Writer’s Workshop Basics

Writer’s Workshop includes spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and writing stories, essays, poems, and more. We write all throughout our day, whether we’re writing what we learned about an artist, explaining a math concept in a journal entry, writing up an experiment, or creating a passage in our world explorer journals.  During most of those times we are focused on the subject, but during Writer’s Workshop we actually learn about the writing process and how to be better writers.  And we do that for about an hour to an hour and a half every morning.

Writer’s Workshop Overview

We start our Writer’s Workshop with spelling, vocabulary, and handwriting or typing practice.  After that, we have a mini-lesson, a short lesson that will help us to improve our writing somehow.  The rest of the time we just write.  We start with entries in our writer’s notebooks, then develop some of those entries into bigger, more polished pieces.  Each month I give the kids a genre to work from, but within that genre they have a lot of freedom to choose what they want to write about.

Our writing center has paper and all kinds of writing utensils, little pre-made booklets, and idea charts on the wall. Several of the cans also have silly story starters the kids can draw out when they’re feeling stuck!

My kids aren’t always in the same place in the writing process, so they work from wherever they are at.  By the end of the month they have to have at least one polished piece of work turned in from our monthly genre, but they’ve always written quite a bit more than just that one piece.

I’ll break it down a little more for you:

Mini-lessons 

We usually start off with a mini-lesson.  The #1 rule of a mini-lesson is that it should be MINI!! Writing can’t be taught in a day. It has to be practiced and absorbed, and the best way to learn it is to WRITE rather than to be told how to write.  An example of a mini-lesson is taking a minute to show kids how the titles of books should be underlined after you notice that on their last assignment they weren’t doing this.  Don’t also cover how poems should be in quotes, and all the other reasons we use underlining and quotes for that matter.  Those are lessons for other days. Writing has lots of rules and we should never let the rules overrun creativity and fun.  A few minutes for rules is quite enough for one day.

If you like workbooks, the mini-lesson would be the tiny tidbit you teach that enables them to complete their grammar workbook page.  We correct misakes in sentences often (DOL style), and when I do, that is our mini-lesson for the day.  I just put a sentence up on the board with lots of mistakes and my kids try to spot and correct all of the mistakes.

Monthly Genres

About once a month I teach them about a new genre of writing and have them give it a try during writing time.  The basic genres are:

  • sentences
  • paragraphs
  • descriptions & instructions
  • letters
  • fanciful stories
  • poetry
  • true stories (including biographies and autobiographies)
  • reports & essays
  • persuasive essays
  • research papers

I use mini-lessons to teach how each genre is written, and we practice.  For example, if I were teaching persuasive essays I would include mini-lessons on the art of persuasion, facts versus opinions, and writing a good hook to get your reader interested right from the beginning.

During the month the kids can write whatever they want, but they must finish at least one writing assignment of their choice that is within the genre we are learning.

It’s important to realize that within each of these broad genre categories there are a lot of specific genres you could learn about.  For example, you may learn to write myths, fables, tall tales, fairy tales, and folk tales all within the broad subject of “fanciful stories.”   When we learn a new genre we read several works in that genre and talk about what makes it unique.  Then we practice.

There are a lot of genre helps on our Writer’s Workshop page if you need ideas.

Writing Time

The kids come up with an idea under that genre, often using something they’ve written in their writer’s notebooks or a pre-writing activity we’ve done.  Then they take their piece through the writing process:

  • pre-writing
  • drafting
  • revising
  • editing
  • publishing

Spend about 20-30 minutes free writing in your writer’s notebooks.  Kids can usually come up with their own material, but you may need to spur some on by reminding them of something interesting that happened, giving them a story starter or idea, or provide them with a list of ideas.  My kids have a list in their planners that they can look to if they are short on ideas.

Writer’s notebooks are a place to get started, a place to get ideas, and a place where perfect spelling and grammar don’t matter!  Songs, stories, letters, doodles, recipes, anything we want to write can be written in our notebooks.  No red pens or corrections allowed in the notebook.  It is for the WRITER and no one else!  It is a place for complete freedom of expression.

Writer's-Notebook

Revision Time 

Once we’ve begun something in our writer’s notebook that strikes interest, that bit gets transferred to the next step – revision.  Kids take something they have written and think of ways they can make it better.  Make suggestions during this step.  Talk about ways to improve it.  Then rewrite it, adding in better dialogue, changing something that doesn’t make sense, adding details, or crafting a more exciting beginning.

Editing 

After revisions have been made, the whole thing gets a final edit.  Often we do this step on the computer to make additional editing easier (and less painful for emergent writers!).  Sometimes they do the typing and other times I do (depending on length).  This step is very cooperative.  Even famous and well-paid authors have editors and get MANY suggestions before publishing anything.  Editing is not exactly the same as revision.  Editing is correcting mistakes.  Revision doesn’t necessarily involve mistakes, but it is the process of improving upon your former writing.

Publishing and Sharing

Publishing is turning your work into a book or other type of polished, finished work.  Add pictures and art.  Create an “about the author”  or dedication page.  Read and re-read the books, praising and doting over the wonder of them.  Then add them to your classroom library so you can read them again and again in the future.

This step is REALLY the key to having a successful writer’s workshop.  If all that work goes unnoticed and unrewarded, the writing process will be increasingly challenging.  But when kids feel a real sense of accomplishment at the end, they are more eager to jump in and start again.

To see this process in action, you can read this post on a story my son wrote and how he took it through the writing process.

The Process Is Ongoing

Just to be clear, these steps don’t all happen in a day, and sometimes they don’t all happen in a week. I teach mini-lessons just about every day. We write in our writer’s notebooks until we have something we want to turn into more.  Sometimes this happens spontaneously (like my son’s series of Super Monkey books about a superhero monkey who saves the world from a variety of evil-doers).  Sometimes it happens because I assign something; “Okay young authors, your biography is due on Friday. . . no more dawdling!”)

The kids write, wherever they are at in the process, until we are ready to move on to something else.  Then they just put it away and pick up where they left off the next day.

Its-time-to-write - writer's workshop

Writer’s Workshop Tips

  • Open creativity is awesome, but I’m also a believer in providing clear direction.  There’s nothing worse than being told to write anything at all when no ideas seem to be coming.  Some kids will come up with their own ideas, but you should also have assignments, story starters, fun ideas, and specific directions on hand for those writers who don’t come up with topics and ideas well on their own.  You can check out the Layers of Learning Writer’s Workshop page for lots of lessons and ideas.
  • The physical act of writing can be quite a chore for some kids.  Don’t take the burden away entirely, because the way they will build writing endurance is by writing.  At the same time, you can lighten the burden.  For example, taking a story all the way through the writing process can involve 3 or more re-writes.  Have them do it once, but then you can pitch in and type up the story.  With little ones, you may even do some of their writing on the first draft to help them get their ideas down.  But don’t ever take over and do all the writing if you want them to grow as writers.
Isabel wanted this journal entry about Christmas to be perfect. She told me what she wanted to write, then I wrote it in yellow highlighter so she could write it without the stress of misspelling.
  • Pre-writing is an important first step in the writing process.  Talking about ideas, drawing a picture, creating a character sketch, or making a web or outline can make an overwhelming assignment manageable.  A fun pre-writing activity is a great mini-lesson with each new genre you start.
  • Intersperse writing assignments with AUTHENTIC writing experiences.  Kids can write to grandparents, penpals, people in the community, companies, authors, and politicians.  They can write shopping lists and to-do lists, or send e-mail.  Consider submitting essays to essay contests, writing online book reviews, or keeping a family scrapbook.

Variety is the Key

Every day is different.  Sometimes we’re quietly writing at desks.  Sometimes we’re outside listing as many things as we can see in our yard together.  You may find Mom typing up a story with a kiddo at my side as we talk about how to make the writing better.  You may see us all sitting together writing a collective story, with Mom as scribe.  Sometimes we’re reading silly poems together.  We could be playing a game about nouns or watching Grammar Rock videos.  We’re always reading, writing, and talking about writing.  In the messy process (and about an hour a day), we become better writers by doing writer’s workshop.

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