Daily Writing Practice. We’ve all heard about how important it is for students to practice writing every day. Teachers assign independent writing practice all the time. There are oodles of resources and products that promise to give students writing prompts and writing practice. Many teachers have their students keep writing journals. These are all great ideas but putting the ideas into practice is much harder than it appears at first glance, especially if you want your students to produce quality writing. How can you incorporate independent writing practice in the most effective way? Read on, my friend, and at the end of the post I have a free download to help you get started.
Updated May 5, 2023.
What is Daily Independent Writing Practice?
First, let’s take a look at what it should look like in the elementary grades. Young students typically dread writing. They think it’s hard, they’re afraid to write the wrong thing, they’re afraid of making spelling mistakes, or they can’t think of anything to write. In short, the reasons for not wanting to write are in the myriads. So, help your students by breaking down exact expectations, step-by-step. I’ll get to this later in the blog. Once you set down the exact expectations, students will be writing quietly for the entire time. For daily independent writing practice to be most effective, there are three critical expectations of you, the teacher.
Teacher Expectations During Independent Writing Time
- Set a time frame and stick to it. Use a timer if you must. If you’re asking students to write for five minutes cut the time off at the five-minute marker. At the beginning of the year, five minutes is plenty of time. Once the routine is settled, you can increase the time. However, 15 minutes is the maximum time you want to give, because the time slot is for skills practice, and not for anything they will turn in to you for a grade.
- Give a specific prompt with a specific skill to practice. This eliminates the time wasted in decision making on the student’s part about WHAT to write and HOW to write it.
- Conference with the students while they’re writing. If you’re in an online class, use an app available through your virtual classroom to take a look at what they are writing. Coach each individual student on ONE thing, and ONLY ONE thing.
How to Teach Independent Writing to Young Students
As in all of our teaching, we want to model, model, and model again. You can model a skill in a whole group mini lesson. Students can practice it on their whiteboards and then share their work. During writing groups, you can model one skill you want your students to practice. You can use a game or other teaching activity to practice it again. Young students love to learn with games and with activities that require cutting and pasting or dragging and dropping. Once you’ve taught a skill, then it’s time to practice it during daily independent writing practice time. Once again, there are three important things to make it effective.
Cue, Routine, Habit
- Make it a game to have everyone get their materials ready to write. Some teachers use a timer and give points, some use table group points, others have the students play against the teacher. You know your students best and what will motivate them.
- Have a cue to begin the habit. This means that every day, after a certain thing happens, it’s independent writing practice time. For my classes, the best cue was coming in from recess. The students got all their materials ready to go before they lined up for recess. Once they came in, they were ready to start. That was the cue to the routine of writing every day.
- In a habit loop, you have a cue, routine, and reward. The cue tells you it’s time to start the routine. Once the routine is done, you get a reward. Sometimes the routine can be its own reward. The reward in this case is a mini conference with the teacher. Students love to get that one-to-one attention from the teacher. In fact, a student once told me that these mini conferences made her feel so important, and she knew that I really cared about her because I gave her that individual time. Don’t underestimate how big of a reward this mini conference can be.
How to Have a Mini Conference with Students
This is a super basic, super easy process that yields BIG results. I call it Two Color Skills Practice. You can grab a free two-page checklist with a sequence of writing skills to guide you in this practice from my Member Vault. Each day, as students are writing, you check in with them about the skill they are learning and practicing. You focus on ONE SKILL per week. If it’s a difficult skill, they might need two weeks of practice. Say for example, you are having them practice adding an adjective to their sentences. When you confer with them, that’s the only thing you’re going to look at. Don’t worry about spelling, verb tense, or anything but the skill focus.
Two Color Writing Conference
Use two colors of pen or highlighter for this conference. For example, let’s say I want to use purple ink for things done well, and orange ink for things they could improve. I would mark every adjective used correctly in purple ink or highlighter, congratulating the student on a job well done. Then, I would look for ONLY ONE thing they could improve upon. I would choose a skill we already worked on, such as using correct punctuation. If they forgot to put a question mark in a sentence, I would mark it in orange, and tell them this is your ONE THING to remember and improve on next time.
The mini conference is done.
It could take from 30 seconds to one minute to do it.
Nothing gets turned in. Nothing gets graded. Nothing gets assessed and recorded.
Yet the results are profound. The students can look back each day to see what they need to improve on, and as they continue with their writing, they are reminded of how to make it better.
You, as the teacher, also know what each student is like as a writer, and as time goes on, you can differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of each student.
Once the students have learned a skill and enjoyed repeated practice of that skill during independent writing practice time, you can set the expectation that they will use that skill in ALL of their writing. There are no excuses, because once they’ve mastered the skill, no excuses are needed. However, if you see students beginning to slip up, you can simply spiral back and review, and spend another week on that skill.
Where to Find Independent Writing Prompts
My favorite place to find writing prompts is at ReadWorks.org. When you sign up, you’ll have access to thousands of high-quality articles and narratives with comprehension questions and writing prompts, all for free. I use the Article-a-Day reading passages and have the students write what they’ve learned. The site is completely free, unless you decide you want to become a patron and donate. Once I left the classroom, I became a patron because I think it’s so important to have free quality materials available to teachers and students.
Another idea is to have students write out an answer to a question of the day in your classroom. If you use “Would You Rather” style questions, have them include the reason for their choice. I would always ask, “Which would you rather, and why?” This is especially valuable for English learners as a way of expanding their ability to reason and express their ideas.
Summary of Independent Writing Practice
To sum up, daily independent writing practice is an essential part of learning to write well. It’s the perfect time to practice basic skills. It doesn’t take much time, either. It can be done in less than 15 minutes a day. Best of all, it gives you the opportunity to meet and confer with each student, deepening your relationship with them, and allowing you to differentiate and customize your teaching and their learning. You can begin using this method to teach writing from the very first days of school.
Thanks for reading this far! As I promised, here’s the link to the free download for you that lists the skills I focused on and in which order. It’s available to you as a reader of my blog. It’s not available anywhere else. Enjoy!
What do you think? How do you encourage independent writing in your classroom? We can chat in the comments.
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