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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 35

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Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: What are all the ways students build their writing skills in the curriculum?

Students do a great deal of writing in the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum, even though there isn’t a standard “writing time” or “Writers’ Workshop.” Many of us were trained in Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop, and there is much to value in that approach: Students have tremendous choice about what they read and myriad opportunities to express their voice as they write about passion topics. However, the challenge with the typical workshop approach is that students, as readers, often may not be “reading for evidence” and building knowledge on one topic, with teacher support, over time. Similarly, as writers, students may get stuck “writing about what they know” (e.g., my favorite sport, outer space, grandma) rather than building new knowledge and then writing to communicate that knowledge. Particularly given the emphasis on building world knowledge and tackling complex text, students need more shared experiences (so they can talk with others about the text) and scaffolded experiences (so they can process their reading and apply their new understanding in their writing).

Note that “free choice” reading still lives in the curriculum: in the K–2 Reading Foundations Skills Block independent work time, and in the Grades 3–5 Additional Language and Literacy Block. And students do still write narratives, albeit about a topic they have all been studying together. You can certainly add more free writing time if your schedule permits. But the emphasis on reading the same text and writing about the same topic in our curriculum is a shift toward equity; students don’t have to rely on existing background knowledge or experiences, as they are all grounded in the same texts and content.

The read-think-talk-write cycle calls for a deeper and more fluid integration of writing with reading, thinking, and talking. In this post, we’ll cover most of the ways that students write in the curriculum. We’re going to save our discussion of scaffolded high-quality writing for next week so stay tuned for that. 

Writing Structures in the K–2 Curriculum

The K–2 Reading Foundations Skills Block

  • Conventions. Students learn to print all upper- and lowercase letters and how to use conventional spelling, based on learned letter-sound connections, for regularly spelled words and many common irregularly spelled words.
  • Interactive writing. Students work together to craft a shared sentence from the decodable text or from content in the Module Lessons. Students spell words, including high-frequency words, by segmenting the sounds (in sequence) of spoken words and matching them to their letter(s). They use rules of capitalization, spacing, and punctuation as they construct the sentence. (See video below.)

Writing practice (independent rotation). Students apply skills they are learning by writing a variety of texts (e.g., free writes, letter formation, writing to prompts), developing stamina, perseverance, and overall writing fluency through this repeated practice.

This video shows first-graders at Two Rivers Charter School in Washington, DC, using Interactive Writing, an instructional practice in the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block.


The K–2 Module Lessons

  • Independent writing. This kind of writing often takes the form of note-taking in response to text, and students typically use a graphic organizer with a place for a drawing and a place for writing. Depending on their age and/or learning needs, sentence frames may be used to scaffold the writing and their understanding of the structure of sentences and paragraphs. In Grades K–2, note-taking often consists of just words or phrases, but it is critical “pencil to paper” thinking time.
  • Composition of shared writing. Students do the thinking while the teacher does the actual writing. Generally, this work is done as a whole group. First students talk together about the contents of what they want to write, often with a Turn and Talk, and then they decide together what words they want you to write. As students progress through the year, they transition from talking about what they want you to write to doing some draft writing and bringing it to you for the final draft. The nature of the writing changes by grade level: In kindergarten, students might just draw a picture and add a few words; in Grade 1, they may add a sentence; and by Grade 2, they may draft two or three sentences.
  • Writing assessments. In each module, one of the three formal unit assessments addresses one of the writing types held in the standards: CCSS W.1 (opinion), W.2 (informative/explanatory), or W.3 (narrative). In Grades K–2, often this “assessment writing” has been scaffolded through partner talk; sketching, note-taking, graphic organizers; and peer feedback. Each module also contains writing checklists, which can be used on an ongoing basis to track students’ progress toward writing standards during daily lessons. (For a reminder of all the types of assessments in the K–2 curriculum, see our previous post, Question 23.) Scaffolded high-quality writing. For performance tasks that involve writing, students use sentence frames or models to craft their writing (often with accompanying sketches) to form well-developed sentences (kindergarten) and paragraphs (Grades 1 and 2) with a beginning, middle, and end. (For more information, come back next week.)

Of note, by Grade 2, students begin transitioning away from K–2 writing structures and toward 3–5 writing structures (e.g., less shared writing and more individual on-demand writing).

The K–2 Labs

  • Writing in the Labs. There is no formal writing instruction in the Labs; however, students do put pencil to paper through other structures. For example, students set goals and reflect on them, make design plans, and take notes on their observations or research using note-catchers. And in Module 4, Grades 1 and 2 students do some narrative writing during Labs.


Writing Structures in the 3–5 Curriculum

The 3–5 Module Lessons

  • Independent writing. After reading and discussing texts, students are often required to independently capture their thinking or demonstrate their understanding about what they have read by writing about the text. Depending on the grade level and where students are in the year, this writing may take the form of notes on a graphic organizer or note-catcher, for example, or writing short answers to questions on an exit ticket, or writing a paragraph. Depending on their learning needs, sentence frames may be used to scaffold the writing.
  • Writing assessments. In each module, at least two of the six formal on-demand assessments address one of the writing types held in the standards: CCSS W.1 (opinion), W.2 (informative/ explanatory), or W.3 (narrative). In Grades 3–5, this is a moment for students to show what they can do on their own as writers, although assessments are often supported with graphic organizers as a part of the assessment itself. (For a reminder of all the types of assessments in the 3–5 curriculum, see our previous post, Question 24.)
  • Scaffolded high-quality writing. In Grades 3–5, for performance tasks that involve writing and for some other writing tasks, students begin to spend more time on scaffolded high-quality writing tasks, with particular focus on expository and narrative writing structures, the elements of writing (e.g., focus statements, conclusions, linking words, character development, narrative techniques), and the writing process. (For more information, come back next week.)


The 3–5 Additional Language and Literacy Block (Writing Practice Component)

  • Continued practice to develop fluency; QuickWrites. During the independent activity, students are often given an uninterrupted block of time to independently respond to writing prompts relevant to the writing they are doing in Module Lessons. Sometimes they have a choice of prompts, and these prompts may require students to write opinion, informative, or narrative pieces of varying lengths. Often, students apply a specific language structure they learned during Language Dives.
  • Continued scaffolding of elements of writing. During the teacher-guided activity, students often review language skills, learned through Language Dives, and elements of writing introduced in the Module Lessons (e.g., for “explaining evidence,” thoughtful conclusions). They then analyze their own writing against models, checklists, and criteria generated in Module Lessons and revise it accordingly.


For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.