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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.

Shared writing

Shared writing involves the teacher and a group of students – often the whole class – in planning and constructing a text together. The teacher models and talks through the process of constructing a text (or part of one), giving explicit instruction in how to use writing strategies during the shared writing process. The students contribute their ideas and expertise to the process of constructing the text. (This is often followed by guided writing; when the teacher has constructed part of a text, the students continue writing their own texts, working with teacher support but as individual writers.) Through shared writing, students can take part in constructing a more complex text than they would be able to write on their own.

Modelling can be used as an instructional strategy to show students, step by step, the planning, shaping, and structuring of a text for a specific purpose. The teacher may model the use of a “mind map” or “web” to show how a writer assembles ideas and then sorts them to be ready for writing. Carefully planned questions can help the students to think about how a particular text might be organised. The teacher may prompt by showing them similar familiar material or by reviewing with them the features of a particular type of text.

This approach enables the teacher to expose students to new, rich language, adding to the range of vocabulary and language structures that they can use in their personal writing. Shared writing reinforces positive attitudes towards writing by making it an enjoyable and creative activity.

The shared writing approach is not just for beginners. In years 3 and 4 and beyond, teachers can help their students to develop more complex ideas and language and can foster their critical awareness as writers. Shared writing provides an excellent context for introducing or reinforcing information about the features of texts, including the features of the kinds of non-fiction texts that students will later encounter in science, mathematics, and other curriculum areas.

The teacher begins by sharing the purpose for the shared writing session with the students. During the session, the teacher acts as scribe, writing on a chart or whiteboard in front of the students and showing them how to construct a coherent and enjoyable text. Over a series of shared writing sessions, the whole process of writing a text may be modelled – forming intentions, composing, revising, and publishing for an audience (see pages 138–141). Generally, however, the product of shared writing is intended to meet an immediate purpose, so the group will focus on only one part of the process.

Topics for shared writing can arise from many sources, including:

  • current events and situations in the students’ lives 
  • current themes in cross-curricular work 
  • readings that the students have shared 
  • artefacts or objects that the students have handled and discussed 
  • discoveries in the natural environment 
  • hobbies or school activities that the students take part in 
  • images from wordless picture books, photo sequences, or paintings.

Shared writing provides a supportive instructional setting in which (depending on their students’ learning needs) teachers can:

  • model the process of writing 
  • explain and model the use of the conventions of written text 
  • explicitly teach writing strategies 
  • analyse how words are constructed 
  • focus on letters, words, and letter-sound relationships 
  • explore letter clusters, words within words, and patterns of spelling 
  • model strategies for checking and improving spelling, syntax, and punctuation 
  • model strategies for rereading and revising texts 
  • develop students’ vocabulary and their knowledge of syntax and idiom 
  • show students how to choose language to convey emotion or to persuade an audience 
  • demonstrate the use of a range of forms and structures in written language 
  • develop students’ sense of an author’s purpose and of the different audiences for different types of text.

During shared writing, as the teacher prompts, gives feedback, explains, and questions, valuable conversations arise between the teacher and students and also among students. In order to encourage the ideas and contributions of all the students, the teacher may sometimes need to elicit a response from the shy or new child. Effective teachers build and maintain a momentum so that all students are motivated and engaged in the activity.

I reinforce reading and writing behaviours through shared and guided reading and writing sessions throughout the week. Each day, I tell my own story – just one sentence long. The students love hearing and reading about my dogs and other funny or sad incidents. They often suggest to me what I might write about. During the writing, I articulate my sentence, and the students repeat it and clap it, to help use the rhythm to retain the idea. I model where to begin and the spaces between the words, and I articulate words slowly, to identify the sounds we can hear.

The students say the word slowly together and may use their alphabet charts or resources around the room to help locate a sound-to-letter match or a known sight word. I select the students who I know have just mastered a concept to contribute. It might be to locate a high-frequency word, or to give me the first, middle, or last letter they can hear, or to tell me to put in a space or a full stop. This helps to reinforce and celebrate their new learning. We all reread after every word to check what we have written and establish what our next word will be. When the sentence is complete, we check: “Is this what I mean to say?” “Can I put in the full stop now?” When agreement is reached, we reread it, and the students clap to represent the full stop.

The students then discuss with a partner what they are going to write about, and they articulate their writing goal before they draw pictures as part of the process for clarifying their ideas. I focus the students on their personal goals before they begin their writing, using reminders like “Say your words slowly and write down the first and last letters that you hear” or “Use a full stop at the end of the sentence.”

The students are making quite rapid progress because they are very clear about what they are paying attention to and are getting appropriate feedback.

Teacher, new entrants to year 1

A great deal of implicit learning occurs in shared writing, just as it does in language experience activities. The students listen actively and also participate as the teacher makes links to what they have recently read, heard, or written.

Teachers can introduce students to many forms of text during shared writing – reports, recounts, instructions, explanations, descriptions, narratives, charts, labels, speech balloons, wall stories, captions for photographs, diaries, shopping lists, recipes, dialogue, poetry, and more. Familiar texts can also provide starting points for shared writing. The teacher and students can innovate on a story, a poem, or even a particular sentence that they enjoyed, patterning a new idea on its style and structure. This can lead to conversations that build the students’ awareness, especially when teachers model strategic questions like: “What makes this good writing?” “How can we make our writing like this?”

The teacher uses shared writing to develop the students’ understanding of how different kinds of writing meet different purposes. By making links with the students’ reading, teachers can elicit or explain the reasons why, for example, lists, reports, instructions, and letters are presented differently. The teacher helps the students to make the connections and to transfer the learning to their reading or future writing (see also chapter 5).

Using shared writing to meet diverse needs

Shared writing is an effective way of supporting NESB students. They can see the text growing slowly and carefully as the teacher scribes, and they can be encouraged, in this supportive environment, to contribute ideas. Words and phrases are repeated and revised, enabling all the students to build on their existing vocabulary and language skills. This is also very valuable for students who are experiencing difficulties in writing, including those who lack confidence or motivation.

Shared writing enables teachers to build the learning of those whose home literacy practices differ from those of the school, to incorporate these students’ expertise, and to help them learn about classroom literacy activities. In shared writing, topics can be chosen to reflect the students’ diverse experiences and backgrounds.

Interactive writing

In “interactive writing”, a variation of shared writing, all the children are involved in scribing the common text. Each child needs a marker or pencil and a small whiteboard or clipboard. The teacher leads the writing, but all the children write down the text themselves, sometimes copying and sometimes writing known letters and words themselves.

Interactive writing is most effective with a small group. It provides a safe and supportive environment for reluctant writers, for NESB students (students from non-English-speaking backgrounds), and for any students who need to give intensive attention to features of the English language.

By involving their students in this way as “apprentices”, the teacher can make explicit the various conventions of print (such as spacing, punctuation, and directionality) as well as helping the children to express meaning and think about what is being written. As the children become more confident and fluent, they will move from interactive writing, where they are fully supported, to guided writing.

I use everyday events or objects to create sentences to work with. If it’s a windy day, we might discuss what it feels, sounds, or looks like, and I will draw out from the students a sentence that captures what they think, feel, or notice, like “The wind is whooing and booming”. My focus is to help the students to extend their vocabulary and articulate and record a complete sentence.

I encourage them to quickly record the known words and help them to slowly articulate, hear, and record the sounds in the words that are unfamiliar to them. “You can write ‘the’. Say ‘wind’ slowly. What can you hear?” The students independently use their knowledge of sound-to-letter relationships to attempt the unknown words on their whiteboards while being observed and prompted to make connections between what they know and what they are learning. “You can write ‘in’. Now, how can you write ‘wind’?” I record the correct word on my chart, and this provides instant feedback on their efforts. This way, they are receiving a correct model to read from.

Teacher, year 1 class

Guided writing

In guided writing, as in guided reading, the student progressively takes control of the writing process. The teacher usually works with a group on a focused task. The teacher knows what the students have already learned, what their needs and interests are, and what their next learning steps will be. These steps are generally identified as the learning goals for a writing task that follows on from a model provided during shared writing. The students construct their texts individually, working with the ideas about writing already developed with the teacher. The teacher supports them in working out how best to convey their message to the intended audience.

During guided writing sessions, students can practise any or all of the steps in the writing process (as set out on pages 138–141). The students learn from each other as well as from the teacher, seeking and responding to feedback as they each think and talk their way through the task.

The teacher’s instructional objective may be to:

  • teach a writing skill, for example, how to write dialogue using correct punctuation 
  • focus the students’ attention on a specific strategy for writing, such as using mind maps to plan a text 
  • provide a framework within which individual students can develop their personal voice 
  • build the students’ vocabulary knowledge by using new language and clarifying it in initial discussion 
  • encourage the students to choose words carefully, thinking about their likely effect on the intended audience 
  • teach the students about the characteristics of different text forms 
  • build in the students a sense of being one of a community of writers.

Independent writing

As well as working on teacher-directed writing tasks, students need time to write for their own purposes while engaging with topics that are significant to them.

Independent writing gives students opportunities to explore ideas that interest them and to practise what they have learned during shared and guided writing. Students need opportunities to write simply and honestly about their own experiences and things that matter a lot to them and to share their writing. 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.

When the students are writing on their own, the teacher can observe their writing and note their progress. Teachers should be ready to support or guide when necessary, but they need to be sensitive about intervening in a way that might interrupt a writer’s train of thought or reduce their sense of ownership of their writing. Writing should always be an enjoyable activity. Students should look forward to sharing their writing with a teacher who helps them to reflect critically on what they have written and to consider how the reader will feel when reading it.

Students should always have the opportunity to share their finished writing with a group or class and to see their work displayed. The teacher models collaborative ways of talking about writing so that the students are supported in sharing their work and can help one another to extend their thinking and clarify their meaning. When everyone is involved in helping to extend a piece of writing in a supportive and creative classroom climate, all the students benefit.

Language experience activities

Language experience activities are a way of motivating learners that can lead into meaningful writing (including shared or guided writing). Language experience activities involve planned, purposeful “doing and talking” together, which will be followed by writing and reading about the experience. Such activities help young learners to make sense of their world by taking part in, sharing, and discussing authentic experiences and (usually) going on to contribute to or construct a written text about them.

The teacher engages the students in the experience and in discussion that elicits the students’ own language about the experience, some of which is generally recorded on a whiteboard. The teacher may go on to use shared or guided writing to produce the text or texts about the experience. The key feature of this approach is that it uses talk about children’s experiences as the basis for writing.

A great deal of implicit learning occurs during language experience activities. Many messages are conveyed about the nature of writing, how print works, and the conventions of various forms of written language.

Language experience activities make visible the links between spoken and written language. A lot of talk takes place, and the children become aware that writing arises from oral language. As the children enjoy reading and rereading the texts that they have created, they build their awareness of the relationship between reading and writing.

Language experience activities also provide opportunities for teachers to meet instructional objectives in particular subject areas and to develop literacy learning across the curriculum.

This example describes a series of language experience activities in a small rural school. The school also used the “eels” topic for wider cross-curriculum work (see pages 173–176).

One focus of the experience was catching eels and keeping them in a glass tank in the classroom. The children were able to observe the eels in the tank and to feed them. This generated huge enthusiasm. Children who were generally reluctant to share (especially some of the boys) suddenly had lots to say about their own eeling trips.

Together, we brainstormed words to describe what eels look like, how they move, and what they feel like. We added new words to a whiteboard as the children thought of them. The children relished adding and repeating words like “flappy”, “gooey”, “slimy”, “slippery”, “creepy”, “sloppy”, and “slithery”. I used the opportunity to draw attention to the “ee” sound of “y”.

We used the experience to meet many objectives. We read informational and literary texts in shared and guided reading and researched to find further information. The children drew and labelled diagrams and wrote poems. Collaboratively, we wrote a big book modelled on Patricia Grace’s Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street. The children discovered technical and scientific terms. They still talk about “migration”, “metamorphosis”, and “hypotheses” – terms that my five- and six-year-olds met for the first time through this experience.

The children, most of whom are Maori, felt a high level of ownership of the learning – it had personal value for them. The experience and related activities affirmed their cultural values around something that was of traditional significance in their community.

What I want my children to understand is that what they experience can not only be talked about; it can also be written down, and in their words. The big book we made at the time, capturing their own words, is still in constant use months later.

Teachers plan interesting, enjoyable language experiences with an instructional purpose in mind. These experiences help children to think about what they would like to write. For example, the teacher may use:

  • special events within the school, such as a fair, a sports day, or a visit 
  • special events beyond the school, such as a celebration or another local or national occasion 
  • a practical activity, such as cooking or painting.

Language experience activities allow the teacher and children to develop a shared language as together they use the language orally and discuss how to transform it into writing. The teacher models writing down some of the key words and phrases that arise in the discussion.

During discussion, meanings are clarified, and so the conversation can be extended. The students’ ideas are explored, and their words are recorded, by the teacher in shared writing or by the student in guided writing.

Such writing is deeply personal because it reflects the children’s voices directly. The teacher has a strategic role in ensuring that each child has ownership of what is written. One reason why language experience activities are so effective with new learners of English and students from diverse cultural backgrounds is that the experience can capture and affirm what is of personal value to each student.

Learner writers may express their ideas first in drawing. Teachers can gain a lot of information from their students’ drawings, for example, by observing the subject matter they choose and the details they include.

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: 21 Mar 2016