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What curriculum will improve our writing instruction?

may 18, 2021

When educators take on the challenge of improving achievement in writing, a common starting point is to search for a robust writing curriculum. While an investment in a boxed curriculum may offer important guidance on what to teach, the curriculum alone will not improve writers.

A better starting point is to focus on how writing is being taught.

Regardless of the curriculum used, the real learning occurs during a daily writer’s workshop, where teachers commit to providing three components: direct instruction, writing time, and differentiated feedback. By focusing on how writing is being taught, educators create an optimal teaching environment for students to learn essential writing skills and standards.

Start with writer’s workshop

When teachers are intentional about executing a 3-part workshop, instruction transforms from telling and assigning to teaching and coaching. In fact, this best-practice “workshop” approach isn’t just for teaching writing but can be applied to all subject areas.

Part 1—The mini-lesson

Every workshop session should begin with a short, four-step mini-lesson that lasts between 10-15 minutes. It’s during this direct, whole-class instruction that teachers zero-in on one small skill or procedure and teach it explicitly using anchor charts, strong examples, and Think Alouds.

Honoring the gradual release of responsibility, the mini-lesson provides the I-do and We-do experiences.

Part 2—The writing time

Then comes the You-do “workshop” time. This is when students attempt what they just learned. It’s imperative to understand that students don’t get better during the lesson—they get better after the lesson. They need opportunities to struggle through the new skill, apply the complex concept, and/or practice the procedure.

This is when the “workshop” really begins. The skill or concept seems easy and straightforward during the lesson. But when the students attempt to make it, create it, build it, craft it, repair it, edit it… they realize just how hard the skill is.

And it’s then, when kids are working, that the teacher plays another vital role—providing feedback. When students are executing the You-do task, the expert must be in the room—whether it’s a virtual classroom or a physical one.

While kids play with the new skill, the teacher is looking over shoulders, reading off of screens, and offering feedback. This includes reminding them of key points from the lesson, differentiating support, addressing confusions, and encouraging students to persevere. No one “gets good” at something by simply hearing about it. Consequently, follow up direct whole-class instruction with time for students to try new skills and apply complex concepts—in your presence.

Now, it’s during this You-do time that effective classroom management is pivotal. Any workshop can go off the rails without well-established routines and procedures in place. This is why it’s imperative to first focus on how we teach before worrying about what curriculum we teach from.

Regardless of the skill they are dabbling with, if students lack writer stamina, they will be “done” in minutes or quit when it gets hard. Part of a well-run workshop is establishing procedures for students to ask for help, continue when they are “done,” and persevere when stuck on spelling.

The third part of the writer’s workshop provides an opportunity for celebration and closure.

Part 3—The author’s chair

Known as the Author’s Chair, this 3-5 minute segment is less about a physical chair and more about giving teachers the chance to highlight student attempts and successes.

In the end, an initiative to improve achievement in writing starts with instruction—not curriculum. After teachers gain confidence in knowing how to teach writing, then transition the PD conversation to what content to teach and when to teach it.

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