Author: Laura Robb

The Writing Teacher – Student Partnerships

I asked Laura to share her thoughts on how an English teacher can create a culture of feedback by supporting student partnership.

Reading and grading papers is a fact of the teaching life. However, writing teachers seem to spend more time on students’ work because they provide students with lengthy revision suggestions and correct most of the students’ incorrect use of conventions.  Frustrations over workload and time spent grading quickly set in, but these feelings go underground when you organize writing partnerships in your classes.

Students can select writing partners or you can assign them. However, offering students choice motivates them to work hard and support each other through the process. Since partnerships can change after completing a writing unit, students will be able to pair-up with several classmates during the year. In addition, if a partner is working diligently on a draft, encourage students to seek assistance from someone who has completed that part of the process.

Writing partnerships benefit teachers and students, and the suggestions that follow provide tips that help you place the responsibility for writing plans, drafting, revising, and editing on students.

Supporting Student Partnerships. Collaborate with students and motivate them to write, and at the same time, you’ll boost their engagement in the entire process.

  • Create the rubric with student input so that they invest in the process.
  • Negotiate with students the amount of time they need for each of the following parts of the process: designing a rubric with you; brainstorming and planning; composing the first draft; revising for content and style; and editing for conventions.
  • Circulate among students when they brainstorm, plan, and the draft so you can discuss questions and roadblocks with them and offer suggestions that move them forward.
  • Read and offer feedback on second drafts, for these have been greatly improved by students.
  • Use the rubric to make positive comments on a sticky note and ask one to two questions that push students back into the revision and/or editing process.

Releasing Responsibility to Students Partnerships. Students learn how to evaluate a piece of writing by comparing it to a rubric. Have students write self and peer evaluations on notebook paper and file these in their writing folders.  Make sure students save all of their written work–from brainstormed ideas to second drafts–in a writing folder.

  • Have students discuss their topics before brainstorming. This ensures that they generate more detailed lists.
  • Ask students to use their rubric to evaluate the richness of details in their writing plan and add specific details when necessary.
  • Have students use the rubric to self-and-peer evaluate first drafts by measuring these against the negotiated rubric.
  • Help partners understand that first drafts require much work. Encourage them to revise for content first, then writing style, and finally for conventions.
  • Have students use their revisions and edits to compose the second draft.
  • Require that students turn in all of their work with the second draft on top.

The Payoffs

  Teachers find it easier to grade and offer feedback on improved second drafts. Moreover, student partnerships free-up teachers with the time they need to support individuals who struggle with a task.  

Partnerships foster independence in writing among students. When they experience how comparing a draft to the rubric provides them with suggestions for improving their piece, they can choose and use feedback to revise and rewrite their writing.

The Writing Teacher- Effective Leads

This blog grew out of discussions Laura and I had on teaching students how to write effective leads.  As we like to do, we are sharing ideas you can try immediately in your class or school.

What makes students want to continue reading? One key element is the lead or introduction because it can create a desire to read more. The first few sentences of book or story should grab the reader’s attention and make him or her wonder.

When you teach students how to open a story or essay, they start writing lackluster openings such as I’m going to tell you about whales or I’m going to write about my best friend. These leads are snoozers and typical of students who have not been taught what makes a lead engaging and motivates them to continue.

Leads That Work. Leads that activate the voice within readers that says, ”Keep reading!” have important jobs:

  1. The lead prepares readers for what’s to come in the text.
  2. The lead raises questions that can be answered if the learner reads more.

Students can use both elements to evaluate and improve their own leads.

Five Leads Worth Teaching.

1.Lead with a question that doesn’t have a “Yes’ or “No answer.

Example:  Why did Jack cancel today’s hike?

2.Lead with a dialogue that’s short and arouses curiosity.

Example:  “She’s running from the bakery, with a loaf of bread inside her jacket,” a man shouted.

“One more block and I can ditch into an alley,” the girl muttered.

3.Lead with a short anecdote or story that captures readers’ imagination.

Example:  She stared at her cat–her pet for nine years. How could she hold her beloved Angus while the Vet ended his life?

4.Lead with a fascinating fact that increases readers interest.

Example:  The giraffe is the tallest mammal in the world, and their newborn giraffe babies are taller than human babies.

5.Lead by setting a tone or mood to draw readers into a text.

Example:  The house looked strange. Black paint covered the windows. Suddenly, the front door flung open, yet neither human nor animal stepped onto the rickety porch.

Create Mini-Lessons for Each Kind of Lead

One-at-a-time is the rule for introducing leads. The suggestions that follow can support your lessons.

  • Explain both jobs of a lead.
  • Name the lead you’re going to model.
  • Write an example for students to study and discuss or use an example from a book.
  • Think aloud and show how the lead introduces the piece and write the questions the lead raises on the board.
  • Organize students into pairs.
  • Invite partners to craft a sample lead and discuss the questions it raises.
  • Encourage students to share their leads with the class.

Now you can show students how to craft leads that draw readers into a text.

Remember, that first draft leads are usually not terrific. So, ask students to return to their openings and use what they’ve practiced as they work to improve their writing skills!
Learn more about leads, introductions, and writing from Laura Robb’s book, Teaching Middle School Writers Heinemann, 2010.

Put Revising in Students’ Hands

We all know how easy it is to put off reading students’ writing. Marking up papers is a joyless experience.  What happens is that teachers spend long hours slogging through a stack of papers and students learn little because they aren’t doing the revising work. The changeover to students doing the revision is easy. Try these five techniques that put revision into your students’ hands and show them how to improve the content of their writing. There’s one caveat—students need writing time during school at least four 45-minute classes.

  1. Make sure expectations are clear before students plan and draft. Let students know the content standards whether it’s a paragraph, essay, or short narrative. For an informative paragraph content standards might include a title, topic sentence that grabs readers, three to four elaborated details, a conclusion that keeps readers thinking. Standards for a memoir might include a title, one significant memory, tell the story truthfully in first person, use dialogue, show, don’t tell.
  2. Send old habits on their way—support first drafts, don’t read and grade them. Have students plan and draft their writing in class. Circulate and listen, observe, answer questions, and offer help. Point out what’s working, pair-up students who can support each other. Don’t carry a pencil to make sure the students do the work. Why? When students solve writing problems, they grow as writers and move to independence with revision.
  3. Teach techniques that make revision easy. Ask students to self-evaluate their first drafts by using the content standards. Then assign writing partners so pairs can use the content standards to make revision suggestions. On a separate paper, the writer and then the peer evaluator check the content against the standards and turn each standard into questions such as: Was the title short and catchy? Did the topic sentence make me want to read on? Did the writer offer interesting information? What did the wrap-up include that made me want to continue thinking about the topic? Students write responses to these questions on separate paper. Now student writers have ideas from themselves and peers for revision!
  4. Invite students to join the revision bandwagon. It’s the students who roll up their sleeves, dig in, and revise parts they feel will improve the writing. Students rewrite sections in need of revision on separate paper, then create a second, much improved draft.
  5. Teachers read second drafts. One of the many benefits of students doing the revising and creating a second draft is that you read writing that’s improved. Professional writers know that first drafts never cut it—let’s do the same for students and make your reading and grading life easier! Use the same techniques for developing standards for editing writing conventions.

You might want to check out Robb’s book on writing: Teaching Middle School Writers, Heinemann, 2010.


Write about Reading and Increase Comprehension!

By Laura Robb

The research on writing about reading is in, and it’s truly compelling! An article by Steve Graham and Karen Harris in the January/February 2016 Reading Teacher has implications for all teachers and all subjects. The research is clear and decisive on this point: when teachers have students write about books students can read, their comprehension jumps 24 percentile points. This is in contrast to simply reading, rereading, and studying. In addition, when students write about content material presented in class, comprehension jumps nine percentile points. The study makes it clear that it’s the students who must do the reading which means that teachers need to find materials on specific topics that all students—even those reading below grade level—can read.
The writing discussed in the research doesn’t focus on formal essays and paragraphs. So what does this mean for teachers of students in grades K to 12? The researchers aren’t suggesting that students answer questions after completing each chapter in a book. Moreover, prior to writing, it’s beneficial to have students turn and talk about their reading with a partner. Partner talk stimulates thinking, helps students clarify ideas, and often allows them to observe ideas that differ from theirs.
To support teachers with writing to improve comprehension, I’ve included the suggestions that follow:
K to 12 Students need a readers’ notebook to draw and/or write their responses to materials they are reading.
Primary Students can stop-to-think during guided and independent reading to talk about a character, an event, a setting, a problem in fictional texts, and specific details in informational texts. Students can use a framework to retell and/or summarize reading materials. They can also create lists of words that describe a character or their feelings toward an event or character.
Middle Grade, Middle and High School Students can develop lists of words that describe a character’s personality traits. They can also write the text messages two characters from a book might write to each other. In addition, students can write short summaries, post book reviews on a class website, take notes in their own words, as well as write a readers’ theater script and perform it with classmates.
Pausing after reading a chunk of text to analyze characters’ personality traits, assess how characters resolved a problem, list their emotional reactions to an event or decision, and make inferences with informational texts can also improve comprehension. After completing a book, students can identify themes, illustrate an event that sparked their personal interest, and use graphics to show a key event.
Teachers can ask students to revisit entries in their notebooks and adjust them as well as use their notebook entries and notes to write paragraphs or essays that inform or argue for a claim.

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