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5 High-Impact Writing Strategies for the Elementary Grades

Simple, effective exercises can help elementary students develop the foundational writing skills they need for their academic journey.

March 15, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

When considering writing as part of the instructional day, teachers may think only of the type of writing where students engage in storytelling or informational pieces. While the ability to leverage student choice and produce fiction and nonfiction text is beneficial for all grade levels, it’s important to consider how writing can be incorporated and layered across all content areas, as well as develop the deep foundational understanding to prepare young writers for authoring texts.

For us as teachers, it’s vital that we share a common language and understanding about the types of high-impact writing strategies that students can engage in and how to effectively implement them in the classroom. 

1. Handwriting in the Early Grades

In the digital age, prioritizing handwriting education during phonics instruction remains instrumental in nurturing well-rounded learners and sets them up for success when more stamina is required of them. The tactile experience of handwriting establishes a profound connection between language and sensory perception, contributing increased cognitive development.

Teachers can adopt a common path of movement language (language used to describe how to form the letters) when teaching the letters. In addition to that, providing students with multisensory ways of forming the letters helps create a strong understanding of the letters’ features.

A practical example of this type of instruction is having students trace a lowercase a in a tray full of salt, repeating the path of movement language, “over, around, down.” Then, students practice writing the letter using a pencil or dry erase marker. As the teacher models the directionality, it’s important to ensure that students know what “over,” “around,” and “down” mean and look like and that the teacher is using on-the-spot intervention for correction.

2. Dictated Sentences

Utilizing dictated sentences in elementary phonics instruction holds profound importance in nurturing early literacy skills. This strategy serves as a powerful bridge between decoding individual phonemes and comprehending them within a meaningful context. 

For example, in a phonics lesson where students are practicing decoding and spelling words with a short i vowel and have practiced reading the high-frequency words they and the, the teacher may end the lesson with students writing the dictated sentence, ”They will fill the big bin with wigs.”

This method encourages the application of phonics knowledge in real-word scenarios, promoting fluency and automaticity. In addition, dictated sentences provide a valuable opportunity for students to hone their listening skills, enhancing their ability to discern and reproduce distinct phonetic elements accurately and to authentically apply irregularly spelled high-frequency words in context. This practice benefits students of any grade level working on phonics skills.

3. Writing to Read

Another foundational type of writing that prepares students for more demanding types of writing in later grades is writing to read. This is an interactive approach to early writing instruction where the teacher models early literacy and print concepts starting as early as prekindergarten through early kindergarten. Through collaboration with the students, the teacher models drawing pictures and sentence creation.

Teachers can start by engaging students in a conversation around an event in a book or nursery rhyme they read together. Then, the teacher offers a prompt: “In the story, the characters went to play at the park. That gives me an idea for a story. What kinds of things do you like to do at the park?” Students can share multiple ideas for the story, and the teacher chooses one to model. 

While the teacher explicitly models drawing and develops a sentence about the drawing, the students offer ideas on where to start writing, count the words in the story, identify the sounds they hear as the teacher spells out each word, and notice where spaces will occur. The more that students engage in this type of instruction, the more responsibility we can hand over to them, and they can write the story along with us. As students are given more opportunities to apply early writing principles and rereading strategies, they begin to understand the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing.

4. Reading to Write

When the foundations for early writing have been established, students can quickly move into another layer of high-impact writing, which is writing about the texts that they’re reading. 

Even starting in kindergarten, encouraging students to write and/or draw in response to reading across multiple content areas is a valuable strategy that helps deepen comprehension and understanding of a particular topic, as explored in Linda J. Dorn and Carla Soffos’s book Teaching for Deep Comprehension.

These “writing about the reading” prompts require students to analyze, synthesize, and connect ideas, fostering a deeper understanding of the material. For example, if first-grade students are working on story elements, after reading a story, a student might write, “The character in the story is a bear who lives in the forest. The problem in the story is that he is sad, but he solves his problem when he learns to be happy.” 

This expression encapsulates comprehension, language reinforcement, and academic vocabulary. As students progress through grade levels upward to 12th grade, the scaffold of giving the students a prompt for writing about the text should decrease as they develop enough self-regulation to write about their own thinking.

5. Writing About Learning

Similar to reading to write, this strategy is solely focused on writing about what the student has learned, why the learning is important, and when to use the learning. This type of writing can happen as early as kindergarten, but in a highly scaffolded manner that mostly focuses on articulating why the learning is important.

Students up to 12th grade can benefit from writing about their learning because it keeps the purpose of what they’re learning in various content areas relevant and promotes quick retrieval of the information.

This strategy also promotes metacognition, because it helps learners organize their thoughts and reflect on their learning process. For instance, a second-grade class could collaboratively study the nature of bees in a nonfiction text. Then, because the teacher focuses on the skill of identifying and explaining main ideas and details, a student may write, “I learned the main idea by using headings and key details. Knowing main ideas helps us understand the most important information in a text.”

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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