Often when schools want to work on improving their students’ growth in writing they start by changing their teaching. (‘Something isn’t working- let’s try a new program or a new scope and sequence’).
There’s one vital step they tend to gloss over though- the need to establish a ‘writerly’ classroom environment. One that will support their apprentice writers by creating the best conditions for them to learn.
In this blog I’m sharing 5 tips you can use to help create a supportive ‘writerly’ environment in your classroom.
#1 Build your classroom library
Time and time again, when published authors are asked what advice they have for aspiring writers their answer is the same: Read!
Because good writers are avid readers.
When you feed your brain a wide and varied diet of other people’s writing, you can’t help but take on lessons about how good writing is constructed. As your read, you build mental models of how other writers have developed their characters, constructed their arguments, played with words and made their readers sit up and pay attention.
Every book in your classroom library is a mentor text for the writers in your classroom. A library with 200+ books on the shelf is a stadium full of authors waiting to impart their wisdom on your students. Compare this to the classroom with only a small number of books or *gasp* no books at all…
If I want my students to learn how to write well, I want them accessing a huge stadium of mentors every day.
Teaching tip for creating a classroom library
Create a classroom library with a wide variety of reading options for your students. Ensure there’s a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, genres, picture books, novels and graphic based books.
Also, don’t forget to use your class library to feature your own students’ published works.
#2 Prioritise Independent Reading time
Once you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up a classroom library you need to ensure you prioritise daily class time to use it.
Long standing research exists to demonstrate that time spent independently reading improves students’ abilities as readers. The benefits carry over to writing too.
All good writing (fiction and non-fiction alike) requires imagination. Imagination is created when writers go from the known to the new. Daily independent reading is one way of building their back catalogue of ‘known’ so they can call upon this to construct their ‘new’.
When you read lots of fantasy writing for example, you develop a knowledge of what’s possible in that genre- you start to construct your own set of guidelines for how things work in fantasy writing (e.g., characters often have strong and magical powers but also have an accompanying weakness or vulnerability). Without reading widely in this genre, a writer will have very little ‘known’ to draw on meaning they will have much less success creating their own piece of writing in this genre (their ‘new’).
Background knowledge is key to building and maintaining a strong imagination and general knowledge bank and daily reading is critical to developing this.
Teaching tip for effective independent reading
Independent reading time doesn’t mean unsupervised free-for-all time. It needs to be paired with explicit reading instruction and involve an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning from the session. You can read more about common mistakes made by teachers in Independent Reading in this post.
#3 Read aloud to your students every single day
I’ve written an entire blog post on the importance of reading to your students every day, but I’ll reinforce the key points again here.
In terms of improving your students’ writing, reading aloud every day helps to tune their ears into the rhythms and patterns of good writing. It bathes them in the acceptable syntax of written English and allows them to experience the flow and pleasure of varied sentence lengths, good word choice and strong voice.
In addition, the class read aloud automatically becomes a shared mentor text you can refer back to in all future minilessons and conferences: “remember when we read the novel The Secrets of Magnolia Moon and the author said the moon ‘painted her walls with its silvery brush’?” That’s an example of a metaphor that’s been used to show rather than tell in a story. We know it’s turned into night-time in the story because the moon has come out.’
Teaching tip for using class novels
Use the class novel as an opportunity to simply enjoy reading and listening to reading with your students. Avoid bogging it down with novel related activities or tasks. (There’s plenty of opportunities for that with other books). Be creative when it comes to finding time for the daily read aloud- I used to use the 10 minutes of lunch eating time as my standard reading time each day.)
#4 Introduce your students to the writing workshop
Setting up a predictable routine and structure for your writing lessons is critical.
Predictability and repetition of the lesson structre helps students develop an understanding of what is required of them during the lesson and saves their precious brain space and focus for their actual writing (rather than wondering what’s coming up next or if they’ll get a chance to try the new strategy etc.).
Teaching tips for introducing the writing workshop
Introduce your students to the concept of the writing workshop so they know from the start how their daily writing lessons will run:
‘We’ll start with a minilesson where I teach you something about writing. When this is happening you’ll be sitting here and I will usually be reading a book to you or writing in front of you. After that, you’ll get a chance to have a go at using the new strategy that I’ve just taught you. Sometimes you will do this on the floor, sometimes you will do it at your table. Finally, we’ll always come back together at the end of the lesson to think and talk about what we’ve learned in the lesson.’
Spending time early on practising transitions (e.g. from sitting on the floor to moving back to the tables) may seem like a waste of time initially, but it will pay dividends in the long run- when your writing workshop becomes a well-oiled, time-efficient machine.
To keep transitions smooth you’ll also need to teach your students where all the writing supplies in the classroom are as well. Where do they go to get more paper? What happens if their pencil finally becomes too small to write with?
Finally, don’t forget to explicitly state all your other writing workshop related expectations as well: E.g., What colours can they write in? (I didn’t care if their yellow gel pen was the latest tool from Smiggle- I couldn’t stand reading anything in yellow!) What’s your stance on rubbing out vs crossing out (I was a strong advocate for a single line cross out and no Liquid Paper/Whiteout). Do they write on both sides of their book or only one side? When do they write in their notebook vs their writing book?
Don’t worry if you haven’t got answers to all these questions on day 1- you can work this out as you go along. Just be clear about your expectations as you develop them and be sure to communicate them clearly and regularly with your students.
New to writing workshop? You can learn all about it in my Teach Writing with Confidence self-paced course.
#5 Write yourself!
Modelling is the most powerful form of writing instruction.
There’s no two ways about it- teachers who write themselves have more credibility and confidence when it comes to teaching writing.
As my work with schools has attested, teachers who write have a much more intimate understanding of and respect for the challenges of becoming a writer. They can pass on effective tips and suggestions in conferences and minilessons and are better able to support their students through their challenges because they’ve done it themselves.
Students who are ‘lucky’ enough to be in a class with a teacher who writes, are more inspired to do the hard work involved in learning to write themselves. They know that their teacher ‘gets it’ and, importantly, they don’t come to view writing as something that teachers ask students to do in school but don’t do themselves.
Teaching tip for writing yourself
You don’t have to write every day and attempt to become a published novelist- you just have to make sure you don’t start planning a single unit of writing instruction before writing in the genre yourself first. Just one piece! I promise you- it will completely change how you teach that genre (and writing in general).
Want to build your confidence in knowing how to construct good writing yourself? Check out my Writing Traits Masterclass (enrolments are open until the end of Feb).
There you have it- 5 steps you can take to build a ‘writerly’ environment in your classroom. Which one will you focus on this term? Share your ideas in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.