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Differentiating Instruction in Writer’s Workshop

In Writer’s Workshop, students are provided a structured time to write in the social context of the classroom, with the expertise of their teacher as a “guide on the side.” In most Writer’s Workshops, students select their own writing projects and work at their own pace. Typically, a one-hour workshop would include some of these components: a mini-lesson on a writing skill, a brief “status of the class” check-in and goal-setting time, writing time with peer conferences and/or mini-conferences with the teacher, and time for published work or work in progress to be publically presented to the whole class.

Critics of Writer’s Workshop often complain that Writer’s Workshop can be inefficient and/or a class management nightmare. Some teachers have tried Writer’s Workshop, but have given up because the workshop is interest-based, not standards-based or because it is student-centered, not teacher-centered.

Neither of those criticisms concerns me greatly. However, I do feel that the traditional model of Writer’s Workshop is not as conducive to differentiated instruction as it could be. Tweaking one of the above four components does makes sense to me.

The Mini-Lesson

The traditional approach to the Writer’s Workshop mini-lesson is summarized as follows:

The secret to giving effective mini-lessons is asking yourself this question: “What single problem am I trying to help these writers solve?” The best way to do this is simply to take note of the specific problems your students are having, and to ask them from time to time what they would like help with. You don’t have to turn your whole class over to the students, but from time to time, maybe every few weeks or so, ask your students to give some thought to the difficulties they’ve been having, and what kind of help they want next. Then base your lessons on that information. A good rule of thumb for deciding on when to give a particular lesson is this: if more than a third of your class really needs to know about something in order to make progress, it’s time for a mini-lesson.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

The problem with this approach is that it begs a few questions:

Is there a single problem that all of the writers need to solve? Apparently not, if the “more than a third” criteria is followed. By this standard, the mini-lesson would be given to one-half to one-third of the students from whom the problem is not an issue.

Do the student writers really know “what they would like help with” and “what kind of help they want next”? Isn’t this more like the blind leading the blind? Students truly don’t know what they don’t know.

My suggestion is that mini-lessons should be differentiated according to the needs of all students and that the teacher has the expertise to best determine those needs. But, what data should teachers depend upon to plan differentiated instruction?

Advocates of the traditional approach to Writer’s Workshop favor this implicit approach:

In Writer’s Workshop, teachers don’t test their students on every new concept presented. They don’t have to. If the mini-lessons are delivered in a thoughtful and entertaining way that addresses legitimate student needs, and students are given encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned, the concepts will begin to show up in their writing, which is exactly where we should be looking for them.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

Several problems arise when teachers rely too heavily on implicit formative writing assessments. First of all, this approach is highly inefficient. It may take many writing samples before a teacher can accurately deduce the discreet writing issues a student writer may have. Secondly, writers use their strengths, not weaknesses, so writing samples may not even present the information that a teacher needs to address relative weaknesses. Thirdly, even with “encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned” the concepts may not ever show up in a student’s writing, if the student never learned the skill from the mini-lesson. Wouldn’t it make more sense to assess students on the discreet writing skills, design mini-lessons or assign targeted worksheets, then determine whether a particular skill has been mastered or requires re-teaching?

On a personal note, I use Writer’s Workshop three days a week with my seventh-graders. Over time, I learned to adjust my writing instruction to what students were and were not learning. Many mini-lessons turned into multiple-day lessons as I re-taught and struggled to find ways to get my students to learn what seemed so easy for me to teach. I learned the value of quick, informal formative writing assessments. Writer’s Workshop and differentiated instruction need not be mutually exclusive teaching designs.


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