Timed Essay Strategies For Teaching

Composing an essay while the clock ticks is one of the most challenging tasks our young writers will face. It requires concentration, organization, and a command both of essay structure and the subject at hand. Before your next essay test or timed writing exercise, review these dos and don’ts with your students. Model the process with a sample essay question, inviting students to read aloud each “thinking mistake” and “do this instead.” Together as a class, do each step. Ask students to identify the key words in the question that tell the writer what to do. Work together to devise a thesis and sketch a quick outline.

Print these mini-posters on 8”x11” or 11”x 17” paper. Or to print a super-sized version for your classroom wall, save the pdf onto a flash drive and take it to a copy shop.

I created this simple Timed Writing System early in my teaching career when I was completely lost in teaching writing theory. I determined I needed an objective apples-to-apples method for monitoring growth. In short, I wanted to know if the techniques and strategies I had been taught to use actually got writing results.

Important Note: This page is devoted to writing fluency and how the Timed Writing System helps create writing fluency. I also provide a basic outline of the Timed Writing System at the bottom of this page. However, I’ve added a new page where I go into great detail on how to implement the system, adapt it, and grow it in order to meet your needs. You can find it here: Timed Writing System: Evaluate Student Writing Growth and Achievement Objectively.

What’s the Goal of Your Writing Instruction?

There often appears to be a disconnect between teaching-writing theory and preparing students for the next state or district writing assessment. For this reason, teachers must be clear on what their main goal in teaching writing is.

•   Is your main goal to help students develop a passion for writing?

•   Is your main goal to make sure that your students never leave a dangling participle or split an infinitive?

•   Is your main goal to help students become the next great American novelist?

My main goal has always been crystal clear to me:

•   My main goal is to create writers who have the writing skills and the writing confidence that is necessary to be successful in school.

First Things First: Teaching at Title 1 schools in the inner-city has always guided my priorities in teaching writing. Most of my students are ELL students, and it’s going to be a couple of years before their English grammar is perfect. Still, I believe these students must be able to demonstrate their knowledge in the content areas (science, history etc.) in writing. These students need to know how get an assignment, break it down, organize their thoughts, and then quickly start and finish the assignment. There should be very little hesitation from start to finish. In short, these students must develop the ability to write fast and get the assignment done. (Note: The research makes clear that you should teach grammar through writing, not writing through grammar.)

The Three Goals of the Timed Writing System

My primary goal with the Timed Writing System was not to get students to write fast. But monitoring and tracking student writing using a timer does inspire students to get more words on the page. Writing fast, or should we call it Writing Fluency, is a byproduct of the Timed Writing System.

Here are all three goals of the Timed Writing System in order of importance:

1.  Objectively monitor students’ writing achievement and growth.
2.  Help create fluent writers.
3.  Familiarize students with a timed writing environment, which comes in handy on state and district writing assessments.

Writing Fluency is an important aspect of writing that many teachers don’t consider, and it’s what struggling, reluctant writers need in order to become even better writers. Let’s take a closer look at writing fluency.

Two Types of Writing Fluency

Any writing is better than no writing. Having said that, my goal of writing fluency is an organized writing fluency. After all, I am trying to develop academically successful students.

Disorganized Writing Fluency: Please note, the research on teaching writing does indicate that freewriting (stream-of-consciousness writing) does help create successful writers. However, I think the research is largely misunderstood. Simply letting students freewrite is not going to create successful academic writers. If it did, teaching writing would be easy! I’m dismayed that so many people put forth those little tan journals as a solution for struggling writers: “Oh, kids love writing in them.” That kind of thinking for too many years creates struggling middle school and high school writers. Yes, students will write in them, but the writing is without academic purpose. Fluent freewriting is not the same thing as fluent academic writing. Freewriting = Prewriting! That’s what the research is getting at. Note: I have taught 3rd and 4th grade ELL students who did benefit from becoming fluent freewriters as one step along the path to writing success; however, I now focus more on creating fluent prewriters, not just freewriters.

Organized Writing Fluency: Students must understand that writing is not simply writing whatever pops into their minds. Writing is an attempt to say something important and to make points. This is even truer in academic writing. Achieving Organized Writing Fluency requires three activities: 1) plenty of instruction, 2) plenty of writing, and 3) systems that hold students accountable for applying in their writing what they have learned about writing. Note: Real writing is not done on worksheets.

Need help teaching writing? Have you taken a look at the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay program?

Writing Fluency: Getting School Work Done on Time!

I developed the Timed Writing System primarily to objectively evaluate students’ writing progress. But the system also fit in with my belief that students need to be fluent writers in order to achieve transformational writing success. Quite simply, writing often, accompanied by objectively monitoring writing growth and achievement, motivates students to write better, write more, and write faster.

The National Reading Panel’s report titled Teaching Children to Read (2000) made clear that fluent readers tend to good readers. In fact, Fluency is one of five important areas that brings about reading success. That makes sense. In fact, it also makes sense in writing. Fluent writers will likely be good writers. My experience is that fluent writers also make happy students! So much of school involves writing, and students are happy when they are able to finish their daily schoolwork across the curriculum in a reasonable amount of time.

Teachers often try to teach writing to non-writers. I do the opposite. I try to create fluent writers first and then teach them to write well. I teach many English Language Learners (ELL), and largely, these students are afraid to write. They have learned to be afraid of making mistakes. Well, most of these students still have a ways to go in learning English, but in 4th and 5th grade, these students need to be writing across the curriculum in the content areas. That’s part of school!

If we leave students in a room for eternity, eventually, they will all write something comparable to Hamlet. But is this how we teach writing? No! Unfortunately, eternity is a very long time. In the real world, students don’t have an eternity to finish writing assignments. In fact, it’s foolish for students to spend too long on any one assignment if it will negatively affect how much time they spend on other equally important assignments.

Language arts teachers must not forget that high school science teachers are primarily concerned whether students are learning science, not whether they are brilliant writers. In fact, many science teachers are not great writers themselves, and perhaps, might not even know what great writing looks like. I know several who readily admit to this as a fault.

Of course, we want student to care about their writing and take pride in their writing, but we don’t want students to be afraid of writing. We want fluent writers first – and great writers second.

Note: As an adult, I began learning Spanish and became fluent in it. You don’t learn a language by being afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes and correcting mistakes is how you learn a language. Also, based on my experience learning Spanish, authentic writing in a language is strong glue for the language. It makes all the vocabulary and grammar stick!

Prolific Writers vs. Perfect Writers

I think most people would prefer to write a single great work of art than to write prolifically. However, I have a feeling prolific writers are happier writers. Furthermore, I think prolific writers also have a greater chance of writing something perfect than writers who aim only for perfection.

What happened to these two writers?

•   Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
•   J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Although it’s a simplification, I think it’s fair to say that perfection harmed their writing careers. It didn’t have to, but due to the nature of human psychology, it did.

Students who don’t like to write feel the pressure to write perfectly. That’s not how you learn to write. I want competent, fluent, prolific writers first – because it’s easy to teach writing to these students. In fact, it’s relatively easy to turn these prolific writers into highly effective writers.

In contrast, some people believe you teach writing by preventing students from making mistakes. These people spend endless amounts of time teaching grammar and conventions in isolation, which the research clearly states does not work. Then they have students do silly little writing exercises and try to point out every single mistake. Largely these people tell themselves that if we can make students write perfect when they are young, they will continue to write perfect when they are old. It would be nice if this worked, as it would keep the teacher in complete control of writing success. Unfortunately, the outcome is often reluctance, fear, and dread over writing, or possibly, just passive-aggressive refusal.

The Timed Writing System Directions

Important Note: You can find a more fully developed multi-page version of the Timed Writing System here: Timed Writing System: Evaluate Student Writing Growth and Achievement Objectively.

1.  Students do a 5-minute prewriting and a 20-minute essay.

2.  Staple each student’s first timed writing to a piece of construction paper and post them on a bulletin board using pushpins. This lets the timed writings be easily removed and updated. (Depending on the grade level, you may want students to illustrate a picture that can go side by side next to the writing on the same piece of construction paper. It makes for a nice bulletin board!)

3.  After a certain amount time, and after a certain amount of instruction, do another timed writing. Staple the new timed writing on top of the old in a way that the writing can be flipped, browsed, and compared. Have students evaluate their writing progress and then return the writing to the bulletin board.

The Timed Writing System: Principal Approved!

Using this system my bulletin board always showed excellent and objective student progress. It was so successful, in fact, that my principal once suggested (or requested) that I put it back up when I had taken it down and was maintaining the timed writings in a portfolio instead of displaying them.

Warning: If your students are not making great progress in their writing, this Timed Writing System will reveal that as well. If this is the outcome, I suggest you check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay curriculum on the homepage.

The Timed Writing System and Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay

The way I use the Timed Writing System has changed a little with the creation of the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing curriculum. However, this Timed Writing System is still very effective with or without the writing program.

Before Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay, my students’ writing progress was always steady and consistent. Over the course of a year, the progress was substantial and admirable. It was an accurate representation of the gradual, consistent progress that students can achieve with effective writing instruction and a lot of hard work! Principals love to see this kind of objective writing growth.

But now, I get even better results much faster. Within a month or two, most elementary and struggling middle school writers are saying, “I can’t even read what I was writing before!”

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