Five Tips for Helping Your Students Grow as Writers
Is that weird? Did I just make it weird?
But it’s is true! I do love teaching writing. But here’s another truth: before I loved teaching writing, I didn’t. I didn’t love it because it seemed like, no matter what I did, my kids weren’t becoming better writers.
Some of them were writing more, sure, but it wasn’t actually an improvement over what they were writing before. And some of them were hardly writing at all.
So I know what it’s like to look at your class and feel like you’re not sure what to do next.
Over many years as a classroom teacher, and more as an instructional coach, I put together my own version of Writer’s Workshop that worked for me and my kids.
This post explains the five things I did to maximize my writing time, help my students grow as writers (all day, not just for forty-five minutes), and build a community of students who actually loved to write.
At the bottom of the post is a free download to get you started. Check it out – I’m here to help!
When we provide this experience to students; the experience of writing all day for different purposes, we give them a different outlook on writing. They understand that writing has purpose and meaning, and that we don’t write because it’s “writing time”. We write because we have ideas or information to share with a reader, or to record for ourselves.
As you model writing, stop and reread to “make sure it makes sense.” If you think your reader will be confused, model adding something in, changing something, or taking something out. This is important no matter how long or short your writing.
A great way to model this is to write a response in reading or write to explain a concept in math. Stop and reread it, explaining that “Good writing makes sense, so I want to make sure this makes sense.” Make any changes (revisions OR edits) you need to. Ask students to reread their response and do the same.
You can build this chart with students to help them think about rereading their writing, no matter what their purpose for writing is. Model doing this, and have students apply it to their writing immediately. Refer back to it every time you write something to model that good writers reread because good writing makes sense.
Picture this: You’re learning to swim. You sit on the edge of the pool while your instructor jumps in. They swim across the pool gracefully. They swim back. Then they say, “Now you do it.”
You’d drown. Why? Because that’s not how the human brain learns.
If you want students to become good at writing, you have to approach it like we approach any other thing. You’d never show students a completed math problem and say, “Go do some more like this.” You show them how you solve the problem, a step at a time. That’s what it takes to teach writing, too.
Show students what it looks like when a writer writes. Think aloud. Slow it down. Make decisions. Make mistakes. Make revisions. Change things. Have dialogue with yourself. Think about your message. Think about whether you’re expressing your message well. Think about how your reader will receive it.
Write in front of your students. It will change everything.
I just mentioned this, but I think it’s important enough to give it its own section! Thinking aloud while you read a read aloud as a writer, model writing, or evaluate a piece of writing is so important. Here are some speaking stems you can use to show students what it’s like to write:
- Where should I start? I can always skip the beginning and start with my main event. I think I’ll do that and come back to the beginning later.
- Let me check my prewriting to see if I’m sticking to my narrative plan.
- I’m stuck. Let me think about what I can do to help myself.
- I don’t think I’ve added enough development here. What other details should I add to help the reader understand what this felt like?
- I think I should add in a thought/description/feeling here to help my reader visualize this moment.
- Hmmm. What word could I use that would express my idea clearly?
- If I say, “___” will the reader understand my message?
- Have I painted a picture in my reader’s mind? I may need to add more development to do that.
- How can I move from this idea to the next idea? Can I think of a transition that would help?
- How can I close this piece to help the reader understand the message and why it’s important?
- Is there a tool or chart that can help me? Let me check.
- I’m going to reread to get a running start and see if I can figure out what I should write next.
- Does that make sense? I’m not sure. I’m going to reread.
- I think I’ve found a good place to close my writing because my reader will have a really strong feeling in this moment.
- I don’t like this word/sentence/idea, but I can’t think of any other way to say it. I’m going to write it down anyway because I can always revise it later when I think of a better way.
- I think I want to try out that craft/strategy we noticed our mentor author so-and-so using the other day. Remember that? In the book __, so-and-so did ___. I think that, if I try that, my reader will really get the feeling I want them to have.
Get all of these starters in the free download at the bottom of this post!
How do you do this without being “mean”? At the beginning of your modeling session, you say, “I am going to show you what it looks like when I write, right in front of you! While I’m writing, I really need to think about what I’m doing. I know you might have some ideas about how to help me, but it wouldn’t be good teaching for me to take everybody’s ideas during this time, because I’m showing you how I figure things out when I’m stuck. Instead, just watch and think about what I’m doing to help myself. That way, you can learn some ways to help yourself, too!”
Students learn quickly what is expected during this time, but if they continue to interrupt you, just hold up your hand and say, “I’m thinking aloud right now. I’m sure you have lots of good ideas, but I need to figure out how to help myself first.”
You can invite student ideas when you choose to, but use it sparingly to engage students. You can also have students turn and talk about how you can help yourself if you’re stuck. Then you can ask for suggestions.
Need some help to get started? Check out this free download for tools to help you teach writing in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade!
- The Framework of Writer’s Workshop
- Components of Writer’s Workshop
- Minilesson Planner
- Steps in the Writing Process
- Guide: Guiding Students Through the Writing Process
- Think Aloud Sentence Starters
- Writing Process Folders: directions & printables
- Conference Log
- Personal Editing Checklist
- Revision Strategy Card: Find a Place