Welcome to the final week of the Summer Writing Series. But don’t fret, we’ll have plenty of writing topics to cover all year long. We have only touched on the basics of getting Writing Workshop up and running in your classroom.
Today we are diving into the topic of differentiation. It is inevitable that our students will come to us at a variety of ability levels. We also have to consider our population of students who have special needs or are English language learners. How can we meet the needs of every student in our classroom?
Let's talk about some actionable strategies for differentiating your writing instruction.
1// Writing Partnerships
Writing partnerships are an essential way to build community inside your writing workshop as well as a natural way to support students during a mini-lesson and group work inside your writing workshop. When establishing writing partnerships, you need to make a choice on whether you want them to be homogenous or heterogeneous. Homogenous meaning they are on similar ability levels and heterogenous meaning they are on varying ability levels. A thought to guiding your decision is this: Both partners should benefit.
What ultimately decides my partnerships is on how well they work together and if both parties benefit. If they are not working well together OR both partners are not benefitting, then I try to either change the partnership or make any adjustments that would help. While I try NOT to change partnerships often unless I think it is absolutely necessary, I do not keep partnerships together all year because let’s be honest, they get tired of each other. 🙂
So some partners might be grouped together by their ability level, while others are grouped based on personality and ability to work together. Think about a situation when you have a stronger writer helping a struggling writer. While this may help develop leadership skills and they know how to do something so well that they can teach someone else, they also need to be growing as a writer themselves. This is tricky because we also know that if we put struggling writers with struggling writers, then we might end up with a partnership that gets distracted easily or just struggles. All. Day. Long. However, this can also be great for organizational purposes because you can pull the writers work together because they have similar needs. You get more bang for your buck. They also develop a kinship and feel more confident because they are not alone and can support one another. As you can see, creating writing partnerships depends on the students.
The biggest struggle when it comes to conferring that I hear is: How do I get to all of my students?
Writing conferences are the most organic way to differentiate your writing instruction. However, it seems like we have less and less time in writing workshop. We need to teach a lesson and have time for independent writing in 30 minutes, so it can seem ludicrous to use those 15 minutes of writing time to talk about writing rather than write. When we actually sit down to have a writing conference, we may even feel ill-equipped to on just what to teach those students. Let’s talk about how to squash these struggles and arm ourselves with strategies to meet the needs of our students. No matter how much time we don’t have, giving our students’ feedback and direct instruction on their writing is the most impactful way to help them grow.
Research Student Needs
While spending some time talking to students about their writing is essential and offers so many benefits, I find it especially helpful to research the room. What does this mean? Initially, I do this at the beginning of the year and then sometimes once a week just to observe and note what my students are doing. Honestly, you could even do this at the very beginning of independent writing. The purpose is to simply observe what my students are doing and jot down notes regarding:
- writing behaviors
- what they’re working on
- struggling with
- things they are doing well
It sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t have to be. Take notes on what stands out. These notes don’t have to be fancy. It could be a simple list of students who all seem to be having the same difficulty. I like to use a big table/spreadsheet with student names so that I can easily see take notes for every student. After I have a conference with this student, I highlight it or just put a big check through it. As you can see, I also use a plus (+) and deltas (Δ) to note what they are doing well and then what I think they could work on next/what I might teach them. During this research, I also use this to look for trends. In my example chart below, I have several students that are not using transition words and several other students who have no paragraph structure.
(This editable chart is included in the Free Resource Library.)
Use these notes to plan who needs your attention ASAP and also just what you will say during your writing conference. At times, I do just confer with my writers on the fly. We talk about their writing, I compliment what they are doing well, and then I teach them something new. (see conference structure below) However, I know that if I do my research first, then I can come to a writing conference prepared to do my best teaching, so they can do their best writing.
Make a Schedule
Maybe you don’t meet with every student every week. Getting frustrated and feeling behind benefits no one. It doesn’t benefit you and it doesn’t benefit your students. What you CAN do is create a schedule that is realistic and that works for YOU. Creating a schedule also can put yourself at ease, knowing that you have a plan to meet with each of your students about their writing. Also, since you have done your research about their needs, then you can already plan on what you will teach them. Remember that your schedule does not have to be set in stone. You can decide the who, when, and what of your writing conferences.
Plan your writing conferences.
So now you know what they need and when you will meet. Now, you can have a plan for just what you will teach them when they are sitting down next to you. You can use the prioritize the process cheat sheet to help you determine what is the most important thing to teach first.
Structure of a Writing Conference
- Research: I like to do my research before I sit with my students, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes it happens right when I am sitting next to them. What is your student working on? What is the most obvious thing that he/she could do to improve her writing? Grammar, punctuation, are not usually the starting points. Look at the overall structure and content first.
- Decide: Pick ONE thing that will have the most value for the student. This might be something that is transferable across different writing pieces. Many teachers get frustrated with the lack of paragraphs or not doing it well. (Can I get an amen?) Start there. Decide that you are going to teach this child how, when, and why writers use paragraphs. (see chart below) This is an important writing lesson because paragraphs are an integral part of any type of writing. Paragraphs give organization and structure to our writing that makes it easier for us to communicate to our reader.
- Compliment: Before you jump right in and start teaching, take a moment to compliment what the writer is already doing well. It can be the smallest simplest thing. This serves many, but two major purposes. 1) The writer feels comfortable and confident about his or her writing first and foremost. At ease, soldier! 2) This gets us, as teachers, in the habit of always looking for what our writers CAN do, rather than focusing on what they CAN’T do. Yet.
- Teach: Well, that was a lot of work before we finally get to the part where we teach. When teaching in a conference, you might reteach a strategy that was already taught or these skills may be something that is a prerequisite for your grade level. Either way, you want some type of model ideally. The first choice would be your own writing notebook or sample piece of writing. You could also have a mentor text. Using the paragraph example from above, you could use your own writing notebook to showcase a piece of your own writing in which you created organization and structure for your reader.
Pro Tip: Leave your writers with something tangible to remind them of what you taught them during the conference. This could be as simple as a reminder on a Post-It note or taking the time to jot down inside their writing notebook. You could also have them label what you taught them if you had them practice in front of you.
Post- It Note Conference Mini-lesson Reminder
3// Using Small Groups in Writing
Individual writing conferences can be cumbersome and quite honestly, not the best use of your time. Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying we shouldn’t be using writing conferences. Our writers NEED this one on one time to discuss their writing. And I truly enjoy this time with my students. Plus, it helps me grow as a writing teacher. This often pushes me to teach something I may not have taught before, and also find ways to reach this particular writer.
Still, I want to offer another solution. This is especially for teachers with not enough time. Oh wait, that’s all of us. 😉
Let’s take the example above about teaching our little Susie how, when, and why to use paragraphs. If you are like most teachers, you were probably thinking something like: “Wait, I have several students that need help with paragraphs.” OR “But Johnny, Dillon, and Antwon ALL need help with writing paragraphs too!”
So, do we just keep teaching paragraphs to our class one by one? Seems like a lot of repetitive teaching, right? That’s because it is.
If Susie, Johnny, Dillon, and Antwon ALL need a similar writing lesson, then teach it once.
To all of them.
Hence the need to research your students’ needs. If you have 4-5 students who all need similar things, teach it ONCE to all 4-5 students. If it is half your class, teach a lesson to half your class. Let the other half write. If the concept of small group conferences in writing is new to you and you want to know more, I’ve got a book for you:
Using small groups in writing is also a way to meet the needs of your higher writers. All too often, we get wrapped up in meeting the needs of our struggling writers and the needs of our more sophisticated writers are left by the wayside. This is typically because we don’t see these as “needs.” They aren’t our first response in triaging our student writing needs.
4// Peer Editing
Another great way to leverage your writing partnerships is through peer editing. Peer editing can be very tricky and when done well, you’ve got a community of writers that are ready to help each other grow. Peer editing can be explicitly taught. First, explain to students what peer editing is:
Peer editing is working with a classmate to help revise, edit, and improve your writing. Next, review the Do’s & Don’ts of Peer Editing. A writing checklist also helps students stay grounded in the language we use for writing.
This chart is currently available in following charts are available in my Opinion Writing Unit.
The writing checklists are available in each of the writing units below.
5// Writing Stations
Writing stations are a great way to keep students moving based on their needs. They are also a quick and easy way to have a small group of students working on something specific without the teacher needing to facilitate the group. I use the PowerPoint slides already in my units and strategies that I have already taught. You can easily slip these into a sheet protector and use a binder ring to keep them all together for the unit. You might even make multiple copies so they are available for more than one group. Though students may already have the charts a notebook chart, this provides a way to keep students all focused on a specific task.
This is from the Personal Narrative Writing Unit.
These are from the Informational Writing Unit.
>>Questions About Differentiation<<
Below are two questions I often get asked about meeting specific needs of young writers.
What kind of differentiation is done for ELL students?
“Our goal is […] to teach them strategies for communicating in order to make sure they are being understood and that they are understanding what is being communicated.” – (M. Colleen Cruz, The Unstoppable Writing Teacher)
I love this quote. It is a nice reminder of our intentions for our ELL students. We can’t expect them to be in the same place as students who are not learning a second language and we have to stay grounded in our purpose for teaching them how to write.
Here are some ideas to think about when trying to meet the needs of English language learners.
Develop a Strong Classroom Culture
As you probably already know, one of the best and most basic ways to support your students is by developing a strong classroom community. Creating a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable and even celebrated for speaking a language different from the dominant language can work wonders for all students.
I know you are probably going to be shocked that my favorite way to do so is through a book. I mean, it’s just so easy! Sharing literature with our students that teaches them the importance of being different and sends the message that our differences should be celebrated can set the tone for your entire classroom as well as opening up the opportunity for rich classroom discussions. Two of my favorite pieces of literature to do so are The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania Al Abdullah and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting.
Use their Level of Language Acquisition to Identify Strategies to Teach
This article and website is a fantastic resource for specific and actionable strategies to support your students learning English.
Some Strategies I Use in My Own Classroom
- Write in native language
- Copy in English
- Labeled Classroom (photographs, drawings, and words)
- Step-by-Step Instructional Charts with a physical representation of writing
- Hand Gestures
- Facial Expressions
- Writing Partnerships
- Access to Dictionaries for English and home language
- Access to a computer to use Google translate
- Charts for Sentence Stems and Word Choices
- Guided Writing- we write together in small group
Look for places to scaffold their writing.
For example, this particular student had difficulty doing all the parts of an informational essay. Creating a plan was very daunting and left him feeling overwhelmed by reading the articles, creating a main idea, and then synthesizing the information. So, we made this chart together as a class. Rather than having him create his own boxes and bullets plan, he used mine so that part was already done for him and he could focus on the actually writing the essay. (This student was one of my favorite success stories in writing. <3 )
What if my students just won't write?
At some point in your teaching career, you are going to have a student (or studentS) that just won’t write. They have nothing to write about, nothing to say, and zero motivation. The example above is one of my go-to scaffolding techniques. Meet the student where they are and build a bridge for where you want them to be.
Act as a Scribe
In the past, what I have done to support these students is by having them just say out loud what they want to write. While they say it out loud, I put it into writing. After we are done, I show them how much they did have to say. This is extremely motivating because it is their ideas, but they didn’t have to do the writing. Now, writing seems more accessible because we just worked together to get what was in their head on to the paper. That is quite a feat for many students. Taking what is in their head and putting it on the paper. It would be nice if we could all have a personal secretary to write things down for us, wouldn’t it?
Use Voice Memo (or other voice recording app)
As I was preparing for this blog post, I caught myself doing what I often do. Often my best ideas come when I am doing something else such as driving home from yoga, driving to school, running, or at some time when I have nothing to write with or on. So, I get my phone out and record what I was thinking so that I don’t forget. Isn’t this what reporters, journalists, and other writers do too?
If you have access to this type of technology in your classroom, use it to your advantage. When writers are struggling with getting their ideas from their head to their paper, teach them to record what they want to say and then play it back while they write it down.
We will consistently have students come to us with varying needs and abilities each year. Sometimes we will have the tools and resources to meet their needs and sometimes we have to get creative. I hope that I’ve helped you feel a little more equipped to differentiate your instruction in Writing Workshop.
This is the final post in the Summer Writing Series. While I may take a few weeks off from blogging to get my own classroom for the upcoming school year, we have only just begun on this writing journey. You can stay connected with updates and future blog posts by making sure you are signed up for my weekly newsletter by heading here:
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Wishing you the best in the upcoming school year! As always, feel free to reach out or connect through email firstname.lastname@example.org, in the comments, or on any of the social media platforms @theliteracyloft.