Effective Strategies for Teaching Writing to Basic Literacy Adult Learners Event Summary

Hi Everyone,

One of our November events featured Ann Marie Barter, a Family Literacy & After School Programs Specialist with Catholic Extension, who discussed effective strategies for teaching writing to basic literacy adult learners.

Ann Marie began by explaining misconceptions students have about writing. Many students fear they have nothing to say and not enough knowledge to write well. Other learners believe their first draft is the final one. Still other students think good writing and perfect grammar just comes naturally for certain people. 

To help students deal with their misconceptions, Ann Marie described how she introduces writing with a variety of easy-to-read sentences, paragraphs, five-paragraph essays, and short chapters. She explains how sentences are a single idea developed in a few words, and paragraphs are expanded sentences with a main idea and supporting examples. A five-paragraph essay is an expanded sentence with the first paragraph introducing the main idea and each supporting paragraph expanding the topic with evidence and supporting details. This scaffolded approach eases students’ anxiety as they see how each type of writing progresses from the sentence. 

Ms. Barter detailed how she teaches the writing process using pre-writing, first draft writing, and editing/proofreading. She made a distinction between editing and proofreading by saying, “proofreading is a part of editing, but editing is much more than proofreading” since it involves revising content, organization, grammar, and presentation. Ann Marie encourages instructors to find an authentic audience for students’ writing, some vehicle for publication. 

Ann Marie loves to use mapping, clustering, and free writes for pre-writing. She also encourages the use of round robin brainstorming. Here, each learner is asked to supply ideas until there are no more to add. The ideas are then evaluated to see which ones belong. Students then group like ideas together and title them. Ideas are further organized by “grain size,” with bigger ideas becoming topic sentence and smaller ones supporting details. This process develops the content and language for the first writing draft. 

Sentences are developed using activities like the Sentence Build Out which works like this:  

Start with a basic, simple sentence. Work together with students to make a more robust sentence by adding adjectives, changing verbs from passive to active, and making it more sensory. 

A Sample Beginning Sentence: I went there.

A Sample Built Out Sentence: Because I am concerned about my community, I went to a meeting at City Hall last week where I voiced my concerns about a new construction project on Clarence Lane.

Another activity is to put words on index cards, color coded for different parts of speech, that can be mixed and matched to create sentences.

Moving to editing, Ms. Barter suggested teaching students how to ask for and give feedback. Develop a set of questions/guidelines/forms for peer review and give students opportunities to practice giving feedback. Instructors can do a think aloud where they demonstrate giving constructive feedback. 

Regarding rubrics, Ann Marie suggested creating rubrics with student writing exemplars. This is consistent with the approach of Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy. Ann Marie uses simple rubrics with exemplars and no points or grades. She uses neutral or positive words such as met/not yet to describe writing quality. 

Ann Marie Barter encourages editing for one trait at time. She suggests an editing order of organization, development, support of ideas, word choice, impact on reader (purpose and audience), and then grammar and spelling.

After editing, Ann Marie teaches two proofreading techniques. Students first perform an out loud reading of their writing, making corrections as they go. Then, a peer reads their text out loud exactly as its written. To avoid a demoralizing red-inked stained paper, Ann Marie uses sticky notes to give praise, correction, and recommendation. Learners may then make final revisions based on feedback. 

The final step in the process is publishing. Ms. Barter suggested several ways to do this including creating a book for the students’ children, creating a multimedia presentation with writing/art/music, a class newspaper, or narrative for a grant proposal. 

Ann Marie closed the presentation with the reminder that great writers need much practice to develop their skills, so she encouraged student writing every class period.

What things from this summary do you find most useful?

Thanks for your thoughts,

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Group