Traditional Writing Instruction Isn’t Working. Student-Centered Writing May Be The Answer.

Educators know that teaching writing in the conventional way doesn't work — now, they're trying something new. Student-centered writing is changing the classroom game.
Traditional Writing Instruction Isn’t Working. Student-Centered Writing May Be The Answer.

Most of us remember it all too clearly.

Sitting at a desk in school, working to find and correct grammatical errors in the not-quite-right sentence written on the chalkboard by your teacher. The writer’s voice and intent were non-factors: the goal was to produce a technically correct result.

For many students, fretting over when to use a semicolon resulted in anxiety and dread around the writing process. Oftentimes, writing seemed less like a process and more like a product.

Thankfully, many teachers who teach or incorporate writing in their class today take a different approach: student-centered writing.

What Is Student-Centered Writing — And Why Do Students Need More Of It?

Student-centered writing puts the writer at the center of the process, focusing on their voice, ideas, and unique style. This allows the technical aspects of writing to take a backseat.

As adults, it’s easy to forget about all the technical aspects that go into writing. For students, trying to master the tiny details can lead to an immense struggle with — and understandable disdain for — the writing process.

Student-centered writing works to put students in the driver’s seat of their prose. 

While standardized tests leave much to be desired in the assessment world, they provide a snapshot view to look at writing education in the United States. In 2020, just above a quarter of 4th, 8th, and 12th-grade students scored proficient in writing.

Erica, a middle school reading and language arts teacher in Philadelphia, believes it’s time to make the change to student-centered writing in her 6th-grade classroom based on her students’ experience with statewide standardized assessment.

“Last year, I had multiple students in tears over the writing section on the PSSA,” the 15-year-veteran educator said. “They were so worried about getting the technical aspects of writing correct that they forgot their unique abilities to tell a story. Something has to give, and I think student-centered writing could help my kids fall in love with their ability to express themselves.”

Student-centered writing is one avenue to apply student-centered learning in the classroom, but there’s still a long way to go.

Consequences Of Poor Writing Skills

Many students enter college or the workforce without the ability to communicate clearly through writing.

According to Carnegie-Mellon University, “During their high school careers, most of our students were not writing with the frequency we might expect, nor were they doing the types of writing that we will require of them in their college years… When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways — from poor grammar and syntax to unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments.”

Studies show that up to 50% of college freshmen are not prepared to write at the college level, and struggle specifically with revision and coherence.

Creating A Student-Centered Writing Classroom: What Educators Need To Know

Though the shift from traditional writing instruction to a student-centered approach is happening, the transition isn’t easy.  Many educators are unsure of how to strike a balance.

Student-centered writing doesn’t mean the tenets of traditional writing are thrown out the window.

The tenets of traditional writing, such as grammar, still matter. However, they do not matter more than the student’s own voice, style, and storytelling.

When grammar is taught in isolation, students are not able to effectively apply the grammar skills learned to their writing. Instead of teaching grammar in isolation, educators can do so in context. This includes using authentic examples, so students stay engaged and see it as a tool to clarify their personal style.

Implementing Student-Centered Writing In Your Classroom

Traditional writing instruction hinders students from reaching the writing proficiency levels they should be at according to the New York Times, so how can we get students where they need to be in writing?

You’re about to do something great for your students — you’re about to invest in building effective lifelong writing skills.

Here are three simple starting points to creating a more student-centered writing classroom.

Empower your students.

Enthusiasm is contagious. Model yourself as an enthusiastic writer who is continuing to build writing skills, even as a teacher and adult. Emphasize the importance of their voice and allow them to make choices about their writing topics and style. Eventually students will build the skills needed to become active participants in their own learning.

Surround your students with examples of great writing.

Don’t just stick to the usual examples. Hemingway and Kafka can be fun, but tossing in new and unexpected voices can go a long way. Looking for a way to increase student engagement? Print out some of their great words — poster-size — and hang them next to the words of the greats.

Model your writing process.

Talk students through how you express an idea through writing by thinking aloud and going through the revision process step-by-step. Make it clear that great writers revise, revise again — and then go back and find something else to change.

The bottom line: switching to a student-centered writing classroom takes time, but it’s well worth it. As your students begin to focus on the stories they want to tell, they’ll eventually be able to see grammar, syntax, and structure as tools to get their point across effectively — not roadblocks to self-expression.

Carl Mascarenhas