Saturday, July 16, 2011

Writing Workshop Tips and Tricks

 By now, if you've been following my blog for any length of time, you probably realize how much I LOVE literacy.  I am a HUGE literacy junkie, and I have really gotten into writing instruction in particular over the past two years.  I am an admirer of all things Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher, and Georgia Heard.  They are right up there on a pedestal with my reading pals: Debbie Miller, Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey, Ellin Keene, Tanny McGregor, Linda Hoyt, and Kathy Collins.  Of course I can't leave out Fountas and  Pinnell!  {That's the short list too.}  Anyway, I thought I'd share some writing tips with all of my fabulous followers to help kick-start a new year.  Is it seriously almost time to go back?!

Organizing/Planning Writing

Sketching can be really powerful when trying to get a student to include details in their writing.  Generally, the more detailed picture they draw, the more detailed their stories become.  Then, you can prompt them and ask them to look at their sketching to see what they left out that they still want to add to their paper.  (Note:  This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.  They can simply do a quick sketch to help them visualize or remember fuzzy details before jumping into the process.)

Timelines are extremely helpful when you doing any kind of writing that has to be sequential.  Teaching them to plot out the main events in their story can help to keep the story focused and in order.  They can refer back to it as they write to make sure they don’t start going a totally different direction.  It also allows you to ask questions about specific events to help them elaborate later in the process, because you can see the entire picture in a sense. 

Checklists help during planning, free-writing and drafting.  This can help them stay focused throughout each process.  They already know what is expected and what is coming next before they get to it, so they panic less.

Story Maps:
  When writing fiction, I have the kids plan out the bones of their stories ahead of time by writing out story maps.  They describe their main characters, supporting characters, settings, problems, and solutions ahead of time.  Some even write alternate beginnings and endings before beginning.  This planning helps them to shape their stories without getting sidetracked.  They continuously refer back to their story maps when they get stuck. {You probably recall my love of Heart Maps too.}

Things to Consider

Students do their best writing when they are given the choice to write about what matters to them.  Yes, prompts are necessary due to testing, but don’t underestimate the raw stuff. Prompt them to think about what they are really trying to say.  Ask them to think about what is really important and then write it down.

Teach them to write tight, focused “seed stories”.  Teach them to focus on small moments.  (Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.)  I basically tell the kids that we are trying not to tell “watermelon stories”.  Essentially, a watermelon story is a story that gets too broad and goes way too many directions.  It could also be one that doesn’t have any sensory details.  (Showing examples and studying them is really helpful.  Show them what you want, and they will do it.  Allow them to underline, highlight and discuss what they notice about the mentor texts.)

If a student is worried about spelling, teach them to write their draft without stopping to correct it.  They can simply circle any unknown spellings as they go to come back to at another time.  (Encourage them to use the Word Wall during drafting. Those words are expected to be spelled correctly 100% of the time, as are any old spelling words.)  Otherwise, I don’t get too hung up on invented spelling.  We want them to take chances in their writing and aim for million dollar vocabulary words.

 Living a Writerly Life

Encourage students to read like a writer.  Help them to see books through a writer’s lens, constantly searching for creative leads and endings, beautiful language, imagery, etc.
Encourage them to see the stories in their own lives, and identify themselves as the main characters in their own lives!  We all have stories to tell.   Share your own stories and model the process for them.

Encourage students to read the types of writing they are trying to write.  For example, when we were studying personal narratives, we studied “Owl Moon” to find out how Jane Yolen wrote about an owling experience with her father.  We read the book together and picked it apart, talking about what the author did that was effective--- things that they could try in their own writing.

Encourage students to keep a writing journal to write down any interesting experiences, ideas, lists, etc.  Help them to see potential stories in virtually everything around them.

Research what real published authors do.  Share information from their bios or websites about what it’s like to be an author, what the process is like, etc.  Read books like "Author: A True Story" by Helen Lester.

Real authors collaborate and share.  Therefore, I give the kids a chance to work in writing partnerships.  These groupings are flexible and change often.  They also do peer reviews to help one another improve their writing. (I know this is more for groups, but since I’m sharing, I figured I’d share for future use!)

Frank Serafini was really onto something when he made the following assertions:
Writing instruction should develop life-long writers.
Writers write because of the desire to write, not to be famous!  (They just have to write!)
Writers learn to write by writing.
People teach people to write, not programs.  (This is a BIG one!)
Writing Instruction should address processes, procedures and products of writing.
Writing is an act of discovery, not an act of transcription.
Our processes and procedures should support writers, not get in their way.
Writing should not be seen as a stage-bound linear process.

Over the years, I have enjoyed seeing my students grow as writers through Writer's Workshop.  Because I have had so much success with this hands-on approach to Writing Workshop, I really wanted a way to beef up my writing instruction and make it a little more engaging for my kiddos while building in a natural scaffold to help them with the various stages of the writing process, so I have started creating a series of units that incorporate interactive notebook templates to provide support along the way.  So far, I have created a Personal Narratives unit and a Fictional Narratives unit, and I have plans for more in the future.

I also created a unit to launch Writer's Workshop a few years ago called We Are Authors: Launching Writer's Workshop, and it has helped set the tone for living writerly lives by helping my students SEE themselves as real authors with stories WORTH telling!  I believe that's part of the battle.  If your students BELIEVE they can write, and you give them the tools to do it by explicitly teaching them the author's craft and studying mentor texts by fabulous writers, THEY WILL AMAZE YOU.  I promise.


  1. Great post. I'm featuring Writing Centers in my Setting Up the Classroom Series today. Would you mind if I linked to your blog?

    ❤Jodi from...
    ★★The Clutter-Free Classroom★★
    Helping Teachers Get Organized

  2. Nice post - thanks. I know the drawing one so well, but I suppose that sometimes I forget, so it is always good to be reminded.

  3. I would love to know more about your "seed" stories!


  4. Just bought your writing packet on TPT! You have the best stuff! The writing abilities of my students are always so varied. Some come in not able to write sentences and others are writing paragraphs. The writer's workshop approach is great in helping to individualize. You can really individualize. How often do you conference with each student? How do you support those struggling with writing?

  5. Hi Amanda,
    i would also like to know how you conference with students! mary

  6. setting up any sort of writing routine was so hard for me this year. I was used to conferencing with my 4th graders mainly on content! It was overwhelming and I feel as though I failed them in this area. Thanks for the post! Hoping to get a better grip next year!

  7. I heart writing workshop too! Love this post...

  8. Hi Amanda! I am loving your blog! :) Do you have any writing units or minilesson plans on TPT?

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your tips and tricks for writing workshops! I was so inspired by your previous posts that I bought the Lucy Calkins 3-5 Writing Program! I am mildly obsessed now! I just love all of your suggestions and super ideas!! :-)

  10. I've used the watermelon/seed visual before - it's really helpful!