Thursday, November 9, 2017

4 Ways to Balance Literacy Instruction + Free Writing Resources!

Nicki pinned me to the sky, like Mrs. Brown pinning our constuction paper snowmen to the classroom bulletin board. I gripped the handles tightly while my legs dangled uselessly from the teeter totter seat. 

"Put me down!" I ordered. 
"Make me!" she sneered. 
I began to bounce on the seat and swung my legs wildly.  But, it was no use, I was at her mercy. I hung there and plotted my revenge. When I got the chance, I left her dangling in the air and let her down with a huge bump on the ground. 

Teaching language arts is a lot like the playground teeter totter torment that filled our recess time in grade school. There should be a balance between our reading and writing instruction. But with recent laws that focus on reading performance and student retention being enacted around the United States, the curriculum focus has shifted to reading instruction. Regardless of what research on language arts learning tells us, retention laws and the curriculum mandates that follow are not in the best interest of our students. 

What we know is that reading and writing skills develop hand-in-hand, and that as soon as we teach them in isolation or ignore one to give more time to the other, we cripple our students thinking skills and language development. In fact, it's imperative that we feel the same urgency with writing instruction as we do with reading. "How?" you ask. Your teaching practices need to be equitable. No subject should be left hanging in the air on the language arts teeter totter. You need to strike a balance. The teaching practices you implement in your reading block should be implemented in your writing block.

Guided Reading/Guided Writing

In reader's workshop, we teach guided reading and strategy groups. If you have equitable language arts instruction, then you also teach writing in small groups.  In order to do this, you have to know your writers. Here's how I do it:
  • I give a writing pre-assessment for the unit we're on. We use Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins, but you can do this with any writing rubric or scoring initiative your district mandates.
  • I create a "nugget sheet." This is a simple spreadsheet on which I list my students in alphabetical order and the writing goals of our current unit at the top. I enter their scores for each writing goal (elaboration, conventions, development, structure, etc.).
  • I highlight areas of concern on the spreadsheet.
  • I group students by those areas of concern. 
  • I either meet with them one on one, or I call them together for a guided writing/writing strategy group lesson. This takes place after the mini-lesson of the day, and it usually lasts about 10 minutes. 
Guided writing helps me differentiate for my students and gives me another chance to watch them while they practice.

Suck It Up, Buttercup

Write With Your Students

For many teachers, one of the scariest parts of teaching writing is that you must write with your students. Every day in reader's workshop, you probably read aloud to your kids. While you read aloud, you stop and think aloud. You make comments. You ask questions. You model what readers do when they read.

Do you model what writers do when they write? Young writers need to see their teachers writing aloud.  They need to hear the thinking their teachers are doing while they make writing decisions, while they make writing mistakes, and while they make writing revisions. In order to do this, you gotta suck it up buttercup and do what you are asking your students to do. NO EXCUSES. This practice is too powerful to ignore.

Copycat Your Favorites 

& Bridge Both Workshops

This requires some thinking and planning on the part of the teacher, but WOW! Does it work! When we teach reading, we teach students about figurative language, idioms, proverbs, puns, and descriptive language. In fact if you ask, many teachers will tell you that these are some of their favorite lessons to teach. They are fun, aren't they? 

But are you teaching students how to write these? One of our huge fifth grade writing goals is for students to develop writer's craft. During reader's workshop while I'm reading aloud, I'll stop and identify sentences where the author has used figurative or descriptive language. We'll talk about why the author chose the words she did. We'll write the lines down on chart paper and talk about how they help us visualize and understand what we are reading. 

Then later, in our writing block, we'll go back to those lines on the chart paper. We'll pick a lackluster line or passage from our own writing, and we'll try to copy what the author did. We don't use her words, but we use her strategy or technique. 

If you do this enough, use your mentor text as a bridge between your reading and writing instruction, you'll begin to see your students thinking as writers. Which, by the way, develops analytical thinking, one of the deepest forms of comprehension. 

Make the connection between reading and writing visible.

Stamina: It's Not Just About Reading

As teachers, we put so much energy into building our students' reading stamina. We want our kids to read at home. We provide independent reading opportunities in our classrooms. We graph our minutes read in data notebooks. We send home reading logs. But what are we doing to build our students' writing stamina?

One of the ways I help my students "train" to increase their writing stamina is by assigning 20-30 minutes of free writing a night. It's funny, but as soon as I say the words "free write," there are gasps of delight. My students know that they will be able to share their writing at the end of the week. This, alone, is a HUGE motivation for them.

At the beginning of the year, I set the routine of using stamina journals. One week, I ask my students to read every night. The next week, I ask my students to write every night. They reflect on their writing stamina every morning, from the night before, using a stamina reflection chart. They graph their writing minutes in their data notebooks. They discuss the quality of their writing sessions. We talk about what writer's do when they lack focus. We brainstorm ways to help ourselves write stronger and longer. This type of problem solving is something we do in reader's workshop. But guess what? It works in writer's workshop, too.

I hope this blog post has given you some take-aways to enrich your language arts instruction. Some of the resources I use in my writer's workshop are below. They're a great place to start if you're wanting to empower your student writers. Some are free!



This week I've linked up with some FABULOUS educators for our monthly Teacher Talk focus. Check them out below!

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