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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.
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 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.
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:
“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
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.