5 Common Mistakes When Teaching Writing

One of the mini sessions I attended at this year’s TCRWP Saturday Reunion was titled, “5 Common Mistakes Teachers Make in Writing Instruction and How to Quit Making Them” presented by Colleen Cruz.

First she summarized the four types of mistakes we can make as educators.

classification of mistakes
Taken from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/42874/why-understanding-these-four-types-of-mistakes-can-help-us-learn
  1. Aha-Moment – A mistake that you didn’t know. Maybe something like being observed and discovering you provide limited wait time after asking a question of students.
  2. Stretch Mistake – We make these all the time. Every time we try something new and reflect on what did not go well to make changes for the next time.
  3. Sloppy Mistakes – Mistakes that don’t really hurt anyone else. Leaving my tea in the office when I make copies would be an example.
  4. High-Stakes Mistakes – We don’t realize we are making it, but it has the biggest effect if not corrected.

The 5 common mistakes made when teaching writing are high-stakes mistakes that have the potential to have a negative effect on students. But the great thing about mistakes is when you know better, you do better.

Mistake #5

Remember those rules we used to make up while playing tag outside. The ones that we made up along the way to fit whatever needs we had. We do that in teaching too. For example, all those rules about numbers in writing are backyard rules. Teachers often use numbers to increase volume but they can cause more harm. Numbers in writing is just wrong! There are many strategies to increase volume while promoting quality not quantity.

  • Every essay must be 5 paragraphs
  • Every paragraph must have at least 5 sentences
  • Every sentence must have 5-7 words

The rules below are often used in an attempt to improve vocabulary, but sometimes the simpler word is just right.

  • “Said is dead”
  • “Put nice on ice”

We even try to keep writing formal and create these rules, but what we really need to teach students is purpose and audience.

  • Never use I
  • Never use you

Some others that come to mind include never start a sentence with the word because or and.

Look at some mentor texts and compare those published pieces to the backyard rules.

Mistake #4

Sometimes when a unit is challenging for us or students, we tend to take longer. However, the advice from TCRWP is that any unit should not extend past 4-5 weeks. They caution that it’s not useful to linger in what you don’t know. According to Lucy, “The less you know, the faster you should go.” Making this mistakes creates an environment where everyone is just over it. In any unit that is challenging, choose the must knows from that unit and really teach them. Another reminder that we aren’t teaching everything but the kitchen sink!

Mistake #3

Sometimes as teachers we over scaffold and sometimes those steps we create to manage students is done with the purest of intentions–providing student support. So we put steps in place including some of the following:

  • Every time you revise, use a different color.
  • You must do step 1 before step 2.
  • You must have three drafts before you can write a final copy.
  • You must check in with me before starting the next step.

If you have too many scaffolds in place, you might actually be creating obstacles that prevent students from being independent and productive.

nervous sweating

Oops…completely guilty of this mistake!

Mistake #2

Often times we will give lots and lots of feedback on final products. The problem with that, besides the fact that it takes up a whole lot of teacher time on weekends, is that evaluative feedback does not encourage growth. By the time students get it, they are already finished and have checked out.

The best feedback is given along the way. It focuses on what’s most important right now for this student, again not everything but the kitchen sink!

Mistake #1

When we teach the writing not the writer we are not meeting individuals where they are nor are we providing them with the tools to develop their writing outside of that one piece. For example, we might be so focused on the writing that when they struggle to determine a topic, we give them a list of topics or suggestions based on what we know about them. What we need to do instead is teach students strategies to generate ideas that they can use in the future.

We might also focus on some of those backyard rules of a certain type of writing instead of using mentor texts to help writers determine their own goals and the techniques they want to use to meet them.

  • Are you teaching that every persuasive essay has a thesis statement as the last sentence of the introduction?
  • Are you teaching that there must be three reasons to support the claim?
  • Is that what all writers do?

What if instead we teach kids to study author purpose, audience, and the craft moves they made and how those moves had an impact on the reader?

What if we taught writers to set their own goals and purpose, determine their own audience and the craft moves that will help them achieve what they set out to do with the writing?

Moving Forward

When I sat in that session, I definitely sighed a few times remembering when I too made that mistake. I certainly never claim to be perfect, but what I have always tried to do in all of my years teaching is to reflect on my work and adjust. I earned my teaching certificate 24 years ago, and I still read as much as possible, participate in as much professional development as I can, and talk to educators every day. I am still learning and growing, and I know many of you are doing the same. So when we discover we are making a mistake, we all need to do better when we know better no matter how many years we have been in this business.

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