This year teaching is a doozy. I am hearing everywhere how difficult it is in the classrooms. I feel this same stress and overwhelm within my own classroom of 24 students. Students were hit hard by the virtual learning in a pandemic.
Let’s add to that mix teaching the difficult subject of writing which usually never comes with a solid teaching curriculum. Most of my seasoned colleagues are talking about not knowing what to teach during writing. How do you help struggling writers with a subject that is already confusing to teach? Well, read on and I hope I will provide some answers.
Differentiating Writing Doesn’t Always Mean Modifications
When I think of the struggling writers in my room, I know that the best way to help them isn’t to immediately change my lessons. While that can be helpful, I am a strong believer in trying to always teach to the high. This means that you want even your highest students to benefit from the lesson. Lower students may struggle through but it’s important to keep raising the bar. Students will rise up to meet it when you don’t lower your expectations.
During my writing instruction I give a whole class mini lesson that lasts no longer than 10-15 minutes. My total writing block is only 40 minutes long. The remaining time is used for independent writing. I also try to provide sharing time with a chosen writing partner whenever we have a few minutes. My goal during the share time is that students are seeing models of other students’ writing in the classroom. This can also help push students to be more motivated in improving their writing.
While you can modify the whole class lessons you teach or provide different types of lined paper and tools, I feel that to reach struggling writers means small groups or individualized instruction. Before I start with how I can manage to fit that into my already crammed class schedule, let’s discuss different writing modifications you can easily add to your tool bag.
Easy writing modifications may include:
- Larger lined paper
- Highlighted work (students trace over their dictated words you wrote in highlighter)
- Providing a talk to text option (great if typing their work)
- Phonics charts
- Word wall
- Anchor charts
- Differentiated rubric
- Individualized writing goals
Helping Struggling Writers by Fitting in Small Groups or Individualized Instruction
I am not going to say it’s easy to carve out time for smaller groups or personalized instruction but it's necessary to achieve the most growth from your students. Struggling students can show improvement with only a few minutes each week. Of course the ideal would be to offer a longer period of time but if your schedule looks like mine than five minutes is about all you can spare.
In my class, I offer a super quick explicit grammar lesson two to three times a week before I begin my writing instruction. If I’m really pressed on time students can work on grammar practice during centers. After grammar days we dive right into my mini writing lesson. Most of the time my writing lessons are focused on the craft of writing such as how to write an introduction.
My lessons are also formatted in a gradual release model of “I do,” “we do,” and “you do.” After the lesson students are given a short writing assignment and released to write independently. I aim for 15-20 minutes of writing time each day. Having time to write daily is very important to me so I’ve built my lessons around protecting this time.
Independent writing time is when I am helping struggling writers in my room. If you listened to my student learning goals podcast, I discussed how I find the goals my writers need. Take a listen to that episode to get more details. Creating these goals helps me to group my struggling writers in similar groups.
In my current classroom I have four students who are really struggling with writing words from sounds. Two of those students need a firmer foundation in letter names. I can put all four students in one group because the higher of the group (the two who know their letter names and sounds) will help push the lower students by modeling how to use an alphabet chart and stretch out words. When I meet with this group which is ideally daily, I can spend a few short minutes having the group stretch and write the same sentence. I am not worrying about them having their own ideas at this point because my main goal is to get them learning how to stretch out those sounds to write words!
Meeting with Struggling Writers for a Writing Conference
My time helping struggling writers during independent practice can also be called a writing conference. For RTI purposes you may wish to keep a brief log when meeting with students. Record the conference topic and the date. Later the RTI team can look at this data and see that this student has struggled to master the same skill for x amount of days or weeks.
Sometimes you may have a student who is an outlier. No one else in class is working on the same goal as them. This is where you will do an individualized conference which would be for only a couple of minutes. Often I will look for their writing focus goal and we discuss how that is looking based on their current writing. If it looks good, I will look at their writing to see if there is something else they may need a reminder about such as capitals and punctuation. This new thing becomes our focus for the conference.
The Power of Share TIme
All students, especially struggling writers, will benefit from seeing writing exemplars. Besides sharing mentor texts during your writing lessons, students learn well from their peers. Building in a share time at the end of your daily writing block will provide students with the opportunity to see their friend’s writing. They will see what other students in their class are capable of and it can push them to want to improve.
Not every writing lesson will have time for sharing finished work. In fact, this year I didn’t even start share time until a few months into the school year. Every year my students get so excited for these few minutes of time to talk and see their friend’s writing. They love telling and sharing their stories so this naturally becomes a powerful way to see improvements in writing.
Early in the school year my second graders are not writing long pieces of work so providing just five minutes gives both partners a chance to share. Before allowing share time we have a few quick mini lessons to go over some ground rules such as how to give a compliment, how to offer suggestions, and which partner will share first.
A great way to save time is to prearrange the partners and assign each partner a letter or object. During October my writing partners were oranges and pumpkins to make it fun and fit the season. An orange partner had to be paired with a pumpkin partner. I created a list of orange partners and pumpkin partners according to skill levels so when students were given free choice to choose a partner they would be picking someone above or slightly below their skill level. This is a sneaky way that students feel they are given a choice but you are tilting that choice in your favor to be a more powerful partnership.