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 all too well.

In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.

In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)

You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.

Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.

1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without textbooks.

In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.

By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.

If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.

2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences. 

One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:

“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”

Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.

3. Provide everything writers need in one place.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students need in one place.

All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed  in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single  problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.

A few final words.

I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni