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Low-Stakes Writing: Promoting Risk-Taking and Critical Thinking

Whitney P. Gordon

Classroom full of young students writing at their desks.Writing is one of the most important skills that students cultivate throughout their education. The quality of one’s written communication often determines the careers that he/she qualifies for. Although the essays, literary criticisms, and research papers that students produce are purposeful, they should work in tandem with a less-involved, often neglected form of writing: low-stakes writing. Low-stakes writing allows students to write often and with more autonomy. 

What is Low-Stakes Writing?

Low-stakes writing transitions writing from a formidable task to a form of daily self-expression. As its name suggests, a hefty grade is never on the line with this type of writing. These writing tasks are typically quick, thought-provoking, and loosely graded. The purpose of low-stakes writing is to build student confidence when articulating and sharing ideas. This type of on-demand writing is what prepares students for the daily demands of professional writing. Its cross-curricular nature makes it effective across all grade levels and subject areas. It is the opposite of the process writing and high-stakes timed writing that students are accustomed to in today’s classrooms.

How Does Low-Stakes Writing Promote Risk-Taking and Critical Thinking?

When writing isn’t attached to a major grade, students are able to express freely and authentically. Trusting and utilizing student voice can seem risky when a writing assignment is extensive or weighted heavily. With low-stakes writing, students understand that writing is a communication tool that they can leverage daily. Teacher feedback should lean toward commentary as opposed to evaluation. For example – ask thought provoking questions, make your own connections, or suggest ideas to consider. When students know that they are being heard as opposed to criticized, they are willing to take more risks in writing.

When students are comfortable taking risks, they are far more likely to think critically. One of the overarching goals of education is to produce critical thinkers - students who can go beyond regurgitating information and practice sound analysis and evaluation. The non-evaluative nature of low-stakes writing creates a safe space for expressing critical thoughts.

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Ways to Implement Low-Stakes Writing in Your Classroom

Relax on Grammar and Spelling

A sure way to make writing intimidating is to consistently return papers with countless spelling and grammar errors marked. While spelling and grammar are important, the goal of low-stakes writing is to improve student comfort and confidence. As such, it is wise to limit your feedback to commentary and use other opportunities to reinforce proper language rules.

Provide Opportunities for Sharing

Writing, specifically in the academic and professional sense, was meant to be shared. Allowing students to share their low-stakes writing builds confidence and encourages an understanding of other viewpoints. If your students are reluctant, start small with partner sharing.

Incorporate Technology

Writing is no longer restricted to pen and paper, and it’s no secret that technology often increases student engagement. Tools like polleverywhere.com, Google Classroom, and Office365 are great tools for low-stakes writing. In addition to engaging students, incorporating technology can aid your feedback process and encourages student discussion and collaboration.

Less is More

Low-stakes writing does not need to be a page and doesn’t even require a full paragraph. Sometimes a sentence is sufficient. For example: have students write a one-sentence summary after learning about a topic or write a headline related to the topic.

Use it to Fuel Collaboration

Low-stakes writing is a great way to prepare students for collaborative work. Collaboration requires students to express and listen and is more effective when students have had some time to process individually. Practice low-stakes writing before collaboration to give students think-time.

Assign Open-Question Prompts

Prompts that intend to elicit a solitary response do not encourage students to think critically or explain in detail. When creating prompts for low-stakes writing, aim for prompts that are open as opposed to closed. Here is an example below:

Closed: What traits do the two characters share?

Open: Compare and contrast the two characters. Explain how these characters relate to one another.

Open prompts should always compel students to relay their observations as opposed to providing one expected answer.

Build up to Summative Writing Assessments

You should not throw high-stakes writing assignments out of the window. Instead, use low-stakes writing as a means of preparation for these culminating writing assessments. If students will end a unit by writing a character analysis essay, for example, provide multiple low-stakes writing assignments that require character analysis. This gives students practice and helps them to build a repertoire of written ideas that they can reference for the essay.

Writing is a lifelong skill that is primarily gained and polished in the classroom. Low-stakes writing increases the opportunities to write and encourages a healthy relationship with the craft. When the stakes are always high, there is no room for growth.

#lowstakeswriting
#criticalthinking
#teachingstrategies

Jan.3.2020


Whitney is a Special Education and English teacher. She holds an Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA. 

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