Tips for Teaching with Writing

A pile of printing press blocks used to symbolize the writing process.

Teaching students to write is not just something that “English teachers” or “writing experts” do. All teachers in all disciplines can incorporate writing and reading in the classroom to influence their students’ writing abilities and support their students in becoming more intentional and effective communicators. 

We can think of this kind of instruction as “teaching with writing.” For many faculty, the phrase “teaching writing” conjures tedious lessons on grammar or essay format. Teaching writing, in this sense, might seem irrelevant to their curricula or experientially out of reach.  Teaching with writing, on the other hand, is disciplinarily attuned and easily integrated with curricula. Teaching with writing is using written materials and implementing writing activities that draw students’ attention to how disciplines and their members construct and communicate knowledge. In doing so, we invite students to analyze and follow examples and to practice the knowledge construction, communication, and conventions of the discipline, thereby improving their own awareness and abilities as writers.

We invite you to explore this tips for teaching with writing guide and consider how you can best support the evolving writers in your courses. Reach out to us if you would like to further delve into efficient, effective strategies for bringing writing into your courses. The Brown Bag Series or WORD Fellowship might be right for you.


Making. Playing. Doing. Creating. Building. Practicing. We all learn new things when we are engaged in these processes in our everyday lives. Building into the writing process such opportunities for active engagement makes it more likely that students will understand writing as more than words on paper. It will help them to see and experience writing as capable of affecting change or accomplishing goals.

There is a place for lecture in teaching. It is very efficient for the instructor because it allows the instructor to digest, deliver, and emphasize to students the most relevant information or concepts. But because writing is inherently a practice that requires modeling, social interaction, and time and space for practice and revision, students cannot be lectured on how to write.

Models are artifacts. Modeling is a pedagogy that actively engages students in a process of close reading, or problem solving, or the logic of a set of tasks. The point of modeling is not just to show an exemplar but expose the process of learning to students. For example, you could model the approach you hope students take for a sequenced assignment. Or, you could model aloud how you observe and evaluate the written work they submit in your class. Or, you can model how you interpret sources, or determine whether to use a particular source, or solve a quantitative problem. In short, modeling is teaching by example. So do more of it!

Language is inherently social, and so it follows that writing is too. We learn so much about our own writing and writing process when we understand how it is being received by others. Whether you create writing assignments that feature authentic audiences or build in peer observation of student writing, students will benefit from the social interaction you integrate into their process from the outset. At the very least, send them to the writing center where they can hear an audience’s response to their writing.

Papers are never done. They are due. Anything one writes could be revised based on the situation. Expect that your students are always in the process of learning and that much of what they write is going to be “drafty.” Why not build draftiness into the process to alleviate their anxiety and yours? In doing so, you will create space for students to make mistakes (and have successes) and reflect on those outcomes before engaging more complex writing tasks.

All writing flows from reading. Effective writing flows from reading widely and often. It flows from exposure to previously un-encountered ideas, genres, and communication styles. It requires observing and thinking through what other writers are doing and not doing, saying or not saying across a variety of texts. If we want students to become more intentional writers, they need to become more intentional readers. Prioritize teaching that exposes students to genres or writing styles that are outside of their current repertoire and guide them through active reading strategies that expand that repertoire. Teaching activities could include multiple guided readings of a text for different purposes, annotating for style or craft, or role playing or speculating about varied audience responses. The goal is to foster students’ metacognitive abilities relative to writing through the vastness of texts.

Assignment Design

Learning goals should drive the conceptualization of assignments, but they are not in and of themselves always measurable. In other words, learning goals are different from learning outcomes. A good way to think about the difference between goals and outcomes is to think about the difference between intention and result. A goal or an intention can be narrow or broad, measurable or unmeasurable, but the outcome or the result must be observable and measurable

For example, if your learning goal is to increase your students’ abilities to synthesize multiple types of information in order to understand the complexity or scope of a question or problem, a measurable, observable outcome in pursuit of that larger learning goal might be that students can successfully locate, identify, and distinguish between three different source types that are relevant to the question or problem at hand.

Writing assignments can allow students to experiment with ideas and wrestle with intellectual challenges in a way that makes those ideas, successes, and struggles obvious to both the student and the teacher (Bean, 2011). Writing assignments can also reveal information about student learning that allows teachers to test that learning on multiple levels (Stiggins, 2012). Before assigning an essay or piece of writing, ask yourself if the goal of the assignment is (a) to encourage practice or (b) to test performance and proficiency. This discernment will dictate how you respond to what the students write, and determine how you weigh (or don’t weigh) the quality or correctness of what they write.

Writing activities are excellent opportunities for students to wrestle with course concepts, try vocabulary, explore new ideas, reflect, and experiment with different modes of writing (i.e. argumentation, reporting). Practice is messy. Students are going to fumble, make mistakes, and take risks. These are good things! It’s where the learning happens. Be explicit with students that this is their opportunity to take those risks and to stumble. Provide them with supportive feedback on how to improve on future drafts or writing activities. But by all means resist the urge to dwell on aesthetics and correctness or to level an evaluative, summative grade.

The primary thing that the formal essay requires is the ability to synthesize multiple complex skills and ideas. It is often a demonstration that one has read and analyzed or critiqued and engaged with a substantial and complex conversation about a topic. In short, it’s complex! For most novice undergraduates taking courses at the lower division, this is akin to a shorter version of a journal article or book. Remember how arduous that was/is for you, the expert? When considering the formal essay, ask yourself: Are your students ready to contribute to and critique a complex conversation, or are they only ready to observe and try to understand the conversation? Consider choosing a different genre if you are evaluating performance on tasks common at the 100- and 200-level such as reading comprehension, argument identification, or basic source analysis. But if the goals are synthesis, critique, or another more complex skill common at the 300- and 400-level, the formal essay may be the right genre. If you decide to assign the formal essay, integrate scaffolding and sequencing so that students can produce the final deliverable and so that you can check on their progress.

Broadly speaking, genres are categories with fairly well-defined characteristics. Written genres are the result of the relationship between three key components: setting, purpose, and audience. These three components combine to determine the characteristics of the genre. The presentation of scholarly knowledge or findings in a formal essay or report has long been the standard bearer in academia. Yet, most of our students will not use or encounter this specific genre after graduation. Rather than confine your writing assignments to this narrowly-used genre (the academic essay), consider other options that reflect authentic communications situations. For example, when you are weighing available genres for assignments, consider the wide array of careers your students might find themselves in. What types of writing (interoffice memo, email communique, social media advertisement, slidedeck, webpage, extension bulletin) might constitute an authentic, recognizable genre for students? While getting the conventions of the genre exactly right may or may not matter, authentic genres provide opportunities to discuss the importance of purpose, setting, and audience in written communication.

Most of our students will graduate into vocational and professional realities beyond academia. In other words, most will not become you: an accomplished scholar in a specialized field of knowledge or practice. With this in mind, writing assignments are more effective when they reflect those future realities. A writing assignment should feature a real or imagined audience and ask students to engage in an authentic or hypothetically-authentic communication task. Authentic assignments frame the writing task within the context of an authentic audience/writer interaction and provide a purpose that makes sense within that context. For example, a public health bulletin or a business feasibility plan are authentic writing tasks that students are more likely to encounter or create in their future endeavors than the formal essay. Examples like these still provide a venue for students to demonstrate application of skills or course concepts while also allowing them to practice professional writing. It might seem daunting to create authentic scenarios, but it will save you time and save your students frustration in their attempts to understand the value of the assignment.

Backward design supports students in the conceptual and logistical execution of the assignment. It also supports you — the teacher — in checking the effectiveness and cohesion of your assignments and activities. A simple design sequence can reduce guesswork on the part of your students and better guarantee that what you receive from them is what you imagined. Step one: Define your measurable learning outcomes for the assignment. Step two: Create or identify a model of what you want the final deliverable to look like. Step three: Identify individual steps students need to complete to produce the final deliverable. Step four: Determine criteria for review of the final deliverable. Step five: Write instructions, lesson plans, and/or activities based on individual steps and review criteria. Step six: Share the outcomes, model(s), steps, and review criteria with your students.

Students don’t always think through the steps necessary to complete an assignment or meet an objective. You can encourage this practice by scaffolding your writing assignments. Scaffolding supports the successful completion of a complex task by breaking it down into smaller tasks or building blocks that are intentionally arranged. Scaffolding can take several forms. One type leads students through a sequence of consecutive steps. A second type offers students targeted practice of skills through repetition. A third type offers students the chance to create constituent parts before assembling a final deliverable. These types of scaffolding need not be mutually exclusive. You can combine them as needed. Whichever you select, scaffolding also provides you the opportunity to respond in real time to student progress, saving you valuable time and frustration when evaluating a final deliverable.

There are some assignments that require sequential progression through steps. In these situations, success in step two is dependent on success in step one, and so forth. For example, one cannot effectively complete a lab report without first conducting the experiment. Or, one cannot write an effective literature review without first establishing a thematic organization. If your learning outcomes are not dependent on students discovering and reasoning out the sequence for themselves, it will make everyone’s lives easier if you give them the sequence to follow. Sequencing provides you the opportunity to check in with your students at each step of a process, saving you valuable time and frustration when assessing a final deliverable. Use backward design to build a sequence or to verify the logic of your sequence.

Consider a prompt template such as TGIF to capture the important elements of a writing assignment: the task a student will complete, the goals of the assignment, the intended audience who would be reading or doing something with the final product, and the formatting requirements. You can choose to deliver the prompt to students in the prompt template, or you can use it while you draft the prompt. Regardless, templates ensure you offer students plenty of helpful and necessary information. A template also ensures you provide students with the most important elements of what you’re expecting of them and discourages you from inadvertently prioritizing small formatting details over the relevant intellectual tasks, such as critical thinking, argumentation, or source analysis.

Writing assignments should tell students what they are supposed to do in a piece of writing. This requires the use of clear action verbs in the prompt. Verbs like summarize, propose, and critique provide clear instructions, and they also provide students with vocabulary for the intellectual tasks that are expected of college students (students can look up these verbs if they are not sure of their meanings). Unsurprisingly, students are confused by vague instructions asking them to “discuss an issue” or to “engage with a topic,” especially when your actual goal is to invite analysis or critique. Even the directive to “analyze a source” can trip up a student if they haven’t been provided with criteria or elements to examine. The verbs in your assignment prompt will also help you to build a rubric, if you choose to use one for evaluation. Since outcomes are often presented as “You will be able to…” followed by a set of action verbs that are measurable, verbs used in assignment prompts should match rubric criteria. For example, if assignment instructions ask students to “discuss” a source, but the rubric evaluates their success in identifying the types of evidence that the author uses, the instructions and evaluation criteria are misaligned.

Responding to Writing

Tradition holds that all writing must receive an evaluative grade, usually on a 100 point scale. There are all kinds of ways to move student writing toward improvement without a traditional grade. Offer observations about what you see without offering a grade. Offer participation points and/or formative comments instead of an evaluative grade. Develop writing assignments and assessments that are summative without also being overly-complex or comprehensive. Or, structure certain writing assignments so that students “peers observe” and respond instead of you.

We rightly expect students to develop and execute intentional plans when they write. Show that you value clear, audience-aware, intentional writing by modeling it in your feedback. First, be aware of where your feedback falls in the writing process and align your comments with that stage. Are you asking students to revise this piece of writing based on your feedback, or are you offering information that they can apply in future writing? Second, prioritize your feedback so you aren’t driven to respond to everything or cover student writing with embedded comments or proofreading symbols. Feedback should address learning outcomes and concepts or skills taught in class. Pay attention to patterns in a single piece of writing or even across submissions from all students. For example, do many students struggle with writing a clear main argument? Or do many struggle with transitions? Consider addressing those patterns to the whole class rather than in each paper. Third, develop a comment bank to gain efficiency and consistency in your feedback, rather than use abbreviations or unfamiliar shorthand that students will likely not understand. Following these steps will not only save you time and energy, your students will better understand what to do with your feedback.

While editing or re-writing might make student work more enjoyable to read, it is not a particularly instructive practice for students. Not only does editing student work take a lot of your time, evidence suggests that students improve most in their facility to manage the conventions of written English when they are asked to self-edit (Haswell, 1983; Ferris, 2001). You need not ignore error-filled work, but you can save your sanity by prioritizing and limiting your response to patterns or to the most important conventions rather than responding to every individual mistake. Additionally, rather than spend time editing students’ writing for them, encourage students to take ownership over the editing process.

There are countless opportunities to bring grammar, syntax, citation, and other formatting elements into class meetings. You could use model texts such as scholarly articles or the textbook to notice effective use of complex vocabulary, to observe the four different sentence types, to discuss available approaches to quoting and paraphrasing, and so on. You could start one class meeting each week with a five-minute lesson on some aspect of grammar or by analyzing an effective sentence or citation that you found in student writing. Open up class time for students to edit their own work with guidance such as models or checklists. Your attention to these elements of writing shows students that you value them, which means they will be less surprised if you grade them rigidly. It also validates your grading of those elements because you can be sure students have had instruction around them.

In his article, “Learning to Praise,” Daiker writes “that praise does not flow readily from the marking pens of writing teachers; it must be learned” (1989). He cites several sources that demonstrate just how few marks of praise teachers tend to write on student papers. One study shows that only 6% of comments written by teachers were praise “94% of the comments focused on what students had done poorly or incorrectly, only 6% on what had been done well” (Dragga 1986). Overly negative feedback can cause students frustration. So, when reading student writing, ask yourself: does the student make strong points, employ evidence effectively, make use of transition sentences or phrases, or write with precision? Even if these instances are inconsistent, your positive response can be motivation for a student to revise. And, pointing out effective examples can serve as strong models for revisions.

Like all of us, students cannot engage effectively in evaluation of peer work without first spending time observing peer work based on a set of structures for noticing. Since most students are not experts in either the subject matter or the writing genre, they need a scaffolded structure to be able to notice, much less evaluate, all the things going on in a given piece of writing. Have peer reviewers focus on observing only a few things at time. Be sure that what you are asking them to observe aligns with your assignment goals (i.e. integration of evidence, organization, traceable citations, topic sentences, etc.). Only consider asking peer reviewers to evaluate, rather than just observe, if they have had ample time and opportunity to develop the requisite content or genre knowledge (likely in an upper division course for majors). 

Rubrics are tools. Faculty are in control of how they design and use them in evaluating student work. Using a rubric from a different assignment, or a generic rubric, will likely lead to evaluation of things that you didn’t teach or didn’t ask for in the assignment. This reinforces existing inequities in the classroom: advantaged students usually know what to do, while disadvantaged students typically do not. Conversely, when designed with the goals of a specific assignment in mind, rubrics promote equity through transparency. They also increase accountability for us as evaluators because we are less likely to grade for something outside of the stated goals. In short, rubrics can minimize or eliminate the guesswork for students. So, create rubrics that are tailored to individual assignments and align with learning outcomes. The complexity of your rubric should be proportional to the complexity of the assignment. For example, a semester-long capstone project will likely have a more complex rubric (e.g. more rows) than would a one-page article summary. Ask yourself: Is the rubric criterion (e.g. a row) in the service of an assignment outcome, which is in turn in the service of a course outcome? If yes, keep it. If not, delete it.