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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Approaches to teaching writing

Information to support teachers in implementing a range of approaches that will help students to develop the knowledge, strategies, and awareness required to become effective writers.

Grouping for writing

Students should be grouped for writing instruction, although writing groups are generally more flexible than guided reading groups. Grouping for writing, like grouping for reading, is always based on the students’ identified learning needs.

Writing groups include groups formed on a short-term basis and longer term groups. A short-term writing group is formed because certain students share a particular strength or need; the teacher may have identified this while monitoring the students’ writing. The teacher draws a group of students together, shares the learning goal with them, and works closely with them to enable them to meet that goal. The composition of such writing groups is based on the teacher’s identification of a particular strength or need.

Longer term writing groups are instructional groups that the teacher forms on the basis of student writing samples that have been gathered and analysed. The students are grouped according to shared strengths, needs, and next steps identified from the samples, and a set of writing goals is established for each group. The teacher works, over time, with each group in shared and guided writing sessions and in group conferences about writing. As a general guide, there should be no more than four longer term writing groups in a class and a maximum of eight students in each group. Since students progress at different rates, the make-up of the writing groups will change as the students’ competencies change.

Teachers may not schedule these groups for regular writing instruction in the way that reading instruction groups are scheduled. However, it is important for teachers to ensure that they spend instructional time with each group and with each student on a regular basis.

Shared writing

Shared writing involves the teacher and a group of students – often the whole class – in working together to plan and construct a text (or part of one). The teacher demonstrates and talks through the process of constructing the text, giving explicit instruction in how to use relevant writing strategies effectively. The students contribute their ideas and expertise as the text is constructed. Most shared writing sessions last for between ten and twenty minutes. Just as in shared reading, sitting together as a group develops a sense of community and enables the students to discuss the text in a collaborative way.

In a shared writing session, the teacher selects and uses a range of instructional strategies. For example, the teacher might model and explain how to link and sequence words and phrases into simple, compound, or complex sentences. Or the teacher might prompt the students in order to reinforce their awareness of the features of a particular text form.

The shared writing approach enables teachers to help students develop more complex ideas and language and to foster their critical awareness as writers. It provides an excellent setting for introducing or reinforcing information about specific text forms, including the transactional text forms that students will increasingly encounter in social studies, science, mathematics, and other curriculum areas.

Shared writing enables the group to make connections with their reading. During shared writing, students can develop a writer’s perspective on their instructional reading texts. Learning how these text forms are constructed helps the students to read them more effectively. Sometimes shared writing draws directly on shared reading, for example, when the group prepares for writing by deconstructing an existing text, searching together for the writing features and literary devices that the writer has employed to create the text.

Shared writing can be very motivating for students as developing writers. When it is an enjoyable, creative, and empowering activity, students develop and reinforce positive attitudes towards writing.

Introducing the session

In every shared writing session, the student writers have a specific purpose for writing and also a learning goal. The teacher shares the purpose for writing, for example, “to persuade readers to adopt your point of view”. This writing purpose is reflected in the set task or tasks for the session, for example, “to write a letter in order to persuade the recipient to adopt your point of view”. The teacher also shares the learning goal with the students, that is, they tell the students what they will be learning about writing during the session. For example, “We are learning how to state a personal position and support it with evidence.”

Both the purpose for writing and the learning goal are based on the needs of the students in the group, as identified from analysed writing data (for example, analysis of texts in the students’ draft writing books). It is important that the students have a clear understanding of both their writing purpose and their learning goal.

Teachers often lead students into shared writing through a collaborative discussion about what they could write together to meet their purpose. This talk may determine the content of the writing. Shared writing discussions can involve, for example, discussing current themes in cross-curricular work, talking about the content of a graphic organiser that they have filled in during shared or guided reading, or recalling and discussing personal stories.

During the session

During a shared writing session, the teacher acts as scribe, writing on a chart or board that all the students can see easily. Generally, the students contribute most of the text, often in response to the teacher’s questions and prompts, but sometimes the teacher writes parts of the text in front of the students, with just occasional contributions from them. As the text is recorded, it is constantly reread and amended as teacher and students work towards communicating their ideas more and more accurately and effectively. By promoting continual revision of the draft text, the teacher reinforces the importance of ongoing editing, especially to strengthen the deeper features of the text. Students should be encouraged to reread the draft text through the eyes of its intended audience.

It is important to encourage and value contributions from all students in conversations during shared writing. The teacher may sometimes need to elicit a response from a shy or new student. Effective teachers build and maintain a momentum so that all their students are motivated and engaged in the activity. “Think, pair, share” is a good strategy for engaging all students in shared writing conversations.

Concluding the session

Towards the end of the session, the students proofread the draft text. This gives the message that skilled writers attend to the surface features as well as the deeper features of writing before publishing a text.

The students also analyse the completed text, for example, by comparing it to an existing text that they have deconstructed. A range of teacher questions and prompts can help them to ascertain how far the text meets its purpose and how far the students have met their learning goal.

The conversations that take place during this analysis enable new writing purposes and learning goals to be identified. Sometimes the teacher sets a writing purpose for the group; sometimes the students suggest or identify their own writing purpose, based on what they know about their own learning needs and goals. Effective teachers generally involve the students in helping to plan the criteria that will show they have met their learning or writing purpose.

These conversations also build the students’ awareness and understanding of quality writing, especially when teachers ask strategic questions such as “What makes this writing have this impact on you as a reader? How can we make our writing as effective as this?” Thinking about these questions contributes to students’ metacognitive awareness.

Over a series of shared writing sessions, all of the processes used in writing a text can be demonstrated and discussed – forming intentions, crafting, recrafting, and sometimes presenting to an audience. Often, the product of shared writing is intended to meet an immediate learning need, and the group may focus on only one part of one process during each session. The same learning goal or writing purpose can be explored over several sessions.

After a successful shared writing session, many students are ready to write independently. The shared writing session will have clarified for them the purpose for writing, the writing strategies and skills they need to employ, and the features of a text that meets the purpose (that is, what success looks like). They will also be clear about their learning goal and how they will know that they are learning what they planned to learn. Some students, including many new learners of English, may need additional directed instruction through guided writing.

The purpose for writing in our shared writing session was to create a dialogue between two eight-year-olds, one living in 1905 and one in 2005, for a video the students were making about our school’s history. Our learning goal was “to select language that was authentic and would engage the viewer”, and the criteria we came up with were:

  • the words should be words that real children of each period used;
  • the dialogue should sound like spoken language, not like someone reading aloud;
  • the dialogue should be humorous, building on the differences between the wo periods.

“What might they say first?” I asked. “They’d say, ‘Who are you?’” suggested Mei. “Perhaps, but what’s important when we start a text?” I asked. “Hook the reader in!” said Jodi. I challenged them, “How can we do that in an authentic way, in this text?” “They could both be surprised at the other one’s clothes,” said Hone. “They might both think the other one was going to a fancy dress party.” “So, what shall I write? What would you say if it was you?” “Hey, man, why are you wearing that hat … and those stockings and funny kind of pants … and all that other weird gear?”

I scribed this on the board and asked, “Are we happy with that? Is it engaging? What about the length?” The group decided that “Hey, man” and “weird gear” would hook the viewer in, but that the sentence was too long for a two-person dialogue, so we edited it down to “Hey, man, why are you wearing all that weird gear?” Then we got onto the challenging business of working out how a 1905 child might respond to this piece of modern jargon. We had been reading some E. Nesbit dialogues as one way of preparing for this.

Teacher, year 5 and 6 class

Using shared writing to help students who are experiencing difficulties

Shared writing is an effective way to support students who are experiencing difficulties in writing, including those who lack confidence or motivation. It is also an effective way of helping students who are learning to write in English as a new language. Within the supportive environment of the shared writing session, they can see the text growing slowly and purposefully as the teacher scribes, and they can be encouraged to contribute ideas. Words, phrases, and sentences are repeated and revised, enabling the students to build on their existing vocabulary and language skills.

Guided writing

Guided writing is an opportunity for the teacher to work intensively with a small group of students who share similar learning needs. Guided writing often follows shared writing. The guided writing group may be a longer term group, or it may be an occasional group formed for a specific instructional objective. The teacher knows what the students have already learned, what their needs and interests are, and what their next learning step will be. The next learning step is explicit in the learning goal for the writing activity. The writing activity generally involves working on a model developed during shared writing

The students, sitting with the teacher, construct their texts individually in their own draft books. The teacher supports them closely in finding the best way to meet their learning goal. For example, if the goal were “to use tense consistently in sentences”, the teacher and students might initially decide on the general thrust of some sentences that require manipulation of tense. All the students would write their sentences individually in their draft books and then share them with the teacher and with each other. Such sharing helps students to discover how well they are meeting the purpose. The students learn from one another as well as from the teacher, seeking, offering, and responding to feedback as they think, talk, and write their way through the task. The teacher is able to monitor the progress of every student.

Although this approach to writing is most often employed with students who need extra support, it is equally useful for extending high achievers and, indeed, all students. For example, if the purpose were “to use the passive voice effectively”, the students might work first as a group, with the teacher, and then individually to change instances of the active voice to the passive voice in an existing explanation text. The teacher might model the process and then direct the students to make further changes independently. The group might go on to talk about the changes they have made individually and the difference that their changes have made to the tone of the text.

Guided writing provides students with additional scaffolding so that they can achieve their writing purpose and learning goal more effectively. It should not simply repeat hat has been taught in a shared writing session.

In this session, the teacher combined shared, independent, and guided writing.

I had read Zoo by Anthony Browne to my students, and we had built up a word bank that related to the father’s character from all the written and visual clues that the author had given us. The students described the “Dad” character as “domineering”, “egocentric”, “an opportunist”, and “a bully”. We decided to write an anecdote about Dad that would suggest his personality through his actions, what he says, and what others say about him.

I provided the setting (“He is standing in the doorway of this classroom ...”) and asked questions to keep the story moving (“What does he do after that?”). I also prompted the students to think about language options (“Does he sit on the sofa or crash onto the sofa?”). Together, we reread each sentence to see how we could strengthen its character clues. I scaffolded and scribed, but the students contributed most of the key content. We wrote just five sentences in fifteen minutes, but they were quality sentences!

We then discussed whether we had achieved our purpose (yes) and identified what we had done to achieve it. What we identified became the students’ criteria for their independent writing – for example, we had carefully selected actions and used powerful, precise verbs to denote characterisation. Most students were now ready to write their own anecdote, and I got them to select their own setting for their independent writing. Suddenly, Dad was in a restaurant or at a rugby match or in an aeroplane.

But I knew, through my monitoring of their writing, that a small group of students needed extra support to develop language for characterisation, so I undertook a follow-up guided writing mini-lesson with them. This meant getting them to bring their draft books and a pencil into a small-group situation. I asked them each to choose a setting and to share it with the group before writing it down. The small-group context enabled me to discuss Dad’s first possible action in their chosen setting with each writer. We focused as a group on choosing language to convey the feeling of that action and the way Dad did it – “How does he come into the shop?” “He slams the door.” “That’s a good verb, but the sentence ends up being about the door, not Dad.” “Could I say he ‘slams his way’ into the shop?” As the students wrote in their draft books and checked their writing with each other and with me, we were able to keep the focus on verbs and actions and what these said about Dad.

Teacher, year 7 and 8 class

Independent writing

Independent writing means students writing by themselves with varying levels of support from the teacher. In most independent writing situations, the student will write for a specific purpose with a clear understanding of what achieving this purpose will “look like”. Teachers provide a good model when they share their own writing and are as honest and specific in their writing as they expect their students to be.

Often the independent writing task is generated through shared writing. After the shared writing session, many students are ready to write independently using the writing strategy or skill they have learned with the group. Some students, however, need the additional scaffolding and support that guided writing gives them before they begin to write independently.

As well as completing teacher-directed writing tasks, students need time to write for their own purposes. They need opportunities to write simply and honestly about their own experiences and things that matter to them and to share their writing. Self-selected writing tasks enable students to explore ideas that interest them and to practise, at their own pace, what they have learned during shared and guided writing.

As the students write, the teacher talks with individuals, giving feedback about their writing as appropriate. It’s important to be ready to support students when necessary but not to intervene in a way that interrupts the writer’s train of thought or reduces their sense of owning their own writing. Writing should always be an enjoyable activity. Students should look forward to sharing work with a teacher who helps them to reflect on what they have written and to consider how the reader will feel when reading it.

Students should be encouraged to share their writing with a buddy, a group, or the class. They may choose to share their work at the draft, revised, or published stage. Sometimes they will display published work in the classroom or at another school or community venue. Effective teachers model collaborative ways of talking about writing so that their students are supported in sharing their work and can help one another to clarify their meaning and extend their thinking. When everyone is involved in helping to extend a piece of writing in a supportive and creative classroom climate, all the students benefit.

Sharing work also creates an opportunity to celebrate students’ writing achievements. Making meaning of, thinking critically about, and enjoying their own texts and one another’s is rewarding and helps to establish a community of writers.

From shared to guided writing

Each of these videos is accompanied by focus questions, and expert comment.

Writing 1:  This clip is from a shared writing lesson of year 6-8 students at Rangikura School, Ascot Park, Porirua.  The teacher is Amanda Frater and she has used asTTle data to analyse the needs of her students. The class has a wide range of abilities, and diversity in social, cultural, and ethnic background. The data reveals that the students need to develop in the areas of structure and audience awareness. The first step, shown in this clip, was to help Eric to express and develop his ideas about how he felt at his special place.

Writing 2: This clip shows the second step, namely, the joint composing of a sentence to reflect Eric's ideas.

Writing 3: In this clip, Amanda has set up individual conferences with her students to explore each student's language choices as they created images of their special place. This interaction with Eliesa was to build his understanding of the need to be precise in language choices to convey images, and also to be selective in deciding what to include, keeping in mind the impact on the reader. 

Published on: 22 Mar 2016