Writing is an essential part of today’s culture. It is a tool used to convey thoughts, ideas, and information with a wide audience. Furthermore, to compete in today’s society, students must be proficient in writing composition. If a student is not proficient in compositional writing, intervention will be needed. Explicit instruction in sentence structure - grammar, syntax, vocabulary usage, sentence types, organizing ideas for writing (including graphic organizers and oral rehearsal). This should focus on the function of words and connect to content area knowledge.
Why are Writing Composition Skills Important?
Writing composition skills matter for an array of reasons. In our modern technological society, employers require that their employees have adequate writing composition skills whether that be through the means of handwriting or typing. Furthermore, writing allows individuals to express their thoughts and ideas with a wide audience. Next, writing about what you read increases reading comprehension and encourages critical thinking (Graham & Herbert, 2010; Langer & Applebee, 1987). Lastly, Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement (2020, p.31) draws attention to writing composition skills echoing Berninger and colleagues (2006) with an emphasis on transcription, self regulation and executive function, and text generation. Writing composition skills are imperative for all learners to become successful.
Explicit Intervention in Writing - Composition Skills
Composition writing skills are essential to become a skilled writer. As students progress through school, there becomes a growing emphasis on writing compositional skills from the sentence-level to the multi-paragraph level. A student who intensively labors in writing a complete sentence will struggle immensely when tasked with writing a paragraph due to deficits that can be present within writing skills, knowledge of the writing process, and executive functioning and self-regulation abilities. In fact, a student who struggles with writing composition skills may:
- Take more time than peers to write a sentence, paragraph, or discourse
- Write any remembered fact on paper during writing assignments
- Struggle to put thoughts into complete sentences even though oral communication is strong
- Write information that is not organized around a specific topic
- Use basic, non-descriptive words
- Utilize limited sentence types and structures in writing
- Demonstrate difficulty with executive functioning skills like working memory and self-regulation
- Consistently demonstrate avoidant behaviors during writing activities (e.g., complaining of illness, asking to use the restroom)
Students demonstrating these characteristics in their writing will need explicit intervention in writing composition to become a proficient writer. The teacher of a student with this writing profile would need to identify which composition skills in sentence structure (grammar, syntax, vocabulary usage, sentence types, and organizing ideas) are difficult for the student to plan an intervention program. A student’s ability to perform executive functions should also be considered in light of writing composition with support to aid the student’s writing development. Special supports, like graphic organizers and visual image supports, can be put in place to support weak executive functioning skills throughout the writing process. It is pertinent that educators provide students with strong, evidence-based composition writing instruction and intervention when necessary. A strong command of composition skills is essential for success in writing, education, and life.
What to Teach
Once students have mastered foundational writing skills, the focus turns to composition. Compositional writing has its foundation at the sentence level, progressing to the single paragraph, and then, eventually, multi-paragraph pieces. The mental processes, executive functioning skills, and writing skills necessary for effective writing are developed through explicit teaching, time, and practice.
There are certain skills that must be included in an effective intervention for writing composition skills as they relate to sentence structure, including:
Grammar should be taught within the context of writing. Arbitrary grammar instruction disconnected from writing has shown to be ineffective. In the LETRS manual for units 5-8, Moats & Tolman (2019, p.278) suggest to introduce students to the grammatical functions of words as they progress in their ability to write sentences.
Syntax should be explicitly taught within a composition writing intervention. Syntax is the sequence in which words are put together to form sentences. Teaching about syntax can include sentence-defining and ordering activities. Benefits to this instruction are building understanding of the concept of a sentence, increasing understanding of word order, and giving practice with capitalization, punctuation, and spelling rules.
Writing interventions should be based on content area topics to directly enhance vocabulary usage. When students write on topics that align with instruction in the content areas, the vocabulary usage in their writing will be stronger. Students will have the knowledge of topic-specific content words and an understanding of how to use them successfully in writing. Writing arbitrarily about topics like holidays and seasons isn’t going to allow for proper transfer of the writing skills into content areas.
Teach students about the different sentence types (e.g., declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory) through explicit writing composition instruction. As students write more and more, they'll have a need to use different sentence types to properly convey their message. Model for students how to use different sentence types in writing and encourage students to try them in their own writing.
When writing, students must have an organized plan! Teachers can explicitly teach students how to organize ideas through the use of graphic organizers and oral rehearsal. To begin organizing ideas, you'll want to familiarize your students with the idea of topic sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences. First, practice this skill orally, then with a graphic organizer to outline one or more paragraphs.
Composition Writing Expectations by Grade
In the Ohio Department of Education’s English Language Arts Learning Standards, the writing and language domains give information about what students should be able to do at each grade level related to compositional writing. Oftentimes, the writing standards can be the only focus for writing instruction, which shouldn’t be the case with the Ohio Learning Standards. In the language domain, you’ll find specific information about the level of complexity of sentence structures at each grade level including grammar, vocabulary, sentence types, and syntax. In the writing domain, the department outlines what types of compositional writing students should be engaged in at each grade level. With each grade level, K-12, students are expected to become more sophisticated in their writing ability. Remember, compositional writing should connect with content area learning. If students are learning about the solar system, then writing should connect to the solar system rather than an arbitrary, random topic. When writing activities are aligned with content instruction, it allows for an ease of student cognitive load because the student already has the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to write successfully.
How to Teach
When teaching an explicit intervention in writing composition skills, there are a few hallmarks of how instruction should be carried out to maximize effectiveness. In their book, Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching, Archer & Hughes (2011) emphasize that explicit instruction that is organized, transparent, and responsive to students’ learning needs optimizes instructional time and student success.
Ensure instruction is appropriate for the instructional needs of students
Explicit, systematic instruction
Ensure instruction is appropriate for the instructional needs of students
This task is most easily done when encoding instruction becomes a part of phonics instruction. Whichever skill is being taught in phonics should also have corresponding encoding instruction.
Explicit, systematic instruction
Effective writing instruction has a purpose and systematically introduces writing composition skills. Practice composition through authentic writing activities that relate to topics/concepts being studied in the content areas.
Model for students how to take oral communication and convert it into coherent written products. Depending on the needs of the learners, you will teach sentence-level or paragraph-level skills related to composition including planning, editing, and revising. Modeling these skills and processes will give students a mental model to begin with as they work to develop their writing abilities.
Teachers should write WITH students discussing the skills, process and content of writing composition. Provide plentiful opportunities for students to practice writing composition skills with affirmative and constructive feedback to support learning.
Even in an explicit intervention, teachers will still scaffold instruction to meet the needs of their learners. Scaffolding supports are temporary and used to aid a student in their learning progression. Scaffolding supports students with learning difficulties, such as attention problems and working memory issues (Archer & Hughes, 2011, p.10).
Frequently Asked Questions
Will it harm student writing development to work on sentence-level writing in the upper grades?
No, writing at the sentence-level is appropriate at all grade levels. The intensity of sentence-level writing changes as the content changes and expands. For example, an 8th grade student writing about hereditary genes in a sentence-level writing activity will find the activity just as engaging and challenging as a 2nd grade student writing about animal habitats.
If I assign longer writing assignments, will students learn to write better?
No. If a student isn’t proficient at the sentence and single paragraph levels of writing, they will not become better writers by “practicing” writing with longer writing assignments. In fact, it may foster negative attitudes towards writing and decrease motivation.
Are daily writing prompt activities effective for practicing composition skills?
While daily writing is beneficial to students, writing prompts should be aligned to the content the students are studying the content areas even in intervention. Prompts on random topics about seasons and favorite items have not been found to stimulate good quality writing. Instead, writing about content that students have background knowledge and vocabulary on will increase the quality of student writing.
In this handout, find three easy to implement strategies to help students build awareness and understanding of sentences and how to write them. Strategies focus on syntax, sentence types and structures, and grammar.
Students benefit from having a visual checklist of pieces that should be included in writing a sentence. Download this sentence writing checklist and begin using it in your classroom today!
Additional Learning Opportunities
In this podcast, learn about the skills needed to become a proficient writer, how to use writing across the content areas to enhance learning, and tips for planning evidence-based writing instruction.
Access the Ohio Literacy Academy’s Writing: Syntax course to learn more about the role of syntax in writing instruction along with instructional strategies to address syntax in your writing instruction.
Access the Ohio Literacy Academy’s Writing: Paragraph Skills course to learn about the processes and strategies that are essential for supporting student paragraph writing and instructional strategies that can be used in your classroom.