Literacy

8 Research-Based Writing Strategies for Elementary Students 

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Strategies for Teaching Elementary Writing hero

In my experience, there is not one simple formula for teaching writing. We must employ a range of effective writing strategies for elementary students, to guide them in their writing and build their skills. These strategies, according to research, should include plenty of practice, feedback, and revision. Think of the following activities and resources as tools in your teacher toolbox!

Instructional Strategies for Teaching Writing to Elementary Students

From my teacher toolbox to yours: these are the elementary writing strategies I've found to be the most effective over the years.

1. Set Aside Daily Writing Time

Get your students writing every day! Writing is such a great way for students to “show what they know” about a particular topic or even a way for us to read about what they did over the weekend. What’s wonderful about writing is that students can do it across all disciplines, both formally and informally.

Each day of the week could be a different writing prompt or activity. I know some teachers who like to post “Do Now” writing activities for students as they settle into the classroom at the beginning of the day.

Some examples of a “Do Now” include:

  • What is your favorite subject in school? What do you like most about it?
  • Describe three things you like to do on a rainy day.
  • Imagine you find a magic wand! What would you use it to build? Why?

Others may have themed days. For example, on Mondays they may do “Weekend News” and on Tuesdays students will write sentences using their vocabulary words. Teachers in upper elementary grades may even have designated days for more in-depth writing blocks. No matter which way you fit writing into your plans, make sure your students do it every day!

2. Make Use of Mentor Texts

While mentor texts can be picture books for elementary students, they are not just any “old” read-aloud! There is so much knowledge and insight that students gain from a mentor text. And it can have a huge impact on their writing.

I like to think of a mentor text as an interactive read-aloud. It allows for students to be engaged in the story through teacher prompting. A teacher plays the role of a moderator, using guided questions such as, “What are the descriptive words the author is using to describe the tree?” and “How is the writer making the story interesting for readers on this page?”

Even before diving into the story, after only reading the title of Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, I ask my students, “What kind of day do we already know Alexander is going to have?” Their responses should pull directly from the title–”terrible, no good, and very bad.”

Examples of mentor texts for particular writing lessons:

  •  I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Devorah Petty is an engaging and silly story to introduce opinion writing.
  • Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend by Melanie Watt is a fun story that shows a surprisingly procedural way to make a friend. This book is perfect for a how-to writing unit.
  •  I Need My Monster by Rita Moreno has wonderful descriptive words on nearly every page. It is great for modeling descriptive writing and also reviewing how adjectives can enhance storytelling.
  • The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka not only provides a new perspective on a traditional story but also helps to teach point-of-view in writing.

3. Create Anchor Charts

Anchor charts are a visual way to increase student confidence as they complete a writing assignment. Think of it as a giant reminder for them. It allows students to independently seek out support when they need a refresher regarding the writing task at hand. Anchor charts are meant to be informative yet easy to read for students to reference as needed.

Anchor charts are one of my most favorite “teacher tools.” I almost exclusively make anchor charts with my whole class. It serves as the medium that I put our ideas on when brainstorming a topic or to convey any pertinent information needed to help students be successful in their independent work. Students will likely remember working on the anchor chart altogether, more so than seeing a previously created poster that is then read to them.

When I introduce a personal narrative writing project with my students, I like to sit down after reading our mentor texts and pull apart the text to find the elements of what exactly is a personal narrative. Together, the class and I make a list of those elements, like focusing on a small moment from your life, and including a beginning, middle, and end. The chart reminds students what we need to include in our writing in order to create our own personal narrative. This is all displayed on an anchor chart that is then displayed on our wall for the remainder of the writing unit. As we get deeper into the unit, students will be prompted to return to the anchor chart, using it as a checklist of sorts as we continue to develop personal narratives.

First-grade teacher Katie Risolo Radovich creates anchor charts, like the one shown above on personal narratives, with the help of her class. She says it's important for students to participate in the process as it helps them remember the concepts better than if she displayed a premade chart. Students can then use the chart as a giant checklist that they refer to again and again with each writing assignment.

4. Break Down the Writing Process

Elementary school is when students are starting to think of themselves as writers. It is critical that the writing process is not only taught, but also practiced for every writing unit and even every grade level. Students are learning about the way writing develops over time. From teacher modeling, reviewing each step together as students work toward the final publication, they will have thorough practice of the different steps in writing.

Below is a brief list of my most commonly used approaches for each step of the writing process:

  • Brainstorming/Planning: I love to use sticky notes. It’s a physical way for students to see and move their thoughts around. When introducing how to use sticky notes in writing, I explain that while they are sticky, they do not get stuck. In other words, nothing is set in stone. Letters, words, and sentences can be added and removed. The use of sticky notes is a discernible tool in writing.
  • Drafting: For each writing unit, I provide a variety of sentence starters and sentence frames for students to use and plug in their own words. The purpose is not to have students’ writing to appear more uniform. Rather, it actually makes it easier for them to understand what is being asked of them to write, especially when it comes to different units in writing. Sentence starters allow for students of all different writing abilities to organize their thoughts while still having ownership over their words since they are able to pick which sentence starters and sentence frames they feel is best for their draft. Examples of sentence starters include: 
    My favorite outdoor activity is __________. I was surprised when __________. I like reading books about __________. I am thankful for  __________.
  • Revising: At this stage of the process, I teach the acronym ARMS:
    Add sentences and words.
    Remove unnecessary words and sentences.
    Move sentences and words around.
    Substitute words or sentences with new ones.

Then, I have students read their drafts out loud to themselves and work through each stage of the acronym. Lastly, I have students do this again but in a one-on-one conference with me.

  • Editing: I introduce the acronym CUPS:
    Capitals: beginning of sentences, I, names, months, places and titles
    Understanding: Does it make sense?
    Punctuation
    Spelling (write the sounds you hear, spell known words and what is on the word wall correctly)
    Spaces (leave appropriate space between every word)

I typically have students work in pairs at this step. It is an awesome way to get students working together. I call it an “I Spy” game to encourage engagement and cooperation.

  • Publishing: In my class, students will have a handwritten, final copy in their neatest handwriting for most assignments. However, some writing units may require use of the computer for students to type up their work. This is my favorite step of the process because there are so many ways to have students publish and share. Some ideas include: a handwritten story book; poster project; digital presentation; e-book; or mini movie.

I have vivid memories of my 3rd grade writing celebration from when I was a student. I can still feel the sense of accomplishment when I got to stand at the microphone and read my short story in front of the class and our families. I wish I could have a writing celebration at the end of every writing assignment. Still, I do allow students time to share their writing and interdisciplinary projects with one another at the completion of each unit. Then, we have a writing celebration in the spring with our class and families to show off their accomplishments in writing.

Planets Project Published
First-grade teacher Katie Risolo Radovich starts a unit on planets with the song "We Are the Planets" by Storybots. As the class discusses what they know about our planet, Radovich adds their ideas to an anchor chart. The class then listens to a read-aloud of Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years by Stacy McAnulty, and responds to a writing prompt about how they can help our planet. For the culminating project, pictured above, students become experts on a planet of their choice and create posters that spotlight their findings.

5. Use Graphic Organizers

As teachers, we know that in each class, we are teaching to all different strengths. Just like our students, graphic organizers come in all different styles! They give structure for their thoughts and ideas. Realistically, you can use graphic organizers for all steps of the writing process.

Examples of graphic organizers:

  •  K-W-L: A three-column chart that is a great tool that students can use to organize ideas—what they know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they have learned (L)—about a topic of exploration
  • Story Map: A chart that helps students break down the elements of a story, including the setting, characters, problem, and resolution
  • Venn Diagram: A chart used to note similarities and differences on a particular topic 
  • Sandwich Chart: A chart shaped like a sandwich with each ingredient representing a part of an essay, such as the opening sentence, supporting details, and closing sentence
  • Step-by-Step: A chart that helps students describe the steps it takes to complete an activity or process
  • 5 W's: A chart that guides information gathering by asking students to answer the who, what, where, when, and why of a topic they're exploring

6. Provide Writing Rubrics

Rubrics lay out the framework students need to work within. It is a clear way to explain what exactly you are looking for in their writing. Rubrics help students learn expectations. Additionally, it allows for self-assessment. Depending upon the assignment, rubrics will look different. Nevertheless, the basic commonalities should include explicitly what the goal of the writing assignment is, along with a rating scale. I suggest you provide student access to the rubric from the beginning of the unit. They should be familiar with the rubric by the time they start writing since they'll need to refer to it throughout the writing process.

7. Schedule Peer Conferences

Even at the first-grade level, there is so much a student can get out of working with a peer. Students do not often get to practice learned concepts together. Teachers should detail and model the expectations of peer conferencing. In my classroom, I do this by implementing “Glow and Grow” feedback. As a class, we go through the different sentence starters and sentence frames I give them to use as they navigate this time with their writing buddy. I use my own draft that they have worked with me to develop throughout the unit to model giving compliments (“glow”) and providing suggestions and corrections (“grow”).

8. Provide Feedback

Any list of strategies to teach writing in elementary, or any grade for that matter, would not be complete without mentioning the importance of teacher feedback. And remember, feedback should not just come at the end of the writing assignment. I spend much of the writing block checking in with students as they are working. Realistically, it can be difficult to meet with students every day or every time we are working on writing. If I am not walking around the room to work with students, oftentimes I am pulling students over to my table to work with them one on one or in a small-group setting. As much as I can, I am reading students' work, listening to them read their work to me, and then offering scaffolded support. I know how essential feedback is for students to develop as writers. I use the rubric for the writing assignment that we are frequently referring back to as the guide for my feedback. I also refer to anchor charts we have used throughout the writing process to help students be successful.

Elementary school is the time when teachers lay the groundwork for their students to become writers. Each year, students dive deeper into the writing process. At the same time, they're working on foundational skills like sentence structure, letter formation, and punctuation. Writing instruction is rather complex and can feel daunting. Applying research-based writing strategies for elementary students supports their writing and puts tools in their writer toolboxes!

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