Are you looking for more effective ways to help your students become stronger writers? Would you love to be able to make the following statements?
- “I feel much more capable of identifying student needs in writing and teaching them strategies to use that improve their abilities.”
- “I feel as though I have a better understanding of what my students really need.”
These quotes are from educators who were reflecting on their first year teaching a writers’ workshop after working with their colleagues and me throughout the year. Both took the time to dig into some new ideas that helped them change their instructional practices in writing so that they were asking questions and making choices that moved their writers forward.
Prior to this year, these teachers tended to lean toward what many teachers often do—talk to students about what they see in their writing piece at the moment. For example, you may notice that a student isn’t using any elaboration techniques and their sentences or paragraphs are very short and simple. You may look through their piece and then ask the student, “What did that look like?” And then after they tell you, you might say, “OK, why don’t you write that down?”
But consider this: How will this correction or revision, which is based solely on that particular piece, help your student to elaborate well in their next piece? Will they take the strategy of adding details about how something looks and apply it to their writing next time?
In my experience, understanding Lucy Calkins’s idea of how to teach the writer, not the writing, is what we need to help grow writers so that students will apply new strategies in their future work. You want to know your students’ strengths and needs as writers, not just what the current writing piece may need at the moment. Then, and only then, will you provide them with the tools they need to improve their skills as writers.
Here are my tips for helping your writers grow in their abilities by providing them with what they need as writers.
Know your writers
The most important step to building up your writers is knowing them. Know their writing behaviors and ability level. There are three ways to accomplish this.
First, you’ll want to administer and analyze an “on demand” writing piece, a piece of writing that’s written independently in one period of time. As the students are writing, take note of their behaviors and record what you notice—are they engaged, on task, planning, revising, and editing?
Look through each writing piece and take note of the strengths and weaknesses. A rubric would be a helpful tool for this stage of the process. Then look at each piece according to the strands of the rubric and identify where the students stand.
The third way to know your writers is to talk to them. During independent writing time, meet with students and learn how they work. Ask them how they planned their writing piece, why they chose their topic, what they’ll be doing next, etc.
These questions will provide important information about how students think about the writing process, and it’s also an effective way to identify any struggles that students may be having with engagement. If they haven’t spent much time writing, or if you’ve seen them up and about and not writing, this is a simple way to find out why.
Find the ‘base level’ of need
Many times, the first aspect of writing that you notice in a student’s piece is what you choose to work on with the writer. For example, if you notice in one student’s piece that they consistently write only a page or two before moving on to a new topic, you may decide that they need to build their stamina or elaborate more.
There’s often something else beneath what we see in the writing, however, that’s causing the student difficulty. In this case, perhaps they didn’t take any time to plan or rehearse their writing. Missing this step of the writing process would certainly prevent them from knowing what to write, and as a result, they would have only a few ideas to include in their piece.
Teachers need to identify the real reasons for any difficulties their writers may have so that they can identify what they truly need to learn. This is another area where talking to and questioning students will help. As you hear more about a writer’s process and decision-making, you’ll be able to more easily identify their base area of need.
One tool I’ve found to be quite effective for teachers in identifying the base level of need is “The Hierarchy of Writing Goals,” from Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers.
Teach the writers what they need
Once you’ve established the students’ areas of need, consider what the next steps might be in those skill areas that will help them to grow as writers. In the above example of the student who wrote only a page or two before starting a new topic, this writer needs techniques for planning out their writing. When they engage in the planning portion of the writing process, they won’t run out of things to include in their piece.
You’ll want to choose a few strategies and teach them one at a time, either within a whole-class mini-lesson, a small group, or a one-on-one conference. One helpful strategy for planning a writing piece is to draw a quick sketch for each step of the story on each page of a booklet. An effective planning strategy for an informational piece would be to use bullet points to establish subtopics.
Be sure the students understand that this is something writers do to help them write more about their topic and that they can use this anytime they’re planning a new piece.
Use language of the writing strategy, not the writing
The example at the beginning of this post of the student not using any elaboration techniques, with the teacher then asking them to write something for the piece that provides more detail, is an illustration of “teaching the writing.” Instead, it would have been better to teach the student a strategy that writers use for elaboration that would be useful for that piece, as well as future pieces.
You might say, “If writers want to help their readers to understand what they’re writing about, they need to elaborate with details. One way to do this as a writer is to include words that tell about how something looks. This will help the reader to visualize what they’re reading, which will be more interesting to them.”
Notice how the language is pointing to what writers do rather than what could or should be in the piece of writing. This language helps teachers to stay focused on the writer’s choices and moves, and it also helps your writers to understand that they make choices as a writer and that these skills can be used anytime they are writing.
Language is a very powerful aspect of “teaching the writer” for both the teacher and the students. The words you use when teaching a strategy will help you gear your instruction toward the writers. When you change your focus to growing your writers for their future and provide them with what they need for writing a new piece independently, you’ll make a much larger impact.
Know your writers, find their base level of need, and teach them strategies using language that focuses on the writer, not the writing. Your writers will be creating strong pieces in no time.