Writing Workshop 101/201: Teaching Skills

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In my continuing series this fall, I am examining the fundamental elements of writing workshop and providing ways for teachers to get started and ways for seasoned workshop teachers to take their practice to the next level. In the first two installments, I wrote about choice (here and here) and making time for writing (here and here). 

In a writing workshop, the teacher delivers direct skill instruction, showing students concrete strategies for improving their writing.  If you walked down the hallway at school and popped your head into a few classrooms, here’s what you’d see if you found a classroom with a writing workshop:

  • The writing lesson is truly mini.

A mini-lesson (or, in Katie Wood Ray’s words, the writer’s meeting) is about 10 minutes … and that’s it! This is for a few reasons. First, our students can’t digest more than about 10 minutes of direct instruction at a time if we really want them to understand and apply it right away. Second, we want to give students as much time in the class period as possible to find a strategic place to try the strategy in their own writing.  So, we name a skill, share what it helps a writer do, show a few strategies for doing it in the mentor texts, and then get out of the way so kids can write. No other activities or games to practice. The writing is the activity. The writing is the practice.

  • The mini-lesson focuses on one, and only one, skill.

We can never teach students as much about good writing as we would like to. At the end of every school year, I lament, “Oh, but I wish we had time to talk about this” or “How did I never show them that.” But if we want students to truly master writing skills (rather than having cursory exposure to writing skills), they need to be taught one at a time. Today: how writers add sophistication to their claims by using a this-and-that structure. Tomorrow: how writers compose conclusions that resonate with readers.

  • The mini-lesson is rooted in mentor texts.

A mentor text is a piece of professional writing used to guide and inspire student writing. (You can find more about mentor texts in nearly every post in the history of this blog and here in a book we wrote on the subject.) Mentor texts are the workhorse of our entire workshop classroom. But among the brilliant things they do for us is show us what skills to teach our students.

When we look at a piece of professional writing in the genre our students are writing in, we ask ourselves, “What does great writing in this genre look like? What moves do great writers in this genre make?” And then we identify these moves and teach them to our students in mini-lessons. (Check out Allison’s series this fall on scaffolds for helping students do this mentor-text scouring work called “reading like a writer.” In a writing workshop, students and teachers follow the same procedure for using mentor texts to guide and inspire writing.)

What are some steps you can start taking tomorrow to move from a classroom where writing is assigned and not taught to a workshop where individual skills are taught, demonstrated, and practiced?

Wading Into Teaching Skills

If you are new to this and it makes you feel a bit head-swimmy to think about isolating the writing skills kids will need to be successful on this piece of writing. Here are two low-risk ways you can try it on for size.

Find a Mentor Text

Find a piece of professional writing in the genre that you are about to teach. (Our Mentor Text Dropbox is a great place to start looking for already-vetted mentor texts that other teachers have used with their students!)

Then, read through the mentor text with an eye toward what successful writing might look like in this genre. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What will my students need to do to be able to write successfully in this genre?
  • What can I point to in this mentor text that shows what success looks like?
  • What moves or patterns do I see in the writing that I could show a student as a model?

Even if you don’t bring this mentor text to your students, looking at a mentor text yourself and using it to guide your thinking about your students’ work will change the way you teach. It will help you define the markers of excellent writing in this genre. It will help you root your teaching in authentic writing products. It will help focus you and your teaching on the most-important elements of the writing (and make it easier to ignore the things that nag at us English teacher types but might not really make or break a piece of student writing.)

Teach One Key Skill

You don’t have to teach a full palette of mini-lessons quite yet. What about trying to teach just ONE mini-lesson in your next writing unit. Teach the one key skill that your students will need most — maybe how to write a great claim? Maybe how to show-not-tell? Maybe you’ll want to teach them something amazing that you noticed in a mentor text!

Once you’ve identified the big, most-important skill you want to teach, try this: use the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project trick of only giving yourself 10 minutes to plan a 10-minute lesson! Set a timer, and walk through these steps:

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Then, teach your lesson! See how it goes! If one lesson goes well, you’re ready for more!

Diving Into Teaching Skills

Those of you who have been teaching mini-lessons for ages might be looking for something more — a new way to show your students the strategies real writers use to make meaning. Here are two ideas for you:

Crowdsource Mini-Lessons from Your Class

I love a beautifully fleshed-out unit plan in which each mini-lesson beautifully builds on the next. I love it when it’s laid out in advance, and I know the path each student will take through the unit.

But what is beautiful can also be boring. Particularly if you’ve taught this genre of writing to students before. It also doesn’t take into account the diversity of learners in your classroom each year, these particular students who are sitting in front of you right now.

So, after exposing your students to a few mentor texts in the genre, ask your students, “What do you think you need to learn in order to write successfully in this genre?”. And then teach those lessons! If you see patterns in their responses, you know you’ve hit on something important that most students will need. If you see a wide variety of responses, consider setting up a mini-lesson calendar, allowing students to self-select which mini-lessons they want to attend. You could also do this digitally by recording a few screencasted lessons, sharing them with your class, and allowing students to choose which lessons to watch and practice.

Use micro-progressions to differentiate skills your students are striving to master.

Kate and Maggie Roberts are the absolute gods of the micro-progression. (You can learn so much about this in their amazingly practical DIY Literacy!)  A micro-progression is, indeed, a progression of a single skill, from beginning, to developing, to advanced mastery. Let me show you what this looks like in a Tweet from Kate:

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Here’s why this is so brilliant: a micro-progression takes a skill and differentiates it for the writers in our room while also providing a goal for writers to strive for. In reality, we all know that Emily needs something very different from our mini-lesson than Melanie. A micro-progression gives us a manageable, concrete way to provide differentiated instruction.

(This is also incredibly democratizing as it values students trying a skill at a variety of levels! The micro-progressions says, “This is good writing! And so is this! And so is this!”)

In Kate’s example above, she shows students three levels of analyzing a piece of evidence. She could teach this to the whole class, walking them through the three levels and then allowing students to try the strategy that feels doable to them. She could teach this in small groups. She could teach this in individual writing conferences.

Now, Writing Workshop 2.0 teachers, let’s be reasonable and start small. Could you use ONE micro-progression in your next writing unit?

And a deeper challenge: What would happen if we banded together and shared micro-progressions we’ve developed for common secondary writing skills?


Writing teachers, what do you still want to know about teaching writing skills? What are the barriers that stand between you and teaching skills in mini-lessons? What resources or information could help you better teach writing skills to your students?  Tell me on Twitter @RebekahODell1 or find us on Facebook, or, better yet, complete the form below: 


  1. This is great–my students are currently drafting their papers, and I want to take them deeper into the analysis of the evidence part. So many of mine are at the “This shows” phase, but showing the progression to them never occurred to me. I’ve been reading Beyond Literary Analysis, and we’re diving into the analysis. It’s messy, but so far my students are engaged in their topics–I’ll be very interested in seeing their finished pieces!

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