March 15, 2015

Four Ways to Model Writing for Students

Over the years, my writing instruction has fluctuated and the pendulum has swung from one side to the other, and then back again.  It took me a long time to realize that writing instruction does not rest in one camp or another.  My happiest place as an instructor of writing was found somewhere right in the middle.  On one extreme, I have seen myself and other teachers structure writing instruction so much that it becomes more of a fill-in-the-blank exercise than an example of students' original ideas.  On the other extreme, there are times where I've tried the "write whatever comes to your mind" or the "just do it" approach to teaching (or lack of teaching) writing.  Neither proved too successful.  The first because even if students were able to produce a perfect written masterpiece, I realized all of my students' papers looked exactly the same, and I might as well put "written by Ms. Kiehl" on the top of the paper than the name of the student.  The other way of teaching can cause mutual frustration because of a complete lack of expectations from teacher to students and from students to teacher.

So what is the answer to writing instruction?  Good instructors of writing teach students what it means to be a writer.  They teach students how to think, feel, process, and problem solve while writing.  They provide authentic writing experiences for students and teach how to hurdle over any problems that arise while writing.  So how do teachers do these things while teach writing?  They use a gradual release of responsibility while teaching writing to give a definite focus each day on what students should accomplish as writers, model what it looks like to be a writer and apply the minilesson to writing, support students as they try the minilesson in their own writing, and give them TIME to try out the minilesson independently in their writing while supporting this time through writing conferences and/or guided writing.  One of the most important steps in this process is modeling writing to students, and it can be done in several different ways.  Here are five:

1.  Modeling using your writing.  In order to use this technique, the you must have a piece of writing that you are taking through the writing process right alongside the students.  If students are writing a research paper and working on the introduction paragraph during the minilesson that day, you would model by having your introduction paragraph for your research paper written prior to class that day.  Once you have shown your introduction to the class, you can follow-up with some of the questions below:

-What do you notice about my writing? (This might be the only question you need to ask.  For many classes, they will touch on all of the follow-up questions below without needing to be prompted.)
-How did I begin my introduction?
-How did I conclude my introduction?
-How was my word choice?
-What transitions did I use?
-How did my ideas flow together?
-What will you have to do to write an introduction like this for your topic?

One thing to note about modeling writing using this technique is that I would recommend modeling EXACTLY what you are asking your students to do as writers.  If you are doing research paper introductions, do not share an introduction for a persuasive essay.  Also, share only the part relevant for that particular minilesson to keep students focused on the writing task at hand for the day.

2.  Write and model your writing on the spot.  Sometimes it's inspiring for students to see their teacher put the paper to pencil just like they will be doing for the day.  Sticking with the introduction to a research paper example, you would expose your thinking process for how you would form your lead, give the reader some background information about your topic, compose a thesis statement, and how you would connect the different ideas of the introduction together.  Exposing your writer's brain to students makes you vulnerable.  You will sometimes struggle while modeling using this technique, you might make a mistake and have to make mini revisions and edits on the spot.  This is the beauty of modeling writing this way.  The vulnerability you show to students as a writer by doing the writing on the spot in front of them will show them that they can do it, too.  They are also much more likely to internalize some of the writer's cues you are saying out loud to help you problem solve while writing and use them to problem solve when they write.  It is my opinion that when someone really puts themselves out there and is vulnerable, people get quiet and listen intensely.  It's a great way to create mutual respect with students and get them to open up to you during follow-up writing conferences as well.

3.  Read through student writing the night before and select a students example to use as a mentor text.  Students love having their work highlighted, so if you use this technique, try to spread the wealth to as many students as you can while still maintaining quality class examples.  When students see the writing of other students their age, it inspires them to really tune in and possibly take on the attitude, "If they can do it, I can do it, too!"  This is also a great way to create a community of writers in your classroom as they now see each other as "writing experts" and not just the teacher as one.

4.  Take a student's topic and where they're at right on the spot during writing workshop and just keep going with it in front of the whole class.  While using this technique I might start by saying something to students like, " Who would like to open their writing brain up to the whole class as we take the next step in our writing pieces?"  I usually have at least a handful of volunteers who are willing to try.  Keeping with our same example of an introduction to a research paper, I would start by having the student share his/her topic and follow-up research questions off of that topic with the entire class.  I would then ask the student prompting questions and work as a team with him/her to compose his/her introduction in front of the whole class.  I would ask questions like:

-What kind of lead would you like to use to get the reader's attention?
-What kind of background information would you like to tell your reader about your topic?
-What are your body paragraphs of your research paper about?  What order are they in?  How can we use that information to make a thesis statement?

What I love about this technique is that students sitting and witnessing this process take place realize that they can answer all of the same question as the student volunteer.  They also see a real-life example of how to take that information and transfer it into composing an introduction.  The questions that I asked to the student volunteer as we were co-writing their introduction become the students' inner voice as they ask themselves the same questions while constructing theirs.

Writing is something that successful adults are able to do with fluency, quickly problem-solving as they face writer's block.  The best way to create competent writers in your classroom is to not fall into the extreme of too structured of writing instruction or too loose of writing instruction, but instead, be the writing teacher who clearly models what is means to be and think like a writer.


  1. I was wanting to read a good blog post (because I haven't blogged in ages) and I knew just where to look. Then I laughed because you blogged about not blogging! :) I always love when you write about writing. I, too, have been at all points of the pendulum. Too often, writing instruction gets squished out of my schedule--and I think sixth graders need MORE writing instruction not less as they begin to incorporate content learning into their writing skills.

    Thanks for providing a place for some encouragement this morning. And... Congrats on getting engaged and all of the other wonderful adventures in your life. Happy for you, Kasey!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

    1. Kim, you are beyond sweet. It has definitely been quite the year, full of highs and lows. I am convinced if one more "big" event happens this year I will not even know what to do! Writing is my go to. I could not agree more with you on the importance of it and teaching it. I feel like it's a huge hole in our school system and am making it my mission to teach more of it and in a way that can reach more students. Thank you so much for reading my blog and for your awesome comment. It lifted my day!


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