Writing Fluency: A Key to Success on Next Generation Assessments

“If you can read everything your students write, you’re not assigning enough writing” – Doug Fisher.

Teachers tend to think about building fluency in terms of reading, but now more than ever, teachers should be helping their students build writing fluency as well. Readers who don’t read fluently devote much of their cognitive energy to decoding individual words and phrases, making it difficult for them to focus on the meaning of what they read. Similarly, students lacking writing fluency devote lots of cognitive energy to forming individual words or basic sentence structures, making it harder for them to focus on conveying their thoughts and feelings effectively.

CCSS Writing Anchor Standard 10 addresses the importance of students writing routinely over extended and shorter time frames for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. Both the forthcoming PARCC assessment and the Smarter Balanced assessment require students to type at length on demand. They must respond to a complex prompt that necessitates reading and synthesis of multiple documents, including videos, articles, and graphs. They’re also often argument prompts (see my last blog on the importance of argument writing).

Writing Fluency

Many teachers I’ve spoken to are nervous about these tasks, not just because they are cognitively demanding, but because they are worried students won’t write fluently enough to succeed. Students may struggle to generate ideas about an unfamiliar topic, organize their responses, or write an entire essay quickly with minimal errors. On top of that, they’ll have to do it without the usual scaffolding and encouragement they get in the classroom.

Literacy expert Doug Fisher recommends a simple instructional routine to help address these concerns: Power Writing, where students generate as many words as they can on a given topic in a set period of time. Research shows that writing proficiency increases when writing volume increases (when combined with instruction). Power Writing should be used regularly as it helps build writing fluency and stamina. While similar strategies exist, I like this approach for its versatility and usefulness as a formative assessment of both writing and content knowledge.

I’ve explained the simple procedure for Power Writing below, and have also included a Q&A gleaned from teachers who’ve used this strategy successfully in the past. I hope this will help you implement a Power Writing routine in your classroom.

STEPS TO POWER WRITING

Step 1: Give students an important vocabulary term or question that you’ve been addressing in your instruction; write it on the board.

Step 2: Instruct students to write (or type) “as much as they can, as well as they can” for 60 seconds. Always have them write in the same place (writers notebook, science notebook, etc. depending on the class).

Step 3: At the end of 60 seconds, tell them “pencils up” and ask them to count the overall number of words and tally it in the margin. Have students reread their writing and circle any errors they notice.

Step 4: Have students repeat this procedure two more times, giving them a new related vocabulary word or relevant question each time.

Step 5: For each session, have them graph the highest number of words they wrote in any one minute period. Have them set goals for the number of words they will write in any one-minute period next time.

Step 6: At least once a week, have them choose a previously written entry to revise and extend into a more formal explanatory or argumentative piece. This could be a homework exercise.

Student WritingTEACHER Q&A

What should I do with the student errors?

Pay attention to the errors that students DON’T circle. Not circling an error means they don’t realize it’s an error and need to be taught that skill. Look for patterns in errors as you skim their notebooks each week; you can address the errors in mini-lessons.

How much should I expect students to write per minute?

According to Doug Fisher, by the end of fourth grade, good writers can write as many as 40 words per minute. In ninth grade and beyond, many students remain in the 40-45 word range, because they are using longer words and conveying more complex ideas. The important thing is growth, not hard and fast norms.

Should I subtract errors from their total?

I wouldn’t, particularly when you are starting out, as this might cause students to become worried about making errors and slow down. As time goes by, you can subtract for errors involving skills that have been extensively taught if you wish.

What if students get wise and start writing shorter words to get a higher total?

There is always someone trying to outsmart the system! As in reading fluency, emphasize that speed is only one component. The quality of writing and thinking also matters. If you require students to periodically revise their entries, they’ll realize that writing short, choppy words means more revision work in the long run.

Can I use this to give students practice with particular skills?

Yes. For instance, you can require a particular sentence structure or usage issue (such as their, there, and they’re) you’ve been teaching. Your prompt can target generating a particular text structure, such as compare and contrast. You can also differentiate by adjusting the prompt for more capable writers, adding audience or genre elements. Just take these additional layers into account when judging growth as they may slow students down.

Do I have to read everything students write?

Absolutely not! Tell students they’re not writing for you to read, they’re writing because writing is thinking. Skim entries once a week for patterns in errors. Target particular entries to read for a formative assessment of content knowledge.

Should I have students share their number of words or their entries?

Sure, but keep the emphasis on growth. You can also have students pick their favorite entry and read it to their partner, or pick an entry to revise together.

GET YOUR STUDENTS WRITING

The most important thing is to get students writing. What do you do to build writing fluency and stamina in your classroom? Have you tried this or a similar routine? Share your ideas and experiences in the comment section below!

Learn more about the Power Writing strategy in Scaffolded Writing Instruction: Teaching Writing Within a Gradual Release Framework (Fisher & Frey, 2007).

AUSLRyan McCarty is a High School English Coordinator with Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a Chicago nonprofit focused on transforming failing schools and preparing highly-effective teachers. He previously served as an instructional coach and was a classroom teacher of Reading, English and U.S. History in schools from the South Side to the North Shore for more than 10 years. Follow Ryan on Twitter, @RyanP_McCarty.

AUSL was among the first in the nation to adopt Teaching Channel Teams.

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