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My January Top Ten List: Writing Lessons and Resources

By Beth Newingham on February 10, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

Writing Workshop is something my students can count on nearly every day. It is a time when they can develop important ideas and relive small, memorable moments from their lives. It is also a time when there are not a lot of rules, as writing is the most open-ended subject I teach. While my students are asked to write within a specific genre, the freedom to express themselves in their own creative way is often liberating. However, there are always those students who find it difficult to perform when they are not given prescribed directions and are instead asked to come up with ideas on their own. This month’s top ten list includes a variety of writing lessons and resources that will challenge your top writers and motivate your reluctant writers as well.

READ ON to find creative mini-lessons, useful printables and posters, interactive whiteboard resources, ideas for incorporating technology into your Writing Workshop, and links to cool Web sites where students can publish their work and receive tips from published authors.


1. Show, Don’t Tell!
P1000821There are many professional books with lessons to help students practice this in their writing, but I am including some specific lessons I teach because this is one of the most powerful ways to significantly improve student writing. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the goal is to teach students not to tell what is happening in their stories (Amy was nervous), but to show what is happening instead (Amy’s palms were sweaty). Below are resources that give examples of showing vs. telling and provide opportunities for students to practice the concept.

When I teach the following writing mini-lesson on my SMART Board, students bring their Writer’s Notebooks to the carpet. (See my September Top Ten List to learn how my students spice up their Writer’s Notebooks.) The first few slides provide students with examples of showing vs. telling and then they are given three telling sentences. They must choose one to rewrite as a showing paragraph (the active engagement part of the mini-lesson). Students then head back to their seats and attempt to incorporate this skill into their own writing. Download the complete SMART Board file.

Show dont tell Show dont tell2

This second SMART Board lesson is called “Guess the Emotion” and can be used on an additional day to reinforce the concept. During the teaching part of the lesson I read the showing paragraphs and students must determine what emotion I am “showing.”  Each student is then given an emotion card and is asked to write a paragraph that shows the emotion without using the actual word. (As part of this active engagement part of the lesson, students could share their paragraphs with their writing partners.) Students then head back to their seats and attempt to incorporate this skill into their own writing. Download the SMART Board file for "Guess the Emotion."

Guess the Emotion Emotion 2

If you do not have a SMART Board in your classroom, you can download worksheets that relate to the lessons described above.


2. Incorporate “Show, Don’t Tell” in Your Read-Alouds
It is so important for student writers to recognize good writing when they are reading or listening to books read aloud. In addition to teaching “Show, Don’t Tell” during Writing Workshop, I also read aloud class library books that provide additional examples. Before teaching the read-aloud lesson below, you will want to collect a few good mentor texts like the following models:

Wemberly_worried Lilly's Purple Plastic PurseJulius Chrysanthemum The painter I Remember Papa Night Noises Memory String

Teaching a "Show, Don’t Tell" Read-Aloud Lesson: In this lesson, each student is given an “emotion stick” that contains an “emotion face” with the word that describes the emotion written below the face (nervous, excited, scared, etc.). As I read the story aloud, students hold up their stick when they hear an example of the author “showing” the emotion they have been assigned.
IMG_2199 IMG_2214

You can download a PDF file of the emotion faces you see below. If you download the Print Shop version of the file, you can enlarge each face, print them out, and attach them to sticks.
Mood Faces

Have Students Do It on Their Own: I try to integrate Reading and Writing Workshop as often as possible, so it is important for students to also be looking for examples of “Show, Don’t Tell” when reading independently. Students can use the recording sheet below to jot down examples that they find in their IDR books.

Show Don't Tell Recording Sheet


3. Teach Students to Use a Variety of Leads in Their Writing
I am not a proponent of prescribed writing, but when nearly half of my 3rd graders were starting their stories with “One day . . . ,” I knew it was time to introduce them to a variety of leads that they could use to gain the interest of their audience. As I often tell them, a reader usually decides very early in a story if he will continue reading or abandon the text. The author needs to draw the reader in from the beginning. Below are posters I created of the different types of leads I teach my students. (Many of the ideas for the titles of the leads come from Barry Lane’s awesome book Reviser's Toolbox.)

Action Snapshot Sound Effect Question Flashback Talking Lead
Download PDF files of the ActionFlashbackQuestionSnapshotSound Effect, and Talking lead posters.

While my students do all of the writing in their Writer’s Notebook, they also keep helpful handouts in a writing folder. Download this Leads in Narrative Writing handout that gives students an easily accessible reminder of each type of lead. You can also download the material in a SMART Board file.


Screenshot 4. Choose Your Own Adventure!

When I taught 5th grade, my students were especially interested in Choose Your Own Adventure books. They would read them during IDR time in Reading Workshop, so I decided to add a writing unit that focused on this genre.  Many of the lessons I taught were similar to those I would teach during any fiction unit of study, but extra emphasis was placed on figurative language, creating suspense, and organizing their interactive adventure. The stories were finally published as PowerPoint books so that readers could link to different pages as they made their decisions. (In PowerPoint, students can easily insert buttons that link to different pages in the slide show.) You could do the same project using hyperlinks in MS Word or any Web page design program.

Download the PPT Choose Your Own Adventure story you see above or the Choose Your Own Adventure template my students used when writing their stories. (Students will need many copies of the second page since they will really be writing several stories in one.) When I taught 5th grade, I was unfortunately required to give grades in writing, so I also have a Choose Your Own Adventure grading rubric for this project.


5. Vocabulary Word Wall
We all know that it is so important to help our students grow their vocabulary. This word wall, an idea taken from The CAFE Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, encourages students to tune in to interesting vocabulary words during their reading so that they can also incorporate the words into their writing.

Word wall

When I read to my students on the reading carpet, they bring their writing folders with them. As I am reading, I will pause (usually no more than once or twice during a story) to note interesting vocabulary words that I want to introduce. I choose the words ahead of time and add them to our class word wall, and students add them to their individual word collection sheets in their writing folders. I make sure to use these words whenever I can (in conversations, lessons, D.O.L. sentences, etc.) so that students become comfortable using them in their own writing pieces.

6. Writer’s Notebook Assessments

P1080350Do you ever get frustrated with the lack of effort put forth by some students during Writing Workshop? I am appalled when I confer with a student who has only written a few sentences each day.  While I am not suggesting that teachers grade students’ writing in their Writer’s Notebooks, I do feel that students need to be held accountable for the writing work that they do each day.

Daily Self-Assessment: Below is a self-assessment that writers fill out at the end of workshop time as a way to hold themselves accountable for both the quality and quantity of their writing.  Students turn these in at the end of each week. I glance over them to see which students I need to meet with. Download a Writing Workshop self-checklist.

Independent Checklist


Teacher Assessment:  This rubric is more comprehensive and is to be completed by the teacher at the end of each month or grading period, depending on how much writing your students are doing. You can even have students complete the assessment as well to compare their assessment to yours. Download the Writer's Notebook teacher assessment rubric.

Writer's Notebook Teacher Assessment Rubric


IMG_4823 7. Publishing Student Writing

There is nothing more motivating for students than knowing that others will read their work. Publishing gives student authors a sense of audience and voice. It’s authentic. It offers a reason for doing what they are doing instead of just writing to please the teacher or receive a good grade. At the end of our fiction writing unit, students’ final drafts are typed by parent volunteers, and the students paste the text into hardcover books and add personal illustrations to make their book special.



IMG_4757Once the books are completed, we have some type of publishing party. In the past we have had an Author’s Tea where we invite parents to hear our stories, and we have also read our stories to our kindergarten buddies. However the students’ favorite audience seems to be their peers. For this reason, we have a cozy read-in where students wear their pajamas to school and bring their sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets. Before the read-in begins, each student puts a library card in the back of his or her book. When a classmate reads a book, he or she writes his name on the library card so that the author knows who has read his book. Our school orders the hardcover books you see in the photos from www.barebooks.com.


Web Sites That Help Students Create/Publish Books

Student treasures main Studentreasures.com: With this Web site, create FREE class books for grades K–2 and individual hardcover books for students in grades 3–5. They send you kits so that students can write their story and add illustrations to each page. The kits are then sent back to the company, which binds them. Parents and/or grandparents can then purchase reprints of the books. View sample books on their Web site.

 Studentpublishing books1

StudentPublishing.com: This site offers a FREE Internet Storybook program that allows students to create their books online and then receive a paperback copy of the book to keep. They also have a mail-in program where students can create their manuscript and illustrations on paper at school and send them in to be published. The final product can show the student’s original handwriting, or the story can be typeset. Teachers in lower grades can also create a FREE class book that is durably bound in a hardback leatherette cover. View sample books.


8. Digital Storytelling

Students can actually create their own digital books that can be viewed online using a great FREE program called Microsoft Photo Story 3 for Windows. Students can create stories in any genre and make them come alive using this software program. The program allows students to create slide shows using actual photographs or scanned pictures of their own illustrations. Students then add their own voices so that they are reading their story aloud when the corresponding pictures come up in the slide show. In this way, students are also practicing fluent reading. The author can also add text and music. If you are in a building that uses Windows, this program is simple and easy to use, even for my 3rd graders!  

RiverSee some really creative examples from some students in Georgetown, Kentucky.  

The easiest way to learn about Photo Story is to use a Web tutorial. If you prefer to read the material, however, see this beginner's guide





Writing with writers

9. Scholastic’s Writing With Writers

Writing With Writers is an awesome resource on Scholastic.com.  As a teacher, I know that there is no greater motivation for students than tips and advice from real, published authors, especially when those authors' books are on the shelves of our classroom library. If you have not checked this out or used it with your students, you are missing out! Where else can students receive step-by-step instructions on writing a myth from Jane Yolen, advice on how to capture moments using descriptive writing from the late and great Virginia Hamilton, tips for writing fun poetry from Jack Prelutsky (along with a Webcast of him reading his poetry aloud), and so much more! Teacher guides are also available for each of the nine featured genres.


10. Great Writing Ideas From My Top Teaching Colleagues

Angela Angela Bunyi:  During her first year as a Scholastic teacher mentor, Angela wrote a great article called "Supporting Your Budding Writers."  It is full of ways to help those students who are constantly asking, “What can I write about?” She provides quick and easy methods for helping your writers self-select writing topics and become independent thinkers. 


Ruth Ruth Manna:  Ruth wrote a helpful post called "Teaching Writing — Choosing Topics."  It focuses on the importance of providing students the freedom to select their own topics, a staple of an authentic Writing Workshop. She provides a list of ways to help students brainstorm ideas for narrative writing.



Danielle Danielle Mahoney:  Danielle wrote two great posts on looking closely at your students' writing to truly plan and teach effective mini-lessons. The focus of her posts is to plan meaningful instruction that targets students' needs rather than simply adhering to a prescribed, scripted curriculum. Check out "Assess, Plan, Teach! Part 1 — Looking at Student Work" and "Assess, Plan, Teach! Part 2 — Strategies to Support Young Writers."


Megan Megan Power:  Megan wrote a post last year on word choice designed specifically for primary writers. She showed how she uses picture books to help her kindergartners "play with words" using color words, similes and metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and strong verbs. Check out her creative post "Unwrapping the 6 — Traits With Primary Writers: Word Choice."



Please add your thoughts about teaching writing, and share your favorite writing lessons!

Comments (66)

Jenn (comment #11),

You asked about the free publishing websites I mentioned in this post. I am not as familiar with studentpublishing.com. However, studenttreasures.com does actually provide free materials the first time you use their services. Of course there are some "rules." For example, you must have at least 80 participants to take part in the school-wide program. Also, the company really hopes to make their money through the purchase of reprints. Teachers must agree to send home notes with every student who participates offering parents the option to purchase reprints. For example, when you get your free class book, parents can purchase their own copy of the class book. This seems like a good marketing strategy to me since I assume many parents would want their own copy. Parents are also offered the option to purchase additional copies of the individual books for grandparents, friends, etc. Also, I believe the program is only free the first time you use the company. After that you must purchase the kits. If you inquire, they will send you 2 free samples of their hardcover books. I think the quality is great!

I hope this information helps!



Thank you for the eye catching lead posters. I can't wait to use them in the spring. Do you have any suggestions for teaching topic or closing sentences? I need to teach paragraph structure, and I thought you might have a clever idea (like the lead posters) for topic sentences or closong sentences. Thanks for sharing your creative ideas!

Beth - You continue to inspire and energize me! Thank you so much.

Beth, Your blog and tips continue to inspire! Love getting new ideas each month. Question: You seem to fit a lot into your school day! I'm jealous, as my students always seem to be pulled in many different directions and our days are very choppy. I never seem to fit anything in and certainly not a writing and reading wkshop time each day, sadly. I also teach 3rd grade. Would you mind sharing a break down of what your days look like by subject/amt of time on each? I'd love to get myself and my classroom better organized.


I have just recently found this site. It is amazing! I love the ideas for writing and can't wait to try some of them in my own classroom.

I also looked at your classroom website. It looks great and is so easy to follow. What a great asset to your classroom and a great resource for parents. I am currently working on a classroom webpage and can't find a program to use that I like. What program did you use to create your website?

Looking forward to going back through your older post and can't wait until next months top ten!

Hi Beth, I love all of your posts and am looking forward to your "Top Tens" each month. I am just wondering if you have ever sent your students writing off to these websites. It just seems a little too good to be true!! Nothing ever seems to be completely free!! Thanks Jenn

Sierra (comment #5),

It is always fun to hear from enthusiastic, motivated pre-service teachers. I'm glad that my work had been helpful to you!

I have not written a post that includes specific first day lesson plans. However, there are lots of first day/first week ideas in my September Top Ten List: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/09/september-top-10.html

My Classroom Economy Post also provides information about things I do in terms of classroom management at the beginning of the school year. Here is a link to that post: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/01/class-economy.html

I hope this helps!


Danielle (comment #4),

It was fun to see your comment here:) I'm glad you found my post useful for your colleagues as they write curriculum maps for the new Common Core Standards. I always look forward to your posts as well!


Laura (comment #3),

The lessons in this post fall into different units of study that I teach throughout the school year. In our district, Lucy Calkin's Units of Study are our main teaching resource, but we also use 6-Traits, Ralph Fletcher, and I like to add a lot of lessons from Scholastic writing resource books as well as lessons I create on my own.

The order that we teach our units of study is as follows: 1. Launching Reading Workshop (This is where the Narrative Lead Posters are introduced.) 2. Raising the Quality of Narrative Writing (This unit where I really emphasize "show, don't tell.") 3. Expository Writing (Different Text Structures such as descriptive, sequential, compare/contrast, problem/solution) 4. Research & Report Writing 5. Poetry 6. Fiction (In this unit, they publish in a hardcover book.)

Students are also doing reading response on a daily basis.

I hope this helps!


Ashley (comment #2),

I'm glad you enjoyed this post and the information about free student publishing.

Thanks also for the iTouch app suggestion "StoryRobe." I will have to check it out on my iPhone. Many schools are getting iPads too, so I am sure the app would be great for student writers in classrooms with access to such great technology.



Thanks for your offer to share your PPT of the "Show, Don't Tell" SMART Board lesson. Since I am obsessed with my SB this year, I have been creating everything as a SMART Notebook file. I should probably have added PowerPoint files as well. Perhaps I will convert the SMART Board files in this post to PPT files when I get a chance. Thanks!


Beth, thank you for another wonderful blog! I am a pre-service teacher and save all of the resources you provide in preparation for my own future classroom. I was wondering, have you ever written anything on your First Day lessons and procedures? I would be very curious to hear how you go about moving through that day, introducing students to their classroom and the year ahead.

Beth, what a great list! I already shared it with a team of teachers who are hard at work on writing curriculum maps for the new Common Core Standards. ;) Thank you!!

I was wondering if you have ever created a "year at a glance" type plan for your writing lessons? Maybe what types of lessons you plan to accomplish throughout the year?

LOVE this! I have been looking for that free publishing site for a while, so thanks for sharing! That made my day.

Teachers with itouches can also use the app "StoryRobe" to create digital stories.

I have created a PPT version of the Say, Don't Tell smartboard presentation because I am not able to use the link. I used most of the information from the smartboard presentation that Beth created, but added a few of my own things. If anyone would be interested in a copy, please email me at kwinski@gmail.com, with the subject line of Say, Don't Tell!

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