I will be the first to admit that my first year teaching I had no clue how to teach writing! I knew how I learned writing as a student, but I didn’t know how to teach it so that all of my students could become good writers. I made writing instruction my professional development focus for several years, and I found that writing workshop is definitely my favorite strategy to teach writing. You see some of my favorite professional development books for writing instruction below.
I teach my writing by units of study: genre by genre, rather than mixing all genres together. Each writing genre requires a specific skill set that is often unique to that particular genre. A student won’t use the same writing strategies that they use in a fictional narrative in an informational essay. Of course all writing needs certain elements, such as organization, but the way it’s implemented or structured will vary from genre to genre. Just like when teaching new math concepts, students need time to practice writing in a particular genre, before introducing a new style of writing. I like to teach my writing lessons in the following order.
Writing workshop is broken into three parts: mini lesson, independent writing, and sharing/closing. The mini lesson, sometimes called opening, is typically a five to ten minute lesson. These lessons should offer explicit writing instruction about a specific writing strategy. These lessons are teacher lead and typically centered around procedures, organization, strategies, craft, and techniques.
- Mini lessons should be immediately useful to students and can be applied in students’ writing that very day.
- During independent writing, students will typically write about topics of their own choice in their writing notebooks. Students will work through the writing process and will frequently be at different stages of writing during this time. The teacher will act as a facilitator and guide students as they write. Teachers should also conference with individual students during independent writing.
- Sharing is a five to ten minute portion of writing workshop. The teacher selects students to share their writing with their classmates. This gives students the opportunity to learn from each other by listening to examples of writing that fit a particular criteria, and gives students the opportunity to celebrate each others’ success. (monogrammed chair is not necessary)
I begin most of my writing lessons with an anchor chart and/or mentor text. I’m starting to find more and more videos that are useful to writing workshop. I like to incorporate a variety of resources to prevent my students from become bored-not that anyone is ever bored listening to good literature! I select my mentor text based on the skill or strategy I’m teaching. Rather than worrying about the reading level of a mentor text, focus on the quality of the text and the text’s incorporation of a specific writing strategy.
When it’s time for my students to write, at least 80% of the time, I let students chose what to write about. Just like in reading workshop, choice is a huge motivator for students. This choice gives students ownership and and a feeling of control over what they are learning. Plus, it makes writing a lot more fun and engaging for students. Yes, I do a little test prep to prompt writing, but that is certainly not my main source of instruction. Students should select topics that work well the the genre the class is studying, but that’s rarely ever an issue for students.
One of my biggest concerns with writing workshop was the lack of guided practice in the traditional approach of writing workshop. I felt the need to give my students structured practice in the specific areas we were working on. In both reading and math, I provided scaffolding and guided practice with new skills, and I saw a need for that additional instruction in my writing instruction. To give my students that extra structure and assistance, I added a Guided Practice component to my writing instruction. I frequently add this component to my whole group instruction following the mini lesson, and I occasionally add the guided practice through flexible writing groups.
As I writer, I could never follow the writing process in a linear manner. It would make be absolutely crazy to wait until the very end of a paper to edit and revise. Everyone has their own system of working through the writing process, so we shouldn’t try to force all students to follow the writing process as a rigid set of steps. Instead, we should view the writing process as a fluid process where students move in and out of stages.
The fluidity of the writing process was a difficult concept for me when I first started teaching, because I felt like I didn’t have control over my class’s progress. I wanted everyone to be at the same place at the same time, but that doesn’t always work in writing workshop. There are times, especially when I start a genre that is new to my students, that I do try to keep my students together for short periods of time, but eventually you’ll have students at each part of the writing process.
It is also important to remember that it is not essential for students to take every piece of writing through the entire writing process, as some pieces may never make it past the first draft. Some students will want to take every piece of writing through the entire writing process, other students will try to stop at the first draft with each piece of writing, and some students will try to skip the published copy. I’ve found that it is important to give students clear expectations on how many writing pieces you want taken through the entire writing process.
Writing conferences are one of the most important components to writing workshop. This is when you will truly get to know your students, as individuals and as writers. This is probably the most difficult part of writing workshop for me, because all I want to do is cross out all of the spelling mistakes, add punctuation marks, and capitalize proper nouns. It’s extremely difficult for me to look past conventions and handwriting and to focus on the content of the writing. I’ve found that during a writing conference you’ll want to focus on one thing at a time. If I meet with a student and focus on every area of their writing that needs improvement, I’ll totally overwhelm them. Instead, I should highlight some of the strengths of their writing by sharing what stood out to me. I then try to work with the student to determine what one thing we should focus on. For example, if our main concern of the story is that it loses focus, then I won’t point out other areas of weakness.
You’ll need to clearly explain your expectations of how to sign up for a writing conference. You can have students fill out a sign-up sheet or create a classroom display that will indicate who needs a conference (forms are included).
For students to become good writers, it is crucial that they are exposed to large quantities of high quality literature. This is one of the many reasons that writing workshop is the perfect addition to reading workshop, because you are already reading to your students daily, as well as having students read independently and in guided reading groups. I love using picture books as mentor texts in my mini lessons, because they are short enough to read in one session. The first time a student hears a book their focus is not typically on the author’s craft, since they are focusing on the basic plot of the story, so texts that are familiar to students may be more effective than brand new texts.