Let’s be real for a moment. During my first year teaching I did a terrible, horrible, rotten job at teaching writing. My students (3rd graders at the time) were not assessed on writing, and I really didn’t know how to teach writing at that point in my career (especially since my students seriously struggled with all things literacy when they came to me).
I remember teaching it and having some fun lessons that I am sure helped the students a little. But mostly, we just aimlessly read read alouds, wrote to prompts, and shared our writing. I “did” all the right things but I didn’t do them very purposefully or effectively. I honestly feel like I should write a formal apology to my first group of students.
Fast forward a few years and a grade level change, and I finally feel like I have a handle on teaching writing. I am super purposeful and everything I do now has a reason behind it. Though my instruction is still not perfect (is anything in teaching ever perfect?), I feel much more confident that I am growing my students as writers and helping them to love writing.
In this post, I want to share how I teach writing in 5th grade (very applicable to 3rd and 4th grade as well).
I spend approximately 9 weeks on each main genre of writing (narrative, persuasive, and informational/expository). I teach the writing genres in this order: personal narrative, fictional narrative, persuasive, how-to informational, compare and contrast, descriptive/explanatory informational.
Closer Look at Each 9 Weeks
Now, let’s take a closer look at what each of those 9 weeks would look like:
Two Weeks Explicitly Teaching Genre
I spend the first two weeks of my pacing explicitly teaching the aspects of the genre we are studying and writer’s craft as it relates to the genre we are studying. We do this by reading mentor texts and making charts about what we notice the author does well. These noticings then turn into mini-lessons. You can read more about how I come up with writing mini-lessons (and the three types of mini-lessons) by clicking here.
During these two weeks, the students are writing their first essays in this genre, but it is very guided. For example, we would read mentor texts to look for good beginnings, then we create a chart of good beginnings, then we choose a writing topic from our lists (read more about that here), and practice writing good beginnings. I may have the students write 2-3 beginnings, then chose their favorite. We also spend a lot of time sharing during this time so the students can apply what they are learning and hear lots of examples from their peers.
Three Weeks of Writing Based on Lists and Specific Lessons Based on Students’ Writing
After we have learned and applied all the strategies for a genre to one piece of writing, we are ready to try out some more. In this three week period, the students choose more topics from their lists to write about.
As the students are writing, they are referring to charts and examples from our previous mini-lessons to help them apply what they have learned. I also do a lot of conferences during this time, but mostly lean-in conferences because I want the students writing and trying out the new strategies.
The mini-lessons during this time frame are very specific to the students’ writing. While I am completing my lean-conferences, I jot down notes of struggles and strengths. At this point in the instruction, I am writing notes about conventions and mechanics for future mini-lessons, but my main focus is on the writer’s craft and getting the students to write and try out the genre.
At this point, it is also clear which students need extensive re-teaching. About 2-3 times a week, I pull small groups for re-teaching. However, I typically only pull the students who are seriously struggling at this point in instruction.
Three Weeks of Writing to On-Demand Prompts
At this point in our pacing, I have taught a lot of writing craft skills, and the students have several essays, applying what they have learned (usually 3-5 essays by this point). Now, it is time to get into perfecting their conventions and practicing on demand prompts.
The lessons during this three week period are very mini and focus mostly on conventions and mechanics. These lessons come from what I see as a need during my lean-in conferences and what I know will help move my students beyond their current writing (varying sentence lengths, using complex sentences, using introductory phrases, etc).
Also during this time, we typically have a longer share time, so the students can hear each other’s writing, give and get feedback, and learn even more writing strategies to use in their own writing.
As I mentioned above, this time is also spent primarily writing to on-demand prompts. These can be a simple prompt, a prompt that also uses a text stimulus (or paired text stimulus), or a prompt in response to a mentor text. This three week period is important because the students learn to write about topics that are not their choosing and they learn to stay on topic and follow the expectations of a prompt (which I explicitly teach them). However, I don’t recommend writing to prompts all the time because it doesn’t promote a love of writing with most students.
Remember how I said I did mostly lean-in conferences in the above section? Well, at this point, I have enough data to group my students into small groups for re-teaching or extension lessons. During independent writing time, I regularly pull small groups (about 1-2 a day) for reteaching. I also mix in independent conferences as well, as needed.
One Week of Publishing
For our final week in a genre, my students choose their favorite piece, meet with me for an independent conference and a final revise and edit, and then type it. We only publish (by typing) one story in each genre. However, we revise and edit every piece that we write. Ultimately, the students decide which of their essays are worth publishing. This essay is also taken as a final grade.
By the end of the 9-week period, my students have usually written around 6-8 essays in that genre. My expectation is an essay per week, and I do have them turn them in. I use these essays (along with my conferences) to guide my mini-lessons and reteaching groups.
Here is a recap of each 9-Week Period:
Note: I do modify this a bit for informational writing since I explicitly teach how-to writing, compare and contrast writing, and then explanatory/descriptive informational writing separately and then together.
What Does a Typical Writing Lesson Look Like?
The total time I have for writing is 60 minutes (I will share a modified schedule for 30 and 45 minutes, too). Here is how I typically segment my writing time. However, from reading the above section, you will notice that sometimes mini-lessons or share times are shorter or longer, depending on where we are in our pacing.
- 15-20 minute mini lesson
- 30-40 minutes for independent writing and conferences/small groups
- 5 minutes for closing, sharing, and reflecting
Modified Schedule for 45 Minutes
- 15 minute mini-lesson
- 25 minutes for independent writing and conferences/small groups
- 5 minutes for closing, sharing, and reflecting
Modified Schedule for 30 Minutes
For 30 minutes, I recommend more of an A/B type schedule. Something like this:
A Schedule: – 15 mini-lesson and 15 minutes of independent writing where the students are directly applying the strategy to their writing
B Schedule: 20 minutes independent writing (continued from Monday) and conferences and 10 minutes for closing and sharing
Monday: A Schedule Tuesday: B Schedule Wednesday: A Schedule Thursday: B Schedule
Friday: Whichever schedule you need to meet the needs of your students. I have found that it is better to end the week with more independent writing to apply all they have learned. Likewise, I prefer to begin the week with the mini-lesson.
Materials I Use to Teach Writing
- Mentor texts- For mentor texts, I use tradebooks (picture books and excerpts from longer works), released exemplars from state assessment, student stories (shared with permission), and teacher-written stories. You can read how I used one mentor text during my persuasive writing unit by clicking here.
- Anchor charts– As a class, we create anchor charts for almost every writing mini-lesson I teach. Those anchor charts then provide an anchor for the students while they are writing. Want to see charts that I used to guide some my persuasive writing mini lessons? Click here to go straight to the post.
- Student reference charts – My students use their writing notebooks to keep their writing lists and to keep reference charts for almost every lesson that I teach. We create an anchor chart together and then I give the students a printable copy of the chart that is already made or that I make after the fact. These charts are glued into their writing notebook and they refer to them regularly as they write.
- Sentence stems -Most of my students are nowhere near proficient writers when they come to me. One way that I support my students is through sentence stems. Based on the needs of my students, I may provide sentence stems for beginnings, adding more details, using transitional phrases, or conclusions. The best part is that the stems give the students much needed confidence in their writing. As they become more confident, they will move away from using the sentence stems and create more original and unique sentences.
What About Early Finishers?
Since I use a workshop model and the students work through the writing process primarily at their own pace, I do need to have expectations and procedures in place for early finishers. Here are the three different procedures I have put in place over the years for my students who finish a writing piece early:
1. The easiest one is already embedded in my instruction: the students choose another writing topic from the list of topics we generate at the beginning of a new genre.
2. The other option is to request a peer conference with another student who is already finished. If you choose this, you need to have a clear procedure in my place for finding or requesting a student, what to do if no one is ready to hold a peer conference with you, and you need to explicitly teach the students how to hold peer conferences.
3. For some students, they need a bit more structure when it comes to choosing an “early finisher” activity. This is where my writing choice boards come in. I have one choice board per genre that I teach. As we learn about a genre, I print the choice board and place it on a ring. Over time, the ring will have several choice boards. Early finishers may grab a ring of boards (I make about 5-6) and choose any prompt from any of the choice boards.
These writing choice boards are available in my TeachersPayTeachers store. The resource includes 7 writing choice boards in all! Click here to see them now.
Preparing for Writing Assessments
The question I always get is: How do you use a workshop model and still prepare your students for very “unworkshop” like writing assessments? The answer is that I embed it throughout in an authentic way. Let’s take a look at an example:
My students are expected to write essays in response to two texts. So, when my students are learning how to write compare and contrast essays, we pull up information, articles, and read alouds for them to integrate their information from. This is authentically preparing them for the writing assessment in a way that still engages them in the writing.
Here is another example:
While we are writing persuasive essays, we may read two articles from two different perspectives on the topic we are writing. Then we will use those articles (and our own reasons and experiences) to craft a persuasive argument. But I never do it in a this is “test prep” way. I always try to authentically and naturally introduce the text as a way to support and strengthen our writing-this makes a HUGE difference with the students’ mindset.
Another way that I prepare my students is by taking the last nine weeks of my pacing (or 6 weeks if the writing test falls sooner) to review and practice all three genres of writing together. I think it is very important that the students are exposed to writing in all three genres together and not just in isolation. This helps solidify the differences among the three types. A resource I use to jump-start my review of all three main types of writing is my Writing Test Prep Resource.
This resource has sorts, prompts, practice printables, teaching posters, and more. It is a great way to review all three genres of writing and teach students how to analyze and respond to writing prompts. I use this resource at the beginning of my last nine weeks of instruction. It lasts about a week to go through the resources and review all the genres.
After using that resource, we move into more rigorous text stimulus writing (as required by my state assessment). However, because I have embedded this type of writing in my instruction all year, this is nothing the students haven’t already seen or done. The activities from the Writing Test Prep Resource then go into a test prep writing centers to continue reviewing before the day of the test.
I plan to write another blog post about preparing your students for writing assessments all year (and in authentic, engaging ways). Stay tuned for that!
Is how you teach writing similar or very different from how I teach? I would love to hear your thoughts on writing instruction. Let me know in the comments.
P.S. Do you want to see how I teach reading? Click here to read a detailed post that breaks down how I teach reading in 5th grade.