Everyone is talking about the Common Core State Standards these days–but most of the discussions seem to center around interpreting the Standards and just understanding what students–and teachers–must do to meet them. This discussion is just a little different. It focuses on several basic, practical things you can do to help your students meet expectations in writing. Let’s consider four categories into which expectations fall–and what you can do to strengthen students’ performance in each one.

Category 1: Genre

The Standards, as we know, emphasize genre–big time. But what does this mean for you in the classroom? First, it means reading aloud from multiple genres. If you’re accustomed to reading mostly stories and poetry, you may need to rethink your choices a bit. It’s no secret that students write what is read to them. So if we want them to write strong essays, arguments, directions, letters, and more, we must share those things. We can share them by reading aloud, posting them, having students read selections aloud, and having students hunt for selections in the first place. Our choices need to be good. This is one reason we’re reviewing so many nonfiction books here at Gurus. If we share selections from encyclopedias or (most) textbooks, students will think informational writing is dry and tedious. Voice and detail are essential. Similarly, in choosing a persuasive piece, think how you’d like your students’ persuasive writing to sound: passionate, well-organized, sensitive to multiple viewpoints, filled with conviction. Don’t settle for mediocre. Read what you’d want them to write (See our recent post on World without Fish by Mark Kurlansky).

Consider having a “genre of the day” discussion. Don’t assume your students can readily tell a story from an essay from a research report. In the first place, this isn’t as easy as we sometimes think. In the second place, most students have not had much practice in discussing a wide range of genres and linking genre to purpose. Teach genre this way. Ask your students routinely, “What is the writer’s purpose in writing this?” Tip: Don’t confuse narrative with fiction. Many nonfiction works are narratives, and while fiction is often narrative in form, it doesn’t have to be.

Teaching genre also means providing opportunities for students to write in many forms. To really teach genre effectively, you’ll probably need to have students write much more than you assess. If they’re writing every day, it will be fairly easy for them to try at least one or two genres per week. But out of, say, ten samples they draft, only three or four may be chosen by the student (with your guidance) to go all the way through writing process (including revision, editing, and document design) and be assessed. Keeping portfolios is one good way of teaching students to write a lot/save a little–as you would for a good photo album.

Expect some students to resist crossing genres. For a natural born story teller, the idea of research writing may seem less inviting. And vice versa. Part of becoming a strong writer is entering territory that makes us a little uncomfortable and demands that we try things we’re not sure we’ll be very good at. Remarkably, the story teller who does research learns that research isn’t just for nonfiction and persuasive essays–every good story has a research base, even if it’s personal experience. And the report writer who tries narrative or memoir sometimes discovers a new and exciting way to handle examples. Crossing genres isn’t important just because the Standards say so. Every genre offers skills and strategies important in other forms of writing. Poetry teaches us to condense. Journalism teaches us to stick with the facts–and so on.

Category 2: Conventions 

The Standards are very demanding when it comes to conventions–and this is only going to increase with time. Pressure from colleges and from the business world are creating the need for strong editing skills. And make no mistake: The ability to use conventions well gives writers enormous power. In the classroom, this means that students need opportunities to practice editing frequently–every day, if possible–and beginning at very early grade levels. This isn’t an easy demand to meet because editing is often taught as a small portion of writing (meaning the time given to it is short), and they’re not the same skill. Not at all. Some of the world’s finest editors are not the strongest original writers, and the reverse is equally true. It’s a little like swimming and diving–the skills are related, but different.

OK, then: How will you fit this in? First, you need students to “volunteer” sentences–or paragraphs (depending on grade level and how much time you have). In other words, a student agrees to let you use a piece of his or her writing as a model for editing practice. In my experience, students do not feel on the spot when their writing is used in this way, but in fact,  love it, and compete with one another to see whose writing will get the spotlight. I sometimes pull sentences anonymously (with the writer’s permission, though), only to have the writer identify him- or herself during the practice. A good candidate is a piece with one to three errors–and at least one error that’s less than obvious. This leads to good discussions. The advantage of editing something from your own students is that it’s real, it’s immediate, they have much more interest in it than they do in something from a textbook, and you are ALWAYS focusing on conventional problems they’re having right now. It’s also speedy. If you edit a sentence or two, it takes five minutes. A short paragraph takes about ten. This investment will pay dividends in improved skills.

Second, use literature to teach conventions. Show students what the pro’s do. Let’s say I want to teach parentheses. I might use this sentence from Nicola Davies’ book What’s Eating You? (2007, Candlewick Press). This is from page 8: “There are more than 430 different kinds of parasites that can live on a human body (ectoparasites) or in one (endoparasites).” Now that’s nifty use of parentheses. Davies has shown us more than I could explain in ten times as long as it takes to read that sentence. And I only have to ask, “Why does she use parentheses here? What do they do?” I would want to have several examples like this one–and then have students hunt for their own examples and share them in writing circles or with the class. What they learn from these examples far exceeds what you can present via lecture or (heaven forbid) corrections. It takes literally YEARS to learn conventions from having someone correct your work, and it presumes that (1) you’re a good sport with a thick skin, and (2) you’re really motivated to learn conventions. Unless these things are true of your students, minimize the editing you do except when preparing documents for publication. Put your students in charge of editing their own work as much as you possibly can–with support, of course. You need to be a coach, and you need to model and provide multiple resources, including online resources if possible.

By the way, for some dynamite lessons connected to using literarary examples effectively in teaching conventions, check out Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined.  I guarantee you’ll love it. And for even more lessons on conventions, check Jeff’s other wonderful book, Everyday Editing. This guy knows how to teach conventions!

Category 3: Technology

I know. It’s intimidating. Plus–who has the equipment? This isn’t an easy one, and yet there it is–all through the Standards. Remember though, you don’t have to begin by having students film documentaries or host webinars. If you’re one of those people who is talented and fearless when it comes to technology, however, and also fortunate enough to have all the equipment you need, go for it! Here’s the thing: in the 21st Century, writing isn’t just about words on the page anymore. It’s about communication, and that means visuals, video, and audio. It means music, drama, art, and dynamic combinations of all of the above. But you can still start small–and you and your students can gain skills together.

Start with what you know–and maybe that’s the computer. You can teach students to use online resources, such as a dictionary or thesaurus, or show them how to incorporate clip art into a document. Skill in editing and designing documents online is vital. A student who can make a resume or newsletter  look presentable has mastered an important skill that could help that student land a job one day. If you have access to a camera, add photos to students’ stories or research reports. Just deciding what to photograph or how to weave photos into text will give students many skills in observing details and organizing information. If you have a video camera, you can combine video with written script. If you have a PowerPoint program, you can show students how to set up a slide and how to transition from one slide to another. If your school allows (or encourages) you to blog, by all means take part in this form of communication, and talk about how blogs or wikis differ from written reports. If you have a microphone, perhaps you can do podcasts in lieu of conventional reports or book reviews. Technology has one HUGE advantage over conventional writing: it’s totally engaging for most students. And even if it scares you, it doesn’t scare them one bit–and they will coach you. In addition, technology allows us to share writing with the outside world as never before–we can have audiences of millions if we wish! Isn’t that what we wanted for our students? Well–here it is!

Don’t overlook the value of just being a critic, either. Watch films. Visit websites. Tune in to a webinar or podcast. Talk with your students about what makes these forms of communication effective–or what gets in the way. Can a website be too minimal–or too busy? How long is too long for a podcast? What makes a wiki reliable? What makes a blog interesting? By being critics, students develop an awareness of criteria that define excellence, and will be in a better position to succeed once they do have access to the technology they need.

Category 4: Skills

This is an easy one. Teach the traits! If you are providing trait-based instruction, you are already helping your students develop the skills they need to meet the Standards. Look through the Standards ( and you will see references to valid reasoning (ideas), clear explanations (ideas), well-chosen details (ideas), organization, effective sequencing (organization), strong leads and conclusions (organization), style (voice, word choice, and sentence fluency), vocabulary (word choice), and conventions. You’ll also see emphasis on writing process: helping students plan, revise, edit, rewrite, or try a new approach. As you teach ideas, you will–you must–teach topic selection, prewriting, and research. These are fundamental parts of this foundational trait. And as you teach ideas, organization, voice, word choice, and fluency, you will be giving students dozens of strategies they can use in writing, revising, and rewriting: adding or deleting information, crafting a new lead or conclusion, strengthening transitions, fine tuning voice to suit the audience, strengthening verbs, making phrasing more precise, creating imagery, adding sensory detail, starting sentences in new ways, combining sentences, and more. (For numerous trait-based lessons, see our new generation 2010 Write Traits Kits published by Great Source, or the newly released Creating Young Writers, 3/e, published by Pearson.)

In a Nutshell

Variety, literature, independence, editing, and 21st century communication via technology: These things will push your students toward success in meeting the expectations set forth in the Common Core Standards for Writing.

Coming Up . . .

Thanks for stopping by! Later this week, we’ll review Nicola Davies’ wonderful book (ref’d above) What’s Eating You?  Also watch for a post on reasons to AVOID one-day workshops on the traits.