Wondering how to sequence writing instruction in the secondary ELA classroom? Writing is, by nature, a somewhat abstract and subjective concept. It’s difficult to pin writing instruction down to a formulaic approach. While I don’t claim to have the only answer to this question, I’d like to share what works in my classroom. Hopefully, this guidance, which is based upon trial and error over many years, will benefit others.
The first step to deciding upon a logical sequence for writing instruction is selecting what skills you want your students to master. In my department, we focus heavily on the writing process and the traits of writing. When students write an essay, they go through every step of the writing process, and the rubric reflects their mastery of each trait of writing.
Still, I don’t expect my freshmen to demonstrate that they can do it all at the beginning of the year. I break my writing instruction down into a logical sequence so that each skill builds upon the next. This approach makes teaching writing less overwhelming for us all.
The next step is to decide what genre you want to be your focal point. I expose my students to various genres of writing, but I don’t expect them to show major growth in all of them. If we feed our students too many genres and demand that they can wield a pen at all equally, it becomes nearly impossible for students to succeed. They lock up with information overload.
It’s important for English departments to sit down and align their curriculum. When you meet with your colleagues, decide what each year’s focus should be. The year-long outline I’m providing in this post can be applied to any genre of writing. At my school, freshmen year concentrates heavily on argumentative and analytical writing. This outline pertains to college-bound students, but not those who are in accelerated or enriched tracks.
FIRST QUARTER WRITING SEQUENCE
During the first nine weeks, I begin my writing instruction by teaching students about the writing process. We go through a quick writing process minilesson and manipulative activity, which collectively take about two days. As students write during the first quarter, we focus mainly on brainstorming and drafting. We may do some quick revision and editing activities, but it takes a good nine weeks for my students to understand that I actually expect them to complete prewriting thoughtfully. I spend time teaching them different brainstorming methods so that they can choose the approach that works best for them.
Regarding traits of writing, we focus mainly on ideas and organization. I stress that without quality ideas that are organized in a logical way readers can understand, nothing else matters.
First nine weeks is a lot of paragraph writing in my classroom. We talk about thesis statements (or claims) as well as supporting details. I also teach students how to analyze details from short stories we read and short films we watch to support their argumentative thesis statements.
In my classroom, grammar and writing go hand-in-hand. I expect my students to demonstrate grade-level mastery of conventions, especially regarding grammar skills we have learned in class. Want to know more? Read about how I sequence grammar instruction.
SECOND QUARTER WRITING SEQUENCE
I ramp up the writing process second nine weeks by zeroing in on revising and editing. I use revision stations and common error PowerPoints to help students search through their printed essays with a fine-toothed comb. We don’t neglect pre-writing and drafting, but my emphasis on them fades into the background. I’ve taught them and reminded them. Now, they are expected to do it.
During this second quarter, I ease my students into my expectations about word choice and sentence fluency. We talk about powerful, precise words as well as how to use the thesaurus intelligently and purposefully. As my students revise, many of our conversations revolve around these traits of writing.
In terms of grammar, I ask my students to demonstrate understanding of how to use and punctuate all four sentence types to create a fluid piece.
Second nine weeks is when I expect my freshmen to begin writing multiple paragraph essays. We often read Romeo and Juliet during this time, which presents many opportunities for analytical and argumentative writing.
THIRD QUARTER WRITING SEQUENCE
During third nine weeks, we cover an exhaustive research writing unit. I take my time going over all the details of analyzing source credibility, annotating research, paraphrasing, summarizing, directly quoting, and plagiarizing. Students complete short paragraphs to implement understanding of each skill. Eventually, we write a whole research paper.
Because we have already covered brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing during first semester, it’s easy to incorporate these stages of the writing process during third nine weeks. The new concept we study is publishing. Because MLA has so many formatting guidelines, students learn how to format their papers, citations, and Works Cited pages properly. They also share their research with the class.
Voice is one of the most difficult writing skills to teach, but my freshmen seem to understand it better when we study voice during our research unit. We talk about how word choice, sentence fluency, and the pillars of persuasion all lend to a formal or informal and a knowledgable or ignorant voice.
By this point in the year, we’ve covered the bulk of our grammar curriculum, so students are also expected to demonstrate command of grade-level conventions.
FOURTH QUARTER WRITING SEQUENCE
At the end of the year, I don’t introduce new concepts, but we do have some fun with the skills I’ve taught throughout the year. Fourth quarter is a time to play with writing, to write independently, and to write shorter pieces to keep skill sets sharp but not overburden teacher and students.
We are often in the middle of a mythology unit fourth nine weeks, so it’s easy to implement short research pieces and even some creative writing. As we write, we are constantly using the terminology for writing traits and the writing process that we have learned throughout the year.
Students need repetition, but they can’t be overloaded with too much information. Organizing my writing instruction in this way has made teaching writing manageable for me and as enjoyable as possible for my students. But…it’s never that simple. Students have various ability levels, so writing instruction needs to be enriched and modified accordingly.
ENRICHING THE WRITING SEQUENCE
Love tracks or hate them, our high school uses a tracking system with three ability levels. I use this general writing instruction sequence when I teach all three levels, but for the enriched students, I amp it up a notch.
For one, we begin writing multiple paragraph essays sooner in the year. My enriched freshmen are placed in the advanced track because they passed a rigorous entrance writing assessment. I know they are capable of writing multiple paragraphs with skill.
I also introduce all research and MLA concepts at the very beginning of the year. This way, the groundwork is laid for them to complete research projects during all four quarters. I teach them how to find credible sources, how to cite them, and how to avoid plagiarism. It isn’t that they haven’t heard the song and dance before, but each year they have a new teacher, they need a fresh reminder.
Each trait of writing is intensified slightly. For example, with literary analysis, I ask my enriched students to analyze themes across multiple short stories instead of just one. This instance would relate to the trait of ideas. Additionally, my enriched students cover grammar at a quicker pace, so they are expected to show a more mature command of conventions.
Finally, my enriched students complete a multi-genre research project instead of a traditional research paper during third nine weeks. One of the required genres is a research paper, but it’s not the only writing they complete that quarter. The multi-genre project adds more critical thinking, creativity, time management, and overall enrichment to the curriculum.
MODIFYING THE WRITING SEQUENCE
My co-taught classes consist of mainly struggling writers, so I modify the sequence for them. You can read my posts about how I teach struggling writers and scaffold writing instruction, but the main ways I modify the sequence are to take it slower, to reduce assignments completed independently, and to reduce the number of skills I expect them to master.
My struggling writers cover the same concepts, but I don’t expect them to implement them all skillfully at the end of the year. The main goals are to be able to write a well-organized paragraph with logical arguments, to write fluid sentences, and to cite research correctly.
Sequencing writing instruction is not easy. It takes many years of trial and error to find a method that works. Even when you do, a new group of students presents fresh challenges, and tweaking is necessary. Hopefully this outline will provide you with insight and guidance as you design your writing curriculum for your own students. If you have advice that can help others, please comment below.