Why do the new standards place so much emphasis on multi-paragraph writing? Because multi-paragraph writing helps students develop fluency in building arguments, explaining ideas, and telling stories—thinking skills they need for college and career.
Yet we often struggle to get more than a paragraph at a time out of our students. A recent study found that fewer than 1 in 10 writing assignments in urban middle schools produce multi-paragraph responses, and just 16 percent include evidence drawn from sources. The middle school assessments for the Common Core require this rigor, but how can we create a writing program that fosters this kind of writing and thinking?
Step 1: Make Time for Writing
The first barrier to rigor in writing instruction is time. Multi-paragraph writing requires time. Students can't write at length and think deeply if they write for only five minutes at a time. Just as we have traditionally carved out time for reading, we must also do so for writing.
Writing is like weight lifting. The only way to build writing muscles is to do it routinely and purposefully. The very act of crafting words develops thinking skills. And just as every weight lifter is consciously working to get stronger, every writer should be consciously writing to get smarter.
Perhaps that sounds flippant, but as Carol Dweck has demonstrated, intelligence is not fixed any more than physical strength is. With regular writing, any student can improve thinking. That fact alone warrants making time for students to write at length and in depth.
Step 2: Teach Writing and Thinking Strategies
Unlike reading assignments, which begin with a given set of words, writing assignments begin with a blank page. That void is daunting to students and teachers alike. We can't just fling students into the void and hope for the best. Thankfully, we don't have to.
Writing is like swimming: a complex activity that can be broken down into a set of simple moves. Just as swimmers must learn to hold their breath, put their faces in the water, stroke their arms, and paddle their feet, writers must learn to explore resources, gather details, form a thesis, organize support, build arguments, cite evidence, create effective voice, revise ideas, and edit for correctness. We can teach each of these skills discretely, but writers must internalize them so that they become second nature.
So, in addition to making time for students to write, we need to provide targeted writing instruction that helps students develop the thinking strategies they will need to employ as they write. You can get started by using minilessons to help students form a focus, answer the 5 W's and H, use sensory details, and use anecdotes.
Step 3: Elaborate Ideas
Writing teacher Donald Hall once noted, "The paragraph is a mini-essay; it is also a maxi-sentence." In other words, a sentence is a seed of thought that can grow into a paragraph and flower into an essay. Instead of thinking of sentences, paragraphs, and essays as containers of ideas, we need to think of them as trellises on which students can grow their thinking. Note how these three forms of writing have the same basic structure:
- A sentence has a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (details about the subject).
- A paragraph has a topic sentence (what the paragraph is about) and body sentences (details about the topic sentence).
- An essay has a thesis statement (what the essay is about) and middle paragraphs (details about the thesis statement).
So, if your students can write sentences, they can elaborate their thinking into paragraphs, and if they can write paragraphs, they can elaborate their thinking into essays.
Imagine that James has written this simple sentence:
Volcanoes eject lava.
He can elaborate the sentence by answering some adjective questions, such as which and what kind of?
Volcanoes that do not erupt explosively eject two types of lava: pahoehoe and aa.
James can further elaborate this idea by making it the topic sentence of a paragraph. Then he can add body sentences defining and explaining pahoehoe and aa lava.
Volcanoes that do not erupt explosively eject two types of lava: pahoehoe and aa. Pahoehoe lava flows smoothly, sometimes in great, molten rivers. Because it cools slowly, the surface remains smooth or becomes ropy in texture. The dried form is not difficult to walk on. Aa lava cools more rapidly and does not flow as smoothly, causing its surface to break apart into jagged crags and spines that make it very difficult to walk on. Both types have Hawaiian names because the islands are among the most volcanic places on the planet.
James could further elaborate his ideas by making the original sentence into a thesis statement and writing separate paragraphs about pahoehoe and aa lava.
As you can see, elaborating ideas from sentence to paragraph to essay requires James to research the topic, gather details about it, organize his ideas, and cite evidence from sources. These are precisely the skills the Common Core now requires.
You can use these minilessons to teach strategies for elaborating sentences with adverb questions, elaborating paragraphs with levels of detail, and elaborating essays with a variety of details.
Step 4: Teach Writing as Communication
So, elaboration allows us to move from sentences to paragraphs to essays, as the Common Core requires. But the five-paragraph essay is not the end-all-be-all of a successful writing program. As Joshua Block notes in "Reimagining School Writing," "There is a sad truth about the way that most students learn to write: They become boring writers. . . taught to detach from content, to analyze with sterile language, and to develop ideas within a narrow formula."
How do we avoid churning out boring writers? We need to shift from thinking of writing as a product—an essay, a report, a book review—to thinking of it as communication. Successful writers have a reason for communicating about their topic to their readers. They ask themselves these questions:
- Who are my readers?
- What do they already know about this topic?
- What do they need to know about it?
- Why should they care?
- What do I want them to do?
- What change do I want to see as a result of my writing?
Of course, students won't ask these questions when we assign a typical classroom report. After all, we are the only readers; a grade is the only purpose. To inspire students to ask these questions, we need to shift from purely academic assignments to real-world ones.
- Emails to authors, politicians, and business people have specific audiences.
- Blog posts, news reports, opinion essays, and letters to the editor reach broader audiences.
- Proposals to the principal, the school board, or the town council bring about real-world change.
- Job applications, cover letters, résumés, and letters of recommendation make the difference between employment and unemployment.
Once students experience the consequences of effective (and ineffective) real-world communication, they will understand how good writing empowers them.
You can use these minilessons to teach strategies for reaching real-world audiences: capturing readers' attention and answering their objections.
Real-World Test Prep
So ironically, the best way to prepare students for success on the new assessments is not to rigorously teach to the test. Instead, we need to make time for writing, teach specific writing strategies, help students elaborate ideas, and expect them to communicate with real-world audiences. Only when students routinely and purposefully write to communicate with others will they internalize the thinking skills that they need to succeed in college and career.
Procedures & Classroom Management
Many people are concerned about Writer’s Workshop because of the different type of students they have in their class. Here are a things that you may be concerned about, but that Writer’s Workshop will be effective with:
- Large class size (33)
- Needy students that struggled to work independently
- Chatty, off task students
- ELL students and students below grade level
Writer’s Workshop is fantastic with all students with proper procedures and practice. Here are a few things you will need to put into place for a successful writer’s workshop:
- A Writer’s Workshop Time: Set aside a block of time daily or every other day for writer’s workshop. The more you do writer’s workshop, the better your students will become at the task.
- Structure Your Workshop Block: (See more below): Set a schedule for your block and follow it each time. Students work better when they know the schedule and what to expect during the writing block. This also allows for continuation of the successful workshop block if you cannot be in your classroom for any reason.
- Modeling and Rewards: Create a plan for how you will model proper workshop behavior and how you will reward students that do a great job. Here are some ideas I’ve used:
- VIP Supply Bucket or VIP Table for students to use that do a great job during WW.
- Fun supplies for all students to use: I provide lots of colored markers, pens, and highlighters and use color-coding in my lessons.
- Friday recognition: I recognize one student that has done a great job during writer’s workshop this week. I give them a praise pin to wear and a no homework pass. I bought these 4 dozen reward pins for less than $10 on amazon (aff. link).
- Redirect students or move proximity: If you have students that just cannot focus during writer’s workshop, move them to a desk closer to your small group area so that you can easily redirect them without interrupting your small group.
- Give consequences if necessary: I always prefer positive reinforcement, but sometimes you have to go a step further. Give students consequences if they’re purposefully not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and redirecting isn’t working. I often call and schedule a meeting with parents and the child where we review the writer’s workshop’s purpose and procedures. I stress that they have a very bright child and that this process will prepare them for working independently in school and their future career.
Structuring Your Workshop Block
I’ve read many different books and blog posts on Writer’s Workshop, and this schedule is what has worked well for me. I run my workshop in the following order:
- Mini-lesson (20%): When we first begin writer’s workshop, I teach one part of the writing process each day. Students that get ahead can get the next lesson in small group, or they may be able to go to the bulletin board and complete that step just from the information there. For example, on day 1 I do a mini-lesson using a graphic organizer for brainstorming. I do my own example while the students help give me ideas.
- Independent Work Part 1 (20%): Students work on doing what we learned in the mini-lesson for their essay. They continue on in the writing process if comfortable. I use a few minutes this time to look for 2-3 students with exceptional work to share with the class during our work sharing portion. You can write down the students’ names, or give them something to indicate that they will be sharing their work. The rest of this time I use to pull a small group of students that are struggling.
- Work Sharing (20%): I use some of this time to have the students I chose with exemplary examples share and the rest I use for students to share a piece of their work that they want feedback on with their partner or group. I model active listening and how students can provide helpful feedback because kids really struggle with this.
- Independent Work Part 2 (20%): Students get back to working on their essay. I usually open up small group to students that have questions. Sometimes I hold a small group during this time for my advanced writers that need a challenge.
- Wrap-up (20%): We use the last part of workshop to review any notes we took during workshop and to reflect on the day’s work. We also talk about what the mini-lesson is for the next day, and how they can prepare themselves for it.
Think of the mini-lesson as your whole group writing lesson, just condensed. During mini-lesson time, I have my students come back to the carpet with a rolling whiteboard and anchor chart paper (it’s a bit of a tight fit with 33 students, but it can be done!) with their writing notebook. They take notes, draw organizers, and more during this time.
The most difficult thing is deciding what to do for a mini-lesson. The first time I teach a specific type of essay, I do mini-lessons of the writing process tailored to that essay type. Here’s an example of mini-lesson topics based on opinion writing:
- What is opinion writing and what do we need to have in our opinion essay?
- Brainstorming for an opinion essay
- Organizing your brainstorming ideas for an opinion essay
- Writing an introduction for an opinion essay: Writing great hooks (leads)
- Writing an introduction for an opinion essay: Writing a thesis
- Writing an introduction for an opinion essay: Putting together the introduction using connecting sentences
- Using your organizational notes to write body paragraphs
- Beginning your body paragraph with a transition sentence
- The parts of a conclusion & why a call to action is so important
- Revising your opinion essay
- Editing your opinion essay
- Publishing your opinion essay
Check out my writing units for student organizers for each mini-lesson for the different types of essays for upper elementary.
Conferencing vs. Small Group
I do a lot of small group when we first start writer’s workshop. Once my students get really good at it, or if we’re towards the end of the essay, I also do conferencing during their independent work. During conferencing I have a clipboard that has a printed spreadsheet with student names and the skills they need to learn with the particular type of essay they’re doing at their particular grade level. When I conference, I call students back individually and we look at and discuss their writing to see what they have mastered and what they still need help on. This helps me structure my small groups and also gives me an idea of what we need to review during mini-lesson time.
I’ve mentioned many times in this post that students may go ahead in the writing process (and may be behind if they’re struggling writers or were absent). I manage this using a Writer’s Workshop Bulletin Board that has the different parts of the writing process labeled and described. Having this visual has really helped me cut down on the “helpless hand raisers” that used to really put a wrench in my small group and conferencing time.
I also provide a printable version for each essay so that students can check off each part they have done. This prevents students from skipping a step and being finished early when they’re not really finished.
At the end of your first essay, your students will have come so far. They’ve done what seems like a hundred different things to create and improve upon their essay. It’s time to celebrate their success! Throw a “Publishing Party” where you display their published essays and every student can walk around and read them. I have students hang theirs at eye level somewhere in the classroom. We put on our [literal] party hats, eat treats, and take about 45 minutes to walk around the room and read some of the essays and talk about the process. I buy 40 party hats on Amazon for about $10 (aff. link) and students decorate them for the first party with messages about writing. They put their names on the inside and I store them to reuse for the next publishing party.
I send a letter home about a week before our publishing party asking for donations of healthy treats, party decorations, and family participation. I invite families in to see their student’s work and many are gracious enough to bring the supplies to make the party fabulous. I usually do it the last hour of the day on Friday to make it more convenient for parents to attend.
Lastly, enjoy your students’ success with writer’s workshop and the fact that the next time around will be so easy. Your students are now well trained in the art of writer’s workshop and you can take a step back to admire your new independent writers!
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