Direct writing Instruction: The Top Ten Issues found in Teen Writing

I am very interested in how to look at student writing for language and grammar. As I scoured student work this year, searching for patterns, these are the top 10 issues I found, and how I addressed them.

  1. Basic grammar errors: capitalization, punctuation, misused pronouns, common misspellings (their, there, they’re, etc.). These I simply taught through lecture and HW practice.

  2. Sentence Issues: In addition to using fragments and run-ons, as students attempted to complexify their writing with connecting words, they sometimes hadn’t mastered the rules of those connecting words. For example the word “however” cannot be used the same way as the word “but”; “however” must always start its own sentence, while “but” is one of the Big Six that can fix a comma splice (and, but, yet, or, so, because). Similarly, “Although” presents a contrasting idea, but many students would leave off the actual core of the sentence, thus creating a fragment (and an incomplete contrast!). I addressed these issues using the Hochman/Killgallon methods of sentence building, with some of my own additions. In general I referred to these sorts of errors as “more advanced” errors, to let students know that this was a good kind of mistake to be making; they were complexifying their sentences and using more connecting words, and we need that!

  3. Pronoun issues: When students attempt to talk about complex ideas, those ideas often reference groups of people or objects, which are sometimes regarded as “it” (America) for example, and sometimes as “they” (citizens). When we wrote a practice essay on genetically modified foods, for example, students mixed up pronouns constantly: Are GMOs an “it” or a “they?” Unsure, and therefore unclear, the students wrote pieces that often came across as elementary despite the complexity of their ideas. An additional issue with pronouns is the vague pronoun: Always beware of using “this” or “it.” To help them learn, I had to explain the concept of an antecedent, and have students check each pronoun for specific antecedents, or to change out the word.

  4. Poor choice of transitions and overtly formulaic writing: This is especially common in students who have been over-outlined their whole lives. I try to emphasize the power of attacking a blank page; I only give outlines to kids who absolutely can’t produce a meaningful piece without one.  And I am very explicit to students about the necessity of transitions that make sense. If they write “moreover” when they mean “in fact,” I tell them. They need to recognize that each transition serves a specific purpose, and that transitions can’t just be thrown in; that only makes the writing more confusing.

  5. Subject-verb agreement: I had a few students who came into class with this issue, and I have found that excepting constant correction and extra practice, it is an issue that can persist; S-V Agreement is a difficult one to teach because for the students who have already mastered it, it is SO obvious that it feels incredibly boring and irrelevant to them. For the very few who haven’t mastered it, it is SO confusing that they don’t even know where to start fixing it. I assigned extra practice, persistently corrected it, and worked on it in out of class conferences.

  6. Lack of concrete evidence: Students were all too ready to say that injustice existed or that friends are good for you. But getting them to speak in concrete details and specific examples, with their own insights and analyses attached, often took a lot of modeling and pushing. I find that starting the year with narrative writing can help, because narrative continues to be the best way to write a compelling example in the real world.

  7. Poor quotation incorporation/citation: Again, modeling and practice worked well for this issue. I am a big fan of the “good model/bad model” strategy. I just ask students why one is better than the other, often helping them annotate the differences.

  8. The unwillingness to choose a side in an argument, and often a basic lack of background knowledge that would allow them to do so: With a topic like GMOs, for example, the subject matter is so remote from students’ daily lives (especially in an urban area) that the students found the sources intimidating. They were ready to summarize what two of the sources said, but they wouldn’t realize they were contradicting themselves in their argument when they did so. I find that suggesting students use the word “should” in their thesis can almost universally solve the problem.

  9. Lack of clarity (because they are trying to hard to be fancy writers, or because they are writing the way they talk): If you need to teach a student to be concise or formal, grab them in a conference, and type up one of their paragraphs on your computer. Model cutting out extraneous words, changing verbs to active, simple constructions, and using more specific (formal) vocabulary and advanced sentence constructions. Then ask them to compare the new piece with their old piece.

  10. Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary: I used the Academic Word List for guidance, teaching students to understand that words come in ‘families.’ I also had students glean words from their Independent Reading books. In class we would talk about the words, they would create and write down sample sentences (and I was very blunt about using the word correctly; I would suggest changes to their sentences to stay true to the word). I’d write them a reading that included the words, then they’d write their own, trying to use as many words from the list as possible. We had 1-2 lists per term.

I hope this helps you too! Feel free to contact me for more resources, if you’re noticing other patterns, or if you have the same issues and have more ideas!

About the author: Juliet Buesing is an ELA teacher in Boston Public Schools with experience teaching English, Humanities, and AP English Language. You can email her directly at To see Juliet's EdTalk, visit: