These step by step simple systems show you how to begin teaching writing in the elementary grades even if you’ve never done it before.

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Are you teaching writing in the elementary grades for the first time? Perhaps you’re a seasoned teacher in the upper grades, but now you’re moving to a lower grade? Trust me, I know the fear is real. 

When I moved from 5th to 3rd grade, I worried about how to teach writing to lower elementary students, specifically research. You can’t just let them go out and do research on their own online. You can’t just give them a book or article to read and report on because they might not have sufficient critical thinking skills yet. Maybe you’re in the same situation.

So what do you do?

Tapping into the expert advice of other teachers already successfully teaching writing in the elementary grades is a top option. For me, after I got advice from more experienced teachers, I developed simple systems for teaching writing that build strong writers, even when they’re beginners in grades 1-5. I’m sharing those systems with you in this blog post, because we all want our students to write well and write often. Right?

Two journals and a cup of coffee with the title of the post.

In this article about teaching writing in the elementary grades, I’ll share with you my ideas in several key areas: 

In your own teaching practice, look at each of these areas and see if you have a simple system for teaching this. The fastest way to grow strong writing is to provide a systems based learning scaffold to help students move from one level to the next in their writing expertise.

Scene Setting (Or Cue, Routine, Reward)

It’s important to have a regular schedule for when you write every day. Practice is the most important thing, and the best way to practice a new habit is to do what Charles Duhigg describes in his book, Habits. He says that to create a habit that sticks, (and that’s what we want when instilling a writing habit in our students), you want to start with some sort of cue.

In my class, the cue was an aquarium video that I would display on the board. As soon as the students saw the aquarium and the fish swimming, they pulled out their writing journals. This may sound silly, but it worked. A cue can be anything. It can be music, and image, a specific activity that’s always followed by the new habit. You can find more ideas for cues in this blog post, How to Create a Daily Writing Habit in Your Classroom.

The cue starts the routine of the new habit, which in this case is daily writing. After the writing is finished, you should give yourself and your students some type of reward. For my class, that was 5 minutes to visit with friends. 


By the end of the first month, the habit was set. The students looked forward to writing time. It was relaxing, the class quieted down and concentrated on writing, and at the end, they had a reward. 

Create Mini Lessons for Writing Strategies

Each week, can do a whole class mini lesson on whatever strategy you want to focus on that week. The mini lesson should be no more than 10 minutes long, especially in the elementary grades. Typically, students aged 6-10 can focus for about the number of minutes that matches their age.

Grammar topics are perfect for mini lessons. I love the ideas in this blog post by The ESL Educator, How to Introduce Grammar Topics in a Fun Way.

Next, while the students are writing, you can have mini conferences with small groups. When you have a small writing group, the students can collaborate on their work. You can go deeper into the writing strategy with them. It’s also a time for them to check in with you if they have questions or want to gauge their progress. This is a great time to teach self-editing skills. More on that later in this post.

dice that spell lesson and the words mini lesson

Use a Two Color System to Teach Basic Skills

You may wonder what a two color system is. It’s simply a way of giving feedback to students. It shows them one area to improve and multiple areas they’re doing well in.

First, you can use a checklist of basic writing skills students should master. These can be the basis for your mini lessons. You can grab your free checklist in the Member Vault.

Choose two colors of ink pen. I like green and purple, you might like other colors. Choose one color to use for areas needing improvement, and another color for areas that are done well. I used green for areas done well and purple for areas needing improvement.

As the students are writing, visit their desks or do this in a mini conference. Read what they’ve written so far. Find something they’ve done well, and put a star by it. Star as many items they’ve done well as you’d like. 

Then put one mark, and only one mark by one thing that needs improvement. Never mark more than one thing.

a cat with glasses demonstrating focus to begin teaching writing

Why This Strategy for Teaching Writing Works

The beauty of this system is that students feel confident that they can focus on and improve one thing. For example, maybe they need to use quotation marks around dialogue. Don’t mark up all the dialogue in their paper. Just mark one, and tell them to concentrate on improving that.

Students love this system for a few reasons. 

  1. It’s not overwhelming. They only have to focus on one skill at a time.
  2. They feel good about the rest of their successes. This is true for students at all levels of writing ability.
  3. It becomes game-like for them. They want to get to a point where you can’t find anything to mark for improvement. (Yes, this actually happens!)

You can read more about this two color system and how to utilize the checklist in this blog post. 

Simplify the Writing Process

What I mean by clarifying the writing process is to clarify it and make it as simple as possible. Keep the steps to a minimum viable process, or MVP. There are plenty of books and articles about the writing process available everywhere. But I’ve found they have one thing in common.

Students tend to get lost somewhere around the middle of the process. Some students skip steps and hurry up and finish. Other students get stuck at the beginning and never move to the next step.

My suggestion to eliminate this problem is to simplify the writing process.

  1. Organize and plan. This can be done wth a graphic organizer, mind map, or in the upper elementary grades, an outline.
  2. Prewrite. Write the text and just get it on the paper. This is where you can do conferencing and two color checking.
  3. Edit and revise. Read the writing out loud and look for revisions and edits. Students can read it to a partner or to themselves. This is when students can use the CUPS editing process to catch errors. (More on CUPS in the five minute editing section.) They can revise to add to or delete parts of their writing.
  4. Rewrite. Finally, have the students rewrite it. Then another student should read it over one last time before they turn it in.

The Five Minute Editing System

Can students edit their own writing in five minutes? 

You bet they can.

All you have to do is teach this simple system. Then model, model, and model again. This is another great idea for doing with the students during mini conferences until they can do it on their own. This image shows the digital version of the system in one of my daily writing journals.

Teaching writing with highlighter bars for editing capitalization, usage, punctuation and spelling.

You’ll need some supplies.

  1. Colored pencils or crayons. You’ll need four colors. I like to use orange, green, red, and blue, because those are in every crayon box.
  2. Highlighter strips. If you don’t have highlighter strips, you can take paper that’s used for transparencies or laminating. Cut strips and then color them with permanent highlighters.
  3. A timer for one minute.

To read the process and how to teach students to do this, check out this blog post about a 5 minute editing system.

Do you prefer a video over reading about it? Check out this Youtube video, How to Teach Editing in 5 Minutes.

Teaching Students to Add Structure and Details to Their Writing

A cup of colored pencils to begin writing

Depending on the grade you teach, you have different goals for the development of writing skills. In grade 1 it may be writing a simple sentence. In grade two, it could progress to writing three related sentences to create a basic paragraph. 

Students are capable of more extensive writing in grade 3. At this level, you’ll be teaching them how to add transition words, and how to write an introduction and conclusion.

In fourth grade and fifth grade, students move into multi-paragraph writing with the classic three or five paragraph essay.

Along the way, in all the grades, you’ll be teaching about adjectives and adverbs and specific verbs to spice up their writing. I used to jokingly tell my students that if I started to fall asleep while reading their writing, I would lower their grades. I don’t know, maybe I was kind of serious about that.

What’s worse than falling asleep while you’re grading a student’s writing? Spilling your coffee as you fall asleep while grading a student’s writing!

You can use the Two Color Writing Checklist to follow a progression of teaching the most basic writing skills, including punctuation and use of descriptive words, to including metaphors and analogies and rhetorical analysis. The checklist is a super helpful guide for tracking what you’ve taught and what you want to move on to next.

Two-color writing checklist of skills to teach.
Get your copy from the Member Vault page of this website.

It’s free and available in the Member Vault here on the website. 

Teaching How to Write the Perfect Paragraph

One simple system to use for teaching how to write the perfect paragraph is using a model with colors to mark different requirements. You may feel that this is too prescriptive, and will box in a student’s creativity. But quite the opposite is true.

Younger students, especially ESL students who are still learning how to speak, read, and write in English, benefit immensely from having a specific model to follow. It’s like a recipe for a good paragraph. With this model and scaffolding for differentiation, you can get your students writing more fluently than ever.

Sometimes you need some new ideas for prompts and strategies, am I right? If you want some fresh, new prompts for your students, this post full of original writing prompts divided into categories will get you started. Also, my friend Sarah over at Sarah’s Writing Spot has a bundle of prompts you can download for free.

A System for a Perfect Paragraph

Choose three colors plus one accent color. They can be any colors you choose. I like to use stoplight colors, green, yellow, red, plus orange. On a practical note, you get stoplight colors in a box of 8 dry erase markers or a box of 8 crayons. Keep it super simple!

Young students love pizza, so I have a pizza lunch analogy to go with the three colors.

You can learn more about this and how to implement it in your classroom in my course.

Building Strong Writers with Simple Systems

A woman writing with the words a system for teaching how to write a perfect paragraph

Colorful Paragraphs

Here’s an example of what I mean. Imagine a student writes the following introduction to a personal opinion paper.

Students can have as many red sentences to develop a topic as they need to use. They’re not limited to the 8 sentence model. The paragraph can be longer. Just like the analogy of the pizza, you can always add more sauce and pepperoni!

Using mentor sentences is one effective way to teach how to add details and imagery to sentences. Students are amazed at the caliber of writing they can produce when they model a mentor text.

Moving past paragraphs are you wondering how to teach essay writing skills? Follow this link to get some solid ideas from A Fresh Breath On Teaching.

Publishing Student Writing

Think about how you want to publish student writing. There are so many ideas that will give a sense of fulfillment after their hard work. You can decide before you plan the lesson. Here are five ideas. How many more ways to publish student writing can you come up with?

  1. Will you do the classic and hang it on the wall?
  2. Will you have students create a slides presentation with images?
  3. Have you ever had the students record a video of themselves reading their writing?
  4. Could you have a story party? This is super fun to do during the holidays when you might be writing narratives.
  5. Will you create a wall in your Google Classroom or LMS and post all the stories there?

If you need more ideas, this blog post, Creative Ways to Publish Writing, will give you so many more!

The Dual Language Hero has a fantastic post about How to Motivate Students to Write with Writing Celebrations. It has some super creative and fun ideas that don’t cost you any money!

That’s it for today!