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

Outlines flourish in disguise

The past month, the topic teachers most often searched for at PushWriting.com has been outlining. I suspect the reason teachers are seeking help with outlining is that they secretly concur with their students’ far more public opinion that outlining is a weird English class thing totally unrelated to their real lives. Actually, stripped of the furbelows that decorate it like a Victorian ball gown, an outline is about as exotic as a grocery list scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope.

Outlines are misunderstood

Every post-secondary student I’ve ever had has believed outlining is a post-composition activity. That preposterous idea may not actually be taught in American schools, but it certainly isn’t refuted there. My sister, who is enrolled in a master’s program for physician assistants, is taking a course that requires students to pick a research topic, prepare a PowerPoint presentation outlining the research they plan to do, and then write their research papers. She said her classmates each picked a topic, wrote their research papers, and then wrote detailed summaries of their work arranged in “outline format.”

Students’ misunderstanding of what an outline is may derive from the common use of outline to refer to the contours of an object. For example, when we read the phrase “the outline of a barn in the distance,” we assume that the barn already exists. Perhaps that’s why students who haven’t had good ELA teachers tend to think of an outline as a sketch of the contours of a completed piece of writing .

Writers’ outlines should be tentative steps toward accomplishing some communications goal, just as a grocery list is a shopper’s tentative step toward preparing meals. Unfortunately, students tend to think the outline is a list of what the shopper actually brought home after visiting three stores and deciding to order take-out Saturday evening instead of cooking.

An outline is just a plan.

You need to teach your students how to use an outline as a communication planner in the same way you use a grocery list as a shopping planner. When you notice you’re running low on coffee, you write coffee on your grocery list. Writing that may remind you of two or three other items you need to buy or it might remind you of something you need to do before going to the grocery, like get gas or deposit check. Even if you don’t immediately think of anything to do other than buy coffee, you’ve primed your brain to look for other things you need to get on your shopping trip.

For an outline to be worth doing, it needs to be prepared as soon as possible after a writer is assigned a writing task. Your students may not think immediately of all the points they are likely to need or want to make in their communication, but like your shopping list, the plan should remain open to additions and substitutions right up to the time the communication is delivered.

6 words summarize the blog post
Plans are organizers for the future. Outlines are usually just afterthoughts.

An outline by any other name gets more use.

If you want your students to plan their written work—which is a highly desirable goal—don’t use the words outline and outlining. Instead, use the word plan. The plans students make are usually geared toward something they want to do or achieve. Thus, by saying plan instead of outline, you make the skill you’re about to teach into a familiar activity that students’ typically associate plans with positive outcomes.

In keeping with that informal, you’re-already-familiar-with-this approach, avoid talking about writing a plan. Instead use terms that make outlining seem a very routine, informal, no-sweat activity that helps students accomplish something they want to do. Students associate verbs like make, do, scribble, jot, record, construct, build, and craft with activities that most of them find much more fun than writing. If you use one of those non-ELA terms instead of write, you make preparing a plan sound like something students might possibly find useful outside school. That is precisely the impression you want to give.

Teach and monitor students’ planning.

Planning is a skill that students will need throughout their lives and in every aspect of their lives. The ability to put a plan for communicating ideas and information on paper is particularly important in their “public” or outside-home roles. You don’t need to preach, “Someday you’ll need this.” What you do need to do is:

  1. Teach students how to prepare a simple, written plan for communicating information (which textbooks often call a “three-point outline” and which I call a “writing skeleton™“).
  2. And make sure students practice preparing a communication plan every time you give them a writing assignment.

Teaching how to make a writing skeleton™ is a quick and easy task. Making sure students practice planning isn’t hard, but it requires you to closely monitor every step of students work. That is tedious, time-consuming, boring, and absolutely necessary if students are going to learn to write well on demand, which is the writing that counts outside school.

A written communication plan has two parts.

In its most basic form, a communication plan has two main parts: a single-sentence assertion of what the planner says is true—which is the thesis the communicator hopes to prove—and a series of between three and five reasons for believing that assertion is true.

The writing skeleton™ format for a basic outline looks like this:

  • A thesis statement (A single sentence that makes an assertion about a topic.)
    • Thesis + because + reason one.
    • Thesis + because + reason two.
    • Thesis + because + reason three.

You can teach the writing skeleton™ format to students as young as middle school by using an example of something students of their age might want to convince someone about. Middle schoolers might want to convince their parents to let them have a dog; high school students might want to convince their school administration to let them hold a fund-raiser at the school for non-school organization.

Although I don’t normally recommend having students write about topics that are not course-specific, having students plan how to convince someone to do something for them can be a useful introduction to using a writing skeleton™. When students feel a personal stake in the success of the communication, it is relatively easy to make them realize that to be convincing, they must look at their proposal from the perspective of the person(s) they need to convince.

Craft topics that encourage planning.

For most students, the tricky part of writing is deciding on something to write about. By write about, I don’t mean just a topic, like peanuts or presidential debates. What students write about must be an idea that:

  • Is expressed in a full sentence.
  • Elicits differing viewpoints.
  • Has been discussed by knowledgeable people willing to share their insights publicly.
  • Is worth spending time discussing.

The best way to make sure students have good writing topics is to craft them yourself. That way you can be sure topics students write about are relevant to other required topics in your curriculum. Once you’ve taught the general plan, you should have no trouble thinking up a legitimate, class-related topic on which to have students develop a communication plan. However, if you’re still baffled by how to craft course-related writing topics, you may want to take a look at my books of ELA writing prompts, each prompt wrapped in a writing lesson:

  • Ready, Set, Write: 20 writing prompts on ELA topics for teens and adults who are not yet competent writers
  • Bullying Begins as Words: How verbal and nonverbal communication can promote or reduce hostility is explored in three sets of five prompts specifically for either not-yet-competent, competent, or proficient writers.

Ideally, the writing topics you assign should be interesting to a majority of students, but not to the same majority each assignment. If you have assigned three topics that each interested the same 75% of your students, you need to deliberately seek out topics that will interest the other 25% for at least a quarter of your remaining class writing assignments.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Good writers must be good planners

To do competently the writing tasks ordinary people get stuck with, a person doesn’t need to be a really good writer, but the individual needs to become a really good planner.

Target with unusually large bull's eye
The writer’s goal should be important and unmistakable.

Planning separates the wannabe writers from real writers. The wannabe writer is wrapped up in himself. Real writers are focused on the one really important point they must make in the piece they are to write.

Real writers push themselves to identify their central point quickly. They realize that getting an early start is an insurance policy against unpredictable events close to deadline.

Real writers focus all their attention on the main point they’ve decided their work must convey. That point dictates what supporting evidence they’ll need.

Real writers understand that the quality of their sources will largely determine the quality of their information. So, they systematically look for people who have genuine expertise: a combination of personal experience plus study of the work of other individuals whose experience is even broader or at an even deeper level.

person at start of path to distant place
Having a clear goal lets the writer to take advantage of evidence sources on the way.

Having a systematic way to identify people with expertise gives real writers a fast start, which, in turn, gives them more time to dig into the evidence, to see where it leads, and to follow up if it leads to new evidence or new sources of evidence.

Planning, fortunately, is a skill whose foundations can be taught fairly quickly. Ripple strategy is a simple, easy to learn process for developing an initial list of sources to consult. In a very few minutes, writers can have an initial list of sources to contact.

Water droplet has set off ripples in a pond
Writers start from their knowledge and work outward to find evidence sources.

Moreover, ripple strategy alerts writers’ brains to watch for additional evidence sources even when the writers are seemingly immersed in other activities.

Having a familiar planning strategy gives a writer a significant edge over someone who treats each new writing project as totally new and totally unfamiliar. Time saved by reusing a strategy can be devoted to researching and writing.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni