Teachers, put away those worksheets when you’re teaching writing and instead show students examples of good writing, says an expert on teaching writing.
"Grammar worksheets make students good at doing grammar worksheets, but they don’t make good writers," said Dr. Sean Ruday of Longwood University, who has written three books on teaching writing, is co-president of the Assembly of Teaching English Grammar and gives presentations at professional conferences.
"Worksheets, which teachers also use for other areas of writing, are formulaic and don’t encourage creativity or in-depth thinking. They’re often well-intentioned but eliminate so much imagination and creativity from the writing process for students, and typically they result in students disliking writing."
The most effective way to teach writing is to show students examples of good writing, tell them why it works and encourage them to incorporate these ideas into their writing, said Ruday, a specialist in teaching writing to students in the upper elementary and middle-school grades.
"Teaching writing can be vague, but if you look at a good lead—like the first sentence in Charlotte’s Web orHuckleberry Finn—then it becomes concrete," he said.
Ruday is a former middle-school English teacher who prepares future teachers as a member of Longwood’s English faculty. His books, drawn from his earlier teaching and from his work as a researcher and educational consultant in K-12 schools, use examples of good writing, called mentor texts.
"Mentor texts, which are very much grounded in research, produce fantastic results," he said. "They’re gaining traction but could be used a lot more, and they can also be used in teaching grammar."
Many teachers are uncomfortable teaching writing in general and grammar in particular, said Ruday, whose first two books focus on grammar. "That’s why some teachers use prepackaged forms, which are quick and easy. If it’s just a worksheet, though, students tend not to talk about or think about or apply the ideas they’re learning. I’ll admit that writing is not easy to teach. Teachers don’t always see themselves as writers."
Some teachers make the mistake of treating reading and writing as separate rather than related, he said. "Often you have a reading class, in which the focus is on comprehension, and a writing class. Students need to connect the strategies they’ve learned. They also need to try out the strategies on their own, like an athlete does."
Unfortunately, too many students view learning to write as making as few mistakes as possible, said Ruday. "You want students to do more than omit errors, such as a comma splice. You want them to develop skills as a writer, such as creating a strong lead and using specific nouns and transition words. I like to use a Liam Neeson quote from the film Taken, ‘I have this very special set of skills.’"
An example from a student who had developed one skill, the relative clause, is used in one of Ruday’s books. "Instead of writing ‘Boris came to my door,’ he wrote, ‘Boris, the scariest man I ever met, came to my door,’ which is more descriptive," he said.
Ruday’s books emerged from, but are not specifically tied to, the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. The standards emphasize informational writing, the focus of his most recent book, and argument writing, which will be examined in his fourth book, for which he recently signed a contract.
"The trend is toward more informational and argument writing, which is what students do a lot of in college and in their careers," said Ruday. "In the past, younger students wrote a lot of fiction and personal narratives."
Ruday has wanted to write books on teaching writing since he was in mid-20s, replacing an earlier dream of being a sportswriter. "I saw books on teaching writing and said to myself, ‘I can write better books than this,’" said Ruday, who published his first article on the subject in 2005.