The History of the Writing Workshop
The Writing Workshop method has a history spanning decades and is a combination of best-practice principles and pedagogies designed to develop students’ critical literacy. Let’s take a look at where the Writing Workshop began and how it’s being applied in contemporary classrooms.
The American Research
In the late 1970s, the pioneering work of Donald Graves completely revolutionised the way we look at students. Graves studied how children learn to write (the writing process), and his research involved 6-year-old elementary school students. He began to view children as writers, instead of as children trying to write.
Children will continually surprise us if we let them. This is what happens when we slow down, listen, and let the children lead. That is the joy of both research and teaching. – Graves, 1983.
The main recommendations that Graves made for teachers were to:
- encourage students to choose their own writing topics,
- give students opportunities to write routinely (almost daily),
- have students use reflection and revision as natural tools of writing, and
- teach children the mechanics of writing in the context of reading and writing.
The Writing Workshop method itself was popularised by Lucy Calkins in the 1990s, and it’s suitable for use in all primary grade levels.
The Australian Context
Over time, the Writing Workshop method has become a favoured method of teaching writing in Australian primary classrooms. Perhaps this is due to many schools scheduling a Literacy Block into their whole-school timetables. These daily chunks of time dedicated to the teaching of literacy lend themselves to the writing workshop method, because:
Regular and predictable timetabling of the writing workshop is recommended so that students can anticipate, prepare and plan for their writing (Calkins, 1994).
The Writing Workshop can be facilitated over any period of time, from six weeks down to a week (five days), but it’s beneficial to set some solid guidelines around timings. As students progress at different paces, setting up junctures will keep them focused on completing each step, as well as help them to feel a sense of achievement for work completed. These are both important in helping them achieve their finished piece of writing.
The Key Principles of the Writing Workshop
As stated, a significant body of research has contributed to the development of the Writing Workshop as we know it today. Calkins and her colleague Ehrenworth outlined key principles in their 2016 journal submission which underpin the Writing Workshop approach:
- Protected time to write
- Response in the form of feedback
- Explicit instruction
- Working towards clear goals
These principles are interwoven through the four steps of your Writing Workshop session.
The Four Steps of a Writing Workshop Session
The design and timings of your Writing Workshop lesson will largely depend on the ability level and age of the children you teach. The below timings are indicative only.
Mini-lesson (10 minutes):
Mini-lessons are short, sharp, focused teaching opportunities where the teacher delivers explicit instruction about particular skills.
Focusing on a single genre or shared theme provides a context for explicit teaching about the ‘craft and structure’ of the genre which can be used by students in their writing (Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016).
Independent work time – writing (35-45 minutes):
This is where the real work of writing happens. The students are putting pencil to paper: generating ideas, making notes, planning, drafting, sequencing, editing and sharing informally with their peers.
Children must be given ‘the luxury of time’ to become deeply invested in their writing, and draft, revise and publish their written pieces at a pace that honours and recognises the creative process. – Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016,
Choice is inherently important; giving children agency enables them to own their writing.
During independent work time, the teacher moves around the room, checking in with each student, giving specific feedback and support. For the teacher, this time provides an opportunity to differentiate, and also gives them rich information about which skills to target in future mini-lessons. This is also a time where the teacher may pull together a small group with a specific need for extra support.
This is a reflective time where students share their writing (be it a completed piece, draft, or even a plan), and ask for feedback from their peers.
In order to generate ideas and spark creativity, students are encouraged to start a notebook where they collect thoughts, or ‘seeds’. It’s a place where they can plant, and then revisit and re-read these seeds which may be further developed. Each addition to the notebook is called an ‘entry’. Entries don’t need to be in the form of writing, they can be a graphic organiser, drawings, photographs, or a collection of physical artifacts. Children will enjoy writing about things that are important to them, and topics for which they have some pre-existing field knowledge.
Removing the mechanics of writing in the ideas-gathering stage also provides more appropriate access for EAL/D students.
The writer’s notebook may be reviewed by the teacher in conferring time, or shared in sharing time, as well as being used by the student independently to assess which ideas are best to craft and publish for an audience.
A printable mind map graphic organiser to use when planning ideas with your students.
46 writer's notebook journal writing prompt cards.
A poem to be used explaining what a writer's notebook is all about.
A set of 8 narrative text structure posters to add to your classroom narrative writing display.
Do you use the Writing Workshop method in your classroom?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!
- Calkins, L.M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Calkins, L. & Ehrenworth, M. (2016). Growing extraordinary writers: Leadership decisions to raise the level of writing across a school and a District. The Reading Teacher, 70(1), 7 -18.
- Graves D.H. Murray D.M. Revision: In the Writer’s Workshop and in the Classroom. Journal of Education. 1980;162(2):38-56.
- Graves, D. H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Exeter, N.H: Heinemann Educational Books.