New Blog Series: Tailoring our Teaching / Assessment-based Strategy Groups for Expository Writing

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When I first began teaching using a workshop model, I spent forever planning my minilessons. I wanted to make sure that my language was exactly right, and that I got to each part of the minilesson (I often forgot the active engagement). I felt that the quality of my minilessons was the measure of my teaching. After the minilesson was over and I would send kids off to write, I felt as if my big work was done for that session. I admit, when the kids were settled and writing away, I would often give myself a break, sitting back and reveling in the fact that my minilesson seemed to have worked. I knew I should be conferring, but the kids all seemed fine, so it was easy not to do it.

As my teaching has evolved, I’ve come to realize what a disservice I was doing those kids. I now know that the way to most effectively and efficiently move writers is not through the minilesson. It is through time spent working with individuals and small groups in conferences and strategy lessons as they write independently. This is the time when teachers can support each writer with exactly what he or she needs, when we can help nudge them just a little further up the ladder of sophistication. If I could go back and give my previous self some teaching advice, I’d say to shift some of that energy spent planning minilessons into energy planning conferences and small groups. I’d tell myself to spend more time studying student work, thinking about which students really needed which kids of support, and who could be grouped together for more effective instruction.

Incidentally, it is often the thing which has the biggest payoff which is the hardest to do. Many teachers  say that the component of writing workshop they would most like to work on is conferring. To support the vital yet challenging  work of conferring and strategy groups, we are pleased to announce our first blog series as a new Two Writing Teachers team:

Tailoring Our Teaching

Over the next week, we will be posting about this all-important component of the writing workshop. Here is our lineup:

Sun., 11/3: Assessment-based Strategy Groups for Expository Writing by Anna

Mon., 11/4 Strategy Lessons Support Writers by Stacey

Tues., 11/5: No Need to Wing It If You’ve Got Great Conferring Notes by Beth

Wed., 11/6: Using a Writing Engagement Tool by Dana

Thurs., 11/7:  Conferring: The Basics With the Youngest Writers by Betsy

Fri., 11/8:  Small Group Conferences in 6th. Grade – Reaching Every Writer by Tara

Sat., 11/9:  Wrap-up by Stacey

We look forward to your comments and suggestions as you join us on this blogging journey.
Assessment-based Strategy Groups for Expository Writing

Essay/Argument writing is becoming more and more of a Very Big Deal these days. It’s no wonder – it’s a kind of writing (and thinking) that is ubiquitous in workplaces and in life. The abilities to debate, to put together an argument, and to be convincing, are crucial. Perhaps it is no mistake that this kind of writing comes first in the Common Core Standards.

Information writing also falls under the umbrella of expository writing. Learning to do one kind of writing well compliments the other, as the basic qualities are similar; structure and elaboration are key.
Often at the start of an expository writing unit, structure is the emphasis. We teach students to organize their writing using reasons or topics, to group examples  related to those reasons or topics into sections, and only then to begin collecting the information and evidence that will fit in each section. It makes sense, then, to concentrate on your students’ strengths and weaknesses regarding structure at the start of an expository writing unit.

To form strategy groups to support structure, study your students’ work, looking for their level of skill in a few typical categories.

  • Grouping information – Notice whether each page (for younger writers) or each section or paragraph (for older writers) is about the same thing. This seemingly simple skill can be tricky for kids who are learning to elaborate a single line of thinking. Teach them to notice when parts of a section don’t really seem to go with the rest.
  • Using paragraphing & text features to support structure – It is the writer’s job to make sure the reader understands the way the writing is structured, particularly in expository writing. Even younger writers can learn to use subtitles or headings to let readers know what a whole page is about. Older writers can create structure using both subtitles and paragraphs, using paragraphs as a way to add another layer of structure within sections.
  • Transition words – The Common Core Standards emphasize the use of linking words and phrases in all three kinds of writing. Using transition words expertly as a writer not only takes an understanding of the words themselves, it also takes an understanding of the way in which parts of writing are connected. Learning to use more sophisticated transition words and phrases and learning to structure writing in a more sophisticated way go hand in hand. Take note of the kinds of words and phrases your students use to link sections and parts within sections, and use what you learn to group your writers for strategy lessons. Some may not be using any at all, and some may be trying some phrases, albeit awkwardly, while others will be ready to learn more sophisticated words and phrases such as consequently and conversely.
  • Setting up sections and the piece as a whole with an introduction - We often teach writers to draft the introduction after drafting the rest of the piece, as drafting the introduction first often creates a case of the tail wagging the dog. Writers need to feel free to explore structure while drafting, changing the order of sections, adding and deleting sections, making subtopics bigger or smaller. Once the writer has done this work, he or she can write an introduction that forecasts the way in which the section or piece will be organized. Take note of which writers have forecasted structure in their introductions and which introduced their topic and stopped there and plan groups accordingly.

Later in an expository writing unit, once students have strong drafts going and a good sense of how to organize their writing, the teaching often turns toward elaboration, helping kids to fill up their sections with rich details and information.  It is often difficult to know what to teach kids with paltry writing to do, other than “say more”.  Organizing strategy groups based on common elaboration moves can help.

  • Including a variety of evidence - Of course, minilessons is where you will teach writers about all the kinds of evidence and information they can include to enrich their writing, such as quotes, definitions, dates, statistics, small bits of narrative, images, and comparisons. Strategy groups are a great place to both support kids whose writing is sparse or who only include one type of evidence and to push more advanced writers to include an even greater variety.
  • Writing on even with spotty research - Naturally, one of the trickiest parts of research-based units is kids trying to write who haven’t collected enough research. These writers often become stymied and run the risk of spending writing workshop staring at a blank page. Of course, one option is to get them going on doing some research. However, a better time for research might be during social studies or reading workshop, since writing workshop should really mostly be about writing. Gather kids without enough research and teach them to keep drafting even without the exact information they need, leaving parts black with notes to themselves about what they need to find out later.
  • Adding some thinking - Some writers might include fact after fact without much of their own distilling or synthesizing. Gather these writers and teach them to use thought prompts to say more about these facts. Simply adding a phrase such as “This is important because…” or “This connects to…” and then writing on can lead writers to do some lovely interpretative work.
  • Using transition phrases to elaborate - In addition to using transition words and phrases as a way to denote structure, writers can use them to say more about a topic. Gather writers who need more help either with elaboration in general or with expanding on particular pieces of evidence. Teach them to use the connecting words and phrases they know as a way to add on.
  • Mentorship with a Published Text (for more advanced writers) – You might gather writers who are already trying most of the elaboration moves you’ve taught and are ready for next steps and teach them to study a published text in order discover new, even more sophisticated ways of elaborating. Seymour Simon is always a wonderful mentor author for an expository unit. Studying even a few pages of one of his books reveals a host of elaboration moves, such as using comparisons, speaking directly to the reader, or simplifying confusing concepts with lots of examples.

Shanna Schwartz, a colleague at the Reading and Writing Project and staff developer extraordinaire, has a nice way of talking about keeping strategy groups fluid. She explains that it’s important to have a sense of kids’ “ticket in” & “ticket out” of the group, in other words, what do they have to demonstrate in their writing to be part of the group (no transition words, no thoughts about the information, e.g.), and what do they have to demonstrate to be released from the group (adding a few simple transition words and phrases, trying some thought prompts to add their ideas). Note that writers need not be full masters of a skill before being released from the group, they might just be slightly more on their way. Organizing groups based on typical structure and elaboration moves is an effective way to build your writers’ skill in this kind of writing as quickly as possible.