Advice to Teachers: What Do Young People Have to Say About Writing?

By Ann D. David and Annamary Consalvo, based on a study conducted by Annamary Consalvo, Ann David, Katrina Jansky, Alison Heron-Hruby, Marie LeJeune, and Amy Vetter

Do Young People’s Perspectives Matter?

We all know the Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, or Johnny Carson schtick: ask young adults questions that “everyone should know” and laugh at their ignorance. That stance toward children and young adults, though, devalues their perspective on the world, even worlds they know a lot about, like classrooms and writing in school.

If you ask, and really listen, young people like Ava have a lot to say about their world.

I don’t think [teachers are] … seeing the full potential of what that student could really be as a writer.

Other posts in our series describe writers’ identities, and the role of family in young people’s writing lives. As teacher educators at colleges and universities, we try to spend as much time as we can in classrooms and have been asking teens about their writing lives. Further, we believe what they say about their writing lives, identities, and practices should inform the ways in which teachers teach writing. This post will focus on how students in the study–a total of 32–answered this interview question: “What advice would you give to teachers about teaching writing?” Student answers to this question did not vary as much as you might expect from students in three different geographic regions of the country, in grades 7-12, in urban and rural settings, and across a range of demographic characteristics.

We read their answers to these questions, as well as answers to other questions that discussed the teaching of writing and categorized the answers into themes. Given all these responses, young writers see five key things as mattering in writing instruction: freedom, relationships, what writers read, being heard, and listening well.  These themes, then, point toward how to frame, or strategize, writing instruction in ways that are supportive of young people’s writing.

Freedom Matters

One student put it bluntly: “I think that some teachers don’t need to be so uptight about [writing, saying], ‘okay, well, your web is due by tomorrow and the writing is due in a couple days’ …Maybe I want to change my writing but I can’t because you already have the web.” As many posts on Writers Who Care have argued in the past, students want choices and freedom: in topics, in genre, and in moving through the writing process.  Or as one middle school student described her previous writing instruction as mainly “worksheets and, like, decomposing sentences.” And we would have to agree that sentences she had no choice in selecting are, in fact, decomposing.  

Offering students choices in their writing encourages them to write more, more relevantly, and to care more deeply about their writing lives.  And if students care about their writing, they’re more willing to work on revision to make the writing better. But students’ desire for freedom does not mean that the instruction “Just write” is sufficient.  One middle school student, Valerie, captured this idea by offering, “make [instruction] constructive, but not so structured.” Don’t require planning webs, but instead a have a conversation in the context of a writing conference where the teacher helps their student build on what is going well, and leverages that into what still needs to happen in the writing. So students do value teacher instruction, as long as the instruction doesn’t falsely limit choices.

Relationships  Matter

Students want and need writing teachers to support them in their writing lives.

Young people deeply value and trust the teachers who engage them in conversations around their writing without imposing their adult ideas on what should be in the writing. One girl, Susan, while concluding her reflection offered, “don’t force kids [to write on] a topic.” That said, youth also appreciate tactful instruction about their writing and the opportunity to improve it. Ester talked about how she appreciated her teacher’s honesty: “Mr. Watson is my favorite writing teacher…ever…’cause he’s always like, ‘Okay, that sounds bad. That’s a run on sentence…And he says it very clearly.” Only students who trust their teacher would willingly take advice that begins ‘that sounds bad’. That trust comes from a rapport built up by supportive, construction conversations across a whole school year, as in the case of Susan and Mr. Watson.  

Unsurprisingly, relationships with peer writers also matter a lot to young people.  Camden thinks a more “open setting” where he and his peers have “time to talk with each other about what they’re doing it might help as well.” Structured peer response–not peer editing–offers opportunities for these academic conversations around writing.  Mr. Watson and his colleagues use the scaffold “Bless, Address, and Press.” This is a kind of peer conference architecture in which students first appreciate what one another have written, identify hiccups in the writing that need to be addressed, finally, push one another toward growing the piece of writing. With relationships and trust, built through conversations, a classroom can become a community of writers.

What Writers Read Matters

Young people see a link between reading and writing that is often falsely separated in curriculum designed by adults. As one high school student put it, “the better you can write the better you can read–that’s always been correlated. So, the better you can write the better you can read and that correlates–so if you can write well, you can read well.”  

While young people want mentor texts, they also want to read more of their peers’ writing as mentor texts.  Jacey sums it up this way: “examples of writing by students the class’s age because…that would help with inspiration. [S]ometimes reading something from an adult’s piece of writing…does inspire you. [B]ut seeing something from someone closer to you…would help a bit more, like, jump starting [your] creativity…”

Write More

Young people also want to write more. They find power in writing and want more opportunities to get better at a skill they see as valuable, interesting, and engaging. Yasmine says she wants “[m]ore time for writing, because in most of the classes it’s like, ten minutes and then you’re done.” Yolanda thinks that “[a] lot of people have like really good ideas that they don’t get to express or they’ll forget if they don’t have more writing time.”  Both clearly identified more time as essential.

Listening Well

Given what these young writers have shared, we close with some questions to ask the young people in your life about their writing experiences:   

  • How much choice do you have when you write? In topic? In genre? In length?  In style? In language?
  • Who do you talk to about your writing? Each other? Trusted adults?  
  • What are you reading?  Texts they enjoy? Texts like what they are writing?  Texts from lots of different kinds of writers?

Re-visioning writing instruction, then, asks teachers to open up their teaching to freedom of choice, of topic, and of process. Also, by building positive and trusting instructional relationships that support young people’s writing lives, teachers create spaces where young people can grow into take on the identity of writer. In taking on this identity, then, young people see themselves as able to take on any writing task, but such efficacy does not come from repeatedly doing writing that is uninteresting, over-structured, and ultimately irrelevant to them. Instead, it comes from trying out the work of writing, flailing through a draft, making someone laugh, working to find the just right word, and really being a writer. Then the other stuff falls into place too. But that other stuff shouldn’t be what guides the conversation.

Finally, we’ll invite Sage, a high school student, to have the last word: “Maybe let kids write more about what they want to write about instead of making them write certain things specifically for school. It would probably increase their interest in writing.”

Ann D. David is an assistant professor in the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX.  She spends as much time as she can writing, talking to teachers and students about writing, and reading about writing.

Annamary L. Consalvo is an associate professor in the School of Education at The University of Texas at Tyler. Key interests include working with teachers and students about the teaching of writing, and researching and writing about literacy practices.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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One thought on “Advice to Teachers: What Do Young People Have to Say About Writing?

  1. Thank you for sharing this report on your study. I loved reading the voices of many students who truly enjoy the process of writing and feel that by concentrating on the assets of what they love about writing, they can continue to improve as writers.
    I am in a teacher ed program and have a particular interest in secondary literacy. My goal in teaching is to encourage literacy through writing because, as one student notes, reading and writing are correlated. I am hopeful that by encouraging writers in my future classroom, I will see dividends in reading (that will parlay further excellence in writing, ad infinitum).
    I was curious about the sort of fault line y’all mentioned: how do we find the sweet spot between over-structuring with “falsely limited choices,” and hand’s off “just write” instruction? I fear that instead of providing Goldilocks instruction, I will end up providing opportunities that wigwag between too liberal and too constrained.

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