Developing students’ writing skills

Teaching strategies

Developing students’ writing skills: A guide for teachers and teacher aides

(and parents, school managers, tutors and other educators)

Writing skills – written spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary skills.

Student in a classroom writing on paper with a pencil while a teacher is discussing a topic in the background.

When learners have mastered phonics, the next focus should be spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. As with phonics, many writing experts advocate a similar combination of explicit teaching and opportunities to practise with real-world, authentic texts. Traditional rote and repetition strategies such as look-cover-write-check are common and effective, provided they are not overdone.

Errors should not be met with scorn or contempt. This only serves to demotivate and disengage students who might display task-avoidance behaviours consequently.

It is common for teachers to provide students with a new list of words every few weeks. While it’s not possible to learn every word in the English language, students can learn habits and techniques that help them to gradually improve their writing skills over time. Students who acquire these skills and habits develop their spelling, vocabulary, grammar and language abilities much faster and with less adult support. Effective spellers do the following:

  • They use a wide range of spelling strategies to spell and learn new words.
  • They select and use common strategies such as sounding out, chunking words into sections, seeking assistance, using memory aids (see mnemonics), using cues and prediction, reflecting, writing new words out several times and the look-cover-write-check approach.
  • They automatically recall high-frequency words, personally significant words and topic words.
  • They continually build their vocabulary and take interest in new words when they see or hear them.
  • They understand the English orthographic system (its spelling system and rules).
  • They understand and apply spelling generalisations and patterns.
  • They self-monitor and generate alternative spellings for unknown words.
  • They read more often (and they read more challenging texts).

Students will always make writing mistakes as they learn, experiment and acquire new skills. They should be encouraged to experiment just outside of their comfort level. Errors should not be met with scorn or contempt. This only serves to demotivate and disengage students who might display task-avoidance behaviours consequently.

Students often make the same writing errors over and over. Teachers should identify and categorise these repeated errors in order to address them. For example, one of the most common punctuation errors made by high school students (and the majority of adults) is not knowing how to use a comma properly. In any given piece of writing it may seem like the student has made 10 grammatical errors. All ten errors, however, may stem from one common error. Experienced teachers notice these repeated errors and address them quickly because fixing them has an immediate substantial impact.

Some of the more common spelling mistakes include:

  • spelling a word incorrectly (perhaps due to phonetically sounding the words out)
  • writing ‘words’ that aren’t actually words
  • spelling pluralised words incorrectly (for example, mixing up ‘companies’ and ‘company’s’)
  • spelling abbreviated words incorrectly
  • spelling hyphenated words incorrectly.

Some of the more common punctuation mistakes include:

  • not using punctuation symbols (fewer than required or none at all)
  • using incorrect punctuation symbols
  • using correct punctuation symbols but in the wrong place
  • not writing a punctuation symbol correctly or legibly
  • the overuse of punctuation marks (such as commas and apostrophes).

Some of the more common grammar and expression mistakes include:

  • using words that mean something else
  • skipping words in a sentence
  • using words in the incorrect order
  • using words that have a double meaning (or puns) without being aware of the second meaning
  • structuring sentences in ways that make meaning harder to determine (for example, combining 2 sentences together with a comma instead of having 2 separate sentences)
  • using long sentences where a short sentence should be used
  • using the wrong style for the text type or audience
  • switching from one tense to another (past, present or future)
  • using incorrect words or phrases such as ‘I should of’ instead of ‘I should have’
  • using colloquial (slang) words in formal writing.

You can think of grammar as being the ‘rules’ of a language. Grammar is best taught via a combination of strategies such as explicit instruction and shared reading. Consider this sentence: Peter walked to the zoo. You can see the following grammatical rules:

  • the first word of the sentence has a capital letter
  • the sentence has a full stop at the end
  • the sentence uses the following structure – subject (Peter) – verb (walked) – object (zoo)
  • the word ‘the’ is called a definite article. It indicates that there is only 1 zoo and that the listener already knows which zoo is being referred to (if it was unknown, the speaker would probably say ‘a zoo’).

Editing is also an important part of writing development, particularly for older students. Here are some questions that you can use to guide a student’s editing process:

  • Have you used a variety of words?
  • Does each sentence make sense?
  • Did you begin your writing with a ‘hook’ to gain your reader’s attention?
  • Are your ideas in a logical sequence?
  • Are any sentences too long?
  • Is your writing neat and presentable?

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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