Writing Skills and Expectations Before Goal Setting

Making writing goals is a common activity at the beginning of the school year. But it is essential that students understand the range of skills they could be working on if they are going to make skills which are both effective and achievable.

Before students can make thoughtful and useful writing goals, they need to know what is expected of them, what good writing looks like, and what skills they need to master to create their own good writing.

 
Writing skills and expectations before goal setting. Don't jump straight into making writing goals with your students. Take a moment to make sure they understand what is expected of them and how they can achieve that. A Galarious Goods blog post
 

When we ask students to make goals at the beginning of the year, we often ask them to be clear in what they would like to achieve. But are we making sure they have a clear understanding of what they should be aiming for?

When adults make goals, we usually have an idea of what we are specifically aiming for. If we want to become a better runner, we may do some research on what a good (and achievable) time looks like for different distances. If we’re striving to have a cleaner house, we may read articles on what household jobs need to be done or watch documentaries on decluttering our houses.

Having an understanding of what a successful outcome looks like, helps us make more informed goals - goals we’re more likely to meet. The same goes for our students - when they know what they should be aiming for, they’re more likely to create goals which are effective and achievable.

In the classroom, students have writing outcomes which come from the curriculum. But curriculums tend to be written for teachers - education professionals who understand specific terms. They are often hard to read without background knowledge so we rarely put them in front of our students.

One way we can overcome this is by pulling out the most important elements to present to our students or by rewriting them for our students to understand them. Students can explore these easier-to-read versions of the outcomes before they start making writing goals - they can make them a subject of discussion; look at how they might work to achieve these outcomes, what skills are involved to achieve them or how they can become specific achievable goals.

 
 

Before we ask students to set writing goals, they should first reflect on where they’re working from. But it is also essential for students to have an idea of what they’re aiming for in their writing - both generally and broken down into specific skills to master.

By exploring the writing of others, students can identify what writing skills they want to work on during the school year to make their own writing better.

1. Explore published writing

You can share a range of good writing - from picture books to articles to poetry - from the first day of school. This can be done by reading aloud, but you should also make a wide range of good writing accessible for students to read on their own every day.

Before writing goals are set, you can share pieces of writing which support different outcomes. As you read these with the students, you can identify the skills the writers have used to create effective writing, creating a list of skills which students may wish to work on during the year.

2. Model writing yourself

Writing in front of your students can be daunting, but it can also be incredibly valuable for you and them. Students can see how more experienced writers work to think about their writing, how they work to improve their writing while they write and how they apply skills they have been working on.

Demonstrating writing in the first weeks of school, before setting writing goals, allows you to highlight certain skills which you might like students to master. Students are able to watch how you work on those skills and what working on those skills actually looks like and can add those to a list of things they may wish to focus on.

3. Assess writing together

Use a piece of your own writing or a professional piece of writing to examine in-depth. You may wish to use your list of skills which you’ve put together from the outcomes or from other pieces of writing and assess whether the author has shown these skills well - and how they have done that.

Students can then use this assessment to determine how they might work on improving those skills.

For example, students may be focusing on how to use sentences of different lengths to create effective narratives. By examining the sentences in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, students can see how the author puts together sentences to draw the attention of the reader. Students can then make a goal to vary their sentences when they are writing and to revisit those sentences when they are editing to see if they make the writing more effective.

By taking a closer look at what good writing can look like, what skills they need to master and what outcomes they are trying to achieve, students can be better informed when they make their writing goals - ensuring that the goals are more thoughtful, more achievable and more relevant to them as writers.

 
 

Including Freewriting In Your Classroom Writing Centres

Freewriting can be a powerful writing tool in the classroom. It can assist students with formulating ideas, creating outlines and even drafting whole pieces of writing. But how can we effectively use freewriting in the writing centres we set up in our classroom? Is it a useful writing centre? And how do we establish freewriting writing centres to ensure they work?

 
Including Freewriting in Your Classroom Writing Centres - a blog post from Galarious Goods looking at using freewriting in the classroom through setting up freewriting writing centres
 

Freewriting and Writing Centres

Freewriting in the classroom is a timed writing exercise. Students are provided with a writing prompt, which they respond to with a steady stream of words. They are not required to stick strictly to the provided prompt (which might be a picture, a quotation or a question), but can write anything which comes to mind - as long as they keep writing until the timer does off. When the time is up, students may store their writing for future exercises or use it immediately as a launch for writing.

Writing centres can be used in the classroom to provide a variety of activities for our students to complete. Students may move independently between activities designed to reinforce and improve skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation and writing composition, or they may rotate through these centres within a group at the direction of their teacher. Whether you have established writing centres or you are planning to use them in the classroom for the first time, freewriting can be easily included - allowing students to practice using prompts to guide their writing.

Setting Up a Freewriting Writing Centre in Your Classroom

Adding freewriting to your writing centres requires only a few simple things. The most essential is a collection of writing prompts which students can use to spark their writing. These may be connected to units of work you are studying in the classroom, or they may be connected to holidays, seasons, student interests or popular culture.

Although you may collect or create a large collection of writing prompts, it is important to limit the choice that students have immediate access to. You may like all the students at the writing centre to work from one writing prompt, or you may offer a small collection of related prompts with just a few more options than the number of students - allowing limited choices and opportunities for swapping prompt cards.

If you are reusing your writing prompt cards in your classroom at a later time, you may like to print them onto card or laminate them to extend their lifetime. It is worthwhile to organise all your writing prompt cards in a single location to allow you to find them when you wish to use them again.

You also require a timer so students can write without having to keep an eye on a clock. You may like to find an old fashioned kitchen timer, dig out a digital timer or search for timing apps or websites on a computer or tablet which is accessible to the students working at that writing centre.

Finally, students will need writing paper and instruments to participate in freewriting. You may request students to bring their own writing tools to the freewriting centre or you may keep a collection of writing instruments and paper available for students to use. If you are providing paper, you might like to create a range of options - including lined and unlined paper and paper which comes in different colours as well as white.

These tools can be easily kept together in the classroom, along with freewriting instructions and equipment lists. (You can download free instruction, equipment lists and freewriting prompt cards here!)

 
 

Establishing Freewriting Writing Centres

Freewriting sounds easy, but can be a little overwhelming when it is presented cold to students. To warm students up, freewriting should be introduced to the class before it becomes a regular writing centre. Model it to your students, allow them to experiment with whole class freewriting individually, as pairs and in small groups. Engage in freewriting along with your students - both as whole group exercises and when you do offer it as a writing centre.

Nominate a student to be in charge of the timer - this protects student writing time!

Allow students to share their freewriting if they wish to. Provide them more time - or another writing centre - where they can read over freewriting they have completed and highlight or note sections which they would like to expand on at another time. Model how they may choose to keep or throw out certain pieces of freewriting.

Freewriting is easily included as part of your regular writing instruction in the classroom. Using a freewriting writing centre allows students to get used to regular freewriting, allowing them to spark creativity in their writing and become more fluent, proficient writers.

 
 

What is Freewriting? (And how can it be used to teach writing?)

There's nothing scarier when we're teaching writing in the classroom than the blank page. Or, to be more accurate, the reaction of our students to the blank page. There is a way to relieve the fear, though, with a simple writing strategy - freewriting.

 
Freewriting in the writing classroom. What it is and how teachers can use this writing strategy
 

What is freewriting?

A very basic definition of freewriting is writing anything you like for a set time period without stopping. The writer sits, with their paper and pen or computer, sets a timer and writes until the timer (usually set between five and twenty minutes) goes off. They can write about anything which comes into their mind, as long as it's in sentences (differentiating it from brainstorming). They might write the beginning of a story and can keep it going, or they might write a string of unconnected sentences - ranging from what they had for breakfast to how much their hand hurts. If the writer is not sure what to write, they can acknowledge that in their writing - writing sentences about how they don't know what to write until a new topic comes to mind.

While the writer might let their writing go wherever they like, they might also focus their writing with a writing prompt. This writing prompt might be a picture or a photograph, it might be a poem or a quote or it might be a question or a topic. The writing prompt allows the writer to put down everything they know or feel about a topic or idea or picture, although their writing might still wander away from the topic.

Another aspect of freewriting is that writers are not allowed to go back to make corrections and they do not need to be concerned with spelling, grammar or punctuation. This allows for perfectionism to rest for a little while - perfect if you have students who are concerned with getting their writing 'right' and therefore never get much written down.

Freewriting is often used at the beginning of a writing session. It's thought to 'blow the cobwebs out' before getting into the serious writing for the day. Getting into the physical and mental mindset of writing allows for writing sessions to be more productive. Others, writers or not, use freewriting at the beginning or end of their days to get thoughts and ideas out of their head and onto paper (or the computer screen).

 
 

How can we use freewriting when we're teaching writing?

If you are using the writer's workshop approach in your classroom, you can easily use freewriting every day. You can allocate five to ten minutes to silent, timed freewriting at the beginning of each writing session, allowing students to get into the writing mindset before they move onto planning, writing, editing, conferencing or small group lessons for the rest of the writing time. Freewriting can also be used as a way to launch writer's workshop - showing students one writing strategy which 'real writers' use as they learn to manage their time and their writing.

You can also use freewriting when you set a new writing task for your students. Students might write anything they like during the freewriting time, or they can write to the topic or a related prompt set for them. This allows them to get past the dreaded 'I don't know what to write!' and may help them discover new writing ideas or directions for their writing task.

Freewriting can be used to spark creativity when you're teaching creative writing, especially less familiar styles like poetry and descriptive writing. Students can use their freewriting to find themes, ideas, phrases or words that they would like to explore further, or they can swap their freewriting with others to find new directions which they may not have thought of before. Using prompt cards (like these ones from the Galarious Goods shop) for freewriting can be a great way to inspire poetry writing as the random nature of freewriting may get students to consider aspects of the prompt they haven't thought of before.

You can also use freewriting when you're approaching a informative or persuasive writing task. Students can read through their research or brainstorming ideas and then use the freewriting time to note down everything they know or feel about a topic. They can use this time to begin to organise ideas and get a feeling for what they're going to write about and come back to their freewriting when they're unsure of what to write next. This is particularly useful when students are writing across the curriculum as it shows them that their writing strategies are not confined to 'writing lessons'. 

Finally teachers can use freewriting as part of their writing lessons to create a community of writers. They can schedule it in at the beginning or the end of the writing lesson to create a space where all students (and teachers) are actively engaged in writing. At the end of the time, everyone will have a piece of writing - even one with errors or unrelated sentences - as well as the feeling that you're all working together; even when you're working on different pieces of writing.