3 Secrets of Fantastic Writing Instruction

What to learn the 3 best ways to get your students to produce their very best writing?  Learn all about them and easy ways to incorporate the secrets into your own writing lessons.

Since today's post is all about secrets, I thought I'd start with one of my own:  I didn't always enjoy teaching writing.  It's true, while I had high hopes of being an amazing writing teacher when I first started my career, I found that despite my teaching attempts, my students were producing pretty lame writing pieces, and it wasn't their fault. Early on, even though I was following the writing process just as it had been prescribed to me, my students were failing. 

Teaching writing was no fun....until, I discovered the 3 secrets of fantastic writing instruction.  Once I figured out the 3 critical ways to turn my reluctant writers into enthusiastic authors, my entire outlook on writing changed.  These days I love teaching writing, my students produce amazing writing pieces and it's all thanks to these 3 secrets... 

Secret #1 - Mentor Texts

The first secret to fantastic writing instruction is reading!  Expose students to mentor texts to help them build a true understanding of the genre.

The first secret to fantastic writing instruction is reading!  That's right, great readers become great writers.  That's why I love exposing students to mentor texts BEFORE they begin writing.  When teaching a unit on Memoir Writing, I love to gather a huge collection of memoir children's books.  Then, during the first days of the unit students read a bunch of different books and answer guided questions about memoirs.  

Start the Memoir Writing Unit with a student of memoir mentor texts.  Students answer guided questions about the memoirs so that they have a true understanding of the genre before writing their own memoir.

Next, they work with a small group to determine unifying characteristics of the memoirs that they read.  Finally, we discuss the genre as a class and students' develop a huge list of critical characteristics of memoirs.  Their exploration into mentor texts provides an extremely strong basis for their own writing.  If you're teaching a Memoir Writing Unit you might consider exposing students to the children's books by Tomie dePaola.

Sometimes, I write my own version of the mentor text.  I actually progress through the entire writing unit myself, first, and then create a writing piece that includes everything I want students to include in their own piece.  At the start of the unit, I have students review the sample that I wrote and chart examples of critical elements of the genre on a graphic organizer.  I include the mentor text right in students' writing packets so that they can reference it during the unit.

Here's an example mentor text that I wrote for a Descriptive Writing Unit.

 I like to couple writing units with my reading units.  So, after we study Native American myths, I have students write their own myth.  Once students have compared and contrasted multiple variations of fables, they write their own fable

Another way to expose students to mentor texts is to read aloud samples throughout the entire writing unit.  I like to start each of the lessons during the Memoir Writing Unit with a short memoir from the book Guys Write for Guys Read.  It's filled with funny stories that showcase the genre and craft of writing.  

When students have a true understanding of the genre they will be writing, they have a solid foundation for the unit. Oh, and don't forget to save student exemplars.  They make the very best samples.  My students LOVE when I share poems written by former students before they write their own poems.  It shows them that if others can do it, so can they!

Secret #2 - Planning

One of the key elements to fantastic writing instruction is providing students with lots of opportunities to PLAN their writing.

Rather than hop right into drafting a writing piece, I love to give students a ton of ways to brainstorm topic ideas and plan their writing.  With a solid topic and plan, the actual writing is SO much easier for students...and we all know that when it's less of a struggle, it's way more enjoyable.

I like to spend a class period or two devoted to giving students an opportunity to determine a topic and begin to plan out their first draft.  It's important to me that students spend time flushing out ideas for what to write about.  I want them to have a strong topic before they begin writing anything. To generate topic ideas I like to have students...

--- Make word webs or lists
--- Meet with peers and chat about potential topics
--- Sketch scenes from their past
--- Chart and graph significant life events
--- Conduct mini-research projects
--- Interview family members

Help students develop topic ideas for their Memoir with this fun activity.  Students create a map of their memories.  They even label significant places from their childhood.  This planning activity jogs students' memories and provides lots of ideas for their Memoir.

There are so many fun ways to get students thinking about writing topics.  I also love providing students with writing journals filled with engaging prompts that they can complete before starting their own writing piece.  The prompts are designed to get students thinking and to jog their memories.  Then, when it's time to think of significant life events, they can review their journals and find a ton of ideas.  This works particularly well for Narrative Writing and Memoir Writing.

Help students write an incredible narrative essay with lots of planning resources.  Guide students through planning each element of their narrative writing piece.

After students have a topic idea, I have them PLAN even more.  We spend at least a class period gathering and collecting more details about their topic ideas.  Often students complete graphic organizers about the sequence of events, plot, setting, and theme.  In the Persuasive Writing Unit, students complete "because statements" and plan out propaganda techniques and figurative language before starting the rough draft.  

I've found that planning is one of the most critical elements to fantastic writing instruction.  When students have a strong topic, a solid plan, and a list of ideas, the rough draft spills out of them.  There's no more, "I don't know what to write."  Instead, there's a whole lot of, "This is so fun!"

Secret #3 - Mini-Lessons

Don't you just love a mini-lesson?  I do!  They're the perfect way to teach students critical skills without taking too much time...and they're the final secret to fantastic writing instruction.  I fill my writing units with mini-lessons for students during the REVISING stage of writing.  I've found that the real writing happens when students start RE-writing and revising. 

However, often students don't want to rewrite their work.  Many are happen to claim their first draft as perfection.  That's why I force their hand, so to speak, with revision mini-lessons. Each mini-lesson addresses a particular writing skill anything from transitions to voice to word choice.  During the mini-lesson they learn about the skill and then practice it with their own writing.  Finally, they're required to go back to their first drafts and insert their new and improved writing.

Mini-lessons are the key to getting students to take their writing to the next level.  If you pack your writing instruction with revising mini-lessons it won't take long for the culture of your classroom to change.  Revising has become one of my students' favorite phases of the writing process.  In fact, when students share their improvements they often try to outdo each other.  We celebrate a culture of improving.  Mini-lessons make revising manageable and the impact on students' writing is astounding.

There you have it, 3 secrets of fantastic writing instruction. However, I think there's one more secret. The ultimate secret is this:  MAKE WRITING FUN.  The very best way to do that is to set students up for success.  Provide them with a solid understanding of the genre with mentor texts.  Help them select the very best topic and create plans for their writing.  Guide them through improving their work.  The end result will not only be amazing writing pieces, but a classroom full of students who are genuinely proud of their work.

Thanks for stopping by,
Mary Beth

P.S.  As you can tell, teaching writing is my jam.  If you'd like some turn-key writing units for your classroom, you can find a wide selection HERE.

Here's just a few of my favorite units:  Narrative Writing Unit, Myth Writing Unit, Persuasive Writing Unit, Memoir Writing Unit, Speeches Writing Unit, Expository Writing Unit, Biography Writing Unit, Descriptive Writing Unit


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