Sequencing and Scaffolding Writing Studies

Eighth grader Hugh works on his letter to the editor.

Whether you work with students for two years or are searching for an effective way to organize writing instruction in your classroom, you have no doubt thought about sequencing your writing studies so they build on one another.

This year I have the privilege of teaching a group of 8th graders whom I will also teach as ninth graders next year. One of my challenges has been in sequencing my writing curriculum to meet my students where they are now and anticipate where they will be next year.

Below is a snapshot of the studies I am teaching this year in 8th and 9th grade.

8th Grade Writing 9th Grade Writing
Interviews (The American Teenager Project) Interviews
Poetry Memoir
Narrative Scene Critical Review
Letter to the Editor Commentary
Short Fiction Poetry
Literary Analysis: Short Fiction Literary Analysis: Poetry
Multigenre Project Photo Essay

As you can see, students in grades 8 and 9 are exposed to a variety of modes: each year, they explore narrative, expository, argument, analysis and digital writing. I teach some genres in both years — interview and poetry, for example.

I plan for 8th and 9th grade simultaneously so that the 9th grade curriculum picks up where the 8th grade curriculum leaves off. For example:

  • In 9th grade, we circle back to narrative writing with memoir, and then move through a series of writing studies that provide an opportunity to review and extend what was learned in the previous year.
  • The 9th grade poetry unit builds on the 8th grade poetry unit by introducing formal verse and meter.
  • Both 8th and 9th graders practice literary analysis, but the 9th graders are asked to do the more challenging of the two genres: poetry analysis.
  • The 9th grade Commentary study continues naturally from the Letter to the Editor unit in which students are first shown how to write strong claims with supporting reasons and evidence. Below is a snapshot of the mini-lessons about literary craft taught during both studies.
Grade 8 Letter to the Editor Study Grade 9 Commentary Study
Formatting a letter Crafting a strong and arguable claim
Crafting a strong claim in response to a piece of writing Providing reasons that support your claim
Using examples and anecdotes to support your claim Using different types of evidence (example, anecdote, statistic, expert testimony) to support your reasons
Acknowledging the other side Using concession and counterargument
Using transitional words and phrases Creating cohesion with transitions and key words

I like to think of commentary writing as the older sibling of letters to the editor. Both require students to take a stance, but commentary writing requires students to:

  • sustain an argument for several pages
  • develop paragraphs more fully
  • incorporate outside research
  • have a strong understanding of alternative viewpoints

Because of the way in which commentary builds on LTEs, the two genres make for an excellent two-year study, or even a back-to-back study in a single-year course in which students need more scaffolding.

The LTE/Commentary sequence reminds me to find bridges that exist between genres and plan with these bridges in mind.

Some of my 8th graders are starting to look and write like 9th graders.

As you begin to plan for the spring, consider setting aside some time to think through the sequencing of your units of study. Are they arranged to maximize student learning? To give students a chance to review before learning something new? To help students make connections between studies and across grades and disciplines? The following tips may help you and your colleagues plan.

Be vertical and horizontal.

Talk to your colleagues in the grades below and above you about the types of writing their students are doing. Create bridges between years by selecting genres that build on the ones that precede and follow it.

Expose students to a variety of modes.

With your colleagues, brainstorm all of the genres that fit within the following modes of writing: narrative, expository, argument, analysis, and digital. Agree to teach 1-2 genres within each mode every year.

Use common language.

Across your department (better yet, across your whole school) agree upon the terms and phrases you will use to describe writing to students. For example, claim, central argument, and thesis mean essentially the same thing. But will your students become confused when they hear their 9th grade teacher using the term claim and their 10th grade teaching using the term thesis? To avoid confusion and establish consistency, create a one-pager that details the language you will use to discuss writing across grades and disciplines.

Create lessons that build towards greater complexity.

In the Letter to the Editor/Commentary comparison above, you’ll notice that the lessons in the right column mirror the lessons in the right column but with an added layer of sophistication. For example, 8th graders must be able to acknowledge the other side of the argument, but 9th graders must take the next steps in making a concession and then refuting the claim. Create and arrange lessons that provide opportunities for review and extension.

How do you sequence writing studies in your classroom? If you teach students for two years, how do you create bridges between the years while differentiating instruction? How do you collaborate with colleagues to ensure cohesive, forward-moving curriculum? Please comment in the space below, or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

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