Writing about Teaching Writing

I had the chance to work with the wonderful staff at Rossignol Elementary in Ile-a-la-Crosse this winter. They, like many of us, have been wondering how to support their students to be more engaged writers. They wondered:

How do we engage student writers? How do we make our students feel that they ARE writers and authors in our classrooms? There are so many blogs and ideas written on this topic, but what might work for OUR students?

There are many blogs and resources that are useful when seeking out new and innovative ideas to try. Some good ones include (but are certainly not limited to!):

Each of these articles is full of lists of creative strategies. But what works for YOUR students? This is where professional conversations and thinking about what students you have in your context can help.

We often ponder the question “Why don’t our students write more?”… something to consider is how much writing we do ourselves as adults. I have to admit that prior to creating this workshop blog, I might have gone weeks without writing outside of emails or filling in forms. To give insight into some of the barriers that our students face when writing, it is important for us to consider our own writing habits (and maybe fears!). How do we encourage ourselves as writers? My epiphany when planning for this workshop was that perhaps writing professional development needs to following the same framework that we might use for our students.

Adrienne Gear (2014) suggests the following lesson framework for each nonfiction form:

  1. An introduction to the features of the nonfiction form.
    1. This can be done by analyzing published examples of a nonfiction form.
  2. Independent write and Whole-class write can be woven together in a We DO – You DO cycle.

With this framework in mind, the teachers of Rossignol Elementary worked in collaborative groups to write the following ideas for engaging their student writers:

Shared Writing About Writing

Engaging Student Writers is about the things that we can do as teachers to encourage students to write across all curricula. There are many different strategies that fit different grade levels and different content areas. It is important that we use our professional judgement to combine our existing professional knowledge, our knowledge of our students, and the new information we learn from our colleagues and research.

Drawing and Talking to Encourage Writing in Young Children

To encourage young children to write, have them group together to talk about a common experience (sliding, wiener roast, building a snowman). As children share information, the teacher can capture the vocabulary they are using.

Teachers can

  • Record on a chart or individual cards/word strips
  • Include a picture
  • Display in the classroom

Children can

  • take those word strips/cards and draw their own picture
  • describe/talk about their picture with an adult or older student
  • label the picture (either by the child or the adult/older student)

Differentiating Writing

How might we differentiate next steps? The sequence will depend on the age and ability of young writers.

Younger writers might have an older student or adult scribe a sentence for them. They can leave enough space underneath for the child to copy the words below.Older writers might use the labels on their picture to write a sentence or sentences about their picture.

If students’ oral language skills are low, they can communicate meaning through the use of point pictures or flash cards. Key ideas related to the pictures can be created in advance by the teacher.

Extra Time for Encouraging Elementary Writers

There are many ways that we can encourage our elementary-aged writers in our classrooms.

  • When we give more time to write, we encourage writers to write more often. Allowing more time to organize their thoughts and ideas, using graphic organizers, modelling writing and brainstorming together can all contribute to student confidence.
  • Deadlines and expectations need to be communicated clearly so that students understand what needs to be produced and when it needs to be produced by.
  • Use technology like voice typing for those who can’t write as fast as they think can reduce frustration and get ideas out.
  • For those students who may be shy, strategies like passing notes, chatting 1:1 with peers about the topic, and think-pair-share can help to build confidence.

With extra time and strategies to maximize the time, students are allowed to process their thoughts and make meaning. This can help to show them that they ARE good writers.

Comic Book Writing for Engaging Writers

Comic book writing is when students write the dialogue into a blank comic template. There are various templates that you can download from sites such as this one from Scholastic.

Where to start? You might start with a “We Do” comic strip, then move to “You Do” by having students write dialogue into a given template with pictures already provided. They can then move to creating independently by choosing their template, and eventually creating their own pictures, characters and words either by using clipart or drawing their own original comic.

Mentor texts can include Manga, Amulet, Archie Comics or Marvel Comics. The use of mentor texts is key to introduce and discuss examples of dialogue and how words and pictures interact.

Comic book writing can encourage all types of writers, as it is a unique combination of visual/writing skills to tell a story.

What We Learned About Teaching Writing

I am thankful to the teachers of Rossignol Elementary for agreeing to their writing going out to an authentic audience on my Workshop Blog. By experiencing shared writing as adult learners, we discovered what some of the underlying anxieties and fears might be for our students. Worry about being wrong, worry about not being good enough, experiencing how daunting a blank piece of paper is all contribute to deepening our understanding of what to do for our students.

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As adults, we experienced the power of writing to deepen our understanding of writing to a much deeper level than just reading about writing might have done. New knowledge, combined with our professional knowledge and knowledge of our students can help us to encourage our students to BE writing, not just engage in writing.

Gear, A. (2014). Nonfiction Writing Power. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.

Johanson, T., & Broughton, D. (2014). Exploring Comprehension in Physics. Saskatoon: McDowell Foundation.

Comprehension Across Subjects

Comprehension strategies are ways in which we make meaning of the information we take in through text, media, and sound. Often considered the domain of the English Language Arts teacher, we now realize that it is important that teachers across subject areas and grades encourage meaning making and use tactics that cause learners to use strategies that they may or may not be fluent in.

Depending on which researcher you follow, you may categorize comprehension strategies into 6, 7, or even 13 different strategies. Following the framework of Ellin Keene (1997) in her book Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Readers Workshop, this post identifies seven strategies that help learners make meaning of complex information. A detailed comprehension strategies summary describes the actions of readers, writers, mathematicians, and researchers.

comprehension dog
Photo by Jesse757 – Creative Commons Attribution License  https://www.flickr.com/photos/7721141@N07

While categorizing strategies and tactics is helpful, we need to keep in mind that the comprehension strategies are all interconnected. Visualization is grounded on activating and connecting knowledge. Determining importance and summarizing are closely related. Monitoring comprehension often creates self-questions. Each person has different comprehension strategies that their mind tends to use. Our challenge as teachers is to create a pause and opportunity for students to try stretching to new mental pathways.

Activating and Connecting Prior Knowledge

This comprehension strategy involves students connecting their learning to past experiences, events in the world, and to other learning they may have in and out of school. We simply can’t understand new information that we hear, read or view without thinking about what we already know. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Relate to prior experience.
  • Make connections between text, media, and personal observation.
  • Connect the new to the known – use what learners know to understand new information.

visual dictionary - activating and connectingWhen students are using this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • This reminds me of…
  • I noticed…
  • It made me think of…
  • I never knew…
  • That changed my mind…
  • This is different from…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote activating and connecting prior knowledge include:

Monitoring Comprehension

This comprehension strategy involves students recognizing and acting on their own confusion, and their self-questioning to determine understanding. We monitor our comprehension and keep track of our thinking in a number of ways. We notice when text makes sense and when it doesn’t. We ask questions, infer, activate background knowledge, and make connections, all in the effort to promote understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Become aware of their thinking as they read.
  • Notice when meaning breaks down and their mind wanders.
  • Employ ‘fix up’ strategies – reread for clarification, read ahead to construct meaning, use context to break down unfamiliar words, skip difficult parts and continue to see if meaning becomes clear, check and recheck answers and thinking, and examine the evidence.

visual dictionary - monitoring comprehensionWhen students are using this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I think…
  • I understand…
  • This doesn’t make sense…
  • Oh, now I get it…
  • A part I had trouble with…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote monitoring comprehension include:

Asking Questions

This strategy involves students actively wondering about topics and questioning facts and information. Questioning is the strategy that propels learners on and is at the heart of inquiry-based learning. Humans are driven to make sense of the world, and questions open the doors to understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Wonder about the content, concepts, outcomes, and genre of text.
  • Question the author.
  • Read to discover answers and gain information.

visual dictionary - asking questionsWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I wonder…
  • I’m curious…
  • My big question is…
  • Why…
  • Do you know anything about…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote questioning include:

Making Inferences

This comprehension strategy involves students predicting, hypothesizing, interpreting, and making conclusions. Inferential thinking allows learners to grasp the deeper essence of text and information. Readers infer by taking their background knowledge and merge it with clues int he text to draw a conclusion or arrive at a big idea that is not explicitly stated in the text. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Use context clues to figure out meaning of unfamiliar words.
  • Draw conclusions from evidence.
  • Predict outcomes, events and observations.

visual dictionary - making inferencesWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I’m thinking…
  • It seems to me…
  • I’m guessing that…
  • I predict…
  • Probably…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote inferring include:

Determining Importance

This comprehension strategy involves students evaluating information, making judgments about information, and identifying key ideas and concepts. We read nonfiction to learn, understand, and remember information. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Target key information.
  • Choose what to remember.
  • Construct big ideas from smaller ideas.

visual dictionary - determining importanceWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • This is really important…
  • The most important ideas here are…
  • So far, I have learned that…
  • I think this part means…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote determining importance include:


This comprehension strategy involves students making mental pictures and/or mind maps of ideas and how they interconnect. Visualization builds complex connections and involves more than just how something looks. It extends to other senses such as smell, touch, sound, and taste. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Gain information from the images they construct and view.
  • Create mental images drawn from background knowledge and observations.

visual dictionary - visualizationWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I am getting a picture…
  • I can see (smell, hear, taste)…
  • I have a picture in my head…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote visualization include:

Summarizing and Synthesizing

This comprehension strategy involves students recalling, retelling, creating new meaning, and remembering information. Synthesizing information allows us to see the bigger picture as we read or observe. Thoughtful readers merge their thinking with information to come to a more complete understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Add to their knowledge base.
  • Paraphrase information
  • Move from facts to ideas.

Summarizing and synthesizing are often used as synonyms. While they are related, they are different strategies that readers use. Sarah Eaton, a professor at the University of Calgary (2010, Summarizing vs Synthesizing), identifies these differences:

A basic reading technique.An advanced reading technique.
Pulls together information in order to highlight the important points.Pulls together information not only to highlight the important points, but also to draw your own conclusions.
Re-iterates the information.Combines and contrasts information from different sources.
Shows what the original authors wrote.Not only reflects your knowledge about what the original authors wrote, but also creates something new out of two or more pieces of writing.
Addresses one set of information (e.g. article, chapter, document) at a time. Each source remains distinct.Combines parts and elements from a variety of sources into one unified entity.
Presents a cursory overview.Focuses on both main ideas and details.
Demonstrates an understanding of the overall meaning.Achieves new insight.

Summarizing is taking the details of information apart while synthesizing is putting those details back together into a new and unique whole.

visual dictionary - summarizing and synthesizingWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I never knew… now I know…
  • I think the big idea is…
  • I have learned that…
  • Now I understand that…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote summarizing and synthesizing include:

When do we explicitly use Comprehension Strategy Tactics?

If the information that we are having students interact with is complex, it is important to use instructional methods that help them make meaning. As well, if we notice that students are struggling with a specific skill or content area, we can view comprehension strategy instruction a possible solution to those learning barriers. Teaching with comprehension in mind will lead to increased cognitive engagement and deeper meaning-making.

Eaton, S. E. (2010, September 26). Reading Strategy: The difference between summarizing and synthesizing. Retrieved from http://www.drsaraheaton.wordpress.com

Johanson, T., & Broughton, D. (2014). Exploring Comprehension in Physics. Saskatoon: McDowell Foundation.

Keene, E., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Readers Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Public Education & Business Coalition. (n.d.). Thinking Strategies for Learners: A guide to PEBC’s professional development in reading, writing, mathematics and information literacy. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from Public Education & Business Coalition: https://www.pebc.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/thinking-strategies.pdf

Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2008). English Language Arts 6. Retrieved from Saskatchewan Curriculum: https://www.curriculum.gov.sk.ca/bbcswebdav/library/curricula/English/English_Language_Arts/English_Language_Arts_6_2008.pdf

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