Bridging the Distance: Three Ways Teachers Can Help Students Strengthen Their Writing Remotely

By Jacqueline Raphael
April 2020
student using a computer at home

Children typically learn best through a combination of whole-class, group, and individual learning activities—using a computer, if available, simply as a tool. But COVID-19 has turned our schools (and world) upside down, requiring many students to work primarily alone from home on a computer.

In addition, as more states extend their school closures and remote learning becomes a new reality, teachers have less time for instruction, as well as less control over when and how students work.

Helping students write well is especially important in this environment; with less opportunity for verbal and face-to-face interactions, students will more often need to demonstrate their knowledge in writing.

All teachers—not just those who teach writing—can use the following approaches to strengthen student writing at this time:

Focus on One or Two High-leverage Writing Skills in Each Assignment

For example, ask students to write in complete sentences when composing an essay or a short constructed response (and practice by using full sentences orally in virtual classroom spaces). If students struggle, review the elements of complete sentences. The time will be well-spent; for the rest of their lives, students will be judged on whether they can write effective sentences.

Asking students to restate the question in a constructed response and to use varied transitional words or phrases in multi-paragraph essays are other high-leverage writing skills critical in any discipline.

Promote Opportunities for Autonomy

Recognize that the increased control students have over their work sessions can give them a chance to become more independent writers. Teachers can foster this approach with all grade levels. Some ideas include:

Create a log

Create a log for students to keep track of when they write, for how long, what they are doing (i.e., which stage of the writing process they are in), and their level of productivity or creativity. Then have them comment on the relationship between their efforts and results.

Personal writing goal

Ask students to set a personal writing goal (rubrics for specific traits can provide a road map for identifying writing goals across content areas)—and after they’ve completed a writing task, ask them to reflect on whether they met their goal and why. Developing these reflective abilities can help students learn how to revise their work effectively, an important skill for their future lives.

Shake Things Up

To engage students, teachers need to vary their assignments. Along those lines, writing isn’t the only way students build their writing skills. They improve by reading critically, as when teachers have them review and score a set of student writing samples (which should be anonymous and from prior years) to identify the best ones.

They also learn through teacher-assigned “scavenger hunts” for the most effective leads in nonfiction articles, and they grow when asked to defend their finds with rigorous evidence.

Across-the-board distance learning is a challenge and may be less than ideal for many students. But it can also be an opportunity for teachers to help students become stronger, more confident, and more independent writers.

After all, at the end of the day (or grade 12—or grade 16), there is no teacher telling students when their drafts are ready to be turned in.