How do I use FCAs with emerging writers, special needs students, and ELs?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

I am often asked by teachers at what point it’s appropriate to begin using Focus Correction Areas (FCAs) with their students. My response is simple: when you ask them to put ideas onto paper. Some teachers especially those who work with young, emergent writers; special needs students; and English learners, persist, “What about my students?”

My answer remains the same. When students begin to put their ideas onto paper to share with others, we should provide them with clear guidelines of how to do that well. That’s the role of FCAs: to clarify for writers how to shape and present their ideas.

One of the great strengths of the focus correcting strategy is its adaptability. We can use FCAs as effectively with gifted writers as with beginning writers because the goal is the same: help students attain the next level of writing effectiveness.

For students with limited writing skills—whether due to age, a learning deficit, or limited language experience—the following are guidelines to consider when using FCAs.

Create a Supportive Environment

Writing is a challenge for almost all students, so we must create a supportive climate where taking risks is encouraged and valued. Place a premium on effort (something every student is capable of) not just success (persistent effort leads to success). Model frequently for students and build in regular opportunities for student -to-student interaction. Students benefit tremendously from talking about and hearing ideas, so make oral interaction among students a regular occurrence in your instruction.

Use Symbolic FCAs

Normally, students are asked to write their FCAs on the top of their papers. Doing so provides a visible reminder of key writing goals and provides the teacher with an easy way to provide targeted feedback or comments. But for some students, it may be more practical to use symbolic FCAs that are pre-printed on their writing paper. For example, the symbolic FCA below reminds young writers to keep a finger space between their words.For additional symbolic FCAs and suggested writing experiences for applying them, see the General/Miscellaneous section of the Free Resources page of our website.

Writing: A Proven Strategy

Writing has long been identified as a best-practice teaching strategy. Unfortunately, many teachers interpret “writing” to mean reports, research papers, and formal writing about topics being studied—all time-consuming activities for both students and teachers. Such formal writing assignments can be effective learning experiences. But there is mounting evidence that frequent, low-stakes writing experiences—like Type Two writing—significantly enhance student learning.

Dozens of times each day, teachers routinely check for understanding by asking questions and posing problems for their students to answer orally. These same questions can be used as Type Two writing prompts with an added advantage: Every student responds, not just those called upon. Even though Type Two writing is typically brief, it actually promotes learning and long-term retention of new information. So these writing experiences aren’t really taking time away from learning. They are proven strategies for learning new material. My mantra to teachers is simple: Frequent Type Two quizzes promote learning.

Set Challenging, Attainable FCAs

We want to use focus correcting to bring realistic rigor to our writing instruction. Selecting FCAs that are out of reach for students—even if they are standards-based—is not rigor. It’s frustration for students and teachers alike. Think about where your students are as writers and what the next increment along the developmental continuum is for them. Select FCAs that, with student effort and support from you, can be achieved.

Differentiate FCAs

In small group settings, it may be possible to individualize FCAs for students with different needs. But even in larger group settings, differentiating FCAs is manageable. For example, you might select two FCAs for a task that all students in the group use, and then meet with individual or small groups to briefly identify and explain a third, differentiated FCA tailored for specific needs.

Show Examples

FCAs make writing expectations specific and clear for your students. Showing examples, whether mentor text or authentic student work, makes those expectations even more concrete. Looking at text and discussing how writers have included certain features or how specific problems might have been avoided goes a long way toward demystifying writing. It is a powerful teaching combination: FCAs clarify the what and examples show the how.