Teaching students to write like the greats

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

It may not be a word in Webster’s, but Writelike ought to be, at least according to those of us who have an interest in helping our students become excellent writers. Many lament the decline of writing from “the good ole’ days” and claim that our students can’t write the way that Americans used to write. Fortunately, Writelike—which aims to improve higher-order literacy—offers an excellent solution through careful analysis of the masters and re-creation of their stylistic traits. Best of all, much of what Writelike accomplishes is so user-friendly and game-like that students could be trapped into learning before they even realize it.

What is Writelike?

Developed by Liquid Interactive with a target audience of middle school students and their teachers, Writelike meets a modern need to challenge writers into new ways of developing their craft, in this case by emulating great writers of centuries past and current. The site includes exercises, drills, lessons, and courses that are all graduated in complexity and that work toward the stated aim of “help[ing] users creatively write in different ways.”

Exercises include challenges: reading a sentence, clearing it from the screen, and then attempting to reproduce it verbatim from memory; reordering sentences to get them in the proper narrative progression; or rewriting the content of a text into a different style (such as a fable or book review).

Drills are packaged groups of certain challenges (such as spelling and punctuation practice) that can be accessed by either a student or her teacher seeking to hone in on a particular text type, genre, or topic.

The meat, however, is in the lessons. Each lesson is a self-guided series of scaffolded learning activities (that is, instruction that progressively helps students master a task or topic) related to a key topic of writing, from semicolons, similes, and metaphors to describing someone’s attitude. Want to analyze Poe’s style in detail? Or Rowling’s? There are also lessons on how to mimic a particular writer’s language and style. In essence, each lesson begins with direct instruction, moves to guided practice, and ends with independent (or rewrite) practice. For instance, a lesson on J.K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows begins with a sample passage demonstrating how to “use language to create an uneasy sense of vulnerability.” After studying the original passage, the student completes brief exercises with similar passages and then writes his own variation in the same style.

Writelike’s lessons differ significantly from those in typical writing workbooks. The lessons that are focused more discretely on grammar (such as learning about adjectives and adverbs) are interactive and sophisticated yet simple to master. And the lessons that are more broadly stylistic start with the premise that existing literature is a treasure trove for improving ourselves as writers. For instance, Writelike compares Stoker’s Dracula and Meyer’s Twilight, illustrating their “similar narrative spine” yet varied sentence length, use of conjunctions, and so forth, all in preparation for the learner to rewrite a segment of one text in the style of the other.

Finally, courses are groups of similar lessons intentionally connected for sustained learning goals (such as mastering expressive punctuation or persuasive text writing).

Writelike’s free, user-friendly content can be accessed by a student working independently but can also be used by teachers to help students improve their writer’s craft. As a site representative explained, the site aims “to build expressive power using the higher-order writing equivalent of soccer or piano exercises.” Teachers who create a free account can use the site to assign existing lessons and drills to students, as well as check student work and provide students with feedback. Writelike also “provides authoring tools so you can create your own lessons,” using texts of one’s choosing.

Though Writelike’s lessons aren’t yet designed with specific academic standards in mind, its lessons do reflect many of the major instructional shifts called for by Common Core, such as grounding reading and writing in evidence from a text.

The second part of this review, available here, provides a deeper examination of Writelike’s most notable strengths and limitations and final thoughts on its overall quality.

Jonathan Budd is a K–12 director of curriculum, instruction, and assessments in Connecticut with nineteen years of prior teaching experience. His particular expertise is literacy, with a focus on text complexity. Victoria McDougald is the research manager at Fordham.