrative writing.

Narrative – the HOW
by Sarah Ehlen

In my own classroom, after explaining the “what” of narrative, using mentor texts in a variety of narrative types has been crucial in teaching the “HOW.” Young students are natural storytellers, filled with experiences and stories to share. By reading mentor texts and highlighting published authors' “craft moves,” students are able to see different methods of bringing stories to life on the page.

Exemplar mentor texts (like On My Way to Buy Eggs by Chih-Yuan Chen) exposes students to different aspects of narrative writing and gives them an anchor when they want to try a new element of narrative writing themselves. A set of mentor texts is necessary, as well as a variety of paper choices, illustration tools and writing instruments. Students of all stages of writing development should have access to writing materials that allow them to test out craft moves and tell their own stories. Older students, should also use different forms of technology.

Once students begin reading, publishing and sharing their writing, other ELA benchmarks are addressed (x.8.1.1 for example).

The WHAT of Informative/Explanatory
by Callea

“Informational and explanatory” is a broad genre that consists of many sub genres, including but not limited to:

  • Textbooks
  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazines
  • Journals
  • Websites
  • Letters
  • Informational pamphlets
Authors of these texts use strategies that we should teach students to use:
  • Research by reading texts, interviewing and observing
  • Preview texts by skimming and scanning
  • Make clear and concise notes
  • Summarize
  • Capture the gist
  • Organize information
The intended audience should be the driving force behind deciding what type of informational text the author will create.
  • A textbook for children?
  • An informational pamphlet for parents?
  • A guidebook for visitors?
Students should get exposure to the text types they are creating and take note of the text features that are predominantly used. These text features can include:
  • Information boxes
  • Pictures
  • Graphics
  • Graphs and data
  • Paragraphs carefully organized by topic
MN ELA benchmarks related to reading and writing information texts are:
  • Informational text benchmarks:
    • x.2.1.1
    • x.2.1.2
    • x.2.5.5
    • x.2.6.6
  • Writing:
    • x.6.2.2
    • x.6.4.4
    • x.6.8.8
The “How” of Informational Writing
by Will McDuffie

There are five “principles” for teaching informational writing to students (p. 84-108):

  • Create a compelling, meaningful environment 
    • Introduce interesting topics and graphics
    • Design projects around pressing issues
    • Provide a real audience
    • Follow through (i.e. if you tell students you’re sending their writing to the president, really send it)
  • Provide exposure and experience
    • Give kids either a teacher model or a mentor text
  • Explicitly teach the features of informational texts
    • Examples of these features:
      • Table of contents, headings/subheadings, index
      • Final summary and closing statement
      • Frequent repetition of the topic of the text
      • Technical vocabulary
      • Graphical devices like timelines, diagrams, and flowcharts
    • Be influenced by the students’ writing, the needs of their audience, and state benchmarks - not the sequence of mini-lessons from the published curriculum.
  • Explicitly teach genre-specific or genre-sensitive strategies
    • Strategies for reading and listening
    • Strategies for writing and speaking
      • Researching
      • Planning
      • Revising
  • Offer Ongoing Coaching and Feedback
    • Small group and one-on-one settings
The WHAT of Persuasive
by Freda

The purpose of persuasive text is to influence the reader’s opinion - either subtly or blatantly. Persuasive text is found in many different types in our daily life:

  • Editorials
  • Blogs
  • Magazine articles
  • Pamphlets
  • Literary essays
  • Poetry
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Surveys
  • Commercials
  • Grocery flier
  • Campaign flier
Persuasive assignments are often given to students without any real purpose or audience. If students feel their writing has a legitimate purpose and an audience beyond simply the teacher for a grade, they are more likely to be passionate, excited and highly involved in the actual writing because it matters.

Years ago, my son’s teacher challenged her second graders to think of their favorite restaurant and the reasons why it is their favorite (
related MN ELA related benchmark2.6.1.1). Students wrote a persuasive piece attempting to influence one of their classmates. My son was so excited about this assignment. 

My son picked Smashburger. Students got to share their essays with one another, they were posted in the classroom and copies were mailed to the local restaurants.

Weeks later, my son asked if I would take him to Smashburger for dinner. Upon receipt of my son’s work, the local Smashburger sent coupons to the school as a way of thanking him for his writing. When we redeemed the coupon, I thanked the cashier and she thanked my son for his writing sample!

Now that I am a teacher myself, I think of the extra effort that my son’s teacher went to for this persuasive writing piece to ensure that the assignment had actual purpose to increase student involvement and passion about the writing.

Features that we should teach include:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Using vocabulary 
  • Being creative with arguments
  • Beginning with a great launch or “hook” 
  • Including rebuttal responses 
  • Ending with a strong conclusion
The HOW of Persuasive
by Colin

Several actions MUST be done to teach students HOW to write with persuasion and to support them in their knowledge of a persuasive text. Finding a situation that engages students is essential and once the problem has been identified, find something your students can do to contribute to a solution (p. 142). To identify those problems, think global, act local; in other words, address a real need in their community.


  • Access to resources
    • reading texts, watching videos, listening to others’ experiences
  • Opportunities to collaborate
    • get students talking so they can communicate thoughts and opinions
  • Modeling
    • model texts from the teacher or the students to show what their work could look like. This will help students produce quality work and meet expected outcomes
  • Opportunities to practice
    • Give students the chance to communicate effectively, construct arguments with purpose and reasoning, and connect with their audience
  • Supports
    • graphic organizers (like this one or a bubble map) and support systems can help students structure their arguments
Concluding Thoughts
by Katie

Teachers should keep in mind what being authentic looks like in practice. We may teach the same benchmarks, but we do not use the same goal posts. The needs of students are not necessarily equal. The innately personal aspect of writing necessitates careful contemplation of the needs of our specific students, and just as students must think of their audience when writing, so too should us teachers when planning a project.

The more impassioned by the topic students are, the closer we inch to true engagement. Conversely, without analysis of what an authentic topic means to our specific students, the amount of engagement plummets.

“Children aren’t born knowing”, (p 94), but what they are born with is a need to express, and teaching writing authentically does just that.

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