The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Teach Writing

on August 13, 2017

Last Sunday The New York Times published an article, Why Kids Can’t Write, by Dana Goldstein, about the difficulty of teaching writing at all levels and the consistent failure of conventional methods such as teaching grammar or having students do a “freewrite”. The only one that produced any success, at least for one group of students, was using a piece of professional writing as a model. By imitating its structure, language, and tone in their own writing students were able to write the college admission essays they needed.

For me that was no surprise. I knew what to do when I was in third grade and was already writing poetry using the basic elements I saw in the poems I read.  Below is a poem I wrote and submitted to my teacher when our class was studying  early American history.  (I had not yet learned how to use punctuation.)

When I think about the pilgrims

It gives me a sudden thrill

When I think about the pilgrims

How most of them fell ill

When that terrible winter came

They thanked God for freedom’s name

They were grateful for what they had

Not in Riches to be clad.

Think what you want about the quality and historic accuracy of my poem; the basics are there. And they were there again in the models I used to teach students at several different grade levels. Later,in the two schools where I was principal, my teachers also used those basics in their elementary grade classrooms.

Our teaching methods were the same: have students read a piece of professional writing, talk about how and why it works, and then use its basics: topic, structure, language, and tone, as the foundation of their own writing. For instance, third grade teachers almost always had students read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day” by Judith Viorst. Then they asked students to write about a memorable day of their own—bad, good, or just unusual—using as many of the original’s elements as they wanted. Although some students’ pieces would be more original than others’, everyone managed to do a decent job.

Even when I taught high school English, I would have students write things that reflected the basic characteristics of  pieces of professional writing that they had studied.

Throughout my years as a teacher or a principal I found that strategy for teaching writing to be successful. Once students recognized the basic elements of a piece of writing, they were able to borrow or modify them to fit their needs and overcome their weaknesses. Although writing was not always easy, it was doable and on its way to becoming a solid skill.

Rather than explaining any more about what teachers and I did, I will end this rant by reproducing some pieces of student writing from when I was an elementary school principal.  I will also indicate the writers’ grade levels.*

Nicki       Grade 3 

A skinny young lady named Niki

When eating was terribly picky.

She’d sit down to lunch,

But seldom would munch.

Poor Niki thought all food looked icky.

The Water      Grade 5 

I don’t feel like going in right now.

Do I have to?

No, I’m not afraid to.

Do sharks swim in this Lake?

Just asking.

You said it wasn’t cold, Mom.

It’s getting deeper.

It’s up to my knees

Now it’s up to my tummy.

How far are we going?


Let’s stay a little longer. Okay, Mom?

 The Dinosaur     Grade 2

Once upon a time there was a dinosaur named Danny. He was not like most dinosaurs because he had no courage. Most dinosaurs would attack others, but Danny would run away. One day his little sister, Amy, got in trouble with a fierce dinosaur. And he saved her. After that he stood up for himself. And he felt relieved.

The Loss of a Friend.    Grade 5

My kite just dove and crashed in the treetops.

It looks like it’s broken—a goner I think.

I loved that kite; I called her Ophelia.

Her body was purple; her tail was hot pink.


I have possessed her for over a year now.

I bought her in Shopko the first day of school.

She’s flown very well, riding high when ’twas windy.

Now I cannot fly Ophelia at all.


It looks like she’s breaking away from the treetop.

She’s pulling away with a wish for the sky.

Pop! Her string broke; at last she has freedom/

Now I must whisper a dear friend goodbye.


*Since these pieces of writing appeared in yearly books that were sent home to parents, I am sure that teachers worked with students to make spelling and punctuation correct, and that students often had to revise somewhat.  But I am also certain–because I observed in classrooms when children were writing or revising–that students did the basic writing by themselves.

P.S. Teachers of writing may want to look at my book, “Teaching Writing in Mixed Language Classrooms” for more explicit examples of writing done by elementary level students–some of them non-English speakers.

One response to “How to Teach Writing

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Great post, Joanne. One of the things I’ve been fascinated with over the years is that in schools, since “writing” is the goal, sometimes students aren’t encouraged to figure out what they think. Yet writing is so much more powerful when we are communicating what we think. Don’t know how this fits in with teaching english… But stepping back to sort out the thoughts has been powerful for my boys and for a great many people I’ve worked with.


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