Ten Tips to Teach On-Demand Writing

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Ten Tips to Teach On-Demand Writing

It’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, there would be no direct writing assessments. Elementary and middle school students would not compose to the tune of the ticking clock. High school students would not write fearfully, knowing that the on-demand writing task on the high school exit exam could be the difference between walking the stage with grandparents, aunts, cousins, and siblings cheering or sitting at home with completion certificate in hand. College students would not spill their all-nighter, coffee-laden, infusion of knowledge into blue books under watchful grad student eyes. Prospective employees would not be forced to produce a timed writing sample in the Human Resources office as part of their interview process. Life could be better. All writing tasks could make sense, but they don’t. Students don’t care about our friendly debate regarding process vs. on-demand writing. However, until the revolution comes, teachers do a disservice to their students by not preparing them for the on-demand writing tasks of an imperfect world.

Here are ten tips to teach on-demand writing as part of a thriving writing curriculum:

1. Teachers need to assign the types of writing tasks that the on-demand writing task will be assessing. For example, seventh grade students in New Jersey are potentially assessed on these writing applications: narrative, expository/informational, persuasive, response to literature essay, and summary. Students need to write both full process papers in these domains (genres or applications) and practice on-demand writing for each of these tasks.

2. Teachers need to develop a common language of instruction for Writing Direction Words, especially writing direction terms that will appear in on-demand writing tasks. (*See “Writing Direction Words” handout.) Checking out on-demand release questions, commonly referred to as the writing prompts, is a must to ensure that the language of the direct writing assessment will be familiar to your students.(*Teach students to RUN=Read the prompt carefully; Underline important direction words; and Number the steps.)

3. Students need to practice composing thesis statements. Since the preponderance of on-demand writing tasks from the fourth grade through college involve informational or persuasive essays, the focus of both process papers and on-demand writing should be the essay form. The key to an effective essay is the thesis statement. Learning to dissect the writing prompt, to use the language from the writing prompt, and to formulate a specific thesis statement that concisely states the purpose or point of view of the ensuing essay is critically important.

4. Learning the structure of an informational or persuasive essay is essential. The foundational structure should be a flexible model that students can use to adjust to the form demanded by the writing prompt. For example, a response to literature essay can use the same essay structure as a persuasive essay with a few “tweaks” such as including paraphrased quotations for the former and a counterpoint argument for the latter. Here is a step-by-step method that teaches students to memorize the essay structural components in order of the overall task.

5. Practice each stage of the on-demand writing process on its own, in sequenced clusters, and as a whole:

  • writing prompt analysis

  • reading an excerpt/exemplar/annotated text—if provided

  • formulating a thesis statement

  • completing a brief pre-write of the body paragraphs

  • composing the essay

  • revising the essay

  • proofreading the essay

Teaching these components will build writing flexibility and develop writing fluency.

6. Practice on-demand writing under loosely timed (with instructional interruptions) and strictly timed (no teacher interruptions) conditions. Time management is the key to success. Students need to learn how to gauge time and allot time to each component of the writing process based upon the amount of time that they will have with the direct writing assessment.

  • Gauging time is not common sense; it must be practiced. In fact, many students have a completely unrealistic sense of time. Try this exercise: Students close their eyes and raise silent hands when they believe two minutes has passed. Stop the exercise after all hands have been raised. Keep track of their times with the aid of a few open-eyed students. Repeat this practice weekly and see how students will improve their recognition of time.

  • Allotting time to each component and practicing under simulated testing conditions will give students confidence in the process. Teachers who skip this instructional practice are in for trouble on exam day. For example, all teachers tell their students (as do the writing assessment directions) to pre-write, but students know that this stage of the writing process earns them no points. So many students routinely skip this step and jump into the essay itself. Or worse yet, students will pre-write way too much and not have time for composing.

7. Tell students to write a lot. Although we like to believe that brevity and concise wording gets points, this is not the case on direct writing assessments. Teach students to focus on their audience. Graders are trained to read the thesis statement carefully, skim for main points or arguments, search for evidence to back each up, and quickly read conclusions. Tell students to use all of their allotted time and reward them for doing so.

8. Model and have students practice writing specificity. Specific descriptions (show-me diction) for narratives and evidence (a variety needed) for informational and persuasive essays get students points. Transitions are keys to writing coherence and unity. Have a transitions poster clearly displayed and frequently reference the categories and examples of transitions at the beginning, end, and within sentences. Give students practice in revising unspecific writing and writing without transitions.

9. Teach students to vary their sentence structure. The best way to do so is to teach the “50-50 Rule.” 50% of the writing should be concise subject-verb-complement sentences. The other 50% should be expanded sentences with different grammatical sentence openers. Teach the most useful grammatical sentence openers that are appropriate to the students’ grade levels.

10. Manage the stress levels and motivate your students for success. Test anxiety inhibits this success. Students know that direct writing assessments are high-stakes tests—either for the school or themselves. Keep the instructional focus positive when working with on-demand writing. Work with student attitudes toward the assessment itself. For example, teaching students that excitement and anxiety have the same physiological response, so they can choose to be excited, not anxious about the challenge. Let them know that you have high expectations, but they are capable of achieving your standards. Build their self-confidence through successive approximation. In other words, success with each component of the on-demand writing process will lead to success with the assessment. Teach students that their voices are valid ones and that they will each have a unique perspective to impart in their essay. Knowing your students helps ensure their success at all developmental levels: pre-teen, middle school, high school, and college.

Process vs. On Demand Writing

Writing research has shown that one key ingredient to writing success is time. Developing writers need time to learn the writing craft, time to research/brainstorm, time to draft, and time to revise. However, ironically, time may in-it-of-itself be the greatest impediment standing in the way of writing proficiency and fluency for many of our students.

Since the return of phonics-based reading instruction in the 1990s, elementary teachers have had to allocate more instructional time to direct instruction. With greater diversity in most states, more pressure to differentiate instruction in reading has compounded the problem of instructional minutes at all grade levels. Science, art, social studies, physical education, music, and writing have become the casualties of this time-theft.

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the NJ ASK/HSPA, standards-based writing assessments (PARCC), and the SAT® and ACT® has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students both learn to write and succeed on these tests with no additional time allocated for writing instruction. The three approaches are 1. process writing 2. on demand writing and 3. a mix of the two.

Advocates of the process writing approach (Six Traits, National Writing Project, Writers Workshop, etc.) argue that frequent practice in all phases of the writing process i.e., research/brainstorming, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing best helps writers develop writing fluency and proficiency. Advocates of the on demand approach argue that the above components can be streamlined into an integrated process, which teaches the writer to concurrently multi-task the drafting, revision, and editing steps with the quick bookends of planning and proofreading. Those teachers trying to please both masters have limited their process pieces and upped the amount of on demand writing tasks when the standardized writing test looms on the horizon.

Process writing proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling) incidentally throughout the writing process or via targeted mini-lessons. On demand proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics explicitly through an established instructional scope and sequence. Those who try to combine process and on demand writing wind up relegating most grammatical and mechanics instruction to test preparation out of sheer time constraints.

A brief readers theater (tongue firmly planted in cheek) may help teachers of all writing approaches greater appreciate the challenge of teaching writing today.

Narrator: Here is a familiar scene in the teachers’ workroom. Two teachers kill time while waiting in line for the laminating machine. Their subject of discourse: an ongoing discussion of Process Writing versus On Demand Writing.

Teacher 1: I can’t believe that Mildred accidentally threw out my Writing Process charts when she rotated off-track. I’ve got to get new ones laminated and back on the wall. I’m lost without them!

Teacher 2: Are you still using those dumb charts? I thought that you must have dumped them by now. The Writing Process is “old school.” We dropped that with whole language years ago. Get with the program! It’s On Demand Writing, now. Oh by the way, I put back your Lucy McCormick Calkins book in your box; I have enough paperweights for my desk, thank you.

Teacher 1: You and your on demand writing tasks… You’re not teaching—all you are really doing is testing. Are you still passing out those grammar worksheets for homework? Remember, the research about writing says—

Teacher 2: Don’t give me that research stuff—I know what works for my kids. My language expression scores on the state test were much higher than yours. You’re lucky you’ve got tenure.

Teacher 1: Even when I didn’t, I never kissed the principal’s butt like you do. And I don’t teach to the test, like you do. My kids are learning how to think. They are writing to learn. Who cares if they know their subjects and predicates!

Teacher 2: Kids are going to have to spell, punctuate, capitalize, and use grammar correctly if they want to make it in today’s world. They’ve still got to be able to write in those blue books in college for a timed one-hour exam. They can’t just pick their own writing subject and do multiple drafts for a mid-term. You really need to get a Red Bull® and wake up to the real world.

Teacher 1: In the real world, students need to have the brains to say something. Outside of school, people have time to revise and edit. They have the time to be reflective. That’s what real authors do… They don’t have someone forcing them to write to a contrived prompt and then hovering over them with a stupid yellow timer.

Teacher 2: Now, you’re getting personal. My aunt gave me that yellow timer… Who writes your paycheck? Last I checked it was the school district. All our principal cares about is higher test scores. If you can’t show it, they don’t know it!

Teacher 1: That’s not why I got into teaching. I want to develop the whole child and nurture a love for learning. I just completed a trimester-long unit on the Haiku and its place in Japanese society…You should come in and see our published poems on the wall. We used real 24 carat gold to highlight—

Teacher 2: I bet I could find some punctuation mistakes—you with your peer editing groups. Talk about the “blind leading the blind.” I have students write one paragraph each day in indelible ink—no changes. I time them and have their desk partners count how many words the student has written in the 10 minutes. It sure saves a lot of teacher grading time. All I have to do is record the number of words in my grade book program. I can show you huge gains in words per minute.

How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt

Writing an effective essay prompt requires equal shares of art and science. The prompt must allow room for creative interpretation and analysis. However, the prompt must also provide organization and boundaries for the writers’ responses. Finally, the prompt should provide ample room for post-writing criticism to help students improve their writing.

Writing Prompt Guidelines

1. The prompt should be brief. Wordiness only serves to confuse the writer.

2. The prompt should be focused. A prompt that rambles in an attempt to explain or motivate is counter-productive.

3. The prompt should require only the prior knowledge that has been emphasized in class instruction. Isolate the variables of personal experience to best assess the outcomes of instruction.

4. The prompt should be age appropriate. Know the developmental capabilities and interests of your students and translate these into the writing prompt.

5. The prompt should avoid issues which students or parents would find objectionable. Save the PG-13 issues for older students. Don’t let the subject interfere with the writing task.

6. The prompt should not be so personal that the privacy of the writer is jeopardized. A writing prompt should not inhibit the writer from answering honestly and comfortably.

7. The prompt should not embarrass the gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background of the writer. Stay sensitive to these variables within your classroom. Words have different meanings according to one’s perspective.

8. The prompt should allow students of varying abilities to respond effectively. An ideal prompt allows all students to experience success in their writing.

9. The prompt should be interesting enough to motivate the writer. A prompt that does not provoke thought will reap a thoughtless response.

10. The prompt should allow “room to breathe” for divergent thinkers. Expect the unexpected in student responses, and design prompts to allow for a variety of responses.

11. The prompt should enable the writer to respond with a thesis that states the purpose of the writing and/or the author’s point of view. If you can’t turn the writing prompt into a thesis statement without effort, your students will never accomplish this task.

12. The prompt should not artificially force the writer into a certain thesis. A one-sided prompt that demands a certain thesis will not produce original thought.

13. The prompt can provide a writing situation to set the writing directions in context. However, the writing situation should not overwhelm or confuse the writing instructions.

14. The prompt should have clear writing instructions. Writers are the best judges as to whether the prompt has clear instructions. Avoid vocabulary and terms that will confuse the students. Don’t use writing direction words, such as “analyze”, if your students do not understand them.

15. The prompt should be one that will afford your writers plenty of evidence with which to prove or elaborate upon their topic sentences. Picking narrow or obscure writing subjects will not allow your writers to weigh easily accessible evidence. They will also be tempted to plagiarize or invent when little evidence is available.

Writing directions words for essays designed to inform the reader…

1. Describe means to show the characteristics of the subject to the reader through visual details.

2. Explain means to make something clear or easy to understand.

3. Discuss means to talk about all sides of the subject.

4. Compare means to show how things are the same, and contrast means to show how things are different. If the writing prompt only mentions compare, you must still do both tasks.

Writing directions words for essays designed to convince the reader…

5. Analyze means to break apart the subject and explain each part.

6. Persuade means to convince the reader of your argument or claim.

7. Justify means to give reasons, based upon established rules, to support your arguments.

8. Evaluate means to make a judgment about the good and bad points of the subject.

Eight Great Tips for Teaching Writing Fluency

With the inclusion of essays on high-stakes tests such as state tests (NJ ASK/HSPA), standards-based writing assessments (PARCC), and the SAT® and ACT, the need to improve writing fluency has recently surfaced as a desired goal. Which approaches to writing fluency work best?

1. Teach students to read a variety of writing prompts. Expose students to different content area and writing domain prompts. For example, using social science, literature, and science content with informational, expository, analytical, and persuasive domains. Teach students to read the writing prompt twice—the first time for understanding and the second time to circle the subject and highlight key words. 

2. Give students ample practice in turning writing prompts into effective essay topic sentences. “Thesis Turn-Arounds” can be a productive “opener” to any lesson in any subject area. For example, if the prompt reads “Analyze the causes of the Civil War,” students could begin their theses with “Many causes contributed to the Civil War.”

3. Give students practice in developing quick pre-writes to organize a multi-paragraph writing response. Teach a variety of graphic organizers and review how each is appropriate to different writing prompts.

4. Give students practice in writing introductory paragraphs after pre-writing. Give students practice in writing just one timed body paragraph to address one aspect of the essay after pre-writing.

5. Provide immediate individual feedback to students with brief writers’ conferences.

6. Use the overhead projector/smart board to use critique real student samples. Write along with students and have them critique your writing samples.

7. Teach how to pace various allotted essay times. For example, the SAT® essay is only 25 minutes. Most state tests allot 60 minutes. Brainstorm and allocate times before a full essay writing fluency for the following: analysis of the writing prompt, pre-write, draft, revisions, editing.

8. If a brief reading passage is part of the background for the writing task, teach students to annotate the passage with margin notes (close reading) as they read

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