Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling.

The first time I taught a writing class, I told students everything I knew about how to write in the first class period. For the rest of the semester, I didn’t teach at all. I gave students nonfiction writing topics to write on in class. While they wrote I walked around and talked with individual students about what they were doing. Despite my untraditional procedure, students learned to write and I learned that what students need more than information about writing is practice writing.

To teach writing online, you will also need to find ways to have students practice writing under your supervision. Doing that isn’t easy using Zoom or similar technologies designed for large group meetings, which are essentially lecture halls. Here are three tips for teaching writing online.

Don’t use traditional textbooks                      

To learn how to write, students need to have only the most basic information that they can use and reuse repeatedly. That means they need easy-to-remember strategies for nonfiction writing. Nonfiction is the writing everyone is required to do, and most required nonfiction writing is short: a telephone message, a request for vacation, a report on why pump #2 failed. Textbooks have far too much information.

Teach writing strategies

Instead of a textbook, I give students eight writing strategies building upon a pattern of thesis and support. They can use the strategies as a basis for virtually every bit of nonfiction writing they’ll be called upon to do in school or in most work situations.  

The frightening word write doesn’t appear in the directions.

One of my writing strategies is an alternative to an outline that I call a writing skeleton™. A writing skeleton™, like a human skeleton, forms a framework that holds the body together but isn’t obvious on first glance.

Every assignment I give novice writers includes a writing skeleton™. The skeleton typically consists of three sentences in which a working thesis is followed by a place for the student insert a reason for believing the thesis is true. Writing skeletons are clunky and awkward, but they’re convenient for students to use: they keep the students’ supporting statements linked to their thesis statements.  Since no one but you and a student need to see that student’s writing skeletons, they don’t need to be pretty.

Stick to essentials

Variety may be the spice of life, but variety keeps students from learning to write. You must stick to the same eight writing strategies. You must keep repeating yourself until you’re ready to scream before you see the first glimmer that someone is catching on. If you can’t stand being bored, perhaps you ought to consider a career other than teaching English.

That’s all you really need to know and to teach.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni