Six Keys to Improving Students' Writing

Hello FLMS staff and families!

Below is an abbreviated article about keys to improving student writing. I hope you enjoy it.

Dave Patota


Freetown-Lakeville Middle School


Six Keys to Improving Students’ Writing

(Originally titled “Teaching the Writer’s Craft”)

“Writing is a core skill for living, not just for school,” says New Hampshire teacher/author Penny Kittle in this exceptionally helpful Educational Leadership article. “Writing sharpens our vision, tunes us in to what matters, and helps us think through what we must live through. We write to express what we know and see and believe, and we have the power to determine exactly how readers will hear our work: where sentences will glide and where they’ll stop… We want students to know this and to write with clarity, voice, and authority.”

But too many teachers “act like scolds,” says Kittle, “red pens in hand, stamping out sin and punishing errors.” Too many students come to regard writing like a trip to the dentist, rush through their writing, and ignore the corrections and comments their teachers spend so much time making. “It’s time to stop scolding and start teaching,” she says. “At the center of teaching writing craft is what is at the center of all good instruction: the student. We don’t teach semi-colons; we teach students how to use them well. This is a subtle, but essential difference.” Here are her suggestions:

Independent reading – “Students become better writers when they read voraciously, deeply, and often,” says Kittle. “It is Leo Tolstoy and Sherman Alexie and Billy Collins and shelves of young adult literature consumed like the last deep breath you take before a dive. When books reach students, students reach for books.” She pushes her high-school students to read at least 25 books a year, constantly conferring, matching them with the right book, and asking them to find especially well-written passages to add to the “book graffiti board” on one wall of the classroom. She believes wide reading should be a whole-school effort.

Providing topic choice – “Students who choose what they write about bring passion and focus to the task of writing,” says Kittle. “Ask them to argue for changes they believe in. Give them audiences throughout the school and the world.”

Daily revision – Kittle has her students reread and listen to their writing each day, “sharpening ideas and images while shaping our sentences to be clear and smooth… All writers need a gathering place for thinking that allows for the mess of the first draft… Mistakes have to be OK as we struggle to get ideas on the page.” This takes place in a low-stakes environment and helps students pay attention to details as well as style and content. “Yet the mastery of mechanics is an illusion,” she says; “errors increase when we are unsure of what we are trying to say.”

Sentence study – Kittle has her students imitate interesting sentences, “noticing how punctuation works in a sentence and then practice using it as they craft their own sentences.” One student called her over and asked, “Mrs. Kittle, I need punctuation that is bigger than a comma. What are my options?” Doing this kind of problem-solving in class helps students “see punctuation as a tool they can use, not just something they can name,” she says. “They become the independent writers we desire.”

Combining sentences – Having students take three or four simple sentences and create a single complex sentence is excellent practice, says Kittle.

Modeling the writer’s craft – “I write in front of my students, demonstrating the decisions I make to clarify and tune sentences,” she says. “I model the composition of essays, letters, and stories that matter to me, that I am deeply invested in crafting… I allow my students to watch me struggle. Passion is contagious.”

Kittle shares this YouTube video of one of her students discussing how he developed as a writer:


“Teaching the Writer’s Craft” by Penny Kittle in Educational Leadership, April 2014 (Vol. 71, #7, p. 34-39),; Kittle can be reached at

Marshall Memo 533 April 21, 2014