For many new elementary and middle school language arts teachers, writing time is one of the most difficult parts of the day. Students have trouble getting started, teachers are unsure of their instructional focus, and there’s not much progress. This hurts my writing teacher heart because I know that writing time can be a wonderful time for students and teachers, filled with excitement and productivity.

When working with teachers on their writing instruction, I often hear many of the same struggles:

  • The variety of needs is too high.
  • Some students can’t keep up with the class.
  • I’m not sure how to help them.

All of these issues can be brought back to, and helped by, getting to know your students as writers.

Imagine a coach starting the first practice with a new soccer team. The coach has never seen this team in action, but they have a child this age who has played soccer before, so they believe they have an idea of what the children will need to work on and get started with a drill. A few minutes go by, and the coach notices that one player is standing still with his hand in the air, one is speeding through the drill over and over again, a few others are trying their best, and a few more are doing it completely incorrectly.

As much as this coach’s heart was in the right place, they missed one important step: assessing the ability of the players. Wouldn’t that drill have gone more smoothly, or perhaps not have been started at all, if the coach had watched the players kick the ball around for a bit or play a short scrimmage? Seeing the players in action might have allowed the coach to choose a practice strategy more appropriate for the level of the team as whole.

Just as a coach needs to know their players, a teacher must know their writers. You must be aware of students’ understanding of the writing process, their ability to work independently and self-start, and their skill level with writing, as well as what’s important in each student’s life.

Here are three ways to get to know your students that will allow you to better support them as writers and help alleviate the common struggles of writing time.

Identity Work

You want to know your students not only as writers but as people. Learning about their families, activities, favorites, and places where they choose to spend time will help you interact with them as writers, and it will help them choose topics and story events. As students share about themselves with the class, they’ll also get to know each other, which helps create a safe space for students to be writers.

Here are some examples of activities for students to share about themselves.

For grades K–3:

  • Heart Map: Using a template in the shape of a heart, students draw or write about people, places, or things that they love.
  • Poster: This can be an All About Me pre-made form or a blank poster paper on which students can do the same as above.

For grades 3–8:

  • Word Splash: Using a paper template or a digital source, students can list words that have to do with their identity—their likes, culture, family, hobbies, etc.
  • Questionnaire: Ask students about themselves to get to know them better.

After completing these activities, have students share with the class what they feel comfortable sharing. Students can do this as a whole class, in small groups, or with partners, taking turns on different days. Partners/groups can also switch throughout writing time. In the upper grades, students can share digitally and then discuss.

Pre-assessment

A pretest at the beginning of a math unit provides a starting point for progress monitoring, as well as a data source for student skill level. A pre-assessment in writing will do the same. Have students write something for you that’s appropriate to their grade level, with only a little guidance (the same guidance for each student) and zero support. This will serve as your baseline for the unit.

For first grade, for example, use the narrative: “Tell me a story about a time in your life. It can be about a time you felt sad, happy, scared, or excited. Be sure to include a beginning, middle, and end, just like the authors do in stories that we read.”

For fifth grade, assign an opinion piece: “Write a persuasive essay on something about which you feel strongly. Once you have chosen your topic, choose your audience and make a plan for your writing. Then, draft your essay, including everything you have previously learned about writing a persuasive essay.”

Writing pre-assessments is most effective when you administer them with a class that has built community, where students feel safe. It’s also important to calm students’ anxiety by letting them know that this writing is not being graded; it’s just to help you, their teacher, get to know them as writers.

Analyzing your students’ writing pieces will give you an understanding of the skills they’ve mastered and those they still need to develop. This will allow you to tailor your teaching to the class and their needs as writers. There are some examples of pre-assessments and assessment rubrics in Writing Pathways, by Lucy Calkins.

Observation

As you watch your writers during independent writing time, you’ll gain valuable information that will inform your work with individual students as well as the class as a whole. This observation occurs throughout the year.

As they work, observe the following for each student:

  • Time management
  • Independence
  • Attitude
  • Engagement
  • Volume of writing
  • Skill level—generating ideas, planning, sentence structure, structure of writing piece, elaboration, craft, mechanics

When you allow your students to show you what they can do as writers, you’ll no longer have the struggles you once had. You won’t be wondering how you can help them, because you’ll be aware of their strengths and needs. Knowing your students will help you to choose teaching points that will be most effective for all of them.

So, if you’re struggling with writing time in your ELA block, try the above helpful strategies and see how knowing your students as writers helps alleviate the problems and bring forward new practices in writing instruction. Before you know it, you’ll see a class of busy, excited writers.

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