Living the Gradual Release of Responsibility

When planning for my newest workshop on the Gradual Release of Responsibility, I had a HUGE epiphany… when thinking about what the barriers to implementing this classroom structure, I realized that while research shows us that the Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework supports learners:

Fisher and Frey Framework for Gradual Release of Responsibility

But too often, professional development follows this framework:

Fisher and Frey an Unhelpful Framework

And we know that this framework is not helpful to learners. Too often, we as designers of professional learning share our thinking and then expect teacher learners to implement on their own. This realization hit me like a brick. So how to use the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework as the design framework for professional learning?

Planning to Plan for Instruction

  • I Do: Modelling Planning
  • We Do: Shared Planning
  • You Do: Collaborative Planning
  • You Do: Independent Planning

I Do: Modelling Planning

Graphic organizers are useful tools for student and adult thinking. I began by designing a Gradual Release of Responsibility planning template that goes through the key steps in planning for instruction. Of course, it is important to recognize that the order of I Do – We Do – You Do is not the only order for instruction!

Starting with an example from the Grade 1 Science curriculum, I decided that the outcome and indicators focusing on seasonal changes would be a good place to insert student writing. From here, I started searching for a mentor text that I could use for modelling descriptive words and showing seasonal changes. I decided to use “Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring” by Kenard Pak. A helpful hint is to search a book title on YouTube to see if it fits what you are hoping for. When selecting a mentor text, it is important to identify the key questions that you might have students think about while you and they are reading.

Once I have the curricular connections and mentor text in place, I can then identify what I will include in my modelling/think aloud.

The “I Do” in this instructional sequence might include:

  • Features of the mentor text
  • Modelling writing
  • Mini lessons on writing or science related to this writing project

The “We Do” in the instructional sequence might include

  • Shared writing using the mentor text example

The “You Do: Together” in the instructional sequence might include

  • Collaborative rewriting of different passages of the book

The “You Do: Independent” in the instructional sequence might include

  • Drawings and description of one plant or animal that changes between the winter and spring seasons.

You can see a completed (DRAFT) graphic organizer for this sequence on Seasonal Changes here.

We Do: Shared Planning

In shared planning, workshop participant and I will co-construct a second instructional sequence, choosing one outcome from a pre-selected list of outcomes that all lend themselves to student writing. For example:

  • If the outcome chosen is Grade 5 Social Studies: Government Structure, we can use “Canada Votes” as our mentor text. In many communities, it would be helpful for students to expand the description of government in this book to include First Nations governance and elections.
  • If the outcome chosen is Grade 3 Mathematics: Passage of Time, we can use “A Second is a Hiccup” as our mentor text. This would allow children to explore what activities take different measures of time.

You Do: Collaborative Planning

  • At this stage, teachers will work with grade-similar peers and co-create a series of lessons that they are interested in.
  • It is important here to co-construct criteria for what makes a good plan.

You Do: Independent Planning

  • Finally, teachers will use the planning template to create a series of lessons for their own curriculum. These ideas can then be shared through a Speed Dating structure so that peers can hear creative ideas that might apply to their own classrooms.

By using the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework to learn about the Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework, the hope is that teachers will be able to experience as learners the power of this model. When we experience something as learners, we have increased understanding and confidence to use it.

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.

A close up of a logo

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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.

Teaching Writing Across Curricula

Reading and writing are things we expect our students to be able to do in every subject. Our curricula are full of phrases like “Describe…, Explain…, Compare…”, which all require students to organize their thinking in a certain way. The non-fiction text in our math, science, social studies, and PAA courses require our students to break down complicated information. So how do we teach our students who are struggling with taking information in and/or communicating their understanding? 

What? I Have to Teach Writing, Too??

Reading and writing are learning tools that exist across curricula. We often have our students read technical information in our science, social studies and mathematics courses and then ask them to write about their understanding during assignments and tests. Sometimes, our students come to us knowing how to do both. Sometimes, we are surprised and disappointed that they don’t seem to know how to apply their reading and writing strategies in our content area. As a math and science specialist, I want my students to use reading and writing as ways to deepen and broaden their understanding of the subjects that I am teaching them.

I would think that an ELA teacher explicitly teaches reading and writing strategies so that their students become stronger readers and writers. My intent as a science teacher is related but different. I want to use literacy instruction so that students understand science better.

I had many experiences early in my career where I assumed my students were able to research, write reports, write conclusions, or complete short answer questions on my exams. Those assumptions led to frustration and feelings of failure for both myself and my students. Sometimes, it took students failing to point out what explicit teaching I needed to do with my classes. Ultimately, if I have students who are struggling with reading and writing in my non-ELA class, I need to teach them those skills.

Reading, Writing and Comprehension

We sometimes view reading and writing as separate ideas. If we view them instead as ways that students take in and output knowledge, we can see that comprehension, or meaning making, is the bridge between the two. Reading is ONE way of taking information in, and writing is ONE way of sharing our knowledge. Our English Language Arts program recognizes that there are other, equally important modes of inputs and outputs.

Comprehension Strategies – Making Meaning

When we take information in, our mind uses different strategies to make meaning of new information. During a conversation, this occurs fluidly where we listen, make sense of information, then speak. The same is true of reading and writing. We read information, make meaning, then may write about what our new understanding is. Many literacy experts have grouped comprehension strategies into anywhere from six to thirteen strategies. Following the work of Ellin Keene, the following are SEVEN comprehension strategies that strong readers use.

For more detailed information about these seven comprehension strategies, see my earlier blog post, Comprehension Across Subjects.

Nonfiction Writing Lesson Framework

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

  1. An introduction to the features of the nonfiction form.
    • 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.
Whole-class write:Independent write:
The teacher and class write a passage together, going through the organizing steps together. This can be done on chart paper or projected on a screen.Writing activities can vary in length. There should be multiple opportunities for each type of writing introduced in a year.
Plan and organize thinkingDraft piece of writingFocus on a writing techniqueRevision and editing techniquesPlan and organize thinkingDraft piece of writingFocus on a writing techniqueRevision and editing techniques

Nonfiction Text Features

There are several text features that are useful within nonfiction to help readers understand the information being presented. These include:

Nonfiction FeaturePurpose
MapTo show location: e.g. habitat of animals
WebList of any kind: for example, a list of food an animal eats or its enemies
Diagram, labelsDescription
Fact BoxInteresting, additional facts
Flow ChartTo show how things work together: e.g., life cycle
ChartTo sort details: e.g. facts about different species
Labels, CaptionsTo explain a diagram or picture
TimelineSequential events or dates
Diagram with LabelsComparisons

Helpful Nonfiction Mini Lessons

Mini lessons allow you to guide student writing skills without taking up a lot of time. Here are topics that Adrienne Gear suggests for helping improve writing quality. You can see some of her mini lesson resources here. Including ideas for:

  • Adding Text Features
  • Interesting Details
  • Triple-Scoop Words
  • Comparison using Similes and Metaphors
  • Voice
  • Introductions to Hook Your Reader

Sharing Our Understanding: Non-Fiction Forms of Writing

Part of introducing nonfiction forms is for students to recognize key features of each form. This can be done by analyzing published works, both in print and online. Books from your library can be used to help students visualize the type of writing you are expecting them to do. There are many different forms of non-fiction writing that students both read and are expected to write themselves. Each of these forms has their own purpose and form. (Gear, 2014)

Different forms of writing can be used within the same topic and subject area. For example:

Type of WritingWriter’s IntentExampleApplication: Weather
DescriptionTo provide reader with facts and information about a topic. Related subtopics tell us specific details about the main idea. Writers give details related to our five senses.Descriptive reports on countries, animals, plants, insects, etc.Classroom blogs.Book or movie reviews.Describe the weather in Saskatchewan in January.
InstructionTo provide reader with instructions on how to achieve a goal, do something, make something, get somewhere.How something works: e.g. manuals, how to use something, survival guides.How to do or make something: e.g. recipes, rules for games, science experiments, crafts, instructions on starting a blog page.Give the instructions for how to make a winter survival kit.
PersuasionTo share an opinion with the reader or attempt to convince the reader to take an action of some kind.Opinion piece: e.g. favourite book, movie, pet, season.Persuasive piece: e.g. you should eat a healthy diet; no school uniforms; best chocolate bar to buy; oru school is the best.Classroom blogs or online reviews.Which form of weather is deadliest to humans?
ComparisonTo share with the reader the similarities and differences between two topics or ideas.Compare (similarities) and contrast (differences): e.g. rabbits and hares; Canada and Japan; cars then and now.Compare a winter blizzard and summer hail in Saskatchewan.
ExplanationTo provide reader with facts explaining how or why something happens.Scientific explanations: e.g. how a spider spins a web, why some things float and others sink.Explain how blizzards form.
Nonfiction NarrativeTo provide reader with sequential description of events in a person’s life, a current or historical event.Biography of a famous or non-famous person.AutobiographyCurrent event/newspaperPast eventBlogs or tweetsGive a report on the Newfoundland blizzard of January, 2020.

A useful analysis is to look at our curriculum and identify where it would be most useful for students to incorporate each type of writing to deepen their understanding. This can be done in a simple chart such as the one found here.

Pre-Thinking for Writing

Writing can help students understand subject content if we have them do pre-thinking before they write. This pre-thinking has them use comprehension strategies to deepen their understanding so that they can write.

A barrier for students might be that they do not understand either the content that they are having to write about OR they do not understand the structure of what you are asking them to write.

When we have students organize their thinking before they write, they will not only understand their courses better, but they will have their thinking organized in a way that helps them write.

You can take a closer look at different forms of writing, including assessment criteria in the following summaries, as well as view helpful pre-thinking tools for each type of writing:

Ultimately, teaching meaning making and how to express understanding can help our students know the subjects we are teaching them and help them to connect school content with their lives.

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

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

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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