Writing Workshops: Using Small Groups to Improve Writing

By Justin Lim on January 11, 2010

Most teachers will tell you that one of the most difficult skills to teach is effective writing. Likewise, students will often tell you that writing is what they find the most painstaking. One of the reasons why teaching composition has proven so challenging is that each student is unique in style and ability. In order to address this, many teachers turn to individual conferencing, which while effective, can be an extremely slow process.

Here's why small group conferencing can be an attractive alternative:

1. Time - While conferencing with students individually, I realized that I was often addressing the same issues again and again. With the scarcity of time that we have in the classroom already, why not group students who struggle with like issues and conference with them at once?

2. Peer Evaluations - Something that I regularly have my students do is peer edit. While this is an effective strategy, they need a model for how to evaluate each other. I began to realize that my students have started to become more adept at editing when given time to do so during small group conferencing. Students observe the types of corrections that I make, not necessarily for themselves, but also so that they can make comments about the works of their peers. Of course, if they can effectively evaluate the essays of each other, they're more than likely able to do so for their own.

3. Critical Thinking - If possible, try to group students who share different opinions. When working on persuasive writing, I've found that dissenting students are great motivators when it comes to considering how to defend and argument! Additionally, students can bounce ideas off of each other and are active in generating ideas.

4. Student Engagement - One of the toughest challenges in our classrooms today has been the cultivation of passive learners. In a large group setting, most students are content to sit and wait for somebody else to participate. Conferencing in small groups gives you an opportunity to engage students by raising the degree of accountability for participation. While it's true that you could do this with an individual conference, being in a small group can make the activity much less intimidating for a struggling student or an English Language Learner.

The writing process can be a complex and difficult one. There's no doubt that it has always been a challenging task for students. Hopefully, as we strive to become more effective educators, we can use innovative and effective techniques that will help our students to achieve success!

What strategies have you found the most effective?

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District

Comments

Hi Justin! Just today I sat down and conferenced with each of my second graders - we're doing the same thing! Thanks for the great tips!

My class this year has developed into a group of writers! No more groans when I ask them to take out the Writer's Notebooks or when we work on revising and editing. I'm not sure exactly what made them turn the corner, but here are a few things we have done: - we had a guest author come in for a week to work with the students - the students have been writing every day (almost) - I've given general prompts and allowed the students to, "go where it takes you" - we've discussed lots of examples, and I have written along with them - I've used mentor texts in my mini-lessons - the students are conferencing with each other about word choice and sentence fluency.

I'm excited about where we can go from here!

[Edit: Response]

Hi MrsC!

Thank you for sharing your successes with us. It's always an encouragement to hear from great teachers. I really like the idea of bringing in a guest author and of writing along side your kids!

Regards,

Justin

I have found that my 7th graders are more receptive to editing and revising when I write with them. I share my own rough drafts and get feedback from the students. We make the changes together, and then move on to revise and edit their writing. They are willing to put themselves out there once they've seen that I am willing to do the same. I agree that small groups work well for this.

[Edit: Response]

Hi Jenny,

"They are willing to put themselves out there once they've seen that I am willing to do the same."

That's awesome! I like the idea of sharing your own drafts from them and getting feedback!

Regards,

Justin

I also use small group for conferencing. As part of the conferencing, the students use map colors to help focus on different editing steps. There are designated colors to help them add depth and creativity to their story. I have used this with 4th and 2nd grade. I also use it with my own 11th grader on her stories.

[Edit: Response]

Hi Judy!

I like the color maps! I saw a color coding strategy being used and plan to start using it myself!

Thanks for the tip!

Regards,

Justin

I also employ graphic organizers to help my students brainstorm and plan their writing.

[Edit: Response]

Hi Renee,

I think that graphic organizers are great for brainstorming and planning too! I've found that they're especially helpful for our population of visual learners.

Thanks for sharing!

Warm regards,

Justin

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