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How to Teach Writing in Literacy Centers

Teach Writing in Literacy Centers

How to Teach Writing in Literacy Centers

Literacy centers, or stations, are ideal instructional strategies for some writing instruction and practice. As much as teachers love literacy centers (I do!), some instruction and practice is just not conducive to centers. Most teachers and professional writers would agree that drafting is a solitary affair between writer and the imagination.  In the classic writing process stages, drafting follows pre-writing. Collaborative pre-writing (including research, discussion, organization, connection to prior knowledge, etc.) can certainly work well in the social atmosphere of literacy centers or cooperative groups. However, the pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard task of generating meaning seems to be part of the magic best suited for the magician alone.

Following drafting, the response-revision-editing-publication steps of the writing process work best in the social context of the classroom with student-student and student-teacher interactions. Whether using a writers workshop model or not, literacy centers can be beneficial instructional settings for working with the first draft.

Five Effective Uses of Literacy Centers for Writing Instruction

1. Response Activities

In the early years (1970s) of the National Writing Project and the popularization of teaching the writing process in schools, the response step was emphasized and valued as a necessary follow-up to the draft. Subsequently, more and more writing process charts and instructional approaches (writers workshop, 6 + 1 traits, Step up to Writing) tended to ignore this step. Some of the rationale for abandoning the response step seems to make sense. After all, student response groups can turn into mutual admiration societies (“It’s great. I wouldn’t change a thing.”) Or the blind leading the blind. Or crushing Yelp reviews of one star (sometimes as payback for past negative reviews). After all, we do teach kids.

However, if given concrete, objective “what to look for” response tasks dealing with what is said, response groups can be an essential step before writing revision. Additionally, most teachers find that guided response group tasks work efficiently to help writers decided what to keep and what to throw out. It’s all about waste management. Instead of spending excessive time analyzing and directing the trash disposal in terms of following the writing prompts, writing coherence, and unity, the teacher can reasonably expect that response groups can, at a minimum, sort the trash into recyclables, non-green waste, and compost. To mix metaphors, “Many hands make light work.”

2. Guided Revision

If well-designed response activities, used within literacy centers, can provide useful feedback to the writer regarding what is said in the draft and also save the teacher time dealing with the garbage, then well-designed guided revision tasks can help the writer work with how it is said. Guided revision is the back and forth discussion within the center regarding how the writer interacts with the reader.

For example, sentence structure and length is always a great guided revision task. It provides objective criteria: How many short sentences and long sentences are in the body paragraphs? How many simple sentences, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences are in the opening of the story? Are there any sections with three simple sentence in a row? Sections with two complex or compound-complex sentences back-to-back?

Or another example: sentence variety. How many sentences begin with the subject? How many passive voice sentences are there?

Or (from the author’s grammar handbook (see below):

e29 Get more specific. The support evidence is too general. Add more specific evidence by including Fact, Example, Statistic, Comparison, Quote from an Authority, Logic, Experience, or Counter-Argument/Refutation. FE SCALE CR

3. Guided Editing

Focusing on mistakes in word choice, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. can work well in literacy centers, but only if resources are made available and the editing is guided by discrete tasks.

The author provides a nice resource for student and teacher editing and revision in a grammar handbook: The Pennington Manual of Style provides 438 categorized comments which both literacy center partners and teachers can automatically insert into Windows Microsoft Word and/or downloaded into Google Docs or simply copied and pasted (for Windows and Mac users) as guided editing documents. The comments identify what is wrong, why is it wrong, and how to fix it.

For example, many students overuse “to be” verbs in both expository and narrative compositions: 

For more examples, check out the article on how to make revision and editing comments. Or take a look at  The Pennington Manual of Style on the author’s website.

4. Sentence Revision

Students need both the know how and tools to work with their own writing. If students don’t know that constantly beginning sentences with “There are,” “Here is,” “It was,” is poor writing style, unnecessary, and irritating to their audience, they will continue using these expletives. Literacy centers provide the collaborative experience for students to learn how to revise sentences. The author’s Writing Academic Literacy Center provides 56 mini-lessons for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (Get a FREE one-month unit below to test-drive this program) to help students learn what to revise and how to do so.

5. Literary Response to Mentor Texts

Literacy centers help students borrow each other’s brains to solve problems, ask questions, understand complex ideas, come up with solutions, and apply what has been learned. However, if students only draw water from the same well (each other) the writing results and production will stagnate. Good writers build upon the broad shoulders of better writers. Using grade-appropriate mentor texts can stimulate new ways at looking at things. When connected to interpretive and analytical writing tasks, student writers are exposed to new ideas and new ways of saying these ideas.

The author’s Writing Academic Literacy Center provides 56 mini-lessons featuring short mentor texts and response activities. The response activities requires students to collaboratively alter the rhetorical stance of their responses in terms of voice, audience, purpose, and form). These brain-stretching mini-lessons will significantly improve student writing flexibility, maturity, and style.


I’m so confident that teachers will recognize the quality of design and content when they see these grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 writing centers that I’m offering the entire first month-long unit of the Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE (all six centers) free of charge for you to test-drive. If you love them all (you just might), buy the full-year Academic Literacy Center BUNDLE or mix and match by buying the full-year individual centers. I’ve also attached an extensive preview of the Remedial Literacy Centers at the end of the unit for you to check out. Note: Please don’t post this free unit online or share with other teachers.

The individual centers and BUNDLES are available for sale on my Teachers Pay Teachers store and on (use discount code 3716 for 10% off at check-out).

Here’s what you will get in this free, one-month six-center Academic Literacy Center BUNDLE unit (255 pages plus the Remedial Literacy Center preview) sent as a download via email:

Academic Literacy Centers FREE Unit

Reading: Eight leveled expository reading fluency articles with word counts and timing chart. Eight corresponding comprehension worksheets with vocabulary in context. (The only components I can’t give you for this free sample are the modeled YouTube readings at three different reading speeds. You get access to these 129 readings with the paid version of the individual center or the BUNDLE.)

Writing: Eight sentence revisions lessons, which include revising sentence structure, grammar application, and writing style and eight literary response activities, which include literary quotation mentor texts and writer response tasks with different rhetorical stance (voice, audience, purpose, and form)

Language Conventions: Eight grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons including online links for both grammar and mechanics content and/or skills

Vocabulary: Eight vocabulary worksheets including multiple meaning words and context clues; Greek and Latin word parts; dictionary and thesaurus practice; figures of speech; word relationships; connotations; and grade-level Academic language words in the Frayer four-square model

Spelling and Syllabication: Four spelling sorts based upon grade-level conventional spelling rules and four syllable worksheets

Study Skills: Eight self-assessment, study skills, reflection lessons: How to Get Motivated, How to Prevent Procrastination, How to Set Goals, How to Develop a Positive Mental Attitude, How to Create a Home Study Environment, How to Get Organized for Homework, How to Complete a Daily Review, How to Manage Time for Homework

Prefer to see the extensive previews of each books before you download? Click HERE.

Prefer to watch the video overview before you download? Click HERE.

Check out Pennington Publishing articles on using literacy centers HERE.

You and your students will love these centers! Pick your grade level and get started with your month-long test-drive. Tell a colleague and earn a nice gift upon that colleague’s purchase of one of our BUNDLES!

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 4 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 5 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 6 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 7 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 8 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

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Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture

I am a dinosaur. I have to face the fact that I am culturally irrelevant to my students. My English-language arts colleagues are all young twenty-somethings. They do all of the student clubs, sports, and activities such as the overnight bus trip to Disneyland. They even do yard duty/campus supervision when they don’t have to. But, I’ve got one thing that they don’t have yet-reflective experience.

As I reflect back on my experience as a junior high and high school student, one creative medium was singularly influential and remains so for my students today-music. Music inspired me. Music made me dream big dreams. Music made me want to write.

Now, music didn’t make me want to write the way that Mr. Devlin, my junior high English teacher, wanted me to write. And music didn’t inspire me to write the stupid five-paragraph essays that Ms. Carruthers, my senior Advanced English teacher, assigned each week. Music made me want to write like John and Paul, Mick and Keith, and Bob Dylan. Somehow, my English-language arts teachers just did not tap into that motivating influence.

Now we did analyze a few songs in class. I remember Mr. Devlin helping us to interpret the Beatles’ “Revolution.” I ate it up, but there was no follow-through. It was a one-time experience, and then back to the literary anthology. No connection to our own writing as students. Our art teacher was very cool. She played our records while we worked with paint and clay. I discovered The Doors in her class. But, the music was background and its creative potential was not instructionally connected to our paper mache Christmas angels.

Music is just as influential on today’s students as it was for me. Ask students how much they listen to music today. It’s certainly more than they spend reading or writing. And they listen to music while they are on Facebook®. That’s a powerful combination. It seems to me that we can apply a few lessons from how our students combine music and social networking to how we should teach them to write.

Music has always been a social medium. Let’s do a bit of reflective thinking about the music business, and songwriting in particular, to see how we might apply some of this to improve student writing.

Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century musical tastes were changing from minstrel shows to vaudeville. The economic up-tick following the terrible recession of 1873 put more money in the hands of more Americans. Recently freed slaves migrated north into already-crowed cities. Increasing immigration added wealth to the expanding economy and consumers enjoyed some of the trickle-down benefits of the Gilded Age, including more leisure time and a bit more discretionary money.

A number of music publishers set up shop in the same district of Manhattan along 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway to take advantage of the economic boom and sell music to the popular vaudeville shows and sheet music to consumers to play on their parlor pianos. This neighborhood became known as “Tin Pan Alley,” probably due to “the cacophony of the many pianos being pounded in publisher’s demo rooms… characterized as sounding as though hundreds of people were pounding on tin pans (Wikipedia).”

“Song composers were hire under contract giving the publisher exclusive rights to popular composer’s works. The market was surveyed to determine what style of song was selling best and then the composers were directed to compose in that style. Once written, a song was actually tested with both performers and listeners to determine which would be published and which would go to the trash bin. All of a sudden it seemed that music was becoming an industry more than an art. Once a song was published, songpluggers (performers who worked in music shops playing the latest releases) were hired and performers were persuaded to play the new songs in their acts to give the music exposure to the public (Wikipedia).”

Writing Lesson #1

Publishing was the motivator for songwriting in Tin Pan Alley. This was, indeed, writing for a purpose. The profit-motive and pay-off were paramount; art was a by-product of that end. In contrast, our students are frequently only required to write to please an audience of one, that is their teacher, and the resulting pay-off is simply a grade. Hardly motivating and largely perceived as being irrelevant to their lives. No wonder there is little authentic voice, creativity, or passionate commitment in our students’ writing. The solution is to make the pay-off a motivator for student effort. Survey students to find what publishing ends would motivate their best efforts. Online postings, video reads, peer reviews to name a few.

Writing Lesson #2

Encourage mimicry of author’s styles. Just as vaudevillian composers were directed to compose in popular styles, help students to do the same. Help students identify components of popular author’s styles, including those of musical composers. Yes, hip hop is music. Don’t fret about lack of originality. One’s writing voice is an amalgam of one’s reading experiences and other voices.

Writing Lesson #3

Have students serve as song pluggers and performers for each other. We create a writing culture when peers begin responding to each other’s work. Students care more about their peers’ responses than those of their teacher. Teach constructive criticism: the “I like way you did ______, but you might try ______” needs both modeling and practice. Trust-building activities are a must. Allow students some degree of choice with whom they will work. After all, students don’t “friend” everyone on Facebook®. Try directed and undirected response groups, but don’t relegate these to the end of the writing process. Response groups work well after both prewriting and drafting. Don’t use student response solely as editing assistance. The more students perceive writing as a collaborative and social art, the more commitment and investment in their own writing will result.

Read a related article on Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate.


The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE includes the three printable and digital resources students need to master the CCSS W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational/explanatory essays. Each no-prep resource allows students to work at their own paces via mastery learning. How to Teach Essays includes 42 skill-based essay strategy worksheets (fillable PDFs and 62 Google slides), beginning with simple 3-word paragraphs and proceeding step-by-step to complex multi-paragraph essays. One skill builds upon another. The Essay Skills Worksheets include 97 worksheets (printables and 97 Google slides) to help teachers differentiate writing instruction with both remedial and advanced writing skills. The Eight Writing Process Essays (printables and 170 Google slides) each feature an on-demand diagnostic essay assessment, writing prompt with connected reading, brainstorming, graphic organizer, response, revision, and editing activities. Plus, each essay includes a detailed analytical (not holistic) rubric for assessment-based learning.

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