October 10, 2013

Language We Use With Student Writers

Two of the last professional development sessions that I've taught have been on how to talk to students about their writing during writing conferences.  It's really gotten me thinking about the way that I talk with my students, and I definitely thought that it was worthy of a blog post.  The professional development book that we read and discuss while talking about this is How's It Going? by Carl Anderson.  It is a book all about holding writing conferences with students.  Carl Anderson really has a way of explaining what to say and providing the rationale about why to say it.  His priorities in student learning are really in the right place, and it is an enjoying text to read and relate to as a language arts teacher.

The two big questions that I've taken away from his book that I ask myself after I've conferenced with a student are these:

1.  Can I name what I've taught this student during this writing conference?

(Many times we engage in a discussion with students about their writing and end up on a tangent or try to fix everything.  The student walks away and I, as the teacher, am unable to put a finger on what I've taught that student to do as a writer today.  It is my goal each time a child leaves a writing conference with me for me to be able to say, "I taught Abby how to do _________ in her writing today."  A teaching decision in a conference is something that you must come to quickly as you listen to the student talk about what they're thinking about their writing and look over part of their writing.  As the teacher, you must commit to what you'd like to teach them during that conference.  There may be 10 different things that come to mind after looking at their writing, but I would suggest focusing in on one topic and committing to it.)

2.  Did I teach the writer or the writing?

(Once again, when a student walks away from a conference, I ask myself if I simply fixed the piece of writing that he/she was currently working on, or did I help that student become a better writer in a way that he/she will be able to apply to future writing.  Did I make the learning generative, or did I teach the student that when they bring their writing to me in a writing conference I will simply fix everything for them?  Let me be clear: I MAKE THIS MISTAKE ALL THE TIME.  There are many times, even after me being aware of it, that a student walks away from a conference, and I know that I've fixed the writing, but I've done little to help that student grow as a writer.  It's a constant struggle and balance for a person like me who, by nature, is a bit of a perfectionist.  I sometimes feel guilty if I let obvious errors stay in their writing without addressing them.  Two things have helped me deal with this.  The first is that we have to keep students' Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in mind.  Students are not ready to take on ten different things that they're doing wrong in their writing.  To try to address ten different things would completely overwhelm them, and they would not be able to transfer all ten of those skills to their future writing, which really should be the ultimate goal.  Secondly, as a teacher, I should be holding different types of writing conferences dependent on what phase of the writing process my students are in.  Depending if they are forming ideas, drafting, revising, or editing, my conferences should revolve around that phase of the writing process.  If a student is generating ideas for a piece in their Writer's Notebook, I shouldn't sit there in a writing conference and pick at their use of homophones.  I should be focusing the conference on their idea development.  This has really helped me focus writing conferences and feel okay with picking one line of thinking to go deeper with.)

So here are some of my favorite "lines" that I keep by me while holding writing conferences to remind me of language to use.  Having this language on hand really helps hold me accountable for keeping a conference a conversation between student and teacher versus me just completely taking over.  It is important to hear how the student views his/her writing and sees himself/herself as a writer.  Hearing their voice should impact how we individually teach that student during the conference.  This language was taken from Carl Anderson's book, How's It Going?.

·       What work are you doing as a writer today?
·       What can I help you with today?
·       Could you say more about that?
·       What do you mean by…
·       Could you explain what you mean by…
·       Have you planned out your draft?
·       What’s the focus of your piece?
·       What kinds of revisions have you made?
·       How are you going to do this work?
·       What strategies are you going to use to do this work?
·       How are you planning to get started with your draft?
·       Have you done some of the revision work you tried in your last piece?
·       How did you pick the idea for your draft this time?
·       Have you tried out what we talked about today in the minilesson?
·       Remember how we talked yesterday in the minilesson about revision strategies?  Have you used any of them to help you revise?
·       Why did you pick these places to add-on?
·       Why did you decide to structure your draft this way?
·       Why did you repeat this line several times?
·       One thing I do when I’m [revising] is…
·       I’ve noticed that when Tamara [a student in class] is [revising], she…
·       Something I know that Gary Paulsen [or any other author] does when he [revises] is…
·       One thing that writers do when they’re [revising] is…
·       That’s really interesting.  So what are you doing as a writer today?  (to redirect)
·       Why don’t you show me what you’ve been working on today, and describe what you’re doing?
·       Last time we talked you were working on your lead.  Where are things now?
·       I see that you were [crossing out a section of your draft], can you tell me what’s going on?
·       I’m going to take a look at your draft and describe what I think you’re doing as a writer today.
·       Could you explain what you mean by…
·       Let me tell you what I’m hearing here…

Take the time to talk with your students about their writing and help them improve as WRITERS each time you do.  It can truly make a world of difference!


  1. Great tips . . . I'm going to print this one :-)


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