Betsy Stoutmorril: Count Down to Improve Writing

Writing Challenges

When given a writing assignment, one of the first questions struggling writers often ask is “How long does it have to be?”   Focusing on length instead of content can be an indicator that adult learner are struggling to put words on a page or are not confident that they have anything to say.

Confidence and Proficiency

Recognizing and acknowledging that writing is difficult for many adult learners is the first step toward improving their writing.  Giving adult learners a specific and manageable structure for writing and gradually increasing the writing demand improves their chances of become confident and proficient writers.  Also perhaps, it helps them to fall in love with words and accept the challenge of crafting good writing.

Ask for 200 Words

Think about asking for word count on assignments.  Asking for a page or even a paragraph can be anxiety producing, because a blank page is hard to fill and how long is a paragraph anyway?  Asking for 200 words is much less threatening.  For example, this paragraph has been crafted to have exactly100 words. This may not look like much of a challenge, however to novice writers 200 words can be huge, but it’s concrete! Word count is an amazing tool that also allows us to gradually increase the demand by 25-50 words until the novice writes a full page!

Structure and Simplicity

Explain what word count means and how to use the “word count” function on MS Word under the “Review” tab.  This might encourage them to learn to type or word process, too!  Also let them know that the average person writes about 10 words and types about 15 words on a line—so you’re asking for 200 words or about 10 to15 lines.  Very concrete!

Here are simple structural things to do to help a struggling writer find success on your next writing assignment:

  • Create a sample passage
  • Offer specific “step-by-step” written, visual and oral directions
  • Provide a short list of topics, but also be willing to be flexible
  • Set the stage for pre-writing skills with lines for three ideas and five important words
  • Describe how proof reading and rewriting improves the final product

A Final Word about Word Count

Also, if you really want to see word count really work to your advantage as a teacher, try limiting the word count!  When I was trying to improve the content of writers who use a lot of words but don’t actually say very much, I would put strict parameters on word count.

When I taught intensive reading for at-risk high school students, I would limit summary sentences to 10 words or introductory paragraphs to 25 words.   This would result in the students working intensely (Just like I did crafting that 100-word paragraph!) to get the exact word count.  Some of my students would even complain that they needed more words!  Sure loved hearing that!

Gail Rice: Language Experience Approach

Since writing is one of the last skills to develop, native speakers of English who are not proficient in reading are less likely to be proficient in writing. Students that have been shamed in the past for their failures in writing, may dislike writing and write as little as possible.  ESL (English as a Second Language) learners may also experience the same problems because they are aware of their mistakes speaking English.  Thus, ESL and native speaking students are less likely to write because they do not want to see a paper loaded with red marks and corrections.

The language experience approach (LEA) is a powerful tool for tutors to use with any learner who has enough conversational ability to carry on simple conversations, even if that person has no reading skills at all.  It uses the language of the learner, dictated to and written down by the tutor, as the basis of the reading material.  The material is then familiar and understandable since it is based on the learner’s experience, making it easier to read.

But what if learners make grammatical or other mistakes when dictating to the tutor?  What about mistakes that native speakers and ESL learners make in their own writing?

Some tutors feel that they should correct all mistakes and if not they are reinforcing those mistakes.  But such an approach defeats the purpose of the LEA and ensures that struggling writers will become more discouraged and less likely to write.

These issues and others will be discussed at the Tutor Celebration of Learning Seminar offered by the Florida Literacy Council and the Adult Literacy League on the morning of September 17, 2011.

Register Today for FLC’s Free Volunteer Literacy Tutor Symposiums

This month, FLC is presenting four volunteer literacy tutor symposiums highlightingtechniques and activities related to three facets of teaching literacy:

  1. Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences
  2. The Art of Teaching Speaking
  3. Teaching Writing

From Our Trainers

Roberta Reiss

“The Tutor Symposiums offered by FLC are some of the most energizing, productive events I have experienced in my role as a trainer.  We have the chance to focus on some of the best resources in our field.  It’s a real luxury to have an hour or two to explore and experience the theories and activities found in books that go beyond the typical core tutor materials.  There have been many times when I have gotten hold of a new resource, only to have it sit while other priorities took over my day.  This chance to come together with other tutors and discover the resource together is a great way to share.”

—Roberta Reiss, ProLiteracy America Certified Trainer & Lead Symposium Faciltator

“As a presenting trainer this year, I’m excited about the materials we will be using.  The Multiple Intelligences theory of “How am I Smart?” will be sure to stimulate discussion.  It will be fun to try some lesson plans and discover our MI.  The information contained in The Art of Teaching Speaking is so useful for those tutors trying to help ESOL learners speak English that is relevant to their goals and situations.  Encouraging our learners to speak can be difficult at times, so getting ideas and resources for stimulating conversation will be invaluable.

Some tutors may be asking why we are focusing a section on Writing, but we’ll find out why it is essential to teach writing as well as reading, and get useful tools for doing so.”

–Olive Burkard, ProLiteracy America Certified Trainer, presenting in Ocala and Orlando

Training dates and locations:

  1. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Jan. 8, Frances T. Bourne Jacaranda Library, Venice, FLTHIS TRAINING IS FULL
  2. 1-5 p.m., Jan. 15, Leon County Public Library, Tallahassee, FL
  3. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Jan. 27, Rasmussen College- Ocala Campus, Ocala, FL
  4. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Jan. 31, Adult Literacy League of Central Florida, Orlando, FL

Each training will be led by a ProLiteracy America Certified Trainer and is free to attend, but registration is required as seating is limited. 

Please contact Yari Payne at FLC with any questions – (407) 246-7110 ext. 203 or

These trainings are collaborative learning events brought to you by the Florida Adult Literacy Resource Center, a program of the Florida Literacy Coalition.  These workshops are made possible through the support of the Florida Department of Education, Division of Career and Adult Education