You Can Teach Writing

To achieve your writing goals, have fewer goals.

For most teachers, achieving goals is hard because their list of goals is so long that while they're focusing on one, they end up ignoring others. The ones that tend to get ignored are the writing goals. 

That's understandable. Writing is not fun to teach or for students to learn, and both the teaching and the learning require a major time commitment.

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Select fewer goals, teach them deeply.

If you are going to attempt to teach writing in a course in which you're expected to teach content in addition to writing, you need to limit yourself to two goals: One goal for the writing component, and a second goal for a second course component.

Determine to have 100 percent of your students meet your two goals within the time frame of your course.

Focus on your average student.

Ignore IQ scores and student GPAs. Think about how much interest, effort, and enthusiasm most students will display for your course.

In every class, whether it's the academically talented or the dummy class, the majority of the group will have roughly the same degree of interest and enthusiasm for the course and be willing to put in roughly the same amount of effort. That's what I mean by "your average student."

Then think about what you want that "average" student to be able to do by the end of the course. Write goals for that student, the imaginary representative of the majority of your students.

Don't even think about writing goals for your brightest and best students when you set out your writing curriculum for the year.

Setting writing goals that only the top 5 percent of your students can achieve is cheating. You must set writing goals that all your students can achieve within the time frame of your course.

By the time you can get the majority of your students to competence, all those who have more-than average interest and enthusiasm and/or are willing to put in more-than-average effort will be at least competent and probably will be well beyond competent.

If you time your writing goals wisely, you can have the below-average students writing competently by the end of the course, too. (How to plan your course so that you can actually turn out entire classes of competent writers is instructional strategy 4.)

Make competence your aim for all.

I call achieving writing goals that everyone must meet competence level or C-level writing.

Your writing goals shouldn't be too big for average students.
Set goals all students can reach.

Writing competently is basic.

Not only do all students need to be competent writers to go on to college or to apply for a job, but those rare students with talent for writing must write competently before they can write brilliantly.

I use C-level as my personal goal regardless of what my institution's goals are. Having everyone writing informative and expository texts at C-level by the course end is minimum performance I will accept from myself.

You may feel, with some justification, that giving students only basic competence is hardly doing enough.

It may make you feel better to know that to progress above C-level, students don't need more writing instruction, only more writing practice. Sometimes students need only one or two more times through the writing process before they're doing B-level work routinely.

To move from B-level to A-level writing, students need either:

  • more practice and some talent, or
  • a whole lot more practice.

(I had one academic year in which I had five 20-student sections of English 101 and no student who earned less than a B. That was a once-in a lifetime experience.)

Go as far beyond the basics as you can, but make sure that by the end of your course every single one of your students performs at C-level every time s/he writes.

Choose a set of writing essentials.

You can't teach everything: You must make choices.

You must choose your writing goals.
Choose what you will teach.

The best time to make choices about what to teach is when you aren't teaching. When you're teaching, it's way too easy to pick what's easy or comfortable.

Who has time to think while classes are in session?

You should choose both:

  • a small set of writing concepts with wide applicability, and
  • a small set of writing skills with broad applicability to the non-writing content you must teach.

You can identify broadly applicable writing concepts by asking yourself questions such as, "Will knowing the rhyme scheme of a sonnet help my students write term papers in their other courses?"

Most academic writing skills are basic literacy skills.

For the writing skills students need, you can use the eight essential writing strategies taught at this website. Supplement them with items plucked from lists of what colleges expect of high school graduates.

The latter items are appropriate even for students with no intention of going to college because the academic writing skills colleges expect of high school graduates are basically the same as those employers expect of entry-level employees.

The only real difference between academia and the workplace is that colleges lay out their expectations in excruciating detail so dummies can understand them, while the manager at Piggly Wiggly expects you to be smart enough to identify basic writing skills on your own.

College and workplace requirements include such writing skills as:

  • writing in complete sentences
  • starting a sentence with a capital letter
  • choosing the correct spelling of commonly confused homographs like its and it's
  • writing a paragraph developing a single topic sentence
  • composing a 400-750 word I/E text in an hour.

Not one of those items requires writing talent or great intellect. They should be well within the ability of every high school graduate, yet I have had students in my college classes who wrote at the third grade level. (Before you ask, no, they weren't ESL or special ed students.)

Choose a set of non-writing essentials.

All students in a course have a reason for being interested in topics in that course —at least that's the theory so you should choose a set of non-writing topics in your curriculum that you can use to support and be supported by your writing program.

Choose a set of

  • essential non-writing concepts with wide applicability, and
  • essential skills with wide applicability to the non-writing content you must teach.

Use your sets of essential concepts and skills together.

If your writing prompts target two goals, each instructional hour is worth two.
Make every hour count twice.

You don't have time to waste on topics that have nothing to do with your subject matter. If you can turn course-specific, non-writing topics into writing prompts, you can make one minute of class do two minutes' work.

When you have identified essential skills and concepts for both writing and non-writing content in your curriculum, you'll be positioned so you can make all the formal and informal writing prompts in your course

  • teach,
  • apply, or
  • assess

some learning in each set.

In the minds of students, required writing is a form of testing. They tend to perceive topics on which they are tested as being more important than others. So you direct attention to what's most important to know by your choice of writing topics.

Additionally, using class-related topics for writing assures that all students have reasonably convenient access to background materials for their writing. Using class materials allows students to get by even if they don't have Internet access or can't fit a trip to the library around their work schedule.

Here's what to include in writing goals.

For students grades 7 through 14, a group that includes teenagers and adult students up to their second year of college, your writing goals should indicate what writing the students are to do on what, for want of a better term, I'll call the final test:

  • the students who will be tested
  • the type of writing expected on the final test
  • the amount of writing expected on the final test
  • the time frame allotted for the final test
  • the writing topics for the final test

Putting these five elements into your writing goals helps you remember to give students opportunities to write under "final test" conditions.

Example of writing goal for CTE

Here's an example of a writing goal for a career technical education class in health occupations:

In a single class period, students in Introduction to Health Occupations will be able to write 300-500 word informative or explanatory texts in good English about topics discussed in the course.

Example of writing goal for middle school ELA

Here's a sample writing goal for a middle school English class:

In one class period, eighth grade ELA students will be able to write 200-400 word informative/explanatory texts in good English about topics discussed in the course.

Such goal statements aren't adequate to guide strategic teaching, but they are good enough to satisfy administrators and parents. To teach well so students learn well, you'll need to clarify those writing goals — especially your definition of good English — in objectives.

What to read next

You will learn how to further clarify your writing goals by objectives in instructional strategy 3.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS 11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2009-07-01 and updated 2013-04-03 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 


I did use your materials—and did so most enthusiastically—last semester at Indiana University Southeast. I retired at the end of the fall semester after 20 years at IUS and after 60 years of teaching.

Your material…was probably the single most helpful program I have ever received. I loved it. My students suddenly knew what I was talking about! After all these years of teaching, Linda! ~ Marilyn Jones

Linda says this about focusing on writing goals

Does cutting content terrify you?

If the idea of whittling your curriculum down terrifies you, I suggest you dip into Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, 2008). Your public library may have a copy. Especially note pages 266-267 where a university prof tells how he simplified a course that traditionally loses students in masses of mathematical data.

Linda's signature to note about focusing on writing goals.