It’s crucial to spend time making sure you’re choosing the right goal to focus on for each writer in your classroom. Choosing an appropriate goal requires that you have a deep knowledge of your students, developed through assessments and by talking to your students and getting to know them as people. You’ll likely plan to spend time observing them as they write and meeting with them in conferences to learn about their interests and hopes for their writing. You’ll also likely do more formal assessments such as asking them to write “on demand” (completing a piece of writing in one sitting) and looking at those pieces for qualities of writing that you hope to teach.
The ten goal categories I use are: Composing with Pictures, Engagement, Generating Ideas, Focus, Structure/Organization, Elaboration, Word Choice, Conventions: Spelling, Conventions: Punctuation & Grammar, and Partnerships & Clubs. I have arranged these ten goals into a hierarchy to help me prioritize when I discover a student could use support with more than one goal (see image at top left). Think of it not as a hierarchy of most important to least, or from simplest to most sophisticated. Instead, this is a hierarchy of action. For example, if I notice a child could use support in two areas—say, structure and elaboration—I’m inclined to start with the one that’s closest to the top (structure) and work my way down (elaboration). Think of that example. Why teach a child to fill her page with details if the details are disorganized and it will make the writing difficult to follow?
The first goal is composing with pictures. It’s a goal centered around teaching children to use sketches and illustrations to tell stories, teach, and/or persuade. The idea behind this first goal is that even before children are able to write conventionally with words, they can compose pieces of work using what they can do— draw pictures. Also, as children get older, using pictures as way to practice qualities of good writing, and as a way to plan their writing, has lots of value.
Engagement comes next because unless students see themselves as writers, have the stamina to sit and write, and want to write, it’ll be hard to focus on qualities. They’ve got to practice to improve.
Generating ideas is a goal that’s close to the top of the list because it’s crucial to help children come up with their own topics and ideas for their writing. An inability to do so could also be a root cause of disengagement with writing. Independent writers need a never-ending bank of things to write about.
Focus is the next goal category because when a writer sets out to write a piece, there should be something that helps it to be cohesive. It could be an idea, it could be a thesis statement, it could be a focus on a period of time (as is sometimes the case with some stories). But it can’t be wandering all over the place. Without focus, it’s hard to know what details to add and what to take away, and it’s hard to have a purpose or meaning behind the writing.
Next: structure. A piece needs to be organized so that a reader is able to follow the story, the argument, or the categories of what’s being taught. Having a clear structure, and having solid parts within that structure (lead, middle, ending, for example), helps a writer to know how to use detail effectively.
The next two goals—elaboration and word choice—appear side-by-side on the hierarchy. Each goal will help writers fill out the structure they’ve created. Elaboration is about helping children to add the right amount and the right types of details to connect to the meaning, genre, and structure of their piece. Word choice is about the careful decisions a writer makes on the word level.
The next two goals are about conventions—one on spelling and one on grammar. These live side by side in the hierarchy as well. They are toward the bottom of the hierarchy not because I think they are less important, but because I’m more apt to help a student with one of the other goals before these if the others aren’t solid. Students will have more energy for editing their spelling, or considering their punctuation choices, or looking over their piece to correct dangling modifiers if they care about what they wrote and there are sufficient, well-organized details included in the piece.
The final goal focuses on partnerships and writing clubs. This is one that you’ll likely weave throughout your whole year for every student. There may also be some students who would benefit from a particular, personalized focus on how to collaborate within a group.
Just as I feel sure enough that this hierarchy is largely what drives my decision making when I work with student writers, I’d be lying if I said there aren’t exceptions. Perhaps, for instance, the reason a student’s writing volume is low is because she doesn’t have any ideas. Well, in that case, I’d start with the goal on generating strategies. Or maybe a student needs help with structuring his writing, but there are so few details that there isn’t much to put a structure around. In that case, I might help him brainstorm what else he could say, and then we could go back to organize it.
Some of you may wondering: what about voice and craft? I didn’t make either a goal on its own because I believe writer’s voice is communicated through many aspects of writing including syntax decisions (which would fall under the punctuation and grammar goal) and the vocabulary she chooses to use (which falls under the word choice goal). A writer makes craft decisions at many points of the process and in many aspects of the piece, including the details she chooses to include (elaboration) and how the piece flows (organization and structure). In a way, to me it seems like writing well is all about craft and voice.
These 10 goals are the chapters for my soon-to-be-released Writing Strategies Book. Each chapter has anywhere from 20-45 strategies that will help writers work toward the goal, with a total of 300 strategies across the book. For more information, visit here.