As someone who focuses on writing instruction, the question I am asked most often is probably What are the most important things I can do to improve student writing? I used to give a far more complex answer, full of discussion of thoughtful models and carefully targeted reflection, providing lots of autonomy, building relationships through writing and our responses to it, and directly teaching both writing skills and the writing process in careful ways. I stand by all of this guidance–it is good practice and helps to speed student growth–but I now give a far simpler answer:

For students to grow significantly as writers they need to write a lot and get lots of thoughtful, timely feedback to that writing.

When one looks at enough major studies surrounding writing discussion, what becomes clear is that the quantity of writing students do and the quantity/quality of the feedback they receive is the foundation of writing growth. Everything else builds upon those things.

This makes a lot of sense too. In nearly any pursuit, whether it is playing the violin or swinging a baseball bat, there is plenty of theory and lots of tricks to be learned, but ultimately true mastery tends to come from putting in the hours and having a good teacher give you clear guidance.

On the surface this answer of doing more writing and getting more feedback might seem like good news because it is a relatively simple, but anyone in the classroom can probably tell you that finding room to add more writing to a curriculum is often far from simple and finding time to give more feedback often seems next to impossible.

The most important tool I’ve ever found for helping me figure out how to add both more writing and more meaningful responses to writing without adding more hours to my work day (which is critical; we shouldn’t be adding more work to our plates) is the Pyramid of Writing Priorities, which was first created by Dave Stuart Jr., who adapted it from The Core Six. I have made some tweaks to Stuart’s original in my version of it here:

The Pyramid of Writing Priorities adapted from Dave Stuart Jr. and The Core Six

If you haven’t seen this before, this pyramid serves as a model for how to maximize the amount of writing and feedback happening in our classes. Its foundation is practice writing, which is any writing that students do to learn, practice skills, or grow as a writer. This practice writing is generally unread and ungraded by the teacher because students need safe places away from the eyes of teacher and because if students have to wait for teachers to read everything they write, they won’t be writing nearly enough.

Adding more practice writing is often one of the best ways to add more writing to a curriculum because it doesn’t add more work to our grading load. Further, doing lots of it is also key to a writer’s growth. It is like the untold hours a piano players needs to grow familiar with the keys or the tens of thousands of shots a basketball player needs to get the feel of how a ball rotates off of one’s fingertips. Most serious writing teachers I know do some form of practice writing every. single. day., but I’ve written on the importance of this recently here and here, so I am not going to dive too deeply into it right now.

At the top of the pyramid we see polished writing, which is your classic paper that goes through multiple rounds of revision. I’ve written on how to be more efficient and effective in regards to these quite a bit too, so I’m going to not dig into that right now either.

Today instead, I am going to focus on targeted writing, which is something a number of readers have asked me about recently, as I’ve mentioned it in passing in several recent posts. It truly is my secret weapon when it comes to both skill-building and giving students more regular and faster feedback. Here is how it works:


I’ve found that most writing in most classes tends to be either practice or polished writing. Targeted writing is the rarely visited middle ground where students write short to middle-length pieces focused on building, refining, or demonstrating a certain skill/s, and while I used to do almost none of it, over the last few years is has become one of my most important pedagogical tools.

What makes it so powerful is that when students only focus on one or two skills in targeted writing, they can dive deep and really learn those skills in ways that stick; further, since the writing is focused on one or two areas, our feedback can remain focused on those areas as well, allowing us to give it much faster (and in some cases shockingly faster).

To see this type of targeted writing and feedback in action, let’s take a paper that I discussed in my last post, which was on how to teach commas. This paper–called the Comma Paper–has a simple premise where students write a one-page paper on whatever they want, assessed solely on the following criteria:

  • At least twenty commas should be used.
  • At least four different types of commas should be used.
  • There should be no areas that need commas and don’t have them.

I have found that this assignment moves students forward in their understanding of commas more than an entire year’s worth of scattered margin comments and discussions in conferences, and by carefully crafting my feedback and keeping it focused on commas, I can get them precise responses the next day or even during the same class!


My feedback for the Comma Paper begins with me using the Command-F find function to highlight all commas used (see below):

This allows me to quickly scan it, and if I find any errors (either a highlighted comma misused or no highlighted comma present in a place that needs one), I simply highlight the first word of the line with the error and move on:

This line was missing the coordinating comma right here, so I highlighted the first word of the line.

Because I am just scanning for commas (and not looking for transitions, word choice, or anything else), I can accurately read these in a minute or less.

This need for speed is also part of the reason why I identify the line with the error instead of fixing the error for the students. By not re-explaining the comma rules or wordsmithing the students’ sentences, my feedback can happen fast, but this is not the only reason I do this. I also just point out that there is an error somewhere in a line because the students learn best when they, not me, are the ones doing the work.

I then end by deducting a point for each error and requiring students who did make errors to correct them. I generally allow them the opportunity to regain all lost points and often provide class time to do this work, as the time and incentive this gives helps students to take this part seriously enough to grapple with and often overcome their deepest-seeded comma issues.

In the end, I can read and respond to an entire class-set of Comma Papers in this manner in roughly 30-40 minutes. This means that if students complete this piece in the first half of our block schedules (which are a blissful 95 minutes), I can often respond to them before they leave (usually I’ll have them do drafting time or choice reading in the second half while I respond), meaning I can provide each of my classes with meaningful feedback without taking a single extra paper home!


The key to targeted writing for both the students and us is to keep it truly targeted. If a targeted write focuses on imagery, we shouldn’t mention spelling errors, no matter how badly you want to tell students that alot isn’t a word. This will allow them to truly focus, leading to faster skill-building, and allow us to focus, leading to faster responses. For many kids, these targeted writes also significantly lower tension–which further increases the speed at which they learn–because instead of having to juggle everything and sort through a pile of feedback, they just need to focus on doing one skill right.

So if you don’t, give targeted writing a shot as a supplement alongside practice and polished writing. And let me know how it goes. My upcoming book from Corwin Literacy explores the concept deeply, and I’d love to include examples of all sorts from a wide range of classrooms!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

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