Wondering how to differentiate your writing instruction? Kids and adults alike vary greatly in their writing abilities so it’s no wonder it’s a difficult subject to teach! Using intentional planning, you can reach the diverse needs of your students during your writing block. Read on to discover how.
Start with the End in Mind
The first thing you should do is take a look at your grade level standards and expectations. Knowing where your students should be at the end of the year can help you backtrack to see what skills they will need in the beginning of the year. I like to also view a standards map that shows the grade below and the grade above as well.
What should your students know before they come to you? What will they learn when they leave your classroom?
Starting with what they need to learn will help you better figure out what they still need to know.
Identify Gaps in Their Learning
Once we know what they are required to learn in their current grade level, it’s time to identify where the gaps are in their learning. I find the easiest way to do this is to have students take a pre-assessment. I like to do one before each new unit we are starting.
Working on opinion writing? Provide your students with an opinion writing prompt the week before you start the opinion writing unit. This gives you enough time to read over what they have written and take notes. Pretend you have just completed your writing unit. What is missing from this style of writing? An introduction? Did they not provide an opinion statement? Perhaps they don’t know how to provide multiple reasons for their opinion.
Since you spent the time backwards planning and looking at the end expectations and standards, you have a clear vision of what you want their finished writing to look like. If only a small handful of students are missing a skill, this is where you will want to pull aside this group and teach a lesson or two just for them on that skill. Just like you would if it was a reading group.
Managing Different Levels in Your Classroom
The hardest thing about teaching writing is the large gap between the highest and the lowest writer in your class. The pandemic has made the learning gaps even larger, especially with 3rd graders and up as they were the most affected by the onset of COVID-19. Until the higher ups decide to lessen the burden of what students are expected to know, we will continue to have these large gaps in our classrooms.
So, what can we do about it?
When it comes to teaching writing, I highly recommend a writer’s workshop approach. If it’s the beginning of the year, I would suggest not diving into teaching a writing unit right away. Rather, pre-assess students as we talked about above. Then take the time to do a series of mini lessons based on what they should know from their previous grade, but pick lessons based on what the majority of the class is needing.
Skills-Based Whole Group Mini Lessons
If most of the class is putting spaces between their words when writing, you would not take the time to teach that whole group. If three-fourths of your class are forgetting to put periods, take the time to do some fun mini lessons on the importance of ending punctuation. Plan your whole group lessons based on how the writing skills need to progress in order to be successful at the end of your writing unit.
Small Group Conferences
Once most of the class is getting a writing skill or lesson taught and only a few are not, it’s time to begin small groups.Teaching in small groups or pulling students for writing conferences is the best and most effective way to reach all the levels of your students.
Remember that list you made from the pre-assessment? Using the list of what skills your students need, you can then group your students who need the same or similar skills together. If you only have one student that has trouble beginning sentences with a capital and three students that need help with ending punctuation, these four students would make a good group.
Not all groups will be an even number - sometimes you may have to approach a student one-to-one, especially if they are what I like to call an outlier. You usually have one student in class that is either way ahead or way behind most of the class. These students will often need an individual conference with you to show growth in their writing.
Having time in your day to have your students do writing centers can provide another practice time to improve their writing craft. If your schedule is anything like mine, there is barely enough time for students to independently write. Providing additional time in my day for students to do a rotation through the writing center also gives students time to write for fun while getting more practice.
Grammar and Phonics Warm Ups
My last suggestion for how to differentiate writing instruction is to provide grammar or phonics warm ups. These can be alternated such as phonics on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and grammar on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You could also do a quick grammar lesson before your whole class writing lesson, which is what I’m currently doing in my classroom. Somedays the grammar is embedded into our regular writing lesson.
It may also be necessary to have word study groups that receive instruction outside of the writing block. I hold word study groups for a quick 5-10 minutes before I do my reading intervention groups. Each word study group meets with me once a week when I introduce their focus skill. The remaining four days they work as a group on the skill I’ve assigned - usually in the form of a worksheet or phonics game they can do independently.
Whether you provide explicit grammar and phonics instruction during writing or reading, students' writing is bound to improve. I’m always telling parents that when their reading levels go up, so do all their work in other subject areas. If you improve their reading, their writing should follow.