Supporting students in their writing development is rewarding, but it can also be exhausting. One of the best ways instructional coaches can support their colleagues in providing students with choice in the writing process is by sharing research-based strategies that make this task easier. By providing mentor texts, developing efficient systems to allow choice and differentiation during the writing process, and brainstorming ways to offer students a voice in developing authentic writing experiences, instructional coaches and classroom teachers can work together to help each student develop his/her own unique writer's voice.
Classroom teachers are the experts on their students and their curriculum. Instructional coaches can best support classroom teachers' writing instruction by learning from them what particular skills students need to develop and what areas of the curriculum can be used to reinforce these particular skills. Then, some of the ways instructional coaches can support this work is by:
- Providing mentor texts related to a specific writing component so students can choose from a variety of strategies/styles to develop their own writer's voice
- Developing adaptable systems that allow students to work at their own pace, provide opportunity for choice, and allow teachers the freedom to meet with students individually
- Brainstorming ways students can take an active role in creating relevant writing tasks with authentic audiences
Providing mentor texts related to a specific writing component so students can choose from a variety of strategies/styles to develop their own writer's voice.
"Learning to read with writer's eyes is a way for students to learn craft from authors whom they admire. Teach them to find places in a text that move them, or that they admire, and try to name specifically what that author is doing." -Georgia Heard 1
For many teachers, using mentor texts to support writing instruction is a new strategy. Because teaching the writing process is already a labor intensive task, asking teachers to add one more piece to an already complex process can be a hard sell. Making this process as easy for teachers as possible and aligning this work with the teacher's writing objectives will help this transition. One way that instructional coaches can assist content teachers is by working behind the scenes to research and organize mentor texts related to the teacher's curriculum and objectives. It can be challenging and time consuming to find mentor texts related to a specific genre or skill set. Finding short, relevant texts that feature many writing components relevant to the teacher's curriculum can help ease this transition and make it less labor intensive for the classroom teacher.
One way mentor texts can be shared with students is as a real-aloud. Brainstorming with the classroom teacher ahead of time to create guiding questions and/or other classroom materials that focus on the author's purpose and craft relevant to the teacher's objectives can help to build confidence. The instructional coach can also offer to model this process in the classroom if the teacher would like. Then, the instructional coach can meet with the classroom teacher after the lesson to discuss how the mentor text can continue to be used as a reference for students throughout the remainder of the writing unit and perhaps in future units. Once teachers see how mentor texts positively impact students' writing development, they will likely be more open to using them regularly.
For example, when students were struggling to develop hooks in their introductions, I created some Newsela Text Sets that showcased various hook strategies. Then, I developed materials to introduce the various strategies for writing hooks, a document students could use to analyze the various hooks, and a follow-up lesson where students could try out a few of the hook strategies in their own writing piece and use peer feedback to help determine which hook to use.
- Using Mentor Texts to Guide the Writing Process by Evaluating and Writing Hooks Unit Description and Materials
- Video Introducing the Different Type of Hook Strategies
- Write Your Own Hooks Activity
Mentor texts can also be used to develop organization in persuasive writing. Studying mentor texts written in this style can significantly help this process. Students can access persuasive writing through Newsela Text Sets, adjust the reading level as needed, and highlight key components of the writing piece to analyze the writer's organization. Students can choose which articles to read and which author's styles they'd like to emulate as they write.
- Using Newsela Articles as Mentor Texts to Learn Argumentative Writing Skills with Elementary Students Unit Description and Materials
- Finding Opinion Articles in Newsela and Refining Search by Grade Level
Providing teachers with further suggestions for implementation of mentor texts can also be helpful.
Developing adaptable systems that allow students to work at their own pace, provide opportunity for choice, and allow teachers the freedom to meet with students individually.
"Students deserve the opportunity to invest themselves in their writing by choosing to write about subjects that are important to them." -Lucy Calkins 2
Trying to support a classroom of students writing about the same topic already requires superhuman strength and endurance. Asking classroom teachers to give up control and allow students choice in what they write about may seem crazy to many teachers who are already understandably overwhelmed. As an instructional coach, the best way to support teachers in having the courage to take this leap is by assisting teachers in developing specific systems and clear procedures that make implementation easier and less time-consuming.
Each teacher will have a different comfort level with the idea of providing choice. Asking teachers to go excessively outside their comfort zones is not feasible. For some teachers, having students answer the same writing prompt question, but allowing them to choose from a variety of sources, is enough of a pedagogical risk. Instructional coaches can find and organize sources related to the teacher selected writing prompt and organize these sources in a way that makes them easy for the teacher and students to access. Creating a Newsela Text Set is one way to do this. For instance, if the teacher would like students to research social media use, an instructional coach could provide a social media use text set. With the classroom teacher's assistance, the instructional coach could also help to develop a common graphic organizer, writing checklist, rubric, and reflection that all students could complete regardless of which sources in the text set students used.
For content specific writing, students could instead choose from a variety of articles in a Newsela Text Set related to the curriculum. For example, teachers could require students to use three out of the five sources in the American Revolution Text Set.
For teachers who are ready to go way outside their comfort zones and allow students complete choice over their writing topic, instructional coaches can help to create materials and systems designed to support and simplify this process. The key to having this type of freedom in the classroom is making sure each student is invested in his/her topic and has access to reliable sources that are written at that student's reading level. If students WANT to read and write about their topic and can UNDERSTAND what they are reading and writing about, the amount of questions a classroom teacher has to field and the amount of classroom management issues a teacher needs to address both significantly decrease.
Completing research papers using Newsela documents can significantly improve the experience for students and teachers alike because students can access relevant, reliable information at their reading level on a vast array of topics. Students' ability to comprehend text, identify key points, paraphrase properly, and develop a claim all become easier because they can access the text at their individual reading levels. Explaining this to teachers and offering to come into the classroom to provide support throughout this process can significantly decrease teacher anxiety and encourage teachers to take the risk of allowing individual choice to students in their writing.
Logistically, providing teachers and students with universal writing materials to aid in the writing process helps to make the process more organized. Students can gather multiple articles related to a specific topic and use the blank graphic organizer to identify the central idea and create a citation. Showing students how to link the articles to the graphic organizer can also help students to stay organized and easily refer back to sources. Students can highlight and annotate key details right in the Newsela article for future reference. Providing teachers and students with an anchor paper can also be helpful.
Working together with the classroom teacher to create and provide a student reference like this Google Slides presentation that walk students through the writing process enables students to work at their own pace and answer many of their own questions. This allows the teacher(s) to move about the classroom freely, individualizing instruction (or meeting with small groups of students) as needed. Because students are researching a topic they have chosen, have access to information at their reading level, and have a clear understanding of the process with access to reference materials as needed, students are much more likely to stay on task and give their best effort. Once classroom teachers start to see how engaged students are in the research process and how rewarding it is to have focused, individualized conversations with students about their writing that lead to legitimate writing growth, it is likely that teachers will become enthusiastic about this process.
Once students have completed the student activity packet and determined their claim, organization, and text evidence, they can move on to writing their research paper. While each student will finish at their own pace, this is a key time where an extra pair of hands in the classroom would likely be appreciated. An instructional coach can offer to assist the classroom teacher in reviewing the student activities and/or meet with individual students to confirm that students' claims is sufficiently supported by text evidence. Once students have achieved this step, teachers, with assistance from an instructional coach if desired, can provide students with an outline, rubric, and anchor paper to support students as they write their papers.
Providing students with individualized, focused feedback is necessary but can be extremely time-consuming for teachers. Providing teachers with an efficient way to provide students feedback on a rough draft is essential for students to continue to grow as writers and for teachers to save their sanity! Offering to assist teaching in conferencing with students during this part of the writing process can also be helpful.
All of the resources above were created for the middle school level and can be adapted to meet the specific needs of a variety of grade levels and content areas. Meeting with classroom teachers to align these resources to their objectives and curriculum is essential in making sure classroom teachers are given ownership of the process in their classrooms.
Developing systems that allow students choice and flexibility to work at their own pace using references to guide them throughout the process also helps to develop writing confidence. Students can then use what they've learned throughout this unit in future writing assignments. Video: Research Paper Using Newsela.
Providing teachers with an efficient system for guiding students throughout the writing process that allows them the freedom to meet with students individually about topics students are actually excited to write about can bring joy back to the writing process for both students and teachers!
Offer students a role in creating relevant writing tasks with authentic audiences.
"Students who are taught how to write without being taught the real-world purposes behind authentic writing are much more likely to end up seeing writing as nothing more than a school activity... It is incumbent upon us to show them that the ability to write well serves as the cornerstone of a literate adult life. When students see why writing is important in a post-high school world, they are more likely to give writing the time and attention it deserves." -Kelly Gallagher 3
Supporting teachers in the process of allowing students to participate in creating authentic writing activities with real-life audiences can also help to motivate students to develop their writing skills. As teachers, we all have a sense of ownership and pride in the work we do. An instructional coach needs to be very careful in the way that they encourage the addition of authentic writing experiences in teachers' classrooms. Learning about the content that is already being taught in classrooms and making real-life connections to this valuable work can help to create a bridge to authentic writing. For instance, if a teacher always includes the reading of Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen as a part of his/her instruction, you might suggest students brainstorm how restorative justice could be implemented in the classroom, school, district, and/or community and then have students write about these suggestions and send them to the appropriate official. Starting with brief writing tasks that can fit into the teacher's already established curriculum timeline is a great place to start.
Once teachers begin to see the value of authentic writing tasks and gain enthusiasm based on increased student engagement, they are much more likely to be willing to make more significant changes to their pedagogy to allow more time for authentic writing experiences. Instructional coaches can then brainstorm with teachers topics both the teacher and their students are passionate about. Instructional coaches can then help to lay the groundwork for successful implementation of these writing tasks.
For example, our district is considering changing the start time of our secondary schools. Students researched this topic using the School Start TImes Text Set, gathered data supporting their viewpoint, and met with the superintendent to share their thoughts. In this case, students were required to write a persuasive paragraph but then chose to compile their data and thoughts into a Google Doc and organize a presentation that they shared with the superintendent. Another high-interest, relevant topic students studied was school cell phone policies. Students researched cell phone use in schools and then used what they learned to prepare for and participate in a debate. Students then decided to create a Google Slides presentation highlighting their viewpoints and shared this information with our superintendent and the Board of Education.
Asking teachers to move outside their comfort zones, give up control, and change their established routines is a challenging task. It is essential that instructional coaches celebrate the great work already being done in classrooms and provide resources and support that is an appropriate level of risk for their colleagues. Instructional coaches can develop research-based strategies and systems in collaboration with classroom teachers that are not only effective for students but also easy to implement for teachers. Developing and adapting writing resources that allow for student choice and authentic writing experiences and are aligned with teachers' curriculum and objectives allows teachers the ability to efficiently and joyfully provide effective writing instruction that motivates students to develop their skills and excel as writers.
1 Heard, Georgia. The Revision Toolbox: Teaching Techniques That Work. Heinemann, 2014, p. 29.
2 “A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, Middle School Grades.” A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, Middle School Grades, by Lucy Calkins, Heinemann, 2014, p. 20.
3 Gallagher, Kelly. Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Stenhouse Publishers, 2011, p. 7-8.
Christine Scoppa is a literacy specialist at Fairport Central School District in Upstate NY who is passionate about empowering students to set and achieve small, incremental literacy goals that, over time, enable them to grow exponentially as readers and writers. She is also a Master Teacher for the Newsela Master Teacher Project.