Teaching writing can be challenging for teachers because often teacher training programs don’t cover the steps of how to do it, rather they talk about the pedology behind it. It’s intimidating to teach writing because it’s such a big subject to teach. It’s a necessary skill in life that our students will use forever. However, it doesn’t have to be such a big deal or so scary. After a little reading, you will know the answer to, “What is a writer’s workshop?” and how to start a writer’s workshop in your own classroom.
I Learned How Teach Writing in Fourth Grade
I worked in three different classrooms on the fourth-grade team during my first years of teaching. I was a paraprofessional and I observed seasoned teachers teach writing.
The first teacher I worked with stuck to having students write at their desks and they usually followed the writing prompts she gave. She did a great job of making rounds around the classroom talking to students as they worked and teaching mini-lessons.
The second teacher I worked with let the students sit anywhere. She gave more open writing prompts. Sometimes she wrote with the students, sometimes she walked around and talked to them, and other times she checked email and graded papers.
In the third classroom, I was covering maternity leave and set up a classic writer’s workshop. I taught a mini-lesson and sent my students off to write while I had conferences. In all honesty, I never felt the conferences were very effective because they were too stiff.
How Teach Writing In Your Classroom
What makes an effective writer’s workshop? Has your experience with teaching writing been like any of the above examples? Did you use a completely different approach? The truth is that teaching writing is about finding a good balance for your current students. It all depends on who your students are that year.
Be flexible by changing what you do to structure the writer’s workshop to meet your students’ needs. We need this reminder because if we’ve had training in how to teach writing, sometimes we forget that it’s okay to break the format we’ve been given.
What is Writer’s Workshop?
Writer’s workshop is writing lessons that are meant to be all about the students. We need to give our students the opportunity to write often, for a long time, and about things they want to write about. Of course, sometimes it isn’t exactly a topic they are extremely passionate about, but that’s the goal.
Why are we making it all about the students? Because it gives them ownership of their writing and that ownership helps them grow as writers. We also want to be a guide for them as they write and allow them to talk with other writers. And writer’s workshop can help create a community of learners who support each other’s work and ideas.
There are three main components of writer’s workshop, depending on who you ask: mini-lesson, writing and conference time, and sharing.
More Great How Teach Writing Ideas
How Teach Writing Using Three Components of Writer’s Workshop
Now you know what a writer’s workshop is I am going to break down the components of a writer’s workshop to give you a better understanding of it. Then I am going to give you some tips on how to train your class so start your own writer’s workshop easily.
How Teach Writing With Writer’s Workshop Mini-Lessons
Mini-lessons are short and sweet, but also a key component of the writer’s workshop. A mini-lesson should last about 10 minutes, slightly over or under is fine. The reason this lesson is short is to help students stay focused. It can be hard for a group of students to stay focused on longer lessons. Keeping it short helps to deter behavior problems and increase retention. But the biggest reason for a short writing mini-lesson is that we want them to spend most of their time writing.
Mini-lesson topics can come from a few places like an observation of what students need to learn, standards, or curriculum. Lucy Calkins explained what an effective writers workshop can look when she said mini-lessons are a time to “gather the whole class in the meeting area to raise a concern, explore an issue, model a technique, or reinforce a strategy.” However, you are not doing all of those things each day because mini-lessons are short. I recommend having a set of prepared mini-lessons, but be prepared to slip a new one in as you observe and conference with your students.
The format of a mini-lesson might be something like this:
1. Get your students thinking about their background knowledge of the topic with a strong question, intriguing example, or fast game.
2. Teach about the topic of the lesson.
3. Get your students engaged by having them practice somehow such as talking with a classmate, asking questions, or writing on a post-it.
4. Have your students figure out how they are going to apply the skill they just learned to their own writing. Personally, I think this is overlooked, but the most important step. If students learn something but don’t apply it the lesson was useless.
Some teachers like to do a status check on what step of the writing process their students are on before they send them off to write. There are teachers who use pocket charts, bulletin boards, magnet boards, or checklists. If you want to have this as an additional step of writer’s work, go for it.
How Teaching Writing With Time To Write During Writer’s Workshop
Writing is where students should be spending most of their time during writer’s workshop. They need to be able to write continuously for extended periods of time to become better writers. It’s writing stamina that they are trying to develop. It’s just like an athlete who is working to get stronger or faster by training. They need to develop their writing muscles. As a teacher, it almost seemed lazy to send my students off to write for most of the class, but this is exactly what they need.
Now that your students are writing your work is not done. There are a few things you can be doing to support your students during this time.
First, you can be conferencing with your students. I recommend that you keep this informal, by walking around to them. If you see a student working hard let them keep going and stop to talk to the distracted student. Try to meet with each student each week, so keep a checklist. Some teachers keep notes on what they talk to students about so the next week they can check-in and move forward.
Grab a set of questions that you can ask your students so that you have an easy kicking-off point. You can tell students about these questions ahead of time too. Telling students what you could talk about in a writer’s workshop could help them be less intimidated by it.
- How’s it going?
- What’s going well for you as a writer?
- What seems challenging?
- What strategies are you trying?
- What goals do you have for work time today?
- What goals do you have for the month?
- What are your next steps?
- What have you and your partner worked on (if you give partner time)?
- Can you read me some of what you wrote?
- Is there anything you need help with?
The second thing you can do during the writer’s workshop is model writing for your students. Project your writing to a screen or write on a board. Work on the same assignment you’ve given them. It’s encouraging when students get to see you working on writing and they will learn from watching your process. Take time to pause your students’ writing phase so you can narrate your writing process. It helps them learn.
Optional Additions to the Writing Phase
First, you might decide to ask a few students who are working on the mini-lesson task with success to share their work halfway through writing. It’s an encouraging compliment to be asked to share their work because it’s a great example of the skill they are working on that day. You may also ask if any students need feedback from the class because they might have writer’s block.
Secondly, if you decide to break up the writing phase then you could use the second part of the writing phase to meet with small groups. Sometimes these groups could be advanced students and other times these groups could be struggling students.
If you like these optional ideas you can implement them partway through the year when the writer’s workshop is humming or plan on doing them every other week. However, kids like predictability, so consider who your students are this year to help you successfully use these optional parts of the writer’s workshop.
How Teach Writing Through Sharing in Writer’s Workshop
Sharing is one of the three parts of the writer’s workshop for a reason. Students learn so much from each other by sharing their work. They build a community of writers while learning from each other. As students practice sharing they will be more willing to take risks and grow. It shouldn’t surprise you that students learn best from each other. Don’t skip sharing no matter how tempted you are.
There are many ways you can have your students share their writing and it can be in just a few minutes.. Get creative as you want. Here are three simple ways you can have your students share their writing.
- With the whole class
- With a partner
- They can trade papers and read quietly.
How Teach Writing By Teaching Students The Structure Of Writer’s Workshop
Writer’s workshop is busy, which is why you should take some time to train your students how to participate in writer’s workshop.
- Teach your students what writers workshop will look like and sound like.
Explain your expectations, ask them questions to make sure they understand how they should behave. Have them practice transitions during this time with appropriate behavior. Using a timer to make a record they can try to beat can be fun.
- Teach your students what a mini-lesson looks like.
Have them sit down and let them know that mini-lessons will usually be about 10 minutes. They will be expected to participate and listen during mini-lessons. Start with a demonstration lesson, maybe you read a mentor text or talk about brainstorming just to get going..
- Prepare student for working time and conferences.
During the working phase of writer’s workshop, they should be writing continuously the whole time. They should know they are working on building their writing stamina. If you have a conference with them, they should be prepared to talk to you about their writing.
- Discuss what sharing their work in writer’s workshop looks like.
Sharing their work can be a fun part of writing but students find sharing their work intimidating. Writing is personal and it takes trust to share your work. It will get easier for them the more they do it. They should be prepared to give and get feedback, not just say, “Your writing is great.” They should know what compliments and constructive criticism are.
- Have a lesson on where they can write.
Everyone works better when they are comfortable in their space. You probably have a preference about where you work. Decide if your students will be able to pick different locations or stay at their desks? Are you going to have a rule of how many students can be in certain locations? I had a small reading area with a limit of two students. And really all students should also sit away from their friends so they can focus.
- Teach your students to use their paper so there is room for editing and revising.
They should skip lines. You might also want to have them leave a wide margin on one side so they can add sentences or notes easily.
- Problem-solve before you begin actual writing assignments.
Have a writer’s workshop FAQ. There are questions you get asked all the time that you won’t be able to answer during the writer’s workshop. Have answers to common questions on a paper in their notebook for quick reference. What should they do for the bathroom, a dead pen, questions, if they’re done, they need help with spelling or anything else you get asked too much.
- Give students time to figure out what pen or pencil they like.
Give options of what they can write with. Pencil is best, but if a kid who hates writing will write three pages with a green pen does it really matter? See if there is something they like to write on like a stack of papers, a notebook, loose-leaf paper out of the binder, a lap desk. I have to have my papers stacked. One sheet is not enough for me to write on. And be sure they know where materials are in case they need to find more.
You can decide if you want to talk about a few of these each day or cover one a day for the first week or two. The time you spend training your students will be worth it as the year progresses. As you have them practice you can take that time to do some brainstorming or free writing too.
How Teach Writing Effectively
Using writers workshops can be both challenging and exciting. If you train your students well and stick with it you will see student growth over the course of the school year. Remember that you cannot force growth on your students, so give them ownership over their writing with a writer’s workshop. You are their guide, not their commander.
More Classroom Management, Poetry and Writing Tips and Resources
Writing is a huge subject to teach. Here are some more articles to support you as you guide your students.
Here is Your FREE Prompt for Writing Poetry
I know that you needed a prompt to help kickstart your students’ writing. Here is an entire lesson for FREE. My Our School Poem guides students through using sensory language to describe their school. The step-by-step directions guide your class through the writing process with all the necessary worksheets make this the perfect lesson for your classroom.