Posts Tagged ‘composition’

Writing Literacy Centers

Writing Literacy Centers

Writing Academic Literacy Centers

As most teachers have now adjusted their writing instruction and practice into the narrowed focus of the Common Core State Standards (more research and essays and less stories and creative writing), I see a renewed interest in developing the skill sets of student writers.

Teachers have, understandably, focused on the first three Common Core Writing Standards: 1. The argumentative (essay) 2. The informational/explanatory (essay or report) 3. The narrative (story). Most teachers have had professional development in these three genre and teach all three at some time within each school year.

Additionally, most teachers are now implementing Writing Standards W.6, 7, 8, and 9 by using technology for short or extended research writing projects.

However, teachers are less familiar with the other three writing standards and few are well-acquainted with the relevant language standard. Teachers usually refer to these standards as writing skills or strategies. Typically, teachers have taught these tools in isolation as writing openers/worksheets or in the writing context as mini-lessons/editing. These skills or strategies are ideally suited to literacy center (station) lessons.

Following are the often-neglected writing and language standards:

Production and Distribution of Writing:

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Range of Writing:

Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.


Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Teachers have used three research-based strategies to teach these writing skills or strategies: 1. Frequent, short, and focused writing practice 2. Sentence revisions 3. Literary response

How to Teach to These Standards

Fortunately, #s 2 and 3 are best accomplished by #1.

Sentence Revision (called by many other names) includes quick, focused instruction and repetitive practice in precise word choice, sentence structure (grammar, usage, and syntax), and sentence variety (varied grammatical forms, sentence combining, sentence length, parallelism, etc.)

Literary Response includes learning from accomplished writers. Teachers have used both expository and narrative mentor texts for years to model how writers communicate artfully and memorably. Typically, students respond to mentor texts in different rhetorical modes (rhetorical stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form) to develop their own writing style.

If you glance back at the often-neglected writing and language standards above, you’ll see how sentence revision and literary response activities address the components of these standards and can be taught and practiced in frequent, short, and focused writing practice.

One great way to teach sentence revision and literary response writing skills is in literacy centers (stations). The social nature of collaborative writing is especially conducive to literacy centers.


The author of this post, Mark Pennington, provides grades 4-8 teachers with grade-level sentence revision resources and literary response resources in two instructional formats: twice-per-week writing openers (or writers workshop mini-lessons) and literacy centers.

Both sentence revision and literary response lessons are provided in Teaching Essay Strategies, the Writing Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8and in the Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 BUNDLE.

Get the Writing Academic Literacy Center Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Writing Skills

Writing is Taught and Caught

Writing Skills: Taught and Caught

Now that teachers have had plenty of professional development in how to write arguments (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1) and informative/explanatory texts (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2), teachers are looking at their students’ essays or narratives (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3) with a collective sigh. Students just cannot write.

Students seem to understand the content, they know the demands and constraints of the writing genre, they can dissect a writing prompt, they know the writing process… but the words they use, the sentences they construct, and the intangible feeling our student writers convey simply do not engage their readers (teachers especially).

The Problem

Many teachers are not equipping their students with the tools they need in their tool belts. Or, just as bad, teachers introduce the tools, but don’t provide the practice students need to master the tools.

The Solution

Two time-proven solutions to these problems take little time, but do necessitate some instruction and practice: sentence revisions and literary response. Writing teachers (and writing research) have found these tools to be especially helpful for developing writers.

By sentence revision, I mean the word choice and structure of our language (the grammar, usage, and syntax). It’s the how something is written (and re-written). Think sentence variety, sentence combining, grammar and proper usage in the writing context. The skills of sentence revision are primarily taught.

By literary response, I mean writing style: primarily the style of literary mentors, who not only have something to say, but know how to say it in both expository and narrative writing. Think mentor texts and rhetorical stance (voice, audience, purpose, and form). The skills of writing style are primarily caught.

Fortunately, the Common Core authors do acknowledge the importance of teaching both sentence revisions and literary response in both the Anchor Standards for Writing and the Anchor Standards for Language (highlighting my own):

Writing Anchor Standards

Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Language Anchor Standards

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.


Keep your focus on both the content and process of writing. Maintain a balance of extended writing process assignments (especially essays and stories) and short, say twice-per-week writing skill development, especially using sentence revisions and literary response activities.

The author of this post, Mark Pennington, provides grades 4-8 teachers with grade-level sentence revision resources and literary response resources in two instructional formats: twice-per-week writing openers (or writers workshop mini-lessons) and literacy centers.

Both sentence revision and literary response lessons are provided in Teaching Essay Strategies, the Writing Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 and in the Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 BUNDLE.

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How to Teach Rhetorical Stance

Teachers can help students practice the elements of Rhetorical Stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form. Learning these elements will enable students to flexibly address any writing assignment with dexterity and flair. Students need to be able to adjust their writing to a wide variety of genre in order to communicate effectively.

Find clear models of the elements of rhetorical stance and share these with your students. Help students to identify each of the elements in the model. Discuss how each interacts with the others. Make sure to use a wide variety of models.

Then, have students mimic the voice, audience, purpose, and form of the model to respond to an engaging writing prompt. Share their creative triumphs and correct shortcomings.

Voice—Some would define voice at that intangible which makes one’s writing unique, personal, and honest. I define voice a bit more globally, encompassing style, point of view, tone, and diction (word choice). Students need to practice mimicking other voices to refine their own voices. Additionally, students need to be able to manipulate their voices to best suit the audience, purpose, and form. Choose student models to share that will broaden your students’ understanding of voice and encourage students to mimic these examples and the voices of other writers. Check out another article I have written, titled “How to Develop Voice in Student Writing” for plenty of instructional strategies. Why not introduce a video clip of Martin Luther King, Jr. to inspire students to mimic his poetic, emotional, and hopeful voice prior to a relevant quick write?

Audience—Students need to understand that all writing is interactive communication. The other is the writer, himself, as reader and any others with whom the writer shares the work. Students all too frequently learn to write to the teacher as their exclusive audience. This practice tends to de-personalize student writing and limit development of voice. Choose student models to share that use a voice that engages and is particularly appropriate to the audience. Ask students to identify which parts of the writing response specifically address the defined audience and why. Why not select a class of third graders as an audience to encourage controlled vocabulary, brevity, and appropriate word choice?

Purpose—My comprehensive essay curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies, uses eight key writing direction words (describe, explain, discuss, compare-contrast, analyze, persuade, justify, and evaluate) as the action words of each writing prompt in leveled writing strategy worksheets. These same writing direction words are used on a rotating basis (eight times each) as the purpose components in the 64 Rhetorical Stance Quick Writes. Check out the attached example of a Rhetorical Stance Quick Write and use to guide your instruction in the elements of rhetorical stance. Why not have your students describe the ideal world that they hope to live in as adults?

Form—Although the academic essay becomes the predominate form of composition beginning in the intermediate elementary years and continuing through college, facility in other writing forms is certainly necessary to develop voice, writing fluency, and writing dexterity. Additionally, writing practice using a variety of forms will improve reading comprehension across a wide variety of genres. Use a wide variety of form, from anecdotes to classified ads to help students adjust their writing form and voice to the purpose of the writing and their audience. Why not mimic the rhetorical style, including the parallel “I have a dream” refrains from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a two minute speech?

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies at

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Process vs. On Demand Writing

Writing research has shown that one key ingredient to writing success is time. Developing writers need time to learn the writing craft, time to research/brainstorm, time to draft, and time to revise. However, ironically, time may in-it-of-itself be the greatest impediment standing in the way of writing profiency and fluency for many of our students.

Since the return of phonics-based reading instruction in the 1990s, elementary teachers have had to allocate more instructional time to direct instruction. With greater diversity in most states, more pressure to differentiate instruction in reading has compounded the problem of instructional minutes at all grade levels. Science, art, social studies, physical education, music, and writing have become the casualties of this time-theft.

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the new SAT 1, high school exit exams, and standards-based writing assessments, has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students both learn to write and succeed on these tests with no additional time allocated for writing instruction. The three approaches are 1. process writing 2. on demand writing and 3. a mix of the two.

Advocates of the process writing approach (Six Traits, National Writing Project, Writers Workshop, etc.) argue that frequent practice in all phases of the writing process i.e., research/brainstorming, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing best helps writers develop writing fluency and proficiency. Advocates of the on demand approach argue that the above components can be streamlined into an integrated process, which teaches the writer to concurrently multi-task the drafting, revision, and editing steps with the quick bookends of planning and proofreading. Those teachers trying to please both masters have limited their process pieces and upped the amount of on demand writing tasks when the standardized writing test looms on the horizon.

Process writing proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling) incidentally throughout the writing process or via targeted mini-lessons. On demand proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics explicitly through an established instructional scope and sequence. Those who try to combine process and on demand writing wind up relegating most grammatical and mechanics instruction to test preparation out of sheer time constraints.

A brief readers theater (tongue firmly planted in cheek) may help teachers of all writing approaches greater appreciate the challenge of teaching writing today.

Narrator: Here is a familiar scene in the teachers’ workroom. Two teachers kill time while waiting in line for the laminating machine. Their subject of discourse: an ongoing discussion of Process Writing versus On Demand Writing.

Teacher 1: I can’t believe that Mildred accidentally threw out my Writing Process charts when she rotated off-track. I’ve got to get new ones laminated and back on the wall. I’m lost without them!

Teacher 2: Are you still using those dumb charts? I thought that you must have dumped them by now. The Writing Process is “old school.” We dropped that with whole language years ago. Get with the program! It’s On Demand Writing, now. Oh by the way, I put back your Lucy McCormick Calkins book in your box; I have enough paperweights for my desk, thank you.

Teacher 1: You and your on demand writing tasks… You’re not teaching—all you are really doing is testing. Are you still passing out those grammar worksheets for homework? Remember, the research about writing says—

Teacher 2: Don’t give me that research stuff—I know what works for my kids. My language expression scores on the state test were much higher than yours. You’re lucky you’ve got tenure.

Teacher 1: Even when I didn’t, I never kissed the principal’s butt like you do. And I don’t teach to the test, like you do. My kids are learning how to think. They are writing to learn. Who cares if they know their subjects and predicates!

Teacher 2: Kids are going to have to spell, punctuate, capitalize, and use grammar correctly if they want to make it in today’s world. They’ve still got to be able to write in those blue books in college for a timed one-hour exam. They can’t just pick their own writing subject and do multiple drafts for a mid-term. You really need to get a Red Bull® and wake up to the real world.

Teacher 1: In the real world, students need to have the brains to say something. Outside of school, people have time to revise and edit. They have the time to be reflective. That’s what real authors do… They don’t have someone forcing them to write to a contrived prompt and then hovering over them with a stupid yellow timer.

Teacher 2: Now, you’re getting personal. My aunt gave me that yellow timer… Who writes your paycheck? Last I checked it was the school district. All our principal cares about is higher test scores. If you can’t show it, they don’t know it!

Teacher 1: That’s not why I got into teaching. I want to develop the whole child and nurture a love for learning. I just completed a trimester-long unit on the Haiku and its place in Japanese society…You should come in and see our published poems on the wall. We used real 24 carat gold to highlight—

Teacher 2: I bet I could find some punctuation mistakes—you with your peer editing groups. Talk about the “blind leading the blind.” I have students write one paragraph each day in indelible ink—no changes. I time them and have their desk partners count how many words the student has written in the 10 minutes. It sure saves a lot of teacher grading time. All I have to do is record the number of words in my grade book program. I can show you huge gains in words per minute.

Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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Why Johnny Can’t Write

“Johnny is a creative story-writer, but he can’t write an essay to save his life.” Does this ring true for your child or student?

Johnny has had some good writing instruction. He can recite the steps of The Writing Process from the posters he has seen in every classroom throughout his elementary school years. He knows all about Writers Workshop. He would know what to expect if the teacher had written “Writers Conferences” or “Response Groups” on the white board as parts of her daily lesson plans. Johnny’s writing portfolio is chalk full of fanciful stories and writing pieces in the sensory/descriptive or imaginative/narrative writing domains. He has been encouraged to unleash his creative mind-although that story that he wrote last year about the student boycott of the cafeteria may have been a bit too creative for the principal’s tastes.

However, if you give Johnny a writing prompt, asking him to “Compare and contrast the cultural roles of women in Athens and Sparta,” sixth grade writing paralysis would surely set in. Or worse yet, Johnny might begin his essay with “Once upon a time in a far-away land called Greece, two young women from Athens and Sparta…” His difficulties would, no doubt, increase if this were a timed assessment.

Unfortunately, most of the writing that Johnny will need to complete throughout his academic and work careers will not take advantage of his story-writing experience. Instead, most of what Johnny will be required to compose will be some form of writing that informs or convinces his reader. Additionally, most of his writing will be subject to some kind of time constraint. Johnny has just not had the instruction and practice in this kind of writing. His college professors probably will not hand him a “blue book,” tell him to write a story of his own choice, and then turn it in after multiple revisions when his final draft has been published and properly illustrated.

Students need to learn how to write structured essays designed to inform and convince their teachers and professors. But how do you transform a creative, non-linear thinker like Johnny into an organized and persuasive writer? Take the mystery out of essays by replacing the confusing terminology of thesis statements, topic sentences, concrete details, and commentary with simple numerical values that reflect the hierarchy of effective essay structure. For example, assign a “1” to introductory strategies, a “2” to the thesis statement, a “3” to the topic sentence, a “4” to the concrete detail, a “5” to the commentary, and a “6” to the conclusion strategies. Telling a student that a “5” is needed to support a “4,” which supports a “3” is much more intuitive-and students get it! Teach structural variety by having students write 3-4-5-4-5 paragraphs and revise with 3-4-5-5-4-5-5 paragraphs. Have students analyze text structure by numerically coding their science book or a newspaper editorial. Use this approach to develop sequenced writing skills, incorporating different grammatical structures and sentence structure.

Find 8 complete writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory) with accompanying readings, 42 sequenced writing strategy worksheets, 64 sentence revision lessons, additional remedial worksheets, writing fluency and skill lessons, posters, and editing resources in Teaching Essay Strategies. Also get the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies


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