TRT Podcast#6: How to Give Short, Powerful Writing Lessons
Our students need time to write … but they need instruction first. How can you give short, powerful lessons that will teach your students what they need to know and still give them time to practice their writing?
This episode will answer the following questions:
- What are writing mini-lessons?
- Why should we give them?
- What types of mini-lessons should we give?
- What’s the ideal structure of a mini-lesson?
- How do we know what to teach?
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Hello, Anna here, and I want to thank you for tuning in to episode six: How to give short, powerful writing lessons. This episode is brought to you by Teaching Every Writer, my online course for teaching writing in K-2. To learn more, please visit teachingeverywriter.com.
Let's start today with a little bit of reflection. How are you teaching writing in your classroom or homeschool? Here are the scenarios that I see most often. I see writing taught within the context of English class. So the teacher switches between grammar units and writing units, and there may be several weeks of a unit on verbs, and then they'll switch to a unit on writing personal narratives. And then they'll go back to a grammar unit. Each of those writing units is rather short and does not allow students to create a lot of writing pieces. It's often based on having them create just one strong piece. The teacher has a lot of rules that have to be followed, and the students complete the piece all at the same time. So everybody pre-writes, everybody drafts and so on, and there's a due date for that piece of writing.
And then I also see students writing every week or possibly even every day, but just for a short period of time and without a lot of instruction. So there's a prompt on the board, or there's a journal and students are told to write about what they did over the weekend, but there isn't a lot of teaching writing skills. It's just giving students practice. If one of these scenarios sounds familiar to you, I would encourage you to think differently about how you approach teaching writing. Every day or at a minimum, three days a week, I recommend giving a short writing lesson and then following that up with a longer period of independent writing that's at least 20 minutes, preferably 30 to 40 minutes for sure in first grade and up. And then during that writing period, the students will hopefully apply what you taught them in the mini-lesson. Then you'll conclude your writing time with a short share time. If this sounds like what you're already doing, you likely call it Writing Workshop, and the tips I share today will help you make those writing lessons even more effective.
In today's episode, we're going to answer five questions about these short, powerful writing lessons, which we like to call mini-lessons. So here are those questions. What is a writing mini-lesson? Why give them? What types of mini-lessons should we give? What's the ideal structure of a mini-lesson? And how do you know what to teach in your writing mini-lessons?
Let's go with that first question. What is a mini-lesson? A writing workshop mini-lesson is a short lesson with a narrow focus, and we give this lesson at the beginning of writing time to help our students learn essential elements of writing. Often we're teaching a skill or a concept that's part of a larger unit of study. So for example, if we're doing a poetry unit, a lesson that fits really well is using figurative language. Or if we're doing a unit about personal narratives, we might have a lesson about zeroing in and focusing on one small moment. Two key things you need to remember about mini-lessons is they are mini, and they focus on just one skill or strategy.
Question number two, why? Why give mini lessons? Why can't we just let our students write, because that's what they need to do to become better writers? Well, it's absolutely true they need to write to become better writers, but practice itself isn't enough to develop strong writers. Think about our students when we're teaching them reading. We wouldn't just give them books and say, "Okay, now it's time to read," without giving them any instruction beforehand. They need to learn about phonics and comprehension and fluency. There are so many things we need to teach them before we have them practice those skills, and writing is no different.
Our learners absolutely need that long period of writing time, but they need the instruction first. A caveat though ... yhey are called mini for a reason. It is very easy to turn a mini-lesson into a maxi-lesson because we're teachers for a reason, right? We like to talk. But we never want our mini-lessons to encroach on student writing time. We don't want to spend most of our workshop teaching our students about writing instead of giving them time to write. They need more than 10 minutes to write (really, they need more than 15 minutes). Think about the last time you sat down to write something. Did everything just flow automatically and you just kept going and going, or did you have some stops and starts?
Sometimes it can take a long time to get that writing train moving, whether we're first graders or teachers or professional writers. So we have to build in that time. Writing is very different than picking up a book and reading or doing a math worksheet or something else that we often do during the school day. It requires a lot of deep thought just to get going and to keep going, so we need to build in that long period for our students to write.
Let's move on to number three. What types of mini-lessons should you give? There are three types. One of them is procedure and organization, where you teach things that will help your writing workshop run smoothly. These will vary depending on your students and your grade level, but typically you will do a lot of this type of mini-lesson whenever you initiate the workshop, whether that's September, January, or another month of the year. You will teach things like where to get supplies, how to cross out instead of erase, maybe how to skip lines to save room for revision. Or if you're teaching kindergarten, "Here's how to use a stapler to add more pages to your writing." Think of these as mini-lessons that will help your workshop run smoothly and help decrease interruptions, because you're teaching your students how to work independently.
Writers' craft mini lessons help students improve the quality of their writing by showing them how texts are written. So you might talk about things like how to choose a topic, how to write for an audience, how to write a strong beginning, or how to use strong verbs or adjectives.
And finally we have convention mini lessons, which if I'm being honest, are what we mostly tend to give because they're what we know best. These are lessons about spelling, punctuation, grammar, and things like that.
So when you think about the big picture of all the types of mini-lessons, which would you say would be the one that we should give the most of? I'm not sure there's an actual answer for that, but I think we need to be careful not to be too heavy on one of them. We'll do a lot of those procedural mini-lessons at the beginning of the year with the beginning of writing workshop, but we don't want to go too heavy on conventions the rest of the year. We want to balance that with writers; craft. After all, a piece of writing can have really great spelling and perfect punctuation and sentence structure, but be really bad. That's why we have to spend a lot of time teaching our students how to improve the quality of their writing.
Let's move on to the next question. What is the ideal structure of a mini lesson? Well, when you're planning your mini-lessons, the first thing you want to do is determine your goal. Remember that we don't teach mini lessons to cross something off our to-do list or to cover a skill. We want our students to transfer this knowledge to their own writing. So when you're planning your lessons, ask yourself: what is the point of this lesson and how can my students use this understanding to make their writing better? Once you know your goal, you'll be able to introduce it to your students and link it to their current work. So you might say something like this, "Boys and girls, I've noticed that a lot of you are writing longer stories about things that you do at home, which is wonderful. Some of the stories I've seen are what I like to call bed-to-bed stories. You write about when you get up and you write about everything you did until you went to bed. Today I want to show you how to focus on just one part of your story." So you see how I talked about what I've seen them doing and I linked it to what we're going to talk about today.
And then you're going to teach your lesson. And it is hard, I know. It is hard to keep it short. You may have to teach a concept over two days, but what you don't want to do is have a whole lesson take up most of the writing time.
When you're teaching the lesson or the skill you want to think about varying the way that you present it. So here are some things you can do. One thing I definitely recommend doing a lot of is writing in front of your students. That means letting them see you go through the whole messy process of writing, coming up with a topic, writing a beginning, and deciding what sentence comes next. That would be modeling. You can also do shared writing, which is where you write something together. You're taking a lot of their input as you decide what to write next.
If you're teaching a procedural mini-lesson, you probably can just say what you want them to know. So for example, "Boys and girls, today I want to show you what we do in writing workshop to keep ourselves moving. We use these pencils without erasers, and when we write something we don't like, we draw a single line through it so we can see what we wrote before and we write on top of it or next to it, the new thing we want to say." Then you would just demonstrate.
Many of these mini-lessons can be very simple, but they could also get more complex. If you're teaching something more complex, when it comes to writers' craft, a great thing to do is to use a mentor text. That's when you take a published piece of writing, and you read a part of it, not the whole thing. But you read a part of it and then you show students how they can try that in their own writing. Maybe it's a book that uses sound words, or a book that uses some type of figurative language, or even a certain type of punctuation like an ellipsis. Don't assume, though, that you can only use published mentor texts, because often students learn just as well or even better from student writing samples because that's something that's more within their reach and something they can aspire to. So consider sharing student writing with their permission, saving samples from previous years, or looking online because there are a lot of student writing samples. They're often called exemplars, and you can print them and put them on a screen and show your students.
Another thing you could do in a writing mini-lesson is to make an anchor chart. So maybe your lesson is all about how to find topics for writing ,and you get a big piece of chart paper and together you write down all the strategies that the children are using as they try to come up with ideas for writing. In that case, your students help you determine the content of your mini-lesson, because it depends on the things that they share with you and each other.
Sometimes a writing mini-lesson will continue with guided practice, and you have to be real careful with this. We're not talking about out worksheets (you might not use any printable at all). What it may be is just students doing something orally. So if your mini-lesson is about teaching students how to find a writing topic about a time they felt a particular emotion, you might say, "Now we're going to take one minute to think about something that made you really happy and then I want you to turn and talk to a partner about how you could use that for writing idea." So you can see how that's you helping them practice the skill without actually doing writing at all, and it doesn't have to take very long.
You could also do shared writing for your guided practice. So let's say that your mini lesson was all about writing the list of things you might write about for a non-fiction piece before you begin, a kind of brainstorming. And so then you might work together and say, "Okay, let's imagine we were going to write a piece about sharks. Who could help me think of some types of things we might include in our writing?" And so together you would make that list. And you would be giving them a chance to practice the skill with you.
After you do that guided practice, you're going to conclude by linking to their future work. You can think of this as a bridge. So what I like to say is "today and every day."
"So today and every day when you write a non-fiction piece about an animal or a person or a place, think about writing a list of things you might include in your writing before you start. That will get your brain going and help you think about all the possibilities for your writing."
Now we're on question number five. How do I know what to teach within my writing lessons? And this is the big question. How do you decide what to teach? Ask yourself what's developmentally appropriate for your learners, and also ask yourself what your students need to learn. You can find this out by looking at your standards or just observing. Do you have a student struggling to use a thesaurus in third grade? Model. Give a lesson about using a thesaurus well. Are your kindergarteners melting down and quitting when they don't know how to spell a word? Give a mini-lesson. Are your second graders writing bed-to-bed stories like I talked about a minute ago? Give a mini-lesson about focusing in on one event. Here are just a few examples of mini-lesson topics. You could have your students practice writing tricky letters in the air, that would be a kindergarten mini-lesson. For first and second grade, making a quick list before they write. For all children, finding topics in everyday life or what to do when they can't think of what to write about. Maybe first or second grade, using transition words in their writing. Maybe in second or third grade, skipping lines to leave room for revision or spider legs. That's when you write something on a piece of paper and tape it into your writing as a way to add more when you don't have space in the writing that you did originally. Teach your students to re-read their writing when they start the new day so they remember what they wrote the day before.
Inside our online course, Teaching Every Writer, we have the ultimate list of mini-lessons for K-2. Becky has put together a ton of mini-lesson ideas there for all areas. As a listener of this podcast, I have a special gift for you. Head to the show notes for this episode, themeasuredmom.com/episode6, and you will be able to download a mini version of that ultimate list of mini-lessons to get you started. And I will include ideas for kindergarten first, second and third grade because I know many of my listeners also teach third grade.
Now you might be thinking, "That's great. I'm glad to have a list of mini lessons, it's super useful, but what if I don't know what to teach within those lessons? So the lesson idea is teaching students to focus in their writing, but I'm not sure how to teach that."
Well, there are different things you can do. You can certainly purchase a done-for-you writing curriculum. I know that Lucy Calkins has quite a few writing units for all grades; people have different feelings on those. I have a lot of confidence in her pedagogy. However, I know that her units can be very wordy and hard to follow. And I'm not sure, but I've heard that some of the things she does feel a little scripted. I would definitely caution you to stay away from anything that's scripted or at least make it your own. So whether you buy Lucy Calkins' Units of Study, or if you purchase a unit on Teachers Pay Teachers, please use the unit with caution and flexibility. Remember that you are the ultimate authority in your classroom, and if a unit tells you what to do next and you think that's way too hard for most of your students, or that's way too easy, adjust and change.
There are some really good professional books out there with ready-for-you lessons, and I will link to many of those in the show notes that will help you get started. I'd also like to let you in on a little secret. In Teaching Every Writer, we have the best of both worlds. Not only does the course show you how to teach writing in K-2, from how to teach conventions, how to teach all the elements of writer's craft, how to give conferences, to the structure of mini lessons, but it also includes over 200 ready-to-use printable mini-lessons for K-2. The benefit of that is that you've got these simple easy to follow lessons that are just a single page each; they're also flexible. So you can pick and choose and use them whenever it makes sense for you. We don't have a specific recommended order. We have them there as a menu for you so you can choose what works best for your students. Please be flexible, whether you're using our resources or something else that you purchase. You want to be able to skip around or add to lessons that you purchase.
In today's episode we talked about what writing mini-lessons are, why you should give them, what types of mini-lessons you can give, the ideal structure of a mini lesson and how to know what to teach. As a reminder, I am sharing a list of mini-lesson topics in the show notes for this episode, and I'm also going to give you several of the writing mini lessons from Teaching Every Writer, so you can get a taste of the 200 writing lessons that are included in that course. So go ahead and go to the show notes, themeasuredmom.com/episode6 to get all your freebies. Thanks so much for listening, and I'll talk to you again soon.
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- Teaching Every Writer, my online course for teaching writing in K-2. Learn more here.
- Blog posts
Excellent sources of mini-lessons for K-2
- No More “I’m Done!” by Jennifer Jacobson
- Into Writing: The Primary Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop, by Megan Sloane
- Marvelous Mini-Lessons for Teaching Writing in K-3, by Lori Jamison Rog
Resources for members of The Measured Mom Plus
- Quick video training: How to get started with writing workshop in K-2
- Printables for teaching writing
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