There are many ways you can use strategy instruction to help students improve writing skills. Below are six strategies at the core of an evidence-based teaching approach called self-regulated strategy development (SRSD). These SRSD strategies can be challenging for students to learn. So it’s best to have them try one strategy at a time.
Strategy #1: Task analysis
When students start a writing assignment, they often jump in without clearly understanding what they’re supposed to do. For example, students might write several pages of a book report before realizing they were supposed to write an opinion piece about the main character. This can lead to frustration and loss of class time.
How to teach this strategy: Ask students at the outset what the writing task is. Have them read or listen to the instructions aloud and then explain the assignment in their own words. During this process, you and your students may want to highlight or underline key parts of the writing task together.
Strategy #2: Goal setting
Even when students understand an assignment, they may start writing without an end goal in mind. They might be so focused on finishing the task that they don’t think about its purpose. This can lead to a lot of dead ends. Without clearly stated goals, it’s also difficult for kids to improve their skills over time.
How to teach this strategy: Explain to students that having clear goals can make the assignment easier and improve writing.
Try setting three goals together. One goal may be to write a certain number of words for the assignment. Another goal could be to improve the organization of their writing by using graphic organizers. If a student is writing a story, a challenging writing goal may be to show the emotions of characters through dialogue, rather than just through description.
Strategy #3: Task management
It’s common for students to get sidetracked during a writing assignment. They may not have set aside enough time to tackle the assignment. Or they may have put off starting the assignment until 10 minutes before the period ends.
How to teach this strategy: Make a clear plan with students about how to get the actual writing done. A simple way to start is to ask students how long they think the assignment will take. Agree on a time and work in a plan of when to take a break. Talk about how to manage distractions, like how to address interruptions from other students.
Strategy #4: Self-evaluation
An important part of writing is looking over what you’ve written to decide if you need to make changes. Skilled writers do this continuously as they write. Struggling writers benefit from explicit instruction about how to self-evaluate their writing.
How to teach this strategy: Model when to stop and evaluate writing. For instance, skilled writers often re-read each paragraph as they finish it. Give students specific questions to ask themselves about each paragraph: Does it include all the ideas that were laid out in the graphic organizer? Does it address what the assignment calls for? If not, what changes are needed?
Over time, self-evaluation can become a habit with repeated opportunities for practice and feedback.
Strategy #5: Self-reinforcement
Not surprisingly, students who struggle with writing often dislike the writing process. They may feel uncomfortable about their writing skills. If they make a spelling mistake, for example, they may obsess about it. These negative thoughts can overwhelm students and make the assignment painful to complete.
How to teach this strategy: Use effort-based and behavior-specific praise when students hit milestones during the writing process. For example, when students finish a paragraph, praise them for their hard work and focus. Or when a student is able to keep to the timing of the task, offer praise like, “Nice work keeping track of how much time you had left.”
Strategy #6: Reflection
Another key writing strategy happens after an assignment has been completed: pausing to reflect on how the assignment went. Did students achieve the goals you set together? Which strategies worked? Which ones didn’t, and why? Reflection is key to helping them improve writing skills.
How to teach this strategy: Set aside time after the writing assignment is done to talk with students about how it went. Ask if students hit any roadblocks, like distractions or negative thoughts. Brainstorm what you could change next time to make the process smoother.
Go over the strategies students used and talk about whether they worked. For example, if a student tried goal setting, ask about whether the goals were met. If the student used a planning strategy, talk through how the plan worked out.
Keep in mind that writing is one of the hardest skills for students to learn. Teaching self-regulation in writing can help students take a big step toward becoming better writers — but it may take some time to see improvement.
Read about how structured literacy supports reading and writing skills. Learn about written expression disorder. And find more evidence-based strategies for literacy instruction.
About the author
About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.
Charles A. MacArthur, PhD is a professor emeritus of special education. He researches writing instruction, self-regulated strategies, and assistive technology.