Planning Effective Writing Assignments

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

When you ask students to complete a writing assignment, how often do you receive something back that does not match what you were expecting from your students? Part of the problem is that students may not have enough information about your expectations. Often the directions for a writing task lack specificity, such as the following examples:

  • Write a composition that compares and contrasts…
  • Write a short research report about…
  • Use information from these three sources to write an answer to this question…

With broad assignments like these, students are understandably not sure about the purpose for writing the piece, how long it should be, how much and what kind of content they should include, and what supports might be available. They also may be unsure of how the writing will be graded.

One of the recommendations from the Writing next research report (Graham & Perin, 2007) is for teachers to provide specific product goals:

“Setting product goals involves assigning students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete. It includes identifying the purpose of the assignment (e.g., to persuade) as well as characteristics of the final product. Specific goals in the studies reviewed included (a) adding more ideas to a paper when revising, or establishing a goal to write a specific kind of paper and (b) assigning goals for specific structural elements in a composition. Compared with instances in which students were simply given a general overall goal, these relatively simple procedures resulted in a positive effect size, and the average effect was strong. Overall, assigning students goals for their written product had a strong impact on writing quality.” (p. 17)

To help students successfully complete content writing tasks, follow these steps when planning a writing assignment:

  • Determine the writing objective. For example, is the objective to have students process their content knowledge, or perhaps to deepen their understanding and reflect on what they have learned? Do you want to use the writing task to assess students’ content learning?
  • Generate an appropriate writing task, choosing the best type of writing for the task – informational, opinion/argument, or narrative.
  • Set clear goals. Identify the TAP (task audience, purpose). Clearly state your expectations for the length of the piece, the form, and any other requirements.
  • Provide scaffolds. For instance, can you show models or examples? What other scaffolds can you provide to help some students or all students?
  • Plan for feedback and revision. Is this part of the writing process necessary and reasonable, given the writing objective and task? If so, what tools can be used to provide feedback?

Writing Assignment Guide (WAG)

One of the instructional suggestions in the Keys to Content Writing professional development course is for teachers to use a WAG to plan writing assignments and communicate expectations to students. The information in a WAG should be shared with students so they know the requirements and the support that will be provided. A blank copy of a WAG planning template is shown below, followed by a description of each part of the WAG.

  • Writing Task: The teacher describes the writing task, including the type of writing (informational, opinion/argument, narrative, or a combination).
  • Audience: The teacher identifies the audience for the writing piece. This might be the teacher, peer students, or an authentic audience.
  • Purpose: The teacher identifies the purpose for writing the piece, such as to reinforce content learning, to develop writing skills, or a specific purpose related to an authentic audience.
  • Length: The teacher shares requirements for the length of the writing piece by identifying a range in number of words, sentences, paragraphs, or pages.
  • Directions & Requirements: The teacher presents directions for the writing task and shares specific requirements for the content or text structure. If there are requirements for use and citation of sources, these are included, as well as information about grading. 
  • Writing Supports: The teacher identifies scaffolds and supports that are provided for some or all of the students.

The WAG example below includes questions (in red) for teachers to assist them as they complete a WAG. Several classroom examples follow.

Sharing a WAG with Students

Teachers should share the information with students so they understand the requirements for a writing assignment and the support teachers will provide. Teachers should base the format used to share the WAG details on the age and skills of the students. They can share a copy of the WAG, or they can modify the information in a more student-friendly layout. Two examples are provided below.

Using a WAG As a Guide for Grading

One of the questions students ask is, “How will my writing piece be graded?” The Length and Directions and Requirements parts of the WAG can be used to communicate to students what they should check for when they are reviewing and revising their writing. Did they meet requirements for length, text structure and formatting, use of vocabulary? Did they include all the required content? When assessing and grading a writing piece, the teacher can include requirement details in a scoring rubric, enabling them to make grading decisions based on a set criteria rather than a more general reaction to the quality of the student’s writing.


  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve the writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for  Excellent Education.
  • Sedita, J. (2024). Keys to content writing, 3rd Edition. Rowley, MA: Keys to Literacy.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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