Many parents remember the days of the teacher assigning a topic, and the students writing exactly what the teacher wanted, usually in five paragraphs. It’s a little different now.

How it works

Students in Room 130 learn to develop their writing skills in a Writer’s Workshop format. You’ve seen a workshop: tools everywhere, several projects in various states of completion, lots of noise, a little clutter, and many ways to get the job done. Now, in your mental picture, replace the table saw with a pencil, and the plywood with paper. The business, noise and variety are still the same.

In Writer’s Workshop, students are given a daily block of about 45 minutes. The time starts with a 15-minute mini-lesson focusing on ideas and details, style and voice, organization or conventions. Students may learn about leads, grammar, focus, thoughtshots, fresh language, dialogue or genre.

Students are encouraged to write following the writing process. Below is a rough guide to the timing and purpose of each step in the process:

Task Estimated Time for Task (days) Purpose and Focus
Prewriting2-3forming ideas in a list, web or freewrite
Drafting4getting ideas on paper
Revising4looking back at the ideas and finding ways to improve the writing: adding, removing, changing
Editing or Proofreading2correcting spelling, capitals, sentence sense, and other conventions
Publishing2-3finalizing the piece of writing by typing or rewriting

During Writer’s Workshop students may be writing by themselves, working with a partner, or conferring with a neighbor. Students work with a partner during prewriting, revising and editing conferences with another student.

We use digital tools for writing. Most of our writing is done using Google Docs. We’ll also use Google Sites to create a website, and Google Slides for a presentation. Students prewrite, draft, and publish in the same document. Digital tools save all work, show a student’s progress, facilitate much easier revising and proofreading, and allow for partner comments inside the document for the writer to see. Students can access Google Docs away from school from a desktop computer, laptop, chromebook. Students can also download the Google Drive and Google Docs apps for mobile devices from Google Play or the App Store.

How much time to write

As shown above, each piece of writing takes about three weeks to complete. But how much time does it take to write a quality piece of writing? The answer surprises a lot of fourth graders:

  • Suppose an average student works on writing for 10 minutes per day at school, 4 days per week, and,
  • Suppose an average student works on writing for 10 minutes per day after school, 4 days per week, and,
  • If students are allowed 3 weeks to complete each piece of writing…
  • That results in 80 minutes per week, and 240 minutes for a 3-week writing piece…
  • In other words, an average piece of writing takes a total of 4 hours to complete.
  • If a student works 20 minutes per day at school and home, that would add up to 8 hours of work!

The big idea is that an average piece of writing takes more than 4 hours of work, and the easiest way to do this is to work on it a little each day. Students who only work on their writing at school, or who try to finish up a late piece of writing only at recess, are bound to earn unsatisfactory grades, because they’ll never have the opportunity to spend the time it takes to write a quality piece of writing.

What to write about

Students have full control over the topics of their writing. I may suggest ideas, but will only demand a change if the original topic was inappropriate. And while students pick the topic, I usually pick the genre. Students are welcome to prepare a second piece in a genre of their choice if they have finished a piece in the required genre.

Good writers choose topics that are meaningful and interesting to them, and ones that they know about. For example, if a student loves to visit their grandparents house, then a good topic would be telling about an interesting time visiting their grandparents. And if a student knows a lot about skateboarding, then a good idea would be to tell about a time when something interesting happened while skateboarding. Avoid “all about” topics, which usually turn out to be just a list.

Getting a grade

Typically, three weeks are allotted to work on a piece of writing, then students will select their best piece to submit to their portfolio. Three pieces are assessed for each marking period, using a five-point rubric (here’s an example). Students are also graded on their use of the writing process, which I assess by looking at a student’s version history in Google Docs. I’ll be looking for a student to have a list for prewriting, a draft finished in a timely manner, some evidence of changes during revising, and some evidence of editing corrections.

Rubric Score
4 or aboveA+100 or above
2 or lessNY67 or less

Writing Schedule

Students will write 12 pieces in a variety of styles and genres over the course of the year. Here is the general schedule of writing pieces, generally one piece every three weeks:

  1. Personal narrative (a memory or story about the student)
  2. Personal narrative
  3. Personal narrative (slightly fictionalized)
  4. Narrative (fiction)
  5. Narrative (fiction)
  6. Choose Your Own Adventure fiction/technology project (see our gallery of past projects)
  7. Literary essay
  8. Persuasive Letter to the Editor writing/Social Studies project
  9. Novel Writing Month final fiction piece and paperback publishing project
  10. I-Search research project and I-Search Conference presentations
  11. Poetry collection
  12. Find It, Decide It comparative decision making writing/technology project

How to help

The best way to help your student with their writing is to make sure they have a daily homework time that includes at least 15 minutes of writing. Check in on their progress by having your student show you their work in their Google Drive. You can look at what they wrote during the day, and have a conference about it. You can ask questions and make suggestions about how to improve the writing. If you have a Google account, you could even have your student share their writing with you so that you can add comments write on their document. Here are some specific ideas:

  1. Help your student to choose an interesting topic within the assigned genre. If the genre is personal narrative, help your student think of an interesting memory, who the characters are, what they said to each other, what details to include, and what to focus on.
  2. Help your student to balance dialogue with description in their stories and narratives. One common problem is to just tell the story, with limited details or dialogue. Another common problem is the opposite: all dialogue with no details and description.
  3. For narrative pieces, help your student to write in slow motion, like a movie, as opposed to a list. Readers can’t picture a list in their head, but they can picture a slow motion story with dialogue, visual details, sounds, colors, characters, action, places, etc.
  4. Look for holes, and ask questions that pop into your head while listening to the writing or reading it yourself. You could use this Checklist for Good Writers for ideas.
  5. Encourage your student to include more details if the piece is short (less than two pages). Ask for senses: what did things look like? smell like? sound like? feel like? taste like?
  6. Call it like you see it, but try to offer at least one compliment for each suggestion. If you think the writing is confusing, say so. If it feels like it’s too short, tell them. Not enough details? Boring words? Sentences all sound the same? Point it out, and ask your student what they can do to fix it.
  7. Read the parent guides for more helpful tips.
  8. There are some things not to do. Mainly, don’t take over. Don’t start typing, picking topics, changing sentences, fixing mistakes. Let your student do all the work. See here for what to avoid, and what to focus on.

What should my student’s writing look like?

Writing is progressive. A student’s writing should change and grow over the year as they learn new strategies and develop their writing abilities. And it takes time for a writer to build their skill level, meaning that we should see grades improve over time as students grow in their writing.

Here are some writing pieces that earned top grades by actual students in my previous classes.  These pieces aren’t perfect; you’ll see mistakes. At the end of each piece are my suggestions on what this writer could have done to improve. But you’ll also see many things these writers did well. You can use this as a guide and a target. If your student writes in a similar fashion, they will earn top grades as well.

Fourth Grade Examples

Fifth Grade Examples

Interactive Fiction Examples


This page last updated February 17, 2020 @ 10:48 am.