Before You Teach Students to Write…

1. Teach them how to think

  • Ask each student to find a difficult-to-understand article from mainstream media and bring it into class:  Usually, such articles are poorly written. Reassure them that if they read something–in or out of school–that they don’t understand it may well be that the piece doesn’t make sense.
  • Ask “What’s your point?    Encourage students to listen for the main point when people speak and to look for the main point in written works. Ask them to assess whether and how well that point is supported. 
  • Encourage them to challenge you (politely) if they do not understand the point you are trying to make.  Then on occasion, be intentionally unclear when you give directions or explain a concept.  If no one challenges you, tell them poor listening and no questions is likely to affect their class participation grade. 
  • Offer them extra credit if they bring in two examples of an illogical argument or unsupported point on Cable TV news or in Op Ed columns.
  • Encourage logic over speed of response. Encourage them to practice saying, “Let me think about that for a minute,” and then mentally draft a short, logical argument in response to a tough question. Better this approach than to blurt out a thoughtless answer which may more easily be contradicted.

 2.  Ask Better Questions: 

 Better questions lead to better writing.  If you ask a student merely to summarize a passage, they will simply paraphrase what they have read without thinking much about what the passage means.  Instead, think of better questions to get them to start thinking. 

 1.  Encourage students to develop their own questions:  When they read literature, history, science, even Math, encourage them to develop “higher order” thinking questions.  (Why, What if, How…)  And, as, suggests, have them share views and ask:  Is there a different question we should be asking ourselves?  What other questions do we need to answer before we can answer this one? In other words, get students to think about the quality of questions they ask and are being asked.

 2.  Encourage in-class debates:  Divide students into groups and have them choose an issue (from a list that you provide) of topics they do not all agree about.   Have the opposing side present their arguments and then have the class evaluate them:

  •  What is the main point?
  • What is the evidence that backs up the main point?
  • How well can the speaker refute the arguments of his opponent?
  • On the basis of these questions, who won?

This is a wonderful exercise with which to introduce persuasive essays.   After the in-class debate, have the members of each group write on the topic of another group.

 3.  When reading books or stories, focus on purpose

  • Why did the author write this story?
  • What was he trying to accomplish?
  • Did he succeed?
  • What is the main point of the story?
  • Why does main character have the traits he has?
  • Is there anything that seems unrealistic or exaggerated in the story?  Why do you think the author exaggerated that way?
  • Is the story’s lesson obsolete now?  What have we learned as humans since it was written?
  • Does the author have a view of the world that is different from yours?  How so?  Is your view better? Why? Is her view better? Why?  Are you both justified in thinking about the world the way you do?  Why?

 4.  Explore the “what if”

  • What if Atticus Finch had been an angry, loud mouthed and opinionated man?  How would that have changed the story and affected the story’s message?
  • What if America never used nuclear weapons in WWII?  Would we be a different and safer world today?

 5.  Foster unobvious connections

  • How is The Paradise of the Blind like The Great Gatsby?

 3.  Pique their Interest Research shows that students write more easily when they can write about topics that interest them. A great way to get classroom writing started on a positive note is to begin the year with an “introductions” survey.   Ask your students to tell you their favorite subject, their hobbies and interests, what books they have read lately, what their favorite movies and TV shows are – you get the idea.  You will get much better answers if the survey is anonymous. Then, develop a list of thoughtful questions based on the survey results.   For instance, if a few students tell you that they play xbox every day, you might ask:  Are video games a help or a hindrance to teenage social life?”

 Your first assignment will be to have them select a topic from the list and write about it.  Don’t grade this one – hold onto it!

 At the end of the year, when their writing is oh so improved, let them write a second draft of that essay as their final writing project.


Step 2: The Well-Built Essay: All About Structure

Having challenged your own thinking, it is now time to challenge your students’ thinking.  The objective is to enable them to figure out whether an argument, whether oral or written, is well structured.

On this site,  when we us the term “structure,” we will be talking about the basic argument of the essay or written piece.  A piece of writing is well structured if it can answer three basic questions:

  • What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up? (We are looking for evidence, not emotional claims or opinions.)
  • So what?  (Why do we need to know it?  What are the implications of the argument overall?)

Great written works have great structure.  Consider, for example, the following:

 Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg AddressJune 1, 1865

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Now let’s see if this passes the structure test: 

 What’s the point?

These soldiers did not die in vain.

 How do you back it up?

  • Our country was founded on noble principles: equality and freedom.
  • These are the principles these soldiers fought for.

 So what?

If we don’t commit to the cause of these soldiers, our country as we know it, will cease to exist.

 Wow…It passes with flying colors.  (And as we’ll see in the next unit, Abe also does a great job of adding some bling to make his speech sing.)

 Practical Tips:  How can you help your students become better writers?

 Because structure is so important, it is useful to get your students to think about it all the time:

Take 10 or 15 minutes (ideally several times a week) to have them formulate a short argument in response to an open-ended question. Such questions can be general (e.g., What is success?) or specific to a work you are studying in class (e.g., Would Atticus Finch have been a more effective defender of Tom Robinson (and Civil Rights) if he had been more publicly outraged over the discrimination he saw around him?)  SAT prompts are great questions to assign for this exercise, and a list of such prompts is listed below.

The goal is to have students think about such questions for a few minutes, and formulate an argument outline – as though they were getting ready to write an essay — by answering:

    • What’s my point?
    • How do I back it up?
    • So What? (Why do we need to know this?)

 Then they can take turns getting a little improvisational speaking practice by sharing their outlines aloud with the class. 

 This activity is a wonderful way to maximize use of your class time:  Post the question on the board as a “do now” activity for students to work on as soon as they enter the classroom.

Sample Questions for Developing Arguments[1]

 Questions about ethics:

  • Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame power? 
  • Should modern society be criticized for being materialistic?
  • Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?
  • Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?
  • Do circumstances determine whether or not we should tell the truth?
  • Is it important to try to understand people’s motivations before judging their actions?
  • Can deception (pretending that something is true when it is not) sometimes have good results?

Questions about success:

  • Can success be disastrous?
  • Is the effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable, even if the goal is not reached?
  • Do people achieve greatness only by finding out what they are especially good at and developing that attribute above all else?
  • Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals other than their own happiness?
  • Is it best to have low expectations and to set goals we are sure of achieving?
  • Are all important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?
  • Do people achieve more success by cooperation than by competition?
  • Is it more important to do work that one finds fulfilling or work that pays well?

 Questions about technology and a changing world:

  •  Is the world changing for the better?
  • Is the most important purpose of technology today different from what it was in the past?
  • Have modern advancements truly improved the quality of people’s lives?
  • Does a strong commitment to technological progress cause a society to neglect other values, such as education and the protection of the environment?
  • Should people always prefer new things, ideas, or values to those of the past?

 Questions about self discovery:

  •  Do you think that ease does not challenge us as much as diversity to discover who we are?
  • Do we need other people to understand ourselves?
  • Is identity something people are born with or given, or is it something people create for themselves?
  • Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?
  • Do we really benefit from every event or experience in some way?
  • Is education primarily the result of influences other than school?
  • Is it better to change one’s attitude than to change one’s circumstances?
  • Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?
  • Does true learning only occur when we experience difficulties?
  • Is it better for people to be realistic or optimistic?
  • Is happiness something over which people have no control, or can people choose to be happy?

 Questions about heroism:

  • Should heroes be defined as those who say what they think when others lack the courage to say it?
  • Should we admire heroes but not celebrities?
  • Is there a value in celebrating certain individuals as heroes?

 Questions about independent thinking versus “groupthink”

  • Is it always better to be original than to imitate or use the ideas of others?
  • Is there any value for people to belong only to a group or groups with which they have something in common?
  • Do people need to “unlearn,” or reject, many of their assumptions and ideas?
  • Is it always best to determine one’s own views of right and wrong, or can we benefit from following the crowd?
  • Is it more valuable for people to fit in than to be unique and different?
  • Can people ever be truly original?
  • Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
  • Are people more likely to be productive and successful when they ignore the opinions of others?
  • Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority?
  • Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?
  • Is it sometimes better to take risks than to follow a more reasonable course of action?
  • Do we tend to accept the opinions of others instead of developing our own independent ideas?


[1] Source:  The College Board and

Step One: Challenge Your Own Thinking

If we want our students to be better writers, we need to challenge them to be better thinkers.  But how do we do that?  To begin with, we have to clarify our own thinking.  The following strategies are adapted from a great online resource:**


1. Clarify Your Thinking
Be on the look-out for fuzzy thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying.  When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking

  • State one point at a time  
  • Elaborate on what you mean  
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences  
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)

Here is One Format You Can Use

  • I think . . . (state your main point)  
  • In other words . . . (elaborate your main point)  
  • For example . . . (give an example of your main point)  
  • To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)

To Clarify Other People’s Thinking,
Consider Asking the Following

  • Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you. 
  • Can you give an example? 
  • Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?

2. Stick to the Point

Be on the look out for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps about with no logical connections.
Ask These Questions to Make Sure
Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant

  • Am I focused on the main point? 
  • How is this connected? How is that?  
  • Does my information directly relate to the main point? 
  • How can I make it relate to the main point?  

3. Question Questions

Be on the look out for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail to ask. Listen to how people question, when they question, when they fail to question

Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions

  • Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification. 
  • Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand. 
  • Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.

Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking

  • What precise question are we trying to answer? 
  • Is that the best question to ask in this situation? 
  • Is there a more important question we should be addressing? 
  • Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question? 
  • What information do we need to answer the question? 
  • What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts? 
  • What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another? 
  • Is there another way to look at the question? 
  • What are some related questions we need to consider? 

4. Be Reasonable:  Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking.

** And specifically, from:  Elder, L. and Paul, R. (2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.