Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Raising Writers: The Teacher's Role

Effective writing teachers are models, coaches, assessors, planners, and consultants.

Raising Writers: The Teacher's Role- thumbnail
On a typical Monday morning, students in one 1st grade classroom prepare to begin their daily writing workshop. As students gather around her, the teacher listens to their conversations. Shakeel expresses excitement over his topic; he's eager to complete his piece about his brother's wedding. Maria tells her friends about her family's weekend trip to the beach as a way of rehearsing for a piece she plans to write. Sue-Ling is anticipating her chance to sit in the Author's Chair.
The students' enthusiasm for writing fills the classroom. They see themselves as writers, and they are developing habits of thinking about literacy that will sustain them through later grades. In this supportive environment, students avidly approach writing as an integral part of their daily routine.
In our work in schools with ethnically diverse student populations—Debbie as a literacy support specialist and Shirl as a 1st grade/Reading Recovery teacher—we talk with many primary teachers who want to support their students' emerging writing skills. We have discovered that teaching young writers is a complex process that requires teachers to play five important roles: model, coach, assessor, planner, and consultant. A look at writing workshop strategies that Shirl uses in her classroom demonstrates these roles and illustrates some of the many elements that make up an exemplary writing program.

Teachers as Models

Students gain valuable insight into the writing process as they watch their teacher select a topic, plan, write, revise, and edit. Teachers may craft a whole piece in front of the students over the course of several days or simply compose a sentence highlighting a specific target skill that they want their students to apply (Freeman, 1998).
Let's look at Shirl's classroom as she models a writing skill in an activity we call target practice. Shirl targets a skill she wants to demonstrate—in this case, strong verbs—and then writes the specific skill on an arrow and attaches it to a bull's-eye. This display reminds students of new skills and those they learned previously. Shirl introduces the skill by saying, As a writer, I want to give my readers specific information so they can get a better picture. Today we're going to learn how writers make their pieces better by using a strong verb. A verb is a word that shows action, like gallop, leap, and slither. Instead of using a boring verb like went, I want to use a stronger verb. Now I'm going to try hitting the target as I write a sentence about going into the school. I'll use a strong verb that tells exactly how I went.
Shirl writes the sentence I raced into the school. This brief mini-lesson explicitly demonstrates what a writer does while composing a text.
Teachers can also provide models of good writing by examining children's literature. Well-written trade books, or mentor texts (Fletcher, 1993), can help students focus on the many qualities of good writing. Each book under study becomes a model for students as they practice a particular example of the writer's craft. For example, The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey (Orchard Press, 1996) shows students how authors narrow a topic; Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (Crown Books, 1991) helps students understand how authors use descriptive language to evoke a setting; and My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother by Patricia Polacco (Simon and Schuster, 1994) demonstrates how authors often write about people they know.
Shirl uses Cook-a-Doodle-Doo! (Harcourt Brace, 1999) as a mentor text for another mini-lesson on strong verbs. Because the class has read this book together previously, for this lesson Shirl highlights only specific elements of the text. After reminding the students of the book's characters and theme, she says, Janet Stevens and Susan Crummel used strong verbs when they wrote this book. Today we're going to study a few sentences and see how the authors chose strong verbs instead of a boring verb like went. As I read some sentences from Cook-a-Doodle-Doo!, I want you to spot the strong verbs the authors chose to make their writing more interesting.
Shirl reads several sentences, and students identify such verbs as rushed, pranced, dashed, dived, and raced. Shirl writes each verb on a chart that will serve as a reference for the students as they write strong verbs on their own.

Teachers as Coaches

Writing teachers act as coaches when they establish common goals and activities, build social bonds, and support students as they grow in their abilities. Teachers establish trust, encourage risk taking, and treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Students become excited and motivated to reach their potential as writers.
Shirl has several routines in her classroom that motivate and encourage her students to apply target skills and take risks as writers. For instance, she attaches “did-it dots” (Freeman, 1998)—round, colored labels—on students' papers when she observes that they have applied a target skill correctly. Each did-it dot has a code letter or symbol that signifies the target skill the student used (for example, De means added details; SV means used a strong verb).
As a writing coach, Shirl also promotes risk taking through affirmations—little celebrations (a cheer, a round of applause, a chant) that students earn when they try something new as a writer. Finally, more formal celebrations, such as an Authors' Tea or Poets' Picnic, provide added motivation and encouragement.

Teachers as Assessors

In the role of assessor, writing teachers examine each student's writing to determine its strengths and areas of need. Two purposes of assessment are paramount. First, the teacher assesses students' writing to report to parents, the school administration, and perhaps the public. Second—and most important—the teacher assesses students' writing to guide instruction.
  • Require the teacher to think through and identify the important target skills and strategies to assess.
  • Make the teacher's expectations and criteria for assessment clear to students.
  • Easily translate into a tool for self-assessment.
  • Foster collaboration among teachers who work together to develop rubrics.
  • Can enhance students' understanding of the elements of good writing if students help develop the rubric's scoring criteria.
Figure 1 shows an example of a rubric that Shirl uses to assess her young writers. The target skills that she assesses change over time, but the scoring criteria remain consistent. To develop this rubric, Shirl thoughtfully determined which target skills she wanted to assess and decided how to strike a balance between process and product. About once every three weeks, Shirl sits down with her students' current writing, her anecdotal notes, and copies of the scoring rubrics. She carefully considers each student's progress and assigns a score that reflects her best judgment about the student's work as a writer related to the target skills on the rubric.

Figure 1. Sample Writing Rubric
Name _______________________
Date _____________________
Title/Topic of Piece ___________________________________________________________________

Raising Writers: The Teacher's Role - table



1. Used strong verbs_______
2. Stayed on topic_______
3. Attempted revision techniques_______
4. Spelled word-wall words correctly_______
5. Used ending punctuation correctly_______
4 = apparent throughout the piece; the writer's use of this target skill was effective
3 = apparent through most of the piece; the writer's use of this target skill was generally effective
2 = apparent through some of the piece; the writer's use of this target skill was minimally effective
1 = attempt to use target skill was apparent through some of the piece but was not used effectively
0 = the writer did not attempt to use this target skill

Shirl also uses rubrics to help students assess their own writing progress. Using the target skills from the rubric, she creates a self-assessment form (see fig. 2) for her students to complete. Students color the face that corresponds with their impression of their level of accomplishment and then write comments on the back of the form. Students will often reflect more deeply about their efforts, their successes, and ways they can improve their work if they have a chance to write about these issues.

Teachers as Planners

Writing teachers must balance many factors in planning for instruction. They must be knowledgeable about district and state requirements, which provide the foundation for the writing curriculum. They must also base writing plans on student needs as determined by assessments as well as plan how to modify instruction and provide support for students who perform at different skill levels.
In addition to making daily writing plans, writing teachers must create unit and yearly “road maps” to ensure that the class covers all required objectives and that students learn about multiple genres. Teachers design lessons for other content areas as well, to make writing an integral part of reading, math, social studies, and science. In addition, they must carefully plan response options, ensuring that students have the language skills and opportunities they need to share ideas with one another and get feedback about their writing. Finally, teachers must make decisions about classroom organization to facilitate writing workshop routines, mapping out a workable floor plan, desk configuration, and storage space.
Shirl's classroom is organized with an area for large-group instruction, a multitude of easy-to-access writing materials, and crates for storing writing portfolios. Desks are arranged in small groups so that students can quietly share with and respond to others. While Shirl teaches a reading lesson to a small group, students in another group write a literature response or list questions they have about a reading selection. Other students work at a genre station where they busily write postcards, brochures, greeting cards, or newspapers. The students refer to readily accessible resources, such as a word wall and topic charts. Shirl has planned to incorporate writing into various content areas by having students write in learning logs—recounting how they solved a math problem, recording what they learned in social studies, or describing outcomes of a science experiment.
Shirl has thoughtfully planned the routines, lessons, and genres that she wants her young writers to experience. A typical writing lesson consists of three parts: a mini-lesson, a sustained writing period, and response time. Shirl plans each part after consulting state and district requirements for 1st grade. During a unit on poetry writing, for example, she decides how she will introduce the skill of using metaphors during the mini-lesson. She then helps her students locate metaphoric language in a published poem and connects the skill to the poetry the students are writing. Shirl reviews assessment results and uses them to plan how she will provide additional student support during sustained writing time, either by meeting individually with students or by pulling together small groups of students with similar needs. She also decides how to help students respond to one another's writing, perhaps through Author's Chair routines, peer conferences, or pair-shares.

Teachers as Consultants

Writing teachers consult with either individuals or small groups to reinforce the writing skills and strategies that students have learned. As consultants, teachers help students develop habits of thinking about writing that will sustain them as they mature in their writing abilities.
Most of a teacher's consulting opportunities occur while students do their sustained writing. Sometimes the teacher meets with small groups of students with similar instructional needs. The grouping is flexible, changing according to the results of daily assessment. The writing teacher also meets with individuals, in either roving conferences or final conferences.
In roving conferences (Avery, 1993), the teacher walks around the room and stops routinely to discuss a student's writing. The student takes the lead, setting the agenda by describing the written work (Anderson, 2000). The teacher responds, discussing his or her reactions to the student's writing. The teacher summarizes, makes connections, and asks questions to clarify the writer's points and deepen the reader's understanding. In the role of consultant, the teacher concludes with compliments or suggestions related to target skills that have been previously taught. While conducting roving conferences, the teacher takes notes to summarize the interactions with each student.
After a student has finished a piece of writing, the writing teacher consults with that student in a final conference. The teacher asks, “What did you try in this piece that will help you become a better writer?” Then teacher and student collaborate to set one or two goals for the student's next piece.
To get ready for her role as consultant, Shirl has assessed students' work using her prepared rubrics and determined the skill on which each student scored the lowest. She then uses a planning folder to organize students into small groups that will work on the students' needed skills.
A typical day in Shirl's classroom finds her distributing did-it dots to students who are applying target skills in their writing. After consulting her planning folder, she calls Josh, Ali, and David to the small-group area so that she can reteach and reinforce the skill of staying on topic. Next, she conducts roving conferences, stopping at Sue-Ling's desk to help her narrow her topic and at Shakeel's desk to insist that he reread his writing and add ending punctuation. Finally, she meets with Maria to discuss her finished product, helping her set two goals for her next piece. During this consultation time, Shirl has given compliments, critiqued, urged students to apply writing skills and strategies, and nudged students toward deeper understandings of writing techniques.

Combining the Roles

As we've written about the five roles of the writing teacher, we've made each role separate and distinct. In reality, however, the roles are hard to distinguish from one another. When teachers distribute did-it dots, for example, they are coaching, assessing, consulting, and planning all at the same time.
Excellence in writing instruction takes time and practice, as does excellence in writing. Managing the five roles of the writing teacher is challenging work, but with patience, perseverance, and passion, we can help our students become active, effective writers.

Anderson, C. (2000). How's it going? A practical guide to conferring with student writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Avery, C. (1993). And with a light touch: Learning about reading, writing, and teaching with first graders. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, R. (1993). What a writer needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freeman, M. S. (1998). Teaching the youngest writers: A practical guide. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House.

Rickards, D., & Cheek, E. (1999). Designing rubrics for K-6 classroom assessment. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 105029.jpg
Go To Publication