5 Guidelines for Planning Writing Lessons

Though most teachers probably had to write formal lesson plans during their academic studies and practicum experiences, many of us stopped doing so as we became more expert in our work. In one sense, it’s logical that experienced teachers would not write out extensive lesson plans, given that we know our context and our content well enough to think through a lesson and predict how it will likely work for our familiar students. In this blog post, however, I want to encourage writing teachers to make an effort to write out a formal lesson plan once in a while.

Whatever format you use, even experienced teachers benefit from making detailed lesson plans from time to time. After 25 years of teaching in various contexts, I find it helpful for checking that my approach to teaching and my intentions for the lesson still align with what my students need and want to learn.

One reason is that formal lesson plans help you think explicitly about your student learning outcomes (SLOs) and larger goals. When you have to articulate what your students will be able to do, you can identify what you need to teach so they can get there. In addition, formal lesson planning helps you see where you need to provide more support or where you don’t really need as much scaffolding.

Here are five guidelines for planning your writing lessons.

1. Set Clear Expectations From the Beginning

Writing is a skill that benefits greatly from backwards planning because in most cases, there is a final written product toward which a curricular unit or entire course is aimed. In backwards planning, you start with the final assessment, whether that is a timed essay or a multitext portfolio. Identify the genre (more on this in the next section):

  • What type of text is this?
  • Who is the intended (real or imagined) audience?
  • How are texts of this genre usually structured?
  • What variations exist?

Then think through what students need to be able to do in order to create polished texts. Identify the language demands: What language structures and vocabulary do students need to know in order to write this type of text? In addition to SLOs related to the content and product of the lesson, consider writing explicit language objectives. Rather than relying on textbook suggestions, find model texts within the genre and determine what types of sentences, what verb forms, and what word families were used by the authors. Also take into consideration what students already know of the language and genre, both from what you’ve already taught in your class and what they can reasonably be expected to know from prior learning.

2. Incorporate Genre Study

A useful way to structure a writing class is through genre study. Choose several model texts of the genre that are accessible to your learners and support students to analyze those texts, keeping in mind the core idea that texts within any given genre will share certain features but also differ from each other. You might start the lesson with whole class analysis: What features are common across all texts within the genre? Where are there variations? For a writing class, genre study aims to give students an understanding of how texts are structured and what choices authors make in developing those texts (Tardy, 2019; also see example lessons in Gilliland & Pella, 2017).

The next step might be text deconstruction and reconstruction, a stage in the Systemic Functional Linguistics Teaching and Learning Cycle (de Oliveira & Schleppegrell, 2015). Working on the board, guide students to pull apart the text and identify the way each section and sentence were constructed and for what purposes. Then work with the students to create a new text in the same genre, following the structure and language you identified from the model texts.

3. Provide Scaffolded Practice

At this point, students could work together (in pairs or small groups) to collaboratively write more texts in the genre. Depending on their readiness and language proficiency, you could give them more or less scaffolding, such as graphic organizers or worksheets where they can practice the sentence structures or vocabulary they need. Writing games may help them generate new ideas or choose appropriate words.

4. Set Students Up for Successful Independent Writing

The end goal of most writing lessons is independent writing, where students work individually on their own texts. In a formal lesson plan, the prompt for an assignment is important. Prompts should clearly state all the information needed for accomplishing the task: audience, expectations, requirements (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014).

Set students up for success, allowing them to write with fluency and confidence. Students benefit from having options for brainstorming, planning, and drafting, including being encouraged to draw on all their language resources (their home languages and other languages) and multiple modalities (some students may find talking through their ideas or drawing images helpful). Unless they are preparing for a test that doesn’t allow it, let students access resources, including dictionaries, their peers, and information online.

5. Provide Timely and Appropriate Feedback

Throughout the lesson plan, build opportunities for students to receive feedback on their developing texts. Peer, teacher, and self-response should be integrated at multiple stages during the writing process, with the goals of helping writers improve their texts toward achieving the lesson’s SLOs. Provide students with a copy of the rubric or grading criteria from the start. You could discuss it as a class and possibly negotiate some of the rubric criteria. The criteria on the rubric should reflect the SLOs of the assignment as well. Feedback ought to support writers to revise and learn, rather than feel discouraged.

Finally, whenever possible, design writing assignments so that writers can share their texts with audiences beyond the classroom.

References

de Oliveira, L. C., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2015). Focus on grammar and meaning. Oxford University Press.

Ferris, D. R., & Hedgcock, J. S. (2014). Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Gilliland, B., & Pella, S. (2017). Beyond “teaching to the test”: Rethinking accountability and assessment for English language learners. National Council of Teachers of English.

Tardy, C. M. (2019). Genre-based writing: What every ESL teacher needs to know. University of Michigan Press.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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