What do I do with my writers at all different levels? 

A few weeks back, I shared a blog post about Writing conferences. I think we can all agree how important Writing conferences are. We’d be hardpressed to find a teacher that DIDN’T think writing conferences are important. 

But I think what gets really overwhelming when it comes to teaching Writing is having 22+ students all at varying writing abilities. 

Meeting with each of these students individually can be overwhelming and there are bound to be some overlaps within your students. Not only that, organizing your instruction and deciding what to teach can be even more overwhelming. 

What would you do if this subject were Reading or Math? You would put them into small groups. Small groups work in writing too. In fact, small group Writing conferences can completely transform your ability to move your students in Writing. 

Small Group Writing Conferences

A small group writing conference is a great way to support several students with similar needs. Through observations and collecting data  (checklists, rubric) you can plan your small groups based on students who would benefit from a specific skill. The small group has the same structure as a regular conference. However, planning for the small group conference takes a bit more effort. Let’s break it down into some simple steps. 

1.  Assess: 

The way you assess your students can be formal or informal. 

Informal & Ongoing

At the end of writing workshop, collect student writing (notebooks or drafts). Quickly, sort writing based on what you taught that day or students who seem to have similar needs. You can sort into 3 stacks (got it, almost, needs help). From there, plan on meeting with these students in a small group to help move them forward. Don’t spend a large amount of time reading and sorting. And don’t feel like you have to do this every day.


Give an on-demand writing assessment. At this point of the year, your students may have completed at least one final draft. You could also use this to sort students as you move into a new unit or new piece of writing.  Having a consistent sample of the same “task” (for lack of better word) that was given to all of your students, it will be much easier to group them. If you have students write in response to texts across the year, then the monthly text sets would be a great informal uniform assessment. (Learn more about those here.)

2.  Sort from a Bird’s Eye View

Sort your students into 3 stacks. Do this quickly without overthinking it and with your first teacher instinct. The first stack is the students that need the MOST support. The next stack is students that need MEDIUM support. The third stack is students that need the LEAST support, but are going to need to be pushed and enriched. By doing this, you have chunked all of your students into 3 big groups and it will be a lot easier to put them into more specific groups from here. 

Use a checklist or graphic organizer to make notes about student needs.  One thing that has really helped me in differentiating with my writers is using the ways that I think about grouping my readers and apply those strategies for grouping my writers. At the beginning of the year, you may give some type of reading assessment to establish some baselines with your students. It may be a running record, district assessment, or benchmark test. You use this data to identify what skills your students are bringing with them and what they need next. You can do the same with writing. Even if you don’t begin the year with some baseline form of assessment if you have writing samples – i.e. their notebooks – use that. Keep it simple! Education, in general, can really make things convoluted. The more complicated we make our processes, the less likely we are to stick with them. So let me break it down for you step by step with how you can begin setting up your small groups. 

3.  Group by Student Needs

The final step is to group these students by student needs. The way I do this is by thinking about what are the big things these students need FIRST. Also, remember that your groups may change because your student needs may change. I use a very basic process to decide what students need most. I call it Prioritizing the Process. I used these big ideas of how to sort the students and created a Writing Group teacher form so that you can note who needs what. This way you can teach one small lesson to 3-5 students at a time. This lesson is specific and differentiated to what they need. You can grab this cheat sheet in the Free Resource Library. 

4.  Plan your Small Groups

Once you have sorted and identified what students need, you can plan what you will teach and the materials you will use to teach them. You can pull mini-lessons from your writing unit or you might even make them up on your own based on student needs. I like to plan what mentor text I might use or a place in my own writing that I can use for an example. 

5.  Pull your Small Groups

This is the best part!  Your small group is like a mini-mini lesson. It doesn’t have to be long. You want to make it quick and to the point so that students have the opportunity to apply it during writing workshop. Follow the same steps for a regular writing conference. But the beauty is that you are reaching more students in a small amount of time and getting more out of your time. 

How does it work?

The small group lesson is going to be very similar to the whole group minilesson, but may be more interactive and conversational to support students. Have students meet you at your table or gather in a small circle on the carpet (my favorite). Their pencils and notebooks should be down. Their eyes are on you. 

Begin by complimenting the work they have been doing as writers. Next, connect what you have been working on in whole group and that they are ready to work on their next steps, which is your teaching point. Name the teaching point. Remember to name exactly what it is you want them to do. Here you have some options on how to SHOW students what you want them to do as writers: 

  • Share a mentor text (preferably one they have already used before) and the explicit place where the author used a strategy. Name it! 
  • Share a piece of writing that you wrote that uses this specific strategy. This can be straight from your notebook or even a draft you have already shared with your students. It could even be a reminder of something you have already taught. 
  • Share an example of another student text. You could use this as an example or maybe it’s missing and you can work together to add this as more of the guided practice. This is a great reason to collect student writing with specific work. It is very powerful for students to see what their peers can do. 
  • Work on shared writing. Maybe you have a piece of writing you can work on together to try out the strategy. 
  • Sometimes you don’t need to model if your students just need your coaching and support with something specific. 

After you have taught the strategy, have students apply the strategy to their writing. This is really important. The small group conference is powerful because you and your students will see the strategy completed in action. You can help coach and support as they apply the strategy. 

You can leave the small group by having students continue writing on their own if it feels appropriate. Or you can do a more formal closing by restating the teaching point and reminding them that this is a strategy that they can use always and forever. 

If you are looking for more guidance in teaching writing to your upper elementary students, be sure to check out my writing units HERE and/or sign up for the waitlist for The Literacy Loft Membership, which includes access to all units and so much more!

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Recommended Reading:

How to Conduct Writing Conferences in Upper Elementary