Ten Tips for Teaching Teens to Write More Effectively (That I Wish Someone Had Told Me!)

If someone told me years ago that there was a way to get students to write beautifully and honestly and confidently about the things that actually mattered to them, I know I would still be in the classroom…

“In general, teaching writing makes me a far better reader because there’s so many ways to write a good sentence or a good story, and as a teacher I’m obliged to consider them all, rather than staying in the safety of my own tendencies.” 

Leni Zumas

Teaching is the most exhilarating career I can think of, and, if Mojo the helper monkey was on board, I would never have left the classroom. 

If only Mojo could have done a chunk of my marking, written the emotionless, robotic reports (devoid of any acknowledgement that each kid has their own weirdly wonderful quirks that make them so joyous to work with on the daily) and dealt with the occasionally unbearable parent, I would – hand-on-heart – have been a happy and humble teacher until the day I died. 

Of all the kids I taught and the content I covered, I’ve never loved any part of the job more than teaching the intricacies of writing.  

Whether it was in a senior Literature class, a junior English class, or a lunchtime writer’s workshop (and everything in between), I defy you to tell me a better setting for truly seeing kids for who they are, than in a classroom in which they write with honesty and without censorship.  

Teaching others to write – whether to unpack significant personal events, to explore their creativity, to share their knowledge, or to analytically examine a text – is a pleasure and a privilege.  

Students have shown me their courage in writing about the depths of their grief, about how they have processed a traumatic incident, about feeling vulnerable in expressing love, and about their proudest personal achievements.  

  • I have witnessed (several) 15 year-old boys break down in messy, angry tears when sharing their experiences of losing a loved one; 
  • I have sat in stunned silence when an introverted 16 year-old purged her soul onto the page and asked me for help in what-to-do-next; and 
  • I have read too many student stories to count, through the hot blur of my own tears – tales of courage, of sorrow, of petty vengeance, monumental mistakes and the relatable heartbreak of first love lost.

Teaching writing isn’t an easy gig.  

If someone told me years ago that there was a way to get students to write beautifully and honestly and confidently about the things that actually mattered to them, I know I would still be in the classroom, still teaching writing to teens, still loving the opportunity to see parts of kids that they keep so closely guarded from everyone else in their world.  

But no one told me how to teach kids to be vulnerable and messy and okay in writing imperfectly – I had to figure that out for myself.

Given the chance at a do-over, or given the opportunity to help others to fall in love with the intricacies of the writing process, these are the ten pieces of advice I would give: 

1. Actively and explicitly teach the fundamentals of the writer’s process

Look at the ways writers generate ideas, brainstorm and plan, as well as draft their work.  

Unpack and explore the muddiness of the process: finished, polished pieces rarely resemble the initial idea.  

Quality writing is a process of evolution and refinement.  

Dismantle the idea that the first draft and the finished product are one and the same thing!

2. Spend time unpacking narrative structural features

Watch an episode of The Simpsons (or a fictional film) and plot the key features of the narrative: Orientation, Complication/s, Turning Point, Climax, Denouement & Resolution.  

Is the plot linear, chronological, fractured or open-ended? 

Having kids identify the narrative structural features used in familiar television series or films will enable them to integrate these same structures into their own writing.  

This will also help to eliminate the tendency to write “the story where nothing happens”.  

You know what I mean, right? (EG: when a kid writes about their “best ever family holiday to Bali”, but submits a rambling summary of the meal on the plane and landing on the tarmac, with no details about why this was such an epic family trip.) 

3. Emphasise the importance of purpose, audience and form

Who are they writing for?  

What emotion are they trying to elicit in the reader?  

What is the most appropriate text form to use for this piece of writing?  Frequently ask students to consider these questions during the brainstorming and planning phase of their writing.

4. Repeatedly scaffold and model writing

It is important to write with your students (same topic, in real time, via the projector) as frequently as possible.  

This allows you to be vulnerable, for students to see you as human(!), and to see your process and cognition unfold alongside them.  

If you are not confident in writing in response to topics you set for your students, you shouldn’t be asking them to be writing – that sounds brutal, but it’s true.  

Prioritise building your own confidence in writing with your kids – it makes all the difference in the world to their learning and the quality of your practice. 

5. Cultivate a culture of collaboration

Create an environment where every student is safe to share, is valued for their contributions, is encouraged to engage in peer feedback sessions and is able to make mistakes, adjustments and major edits as part of the writing process.

6. Give students choice and autonomy in their writing

Wherever possible, give students a selection of writing prompts so that they have both autonomy and ownership over their writing choices.  

No lie, you will get greater student engagement and depth of learning with content of their choosing than if a singular prompt is mandated.  

You may also be pleasantly surprised to see just how many kids reach for the challenging topics and produce powerful responses as a result.

7. Schedule writing time into your weekly routine

I know, I know.  

You ain’t got time to scratch, let alone make room for more in your class time.  

I get it.  BUT, if you can schedule a 20 minute block (even once a week) that is sacred writing time, the sacrifice in time will be dramatically outweighed by the improvements in learning.  

Learning in: 

  • The mechanics of writing; 
  • The communication of ideas; 
  • The structural and language features that lend well to particular writing styles; and 
  • In finding and refining their individual writer’s voice.

8. Emphasise that idea and skill development comes with practice 

Like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  

Teach kids that developing an idea and producing a polished piece of writing can only get better with practice.  

Reiterate that the first idea is just one of many that could be developed. 

Show them the beauty of the mad-tangents that evolve when we brainstorm without discrimination, when we value every idea equally during the initial phase of the writing process.

9. Good writers don’t have to be good spellers

Consciously remind your students that you expect correct spelling, grammar and punctuation on the final, polished submission, BUT that this is not the priority in the drafting phase.  

Embrace errors as part of the writing process, because if we get hung up on “correctness” (AKA perfectionism), we put the handbrake on learning and growth opportunities.  

In other words, we pull our kids up short instead of focusing on what matters: writing perfectly imperfectly. 

10. Collect and dissect samples of good writing

It might be a letter to the editor of Rolling Stone.  

It could be a short story from a random anthology you found in a book-swap box years ago.  

Maybe it was the obituary of a stranger that you felt you knew after reading it.  

It could be a zealous paragraph from a blog post, or an opening paragraph from your favourite book, an extract of dialogue from a powerful film, lines from a song that plays on repeat in your head, or a poem about a war in a country you’ve never visited.  

It doesn’t matter.  

Whenever you come across an example of good writing – writing that makes you reread or revisit, writing that makes you smile, or laugh, or spring into surprising tears – keep it.  

I collect snippets of writing the same way my husband keeps the stubs of concert tickets.  

Show your kids how to collect samples of good writing, how to unpack these (by identifying emotional impact, language choices, literary devices and purpose) and ways they can use such examples as models for their own developing writer’s voice.  

Who knows, maybe you will give them access to the skills they will use everyday from here on in: when they read, watch or write anything for any purpose…

Like this? I’m Kate and I write about what lights me up:

?  Communication at work & home

? Creative, courageous & unconventional pursuits

? Storytelling secrets & recipes for success

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