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October 12, 2010 Individualizing Writing Assignments By Mary Blow
Grades 6–8


    This blog topic is in response to a fellow blogger who asked me how I meet the diverse needs of my students in writing instruction. I want to thank you for the request as this makes the blog all about you, the readers, and not me. Let me begin by saying, differentiating and individualizing writing instruction is tough! It is a work in progress and is my primary goal this year.


    First, let me begin by clarifying that there is a difference between differentiating instruction and individualizing instruction. According to Patti Drapeau, “Differentiated instruction does not mean you must provide a different lesson or allow for different products for every single student . . . The teacher does not meet with each student individually unless there is only one student working on a particular skill” (Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, 2004). I’ll talk about differentiated instruction in another blog in the near future. For now, I want to focus on how I individualized instruction. Each of my 106 students has strengths and weaknesses that are unique. So, how do I make sure that I am meeting each student at his or her instructional level?


    Individualized instruction is important to our students because there is such a range of needs. We all know that students are more successful when you meet them at their instructional level. This year I have 106 students at varying levels of writing ability and with many diverse needs. I admit, contemplating individualizing instruction for 106 students was overwhelming. There were so many critical tasks on my to-do list that I’d postpone the task because I didn't know where to start. Ironically, addressing this task gave me a window into the heart and soul of the student who struggles with writing and who will avoid writing, too, if possible. So, how did I accomplish such a feat?

    First, I started networking with colleagues; I read professional resources; and I joined an online discussion group. There is a lot of good advice, but in the end, Dr. James Collins, founder of Collins Writing Program, provided a realistic solution that I felt I could manage. There are many aspects to the Collins Writing Program, which are worth exploring; however, for the sake of this topic, I am concentrating on Focus Correction Areas (FCAs), the answer for individualizing writing instruction whether it is fiction or nonfiction writing. 



    FCAs are areas of writing that the student focuses on during the writing process. Many struggling students are overwhelmed when a teacher marks up their papers. They don’t know where to begin, so they shut down or avoid the task at all costs. Limiting their focus to three FCAs reduces anxiety. The focus should be on a skill that the child is closest to acquiring, thereby providing him or her with the opportunity to experience success. It is also important to consider the level of the child’s ability when designing an FCA. The more a student struggles, the more specific the FCAs. The more advanced the student, the more general the FCAs. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use capitalization errors as an example. A struggling writer would be more successful with the following FCA: Capitalize the first word of every sentence. There may be additional capitalization errors; however, this is the focus for this struggling student. A more proficient writer will be successful with a general FCA: Follow capitalization rules. This student is responsible for referring to the capitalization rules and editing their paper. In the end, each student is working at their instructional level and finding success in writing.



    In the beginning, I provide the handout, a template, to model how the headers should look. When I conference with the students, the FCAs are recorded at the top of each student’s paper. Later, after the students are familiar with the process, they start writing their own headings and FCAs on their own lined paper.


    Download Focus Correction Areas template.


    These two illustrations depict FCAs assigned to a writer who struggles and a writer who is advanced. 

     FCA_LOWER_LEVELClick on the image to enlarge specific FCAs for struggling writers.



    Click on the image to enlarge general FCAs for advanced writers.



    I like Collins' approach to individualizing writing instruction because it integrates with the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, which I use in my classroom. I identify developmental areas from the traits to use as the FCAs. The Northern Nevada Writing Project has a Web site, WritingFix, which offers lessons and identifies developmental areas for each trait:

    When designing FCAs, I avoid selecting areas that focus on one trait. I pull traits that allow them to focus on meaning and content, style, and grammar. For example, I may select from the following areas: ideas, sentence fluency, and conventions. Not all students are weak in the same trait, so I put my own spin on the FCAs. I modified the header substituting the Traits of Writing for the FCAs. Each student, depending on their strengths and weaknesses, could be focusing on different developmental skills for different traits. Eventually, as students become proficient writers, they use the header to evaluate and assess the effective use of all the traits in their writing, a more authentic writing experience (see illustration).


    Download FCAs and the Traits of Writing template.



    I know this all sounds overwhelming, so I'll describe what it looks like in my classroom. I conference with each student during Writer’s Workshop and identify areas of strength and weakness. Say I identified inconsistent use of capitals at the beginning of sentences. I explain that the first word in a sentence is always capitalized. I model editing one mistake on their paper. Then I ask them to show me another mistake. If they are successful, I write “Capitalize first words in sentence” as one of the FCAs. We repeat this process until they have three FCAs. Then they return to their seat to revise and edit the rest of the paper. From then on, each student is responsible for demonstrating their understanding of identified FCAs in future writing assignments. The assessments are limited to the FCAs to alleviate anxiety. The FCAs recorded at the top of the page serve as a reference while students are writing. Students are aware of their writing goals and how they are being graded. This alleviates anxiety. Since everyone has different FCAs, nobody feels singled out. FCAs also serve as a reference for me when I assess their work. When students are finished, the written pieces are added to their portfolios to illustrate their progress.



    This year I decided to create a writing skills checklist to monitor student progress. I merged the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing with the NYS English Language Arts Learning Standards. I explain to them that this is my way to track their progress throughout the year. I divide a binder into five sections, one for each class I teach. I keep one writing skills checklist for each student in the binder. When I assess a piece of writing, I make observations and write the date in the beginning, developing, or proficient column, indicating the level of proficiency for the targeted skill or skills. Periodically, we will discuss which area they feel they need to focus on next.

    There are so many of us who would like to be more proficient at meeting our students’ needs. Please share your ideas or your successes.





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Susan Cheyney