Learning Center


Create a writing curriculum of mini-units

march 1, 2019

FAQ: What should I consider when planning my writing curriculum?

ANSWER: Writing curriculums teach students to generate grade-level appropriate versions of persuasive/argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. However, the individual teacher determines how the units are structured throughout the year.

3 Modes of Writing: Informative, Argumentative, Narrative

Many teachers execute an all-inclusive unit that starts with a lot of front-loading and culminates with a single final draft several weeks later.

Research Writing: Mother-Lode Units

If the method described above is considered a “mother-lode” approach, consider the possibility of executing “mini-units.” This utilizes a spiral-instruction approach where students experience a particular type of writing in multiple, smaller doses. In the first “mini-unit,” they may learn a couple of writing skills and then create a first-draft product. Then, a little later in the school year, they review those skills, learn another one or two, and generate another new first draft.

Research Writing: Mini-Units

This cumulative approach to teaching writing breaks the single “mother-lode” unit into several smaller mini-units that are spread across the school year. There are several advantages to this method of planning.

1. Experience variety.

During a single, all-inclusive writing unit that happens at one time during the year, teachers often feel pressured to teach everything. This takes time–lots of mini-lesson time. Then, each of these “mother-lode” units tends to end with a “mother-lode” product, meaning students spend many days engaged in the writing process. This takes even more time. Such units can drag on–often longer than the teacher anticipated.
However, with shorter, spiraled mini-units, students experience the three major writing modes all year long, providing numerous opportunities to review and clarify the qualities and characteristics of each type.

Although there are advantages to immersing in one unit, this frequent shifting of writing experiences is authentic. In the real world, individuals write for different purposes, to different audiences, about different topics, and in different formats daily! Students should feel this variety within the writing curriculum.

2. Gain second chances.

When students experience each type of writing only once a year, it’s no surprise that they act like they’ve never done that style before. In reality, they likely haven’t produced such a piece since last school year.

However, when a unit is spread across the year, teachers honor developmental readiness in their students. The cumulative approach of mini-units offers students multiple chances to hear, learn, absorb, and master a writing skill. Here’s how it works.

  • MINI-UNIT #1: Teach two skills relevant to that type of writing. Assign students to write a short first-draft-only product.
  • MINI-UNIT #2: Review the previously taught skills. Teach two more writing skills relevant to that type of writing. Assign students to write a new first draft on a different topic. Assess for all four skills.
  • MINI-UNIT #3: Review the previously taught skills. Teach one more skill relevant to that type of writing. Assign students to write a new first draft on a different topic, assessing for all five skills.
  • ADDITIONAL MINI-UNITS: Continue this process until all unit skills have been taught. [NOTE: It’s likely that after the third or fourth mini-unit, most skills have been rolled out, and students would be ready to write and revise another new piece and take it to a final draft.]

Although students are learning new skills all year, those taught earlier are becoming easier. These second, third, and fourth products provide students more practice with a particular genre.

Notice that the products students create at the end of most mini-units are not final drafts–nor are they long first drafts. Most traditional writing units span multiple weeks because teachers assume each one must culminate with a polished final product. This requires a lot of class time spent on the various steps of the writing process (e.g., drafting, peer-revising, teacher conferring, peer-editing, publishing, etc.).

In contrast, as writing genres are revisited throughout the year, students’ skills are developing and so is their automaticity. Therefore, they can crank out longer products in the same amount of time and with more independence.

3. Build Confidence.

As each type of writing reappears throughout the year, students’ knowledge is deepening. They learn what a “good” one looks like, what characteristics it should include, what facets to focus on, etc. This self-confidence is not the byproduct many teachers observe within the “mother lode” approach.

Often students lack understanding and feel overwhelmed by the writing assignment. They may even seek constant teacher approval before moving on. Is this good? Did I do this right? Now what do I do? This results in the teacher hand-holding students throughout the entire unit, telling them what to do step-by-step.

The spiral approach of mini-units offers students multiple experiences with each genre. This increases their writing skills and their writer confidence—both are signs of unit mastery.

[Read the research on this topic.]

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