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Writing Instruction: Current Practices in the Classroom

By Dr. Carl B Smith
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication

Over the past forty years, the emphasis in writing instruction has shifted from product to process. A companion ERIC Digest entitled Writing Instruction: Changing Views over the Years gives an overview of this development during the period from 1960 to the present. The present digest focuses on the experiences of a few teachers as they searched for ways to put the principles of process writing into practice in the classroom.

Writer's Workshops

Teachers have found that writer's workshops are effective in helping students master the principles of process writing in particular. "The term 'writer's workshop' refers to an environment conceived to encourage written expression." Because writing is difficult and risky, "children need to know that their environment is a predictable, safe place for them to take risks" (Bunce-Crim, 1991; cited in Bayer, 1999, p. 8).

Students can gain benefit from writer's workshop even as early as first grade. Fisher (1995) says that "writing workshop is an essential part of the curriculum in my first grade classroom, and almost every morning the children are involved in self-selected writing endeavors" (p. 1). The day often begins with some children talking about projects they are planning to write, completing work begun earlier, or starting a project that will take some time to complete.

In order for the workshop to be meaningful and productive, Fisher relies on these guidelines: "a positive attitude of trust and commitment; an understanding of the process of writing; an orderly arrangement of materials; a predictable daily routine; and a clearly defined role for me as teacher" (1995, p. 1). Because writing is essential for literacy development, Fisher provides time for writing every day. Thus, children come to know that they will have "daily opportunities to pursue their own topics, work by themselves or with friends, and begin a new piece every day or work on a story or book over time" (p. 1)

The workshop begins with rehearsal, which allows time for children to plan their writing and to think, talk, and read. As students work through the drafting, revising, and editing stages, they are encouraged to think and talk and to work with the teacher or other students. Finally, they share their work with others.

With young children, a systematic organization of materials is essential. Furthermore, a predictable routine helps children get organized first thing in the morning. In fact, "Many of the children have already begun writing even before we formally start the day as a group at the rug area" (p. 2). Following this shared time, children continue to read while waiting to share their work with others. Fisher reads aloud to the class during the day so that children can hear different models of written language. Also, frequent mini-lessons are used to focus on specific areas of writing such as procedures (using a folder), strategies (such as using books to inspire topics), qualities of good writing, and skills (p. 2).

Bayer (1999) evaluated a first-grade class to find out whether or not students actually became more confident, proficient writers after participating in a writer's workshop. Children actively participated in the workshop two or three times a week, and each session began with a mini-lesson of five to ten minutes in which children were introduced to specific topics such as sentence structure, correct capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. After the mini-lesson the actual writing began, with the teacher modeling her own writing along with the children. The teacher worked with individuals as needed, helping each child focus on the appropriate step in the writing process.

Before beginning writer's workshop, each child was asked to answer the following questions:

  1. How do you feel when your teacher says that it is writing time?
  2. Do you like to write? Why or why not?
  3. Do you like the teacher to give you a topic or do you like to decide on a topic yourself? Why?
  4. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

The same questions were asked during the final weeks of the workshop. "The results of the pretest and posttest attitude questionnaire proved by a large margin that writing workshops improve the feelings and attitudes that first graders have about writing, as well as how they feel about themselves" (Bayer, 1999, p. 6). For example, the percentage of children who looked forward to writing time almost doubled; those who said they liked to write jumped from 25% to 71%.

Questions about Writer's Workshops

Although the preceding comments suggest that children benefit greatly from writer's workshops, there are potential problems that need to be considered. Sudol and Sudol (1991) discuss some of the questions that arose during the adoption of the process approach and of writer's workshop in a fifth-grade classroom taught by Peg Sudol.

In the first place, there is the question of time. Although some advocate as much as an hour of writing each day, it is difficult to devote this much time when other subjects must be taught as well. Also, it is desirable for students to choose their own topics, but teachers may be bound by curriculum requirements and may have to teach specific kinds of writing (Sudol & Sudol, 1991, p. 294). Another problem relates to pacing and deadlines. It is true that writers don't all work at the same pace, so students should not be expected to do so either. However, a few students had difficulty ever completing any project. In addition, students were often put off by workshops devoted to assigned writing types. Finally, even when the workshop is well organized, there may still be problems with children who can't generate their own topics or who disrupt the process because of other problems outside school.

In general, the experience of Peg Sudol was positive in spite of the problems encountered early on. "In the main, her children enjoyed the writing. (Now they moaned and groaned whenever the workshop was canceled.) They wrote more than any of her previous students, and the quality of their writing was better" (1991, p. 299). Among the most productive parts of the writer's workshop were the mini-lessons, in which students could address problems such as run-on sentences within the context of their own writing, not in abstract textbook lessons.

Donald Graves also addresses this question about writer's workshops. In an interview, Regie Routman (1995) asked what should be said to teachers who can't find time for writing because of other curricular demands. Graves's reply was that "we need to look realistically at the ways we waste time." This happens when "we don't listen to kids" and when "we're not observing kids and adapting our teaching accordingly." Furthermore, "we waste enormous amounts of time by expecting kids to do things that are impossible" and by "doing too much for children" (Routman, 1995, p. 524). If these time-wasters are eliminated, more time will remain for writing.

Journal Writing

Routman (2000) points out that journal writing is a good way to begin implementing a writing workshop because journals can "promote fluency in reading and writing, encourage risk taking, provide opportunities for reflection, and promote the development of written language conventions" (p. 233). However, in spite of these obviously desirable features of journal writing, the advantages can be lost if teachers fail to monitor students' work and don't let them know what is expected of them.

All too often, children's journals are flawed by sloppy, careless writing and frequent misspellings of easy words. Furthermore, they seldom show clear improvement over time. Routman believes this is because journal writing is too often used as a time filler, not as something the children feel is really worthwhile. In many cases, teachers do not provide any guidance for journal writing. They also tend to assign topics rather than letting students choose their own. Unfortunately, students come to accept sloppy writing and bad spelling as the norm for journals since they don't seem to matter. Finally, teachers too often assign journal writing as an activity separate from writing workshop, which makes it appear that journal writing is not as important as "real writing."

Routman suggests that journal writing can become more worthwhile if teachers encourage students to write for several days on a topic they care very much about and if they teach students how to write with detail and voice. Furthermore, students should realize that journal writing is only one type of writing they are expected to do, and they should maintain high standards for legibility and neatness (2000, p. 235).

Spelling and Writing

Routman (2000) also found that "teachers who have the strongest reading-writing classrooms turn out the best spellers" (p. 403). That is, students best learn to spell when teachers concentrate on spelling not only as a component in the process of reading and writing but also as a separate activity that takes into account students' needs, abilities, and interests (p. 403).

One class of fourth-graders attributed their success in spelling to reading a lot, taking the time to proofread, and caring about spelling. Some said they wanted their work to look good, while others credited "their habit of 'having-a-go' (having a try at a word) and then checking their spelling against the correct spelling of the word" (p. 403). Other factors that positively affected spelling include having mini-lessons to study words and patterns, having dictionaries available, and not being forced to use boring workbooks and inappropriate tests (p. 403).

Based on research and practice, good spellers:

  • Read a lot and enjoy reading
  • Use what they already know about words to figure out new words
  • View spelling as a mostly logical system that makes sense
  • Integrate sound, visual, and meaning knowledge
  • Care about correct spelling and look out for errors
  • Assume responsibility for proofreading and editing
  • Take pride in doing their best work (adapted from Routman, 2000, p. 406)

Writing Instruction in the Upper Grades

Earlier we saw that process writing and writer's workshops can be used most effectively with children as early as kindergarten and first grade. In a paper presented in 1999, Wartchow and Gustavson analyzed writing instruction in the upper grades. They did this by interviewing some high-school students from a large urban school and others from a private suburban school.

First, the authors "were struck by the modernist picture that the students painted of their schools" (p. 3). The modernist view is based on the belief that "there is a 'natural order' or 'best way' on which all methodology is based. Once discovered, this best way should be, indeed must be, followed" (Doll, 1993, p. 45; cited in Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 3).

Both schools were divided by grades, with subjects allotted specific amounts of time throughout the day. Analytical writing was stressed above all else, with emphasis on the customary pattern: introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. To most teachers, the five-paragraph essay offers an efficient way to deal with writing. This writing structure provides a tidy format for the essential elements of writing as well as a measurable outcome. "Once the students write their five paragraph essays, often choosing theses created by the teacher, the teacher can easily grade them because there is an identifiable structure" (Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 5).

In such a situation, students are forced to accept the fact that, in order to get a good grade, they must agree with the format and procedure prescribed by the teacher. Furthermore, students come to rely on the teacher for topics and motivation; they are not shown how to develop and explore ideas on their own. Students are also put off by the "simplicity and pettiness of their writing assignments" and the knowledge that teachers "only expect a sentence or two" when students respond to various readings (1999, p. 7).

As for personal or creative writing, many students question its worth because it is given no value in school. They also believe that creative writing must necessarily lack coherence because it does not follow the five-paragraph pattern. Finally, some students realize that teachers don't value creative writing because it represents a loss of control; creative writing must be chaotic and therefore worthless because it does not fit into a "required body of quantifiable, systematically constructed knowledge" (Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 11).

Many educators wrongly assume that chaos must result when safe, prescribed procedures are abandoned. In fact, "creativity occurs by the interaction of chaos and order, between unfettered imagination and disciplined skill" (Doll, 1993, p. 12; cited in Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 12). It is important for "teachers to embrace the unknown associated with knowledge and discuss it openly with students" (1999, p. 13).

When asked what kinds of creative assignments they would prefer, students provided some valuable insights. One told of rewriting the end of a Shakespeare play and then performing it for the class. Another was challenged by reading Wuthering Heights and then exploring what might happen if the story were set in the present day.

Students also told how they would like to adapt assigned topics or forms to suit their own interests. For example, topics assigned by the teacher could be turned into thesis statements, thus encouraging students to argue their points and take a more active approach to writing. Students also find it difficult to reconcile the conflict between what they are required to write in school and what they want to write for themselves. Time constraints often cause students to "go through the motions" to complete a school project according to a prescribed procedure. Also, students realize that they can be intellectually lazy as they churn out school writing according to the required format; on their own, their writing leads them to probe below the surface and try to think things through.

As a result of the findings summarized above, the authors have been led "to argue for an aesthetic, post-modern orientation in the teaching of writing. Within the students' frustrations and desires lies the question: Why do many English teachers not engage their students in a discourse on the aesthetics of writing?" (p. 20). A modernist writing curriculum fails to encourage proficient writers because it does not allow students the change to experiment with various approaches beyond the five-sentence paragraph structure. "We would like to not only connect the process with the product, we also strongly believe that the power for understanding writing lies in the actual doing of the art, not in the exclusive observation of it" (Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 20).

The authors go on to say that "too often in English classrooms, teachers expect students to critique the writing they read with little or no understanding of the craft, the historical context, or the personal nature of that writing. Essentially, students must write about an art of which they have no experience" (1999, p. 20).

By encouraging students to move beyond convenient structures and to enter into the intricate process of creating what goes into those structures, teachers can help them discover that what they have to say is important and that there are many ways to organize their thoughts to form convincing, coherent arguments.

A Final Look at Writing Instruction

In an interview with Regie Routman (1995), Donald Graves puts the whole concept of process writing into perspective. He begins by saying that, in the early stages of development of process writing, an undue emphasis was placed on revision simply because it was possible to do so. The fact that children could revise did not mean that they should revise in every instance. Furthermore, writing can too easily be turned into a mechanical process: prewrite on Monday, first draft on Tuesday, and so on. "Orthodoxies have sprung up: Grammar and spelling aren't important; don't ever tell the child to do anything; never give assignments. The list could go on and on. Obviously, all of the above are important in their place" (Routman, 1995, p. 523).

In the same interview, Graves gives his view of the writing process as it existed in 1995.

RR: What are your thoughts about the writing process movement today?

DG: I don't think of it as a movement. In fact, I rarely use the term writing process. I simply say writing. The term writing process is all worn out. It has had so many bizarre interpretations (a good many due to my own mistakes) that it is best to say writing. Still, we do have a philosophy of teaching children that is revealed in the way we teach writing. I'm still very concerned about how little writing is taught, how little time is provided for children to write. And when time is provided, I don't see children challenged by teachers who have been prepared to teach it through the teacher's own high level of literacy. (Routman, 1995, p. 524)


Bayer, R. A. (1999). The effects of a first grader's participation in a writer's workshop on their ability to become more confident and more descriptive writers. Kean University: Master's Research Project. 41 pages.

Bunce-Crim, M. (1991). What is a writing classroom? Instructor, 17(1), 36-38.

Doll, W. (1993). A post-modern perspective on curriculum. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Fisher, B. (1995). Writing workshop in a first grade classroom. Teaching PreK-8, 26, 66-68.

Routman, R. (1995). Donald Graves: Outstanding educator in the language arts. Language Arts, 72, 518-525.

Routman, R. (2000). Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sudol, D., & Sudol, P. (1991). Another story: Putting Graves, Calkins, and Atwell into practice and perspective.

Wartchow, K., & Gustavson, L. (1999). The art of the writer: An aesthetic look at the teaching of writing. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

This publication was prepared (Digest #156 EDO-CS-00-07, November 2000) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0028, and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.

The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.