Text Dependent Analysis: A Training on Steroids!

Two years ago three of the instructional coaches went to a training at the Bucks County Intermediate Unit that was meant for coaches and leaders to turn around in the district. It was three full days packed with new information and lots of practice pertaining to text dependent analysis (TDA), but we learned so much that we were able to turn around and train small groups of teachers over the course of 3 half days. This post is dedicated to providing asynchronous training and exploration of all things TDA for teachers who are new, have changed grade levels, or just want some refreshers.

As always, I am available to our Bensalem teachers for planning and instructional coaching. In addition to four training videos, I have included some previous blogs that showcase the work I have done in classrooms last year.

Training Session #1 – What is Close Reading?

In this first session we looked at the definition for TDA that was provided by the Department of Education that shows the need for close reading, what that actually is, and how to use a framework for close reading to do the work necessary for analysis as defined.

Using Images…What Does That Look Like in the Classroom?

A Close Work at Why We Teach Analysis summarizes some of the basics around close reading and analysis.

TDA: Starting with Images provides a way to get started using pictures. Any picture will do, but here are some examples!

Approaching Analysis with Non-Traditional Text is an extension of using images in any reading workshop unit.

TDA: Students Take on the Images shows more student work and thinking!

Listen, Learn, Trust, and Expect reminds us that over-scaffolding can lead to more problems not less.

Close Reading Anchor Chart

Close Reading Glasses (recommended to be copied on 11×17 size paper)

Training Session #2 – How Does the Framework for Close Reading Work with Fiction?

The second session was spent looking at the challenges of PSSA prompts and how the Close Reading Framework we’ve adopted, as recommended by the Bucks County IU, along with the use of a Close Reading Menu can assist in providing instructional support for teachers and students as they grapple with this challenging work.

Using Short Texts and Even Independent Reading to Model and Practice This Work

How to Find the Time to Work on TDA shows teachers how to fold in the work of close reading and analysis by using our reading worksop units and the learning progressions.

Moving from Pictures to Text…Oh My! not only looks at the transition to more challenging texts but the diversity in thinking that must be celebrated so kids know they can make inferences and come to new understandings without the worry of “being right”.

The Adventures of TDA: Chapter One shows what is discovered and where to go next when examining preassessment data from TDA.

The Adventures of TDA: Chapter Two walks readers through some guided practice using a common text with choice still available to students in their partner work.

The Adventures of TDA: Chapter Three show the use of small group instruction and conferring within guided practice of the thinking work associated with close reading and analysis.

At the Corner of Active Engagement and Analysis reminds us how valuable student discussion is for doing this work.

What’s the Deal with All These Sticky Notes shows how the work of close reading can be used within the independent portion of the workshop, but it requires a lot of teacher modeling. I recommend using books from your classroom library as this will serve as double duty and sell books to kids too!

Training Session #3- How Does the Framework for Close Reading Work with Non-Fiction/Informational Text?

Session three was actually a bonus session provided during an in-service day that resulted from many questions asked about how is thinking about nonfiction and informational text different. We used the same framework for close reading but a different close reading menu based on the kinds of elements that pop up in our standards and eligible content as well as our learning progressions and bands of text complexity for reading nonfiction and informational text.

Supporting This Work Across Content Areas

Active Reading Beyond ELA shows that this work can also be practiced in other content areas that use nonfiction and informational text.

Training Session #4 – How Do Learning Progressions for the Units and TDA Inform Instruction?

Learning Progressions are meant to inform instruction and allow for differentiation based on strengths and needs of individual students. This final session took a deep dive into how the learning progressions for our units and for TDA are similarly designed and serve similar purposes. The progressions for TDA are broken down into three underlying components: Reading Comprehension, Analysis, and Essay Writing. Each component addresses specific criteria.

Moving On from Thinking Work to Organization and Essay Writing

The Adventures of TDA: Chapter Four focuses on organizing the close reading and making a claim before writing.

The Adventures of TDA: Chapter Five focuses on using a structure for writing.

The Adventures of TDA: The Final Chapter takes a look at text dependent analyses written by sixth graders as well as the details of the post assessment on this mini unit.

Avoiding the Panic Associated with TDA shows the value of doing the work yourself in order to better support students.

Sample Anchor Chart for Writing

TDA Student Friendly Learning Progressions for grades 3-5

TDA Student Friendly Learning Progressions for grades 6-8

Text Dependent Analysis Toolkit from PDE contains lots of resources to support your understanding and instruction including annotated student responses for grades 3-8.

Moving Ahead

As we learn and grow in our practice, more may be added to this post. It is certainly not meant to be tackled all in one sitting. During the actual trainings, teachers left each session with tools and homework to practice the work back in the classroom before returning for the next session. I recommend that this post be used in a similar way. Watch each video, explore some of the supporting resources under it, and try the work out in your classroom before moving onto the next video. If there is something specific you would like to see more of, leave a comment or shoot me an email. And as always, I am here to support Bensalem teachers.


Virtual Teaching Techniques for Vocabulary

I recently attended a webinar with the Aim Institute for Learning and Research. Having attended several professional development opportunities in the teaching of vocabulary, this one was packed with researched activities that teach vocabulary in the context of what we do.

Why Is Teaching Vocabulary Important?

According to research, vocabulary is a strong predictor of reading comprehension. For those who teach ELA, let me present Scarborough’s Reading Rope. There is so much that goes into skilled reading, but the endgame is for readers to not only comprehend but make meaning. Each strand works toward this.

If one strand becomes frayed it will have an impact on the end game. The depth, breadth, and fluency of vocabulary interacts with other strands including academic vocabulary. This is where ELA meets content area teachers. Through direct instruction across content areas, students can access 300-400 words each year, but what they need to acquire in order to be successful is 2500-3000 words each year!

Direct instruction refers to systematic and intentional instruction within any curriculum. The remainder of the words needed each year will come from the use of intentional independent word-learning strategies that also require direct instruction as well as indirect language experiences met through teacher and student talk, read aloud, and the structured independent reading already achieved in a reading and writing workshop.

The strategies included in this writing lend themselves to intentional instruction that can be used in any subject area and aid in the acquisition of 300-400 words each year.

Word Choice Approaches

There are three approaches to choosing words. When word lists are not already provided, we can fall on the tiered approach and the guidelines.

One way to use the guidelines is to utilize a shared text such as a mentor text, read aloud, or vocabulary for a particular content area unit.

Once you have a list, it’s best to start with a kid-friendly way to preview the words. Jamboard is a great tool for students to use when previewing vocabulary words in a virtual setting. Jamboard is an interactive whiteboard and part of G Suit. Students move each word to the appropriate category. Stranger words are words the students never heard of before; acquaintance words students have heard of but don’t know what they mean; friend words are words the students know; and BFF words are words the students not only know but uses regularly in speaking and writing.

Once students are able to provide a baseline by rating their familiarity or knowledge of each word, the systematic direct instruction can begin through work with word meaning and relationships that use visuals as well as repetition.

Using Definitions

One activity to teach definitions and provide opportunities for visuals and repetition is to use a four-square. This does not need to be done for every word, but might be a good idea for those words that are strangers or acquaintances thus providing differentiation.

This can also be done in a Jamboard using the add text and add image tools. What is great about Jamboard is that the tools are very limited which allows the focus to be more on the word work and less on the many bells and whistles a student would need to navigate through in other applications.

Using Semantic Relationships and Connections

Students can continue to experience opportunities for visuals and repetition while exploring relationships and connections.

Once again Jamboard is a great no-frills tool for students to make associations and utilize visuals.

An added bonus would be for student to justify their choices verbally through Zoom breakout rooms or in writing.

Another way to explore relationships and connections is through scaling/semantic gradients. This is similar to the shades of meaning we often use in reading a writing.

Using Jamboard students can move synonyms for overused antonyms (fast/slow) onto the gradient in the order of intensity according to them.

Students can also justify verbally or in writing why they chose the order that they did.

Using Visuals

Sentences from the text can be pulled for students to illustrate what they visualize in order to make meaning.

Word walls are another way to visualize using the parts of speech.

Speaking and Writing

While speaking and writing can be used throughout it can be the activity as well. In the virtual setting students can use tools such as Screencastify, Loom, Flipgrid, etc. to explain their thinking or can continue to use live discussion using breakout rooms in Zoom.

In this activity words and pictures are added to the Jamboard for students to match before explaining their reasoning.

Reasoning can also be shared in writing.

There may be multiple interpretations so like many things there is not always one right answer.

Where to Start

Start with a text that you are using as a mentor text, read aloud, or shared reading. Pull the words that you would like to have students explore and begin with the preview to determine the needs. From there you can create many opportunities for students to visualize and learn through repetition.

Just remember that whatever you do, provide opportunities for students to think, speak, and write. If they can think it, they can talk about it, and if they can talk about it, they can write it. The more they think, speak, and write, the better the chances for the acquisition of vocabulary and less opportunity for that essential strand to fray.


Vocabulary Activity Templates for Jamboard

Jamboard for Student-to-Student Interactions

Getting Started

There is a great Facebook page with lots of how to ideas and troubleshooting for any subject area. It’s call “Teachers Using JAMBOARDS.”

Like anything else in the classroom, you will need to begin using Jamboards by laying down the ground rules and establishing norms. This could even be it’s own partner or small group activity. One of the complaints is the scribbling some students will want to do. It might be a good idea to give them a minute to get the scribbling out of their system on a blank frame or incorporate drawing at times.

Discuss each post it and move to the correct side. Add two of your own ideas too.

There are lots of great ways to use Jamboards for the whole class, small groups, and even partnership collaboration.

Student Check-Ins

One place to use Jamboards is for a student check-in. Whether it’s to check-in on emotional state, check for understanding, or simply to get a pulse on student thinking, Jamboard is a quick way to get the info you need.

Drag an image to cover the entire frame
Content check-in
Pose a question and see where students fall at different times

Share Thinking About Read Alouds or Content Area Texts

Jamboards can be used to share thinking and collaborate using a common text. Again this can be worked on as a whole class, in small groups, or partnerships.

Thinking About Setting
Comparing and Contrasting Characters
Pros/Cons or Positive/Negative Aspects of a Character
Maybe how a character approaches a conflict or solves a problem
Character moments of choice
What caused the problem and what effects does it have on the characters?
Examining complexity of character

Differentiate Based on Choice

What starts off as a whole class stop and jot can quickly be used to determine most popular responses to move students to a smaller discussion based on their thinking.

Whole class shares thinking
Sort and send off to small group discussion

Notice, Wreck-It, and Imitate Mentor Sentences

Mentor sentences are most useful when students can share their thinking and build on ideas with peers. Jamboard can provide that platform to zoom in on what authors do, deconstruct it to see exactly what the author did, and imitate it before going off to use it in their own writing.

Wreck it

Annotate Text (Small Group or Partnerships)

The beginning of a unit is generally a great place to look at a type of text and notice what authors do when writing. Before writing an informational writing or a realistic fiction piece, readers can study a mentor text for the moves authors make when crafting this type of text.

Strategy Lessons and Guided Practice

Any strategy in The Reading Strategies Book or The Writing Strategies Book can be turned into a Jamboard for a small group collaborative space for guided practice with you.

Based on a strategy from The Reading Strategies Book for theme
Based on a strategy from The Reading Strategies Book for character
Based on a strategy from The Reading Strategies Book for character

Small Group Progression Lessons

Progressions can also be posted for students to evaluate themselves and determine their next steps or to examine a particular progression in a mentor text.

Students share their writing about character, discuss where they are based on learning progression and determine their own next steps
Small groups or partnerships can determine what this author did to develop characters, setting, and plot before do the same kind of work in their own writing

The Possibilities Seem Endless


Student-to-Student Interactions in a Blended Learning Classroom

As we transition to a hybrid model, we need to consider one of the necessary interactions that could be missing from our instruction. The student-to-student interaction often done through turn and talk and partnerships was a huge part of our instructional practice prior to March 2020, but it may have gotten lost as we were thrown so quickly into remote instruction.

How Do We Bring It Back?

Students who are in person can still turn and talk even though we will be 3-6 feet apart. It will just be much louder, but what about those at home or when the discussion is too complicated for such distance?

The Slow Chat

There is the option of the slow chat which is a discussion in the learning platform (Schoology for secondary teachers and Google Classroom for elementary). A discussion question can be posted and students can respond, read the responses of others and respond to them as well. This is called a slow chat for a reason. It’s not the quickest of turn and talks, but it does provide the student-to-student interaction that is crucial in learning.


The breakout room feature in Zoom is a great way to incorporate the student-to-student interaction that is a quicker than the slow chat. During synchronous instruction, those who are in the Zoom can be put into breakout rooms with a partner for a quick turn and talk opportunity while those in class can physically turn and talk.


Another option is Jamboard which is a Google App and collaborative whiteboard space.

A Jamboard can be worked on by an entire class or slides can be assigned to partnerships. Here’s a video that shows the basics of getting started.

More information and ideas to come using Jamboard!

Reimagining the Workshop in a Hybrid Model

As a parent, teacher, and instructional coach, I am saddened by the turn education has taken in a few short months. Frustration and anxiety are at an all time high for teachers, students, and parents. Many of us are just trying to survive on a daily basis. As teachers so much of this is outside of our control. We certainly are not responsible for the pandemic or the decisions districts make to keep our communities safe, but we are responsible for committing to best practice. In the last two months I have personally seen so many great teachers rise to the occasion, learn new and innovative ways to deliver instruction, and continue to hold close the fundamentals of best practice in reading and writing workshop. As we move toward a new hybrid model, I encourage everyone to do the same. The simplicity of it may be just what we need as we enter another new chapter that no doubt feels overwhelming.

The fundamentals of reading and writing workshop never change no matter the model– synchronous, asynchronous, full remote, hybrid, or 100% in person, but they do need to be reimagined.

The Minilesson

In a hybrid, synchronous model, the minilesson is still mini. Whether you use the UOS virtual learning videos or give the minilesson yourself, a minilesson will fall somewhere in the 7-12 minute range, build an anchor chart, and include explicit modeling and even some guided practice.

In the hybrid model, one cohort in in the classroom receiving the instruction in person. The other cohort is in the Zoom where you may be sharing your screen.

So far we’ve done this…

Today, I’m going to teach you this…and model what that looks like using the mentor text or read aloud.

But What About Guided Practice and Turn and Talk?

To keep students actively engaged in minilessons we utilize brief moments to turn and talk about our own thinking. In this particular lesson, I am thinking about the characters in my read aloud and I need to determine who has the least to greatest amount of power before I can model my thinking about how a character responds to power. I might in a normal classroom say, “Here are the characters we’ve learned about so far. Turn and talk about the order you might put them in from greatest amount of power to least and what makes you say that.” But how does that work for the students at home? How does that work in the classroom with 6 feet of distance between turn and talk partner?

Well, it could be a turn and shout. Or it could be everyone at home is put into a breakout room for one minute with a partner to discuss while we turn and shout in the classroom. But something tells me that won’t be preferable to some. Maybe instead my in class students have white boards they can write on then turn and show. Turn and talk might instead be in the classroom, “Partner A – write down who you think has the greatest amount of power so far and why. Partner B – write down who has the least so far and why?” and after one minute they turn and show their thinking. The cohort at home can still use the breakout room to chat or you might say to those at home, “Jot your thinking in the chat”. After the minute you can share some thinking from the chat and the whiteboards you can see to avoid the close contact of the typical eavesdropping. If this is a system you use daily, it will be clunky at first in the beginning, but like everything else will smooth out as you and students become familiar with the procedure.

Now I’m ready to model how to think deeply about dystopian characters by using the next strategy of thinking about how characters respond in different ways to power. I might model my thinking for how Luke responds to power and provide more guided practice. I might send students back to the chat box or to the breakout room to discuss a different character while my in person students return to their whiteboard.

Even though students can’t lean in and discuss, it does not mean we abandon such an important practice. Utilize whiteboards, a piece of paper even, the chat box, and the breakout rooms so students can still participate in guided practice and conversation that is so essential for growing readers and writers. As you reimagine a practice, it will be clumsy at first for both you and kids, but when it becomes a part of what you do daily, it will quickly become second nature, much like the words, “turn and talk” do within a week of it being a norm in your typical classroom.

Independent Practice

Once the minilesson is complete, we will continue to provide the sacred time of reading and writing independently. We will remind them of the kind of work they can do today by referring to their anchor chart and send them off.

If I have the ability to use multiple devices I might keep a timer going on one or set a timer on my phone to keep track. I live by my timers, and they can help some kids with time management and keeping focused. They can even be added inside student notebooks for students by inserting a video!

But What About Small Group and Conferring?

The minilesson exposes students to the rigor, but the real magic happens in small group and conferring. This is time where you are using your best tools in the shed to grow readers and writers. We may not have our small group table since furniture has been removed from classrooms to space student desks six feet apart, and we may not feel comfortable sitting along side a student to properly confer, but that does not mean we abandon our best tools! Much like turn and talk and guided practice, we need to reimagine what this will look like. This might look different from room to room depending on just how many actual students are in the room, but keeping six feet apart and trying to run a small group in person could be a challenge. The volume of your projected voice alone would be a distraction to the independent readers and writers in the room. What I might do instead is pull small groups from the cohort that is working from home into a breakout room. I’d let those in the classroom and at home know that during the independent reading and writing time, I will be pulling certain students at home into a breakout room. From there I will work on what kids need based on data from running records, performance assessments, and what I am seeing in reader’s and writer’s notebooks. I have the ability to open any students notebook if it is a digital one and confer — compliment, teach (what does this student need next?), send off to practice. This time is so incredibly sacred as it provides the differentiation for students and allows relationships to be built. This time cannot be put on the back burner.


A lot of times the last 5 minutes of reading workshop is a time to write fast and furious about what we noticed and our thinking. This doesn’t change in a hybrid setting. What may change is the share time. I may even use this 5 minutes to do my own writing based on the mentor text, read aloud, or my own independent reading.

Since we may not be able to end the class every day with turning and talking about what we worked on, we can at the very least utilize Zoom for those at home in the final minutes. We can use the breakout rooms to partner up students to talk about what they worked on today, what they noticed, and what it made them think. In writing, they might talk about what they worked on today, how it worked for them, and what they still need to do.

Avoid the Pitfalls

  1. Instead of trying out every single digital tool that’s being thrown out there, choose maybe one or two and get good by doing them. I am a super simple online teacher. I use my slides, digital notebooks, and features in zoom like chat and breakout rooms. Even my notebooks are simple, much like the composition books I used in the classroom for years. I include the anchor chart right on the page for easy access for students, maybe some post its depending on the unit, and rubrics or guides when and as needed.

2. Avoid the scavenger hunt. Teachers don’t mean to do it, but this one I learned while trying to help my own children. If there are too many directions, too many links, too many things to open and try to find, it is exhausting and even I start to shut down. That is why I love the digital notebook and putting everything they need in one spot.

3. Not everything needs to be done through a screen. The independent time in reading, for example, is a solid 30+ minutes (unless the child is pulled for a small group that day) to read a book. Synchronous instruction for those in the remote cohort are not watching and listening to you all period. They are getting the minilesson and doing the independent practice. Avoid returning to an entire period of the sage on the stage. It was not best practice before and it’s not now either.

In other words…keep it simple. Consistency and the basics will be your friend now more than ever!

How Have YOU been Reimagining the Workshop?

I would love to hear your ideas. Comment here or shoot me an email. We are all in this together and can benefit from the thinking of our colleagues,

Running Records: What’s the Point?

Take Note of Behaviors and Look For Patterns

In order for any assessment to be of value, it’s important to know what you are looking for and make sure the tool and protocol match. The approach is meant to be from a place of inquiry not inquisition. It’s a time to get to know readers and their reading behaviors.

If a fourth grade student, for example, is retelling and summarizes by telling about every single event and detail from beginning to end, teachers can make note that this is a student who could benefit from some small group or conferring work using a strategy that focuses on characters, setting, what’s most important in the beginning, then the middle, and the end.

Using the Narrative Reading Learning Progressions from the RUOS and resources like The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo.

By noticing reading behaviors and matching them with the Learning Progressions, teachers can map out a plan for individuals and small groups in order to differentiate instruction. Once the student is able to show growth using this strategy then look for what’s next in terms of complexity to teach.

Using the Narrative Reading Learning Progressions from the RUOS and resources like The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo.

In the above case, the next teaching point will add problem, solution, and lesson learned. I might use this strategy and tweak it to add a component for what the character learned from the problem or the solution before moving into the next teaching point found in the learning progressions.

Using the Narrative Reading Learning Progressions from the RUOS and resources like The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo.

Above we see the next step emphasizes retelling using a cause and effect or problem and solution structure with more nuanced work in theme. At this point I might also refer to the Learning Progressions for theme.

While studying the reader during the running record, you might notice a pattern in the types of words that are mispronounced or a struggle. Maybe you notice a pattern of stumbling over multi syllable words. That can then be a note for what this student needs next to be successful and look for a strategy to use to support this reader.

Using resources like The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo.

Behaviors during a running record can provide so much information. It might indicate what could be getting in the way of comprehension. Maybe the student can only remember that last part read and focuses on that as the retelling. While making training videos for running records several years ago, I found that my own child went back and reread the first sentence in each paragraph to retell. Somewhere along the way he learned the first sentence makes the main point for a paragraph, but does that work outside of informational texts? This was a behavior worth noting to determine what he needed for a narrative text.

Take Note of What’s Next to Prepare and Support Readers

If we give running records in order to merely check a box that we have completed them each testing period, then it’s possible we don’t see their value.

Running records provide a snapshot into a student’s approximate reading comprehension and the the information we gather from it informs us of the work required in their just right reading zone as well as into a more complex reading zone, what comes next.

A student who is reading within a band of O/P/Q who is ready or soon to be ready for R may need some support with something like keeping track of long strings of unassigned dialogue and being able to infer story action in these parts.

F & P Text Gradient Levels

A student who is reading within a band of S/T/U who is ready or soon to be ready for V may need some different supports including switching settings, flashbacks, and words used figuratively that could pose a challenge.

F & P Text Gradient Levels

With that said, students may choose to read a text that is considered outside of their just right reading zone because maybe, for example, it’s historical fiction and they love to read historical fiction and have a lot of background knowledge in the time period and events of the the setting. It’s okay to read within a band of text complexity or even stretch themselves with a book outside their just right zone, but knowing where they are in their most recent snapshot to determine the kind of support they may need, maybe support with multiple plot lines or quick perspective changes, would be a valuable tool.

Bottom Line

It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of stop, drop, and test–checking off a box 5 times a year. However, using running records to examine reading behaviors and inform teaching practices in order to differentiate instruction and meet individual and small group needs is the point of running records. And that information, approached from a place of inquiry, can provide the most valuable data that can grow readers.

5 Common Mistakes When Teaching Writing

One of the mini sessions I attended at this year’s TCRWP Saturday Reunion was titled, “5 Common Mistakes Teachers Make in Writing Instruction and How to Quit Making Them” presented by Colleen Cruz.

First she summarized the four types of mistakes we can make as educators.

classification of mistakes
Taken from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/42874/why-understanding-these-four-types-of-mistakes-can-help-us-learn
  1. Aha-Moment – A mistake that you didn’t know. Maybe something like being observed and discovering you provide limited wait time after asking a question of students.
  2. Stretch Mistake – We make these all the time. Every time we try something new and reflect on what did not go well to make changes for the next time.
  3. Sloppy Mistakes – Mistakes that don’t really hurt anyone else. Leaving my tea in the office when I make copies would be an example.
  4. High-Stakes Mistakes – We don’t realize we are making it, but it has the biggest effect if not corrected.

The 5 common mistakes made when teaching writing are high-stakes mistakes that have the potential to have a negative effect on students. But the great thing about mistakes is when you know better, you do better.

Mistake #5

Remember those rules we used to make up while playing tag outside. The ones that we made up along the way to fit whatever needs we had. We do that in teaching too. For example, all those rules about numbers in writing are backyard rules. Teachers often use numbers to increase volume but they can cause more harm. Numbers in writing is just wrong! There are many strategies to increase volume while promoting quality not quantity.

  • Every essay must be 5 paragraphs
  • Every paragraph must have at least 5 sentences
  • Every sentence must have 5-7 words

The rules below are often used in an attempt to improve vocabulary, but sometimes the simpler word is just right.

  • “Said is dead”
  • “Put nice on ice”

We even try to keep writing formal and create these rules, but what we really need to teach students is purpose and audience.

  • Never use I
  • Never use you

Some others that come to mind include never start a sentence with the word because or and.

Look at some mentor texts and compare those published pieces to the backyard rules.

Mistake #4

Sometimes when a unit is challenging for us or students, we tend to take longer. However, the advice from TCRWP is that any unit should not extend past 4-5 weeks. They caution that it’s not useful to linger in what you don’t know. According to Lucy, “The less you know, the faster you should go.” Making this mistakes creates an environment where everyone is just over it. In any unit that is challenging, choose the must knows from that unit and really teach them. Another reminder that we aren’t teaching everything but the kitchen sink!

Mistake #3

Sometimes as teachers we over scaffold and sometimes those steps we create to manage students is done with the purest of intentions–providing student support. So we put steps in place including some of the following:

  • Every time you revise, use a different color.
  • You must do step 1 before step 2.
  • You must have three drafts before you can write a final copy.
  • You must check in with me before starting the next step.

If you have too many scaffolds in place, you might actually be creating obstacles that prevent students from being independent and productive.

nervous sweating

Oops…completely guilty of this mistake!

Mistake #2

Often times we will give lots and lots of feedback on final products. The problem with that, besides the fact that it takes up a whole lot of teacher time on weekends, is that evaluative feedback does not encourage growth. By the time students get it, they are already finished and have checked out.

The best feedback is given along the way. It focuses on what’s most important right now for this student, again not everything but the kitchen sink!

Mistake #1

When we teach the writing not the writer we are not meeting individuals where they are nor are we providing them with the tools to develop their writing outside of that one piece. For example, we might be so focused on the writing that when they struggle to determine a topic, we give them a list of topics or suggestions based on what we know about them. What we need to do instead is teach students strategies to generate ideas that they can use in the future.

We might also focus on some of those backyard rules of a certain type of writing instead of using mentor texts to help writers determine their own goals and the techniques they want to use to meet them.

  • Are you teaching that every persuasive essay has a thesis statement as the last sentence of the introduction?
  • Are you teaching that there must be three reasons to support the claim?
  • Is that what all writers do?

What if instead we teach kids to study author purpose, audience, and the craft moves they made and how those moves had an impact on the reader?

What if we taught writers to set their own goals and purpose, determine their own audience and the craft moves that will help them achieve what they set out to do with the writing?

Moving Forward

When I sat in that session, I definitely sighed a few times remembering when I too made that mistake. I certainly never claim to be perfect, but what I have always tried to do in all of my years teaching is to reflect on my work and adjust. I earned my teaching certificate 24 years ago, and I still read as much as possible, participate in as much professional development as I can, and talk to educators every day. I am still learning and growing, and I know many of you are doing the same. So when we discover we are making a mistake, we all need to do better when we know better no matter how many years we have been in this business.

Writing Workshop: Focusing on What’s Really Important

*Note this same work can be done with the spiral unit book as well as the viewer’s guide within the virtual units.


Use the Viewer’s Guide in the Virtual Units of Study. It is such a powerful tool get yourself grounded in what is most important.

The Viewer’s Guide can be found in the introduction of the virtual unit.

When you open the Viewer’s Guide, you will get a session by session glance of what the teacher is teaching and what the students are doing.

The first three sessions of sixth grade personal narrative

By reading through what teachers will be teaching and what students will be doing, you will see a clear roadmap of where students are headed as well as patterns for what is most important.

Here’s a road map of what I noticed in the sixth grade personal narrative unit.

Prior to beginning any unit, it’s helpful to use the Viewer’s Guide to create your own roadmap to ground yourself in what’s ahead and to find the patterns that are most important because we can’t teach everything but the kitchen sink and hope it’s going to all stick.

I noticed when creating the roadmap for this unit that what was truly at the heart was craft and elaboration.


It would also be helpful to study student writing from past years or from the online resources for your units.

This unit, as many do, offers examples of student writing. By reading these examples, you might get a better picture of what to expect. It would also help to share these student samples with students. Let them know you are about to begin an exciting unit exploring personal narrative, for example, and share what previous students have written.

The start of one student sample

Ask them, “What do you notice about personal narrative?” and for each example, “What do you notice this particular student did when writing his/her personal narrative?” Let students make discoveries and have opportunities to discuss them. Then share the road map of the unit with them. This will help them to see what they are doing and why along the way.


You will also need to fold in some additional work based on what you notice students need based on their pre-assessment writing.

Determine the additional work you will be adding in based on what you notice in student writing that will serve as critical areas in conventions that need to be developed. This may become a secondary road map for you and students.

This work is blended in using mentor sentences. We want to develop their skills of paying attention to what writers do, why they do it, and the effect it has on the writing. Read more about that here in “Where Does Grammar Fit Into the Workshop?” We want to use our mentor sentences and what students notice to create anchor charts and use that work to revisit their own writing pieces and revise with this work in mind.


Keep what’s most important front and center. In almost every writing unit I have looked through I’ve noticed that what is at the heart of each unit is being a writer.

Each unit, no matter the type of writing, focuses on writers who set goals and make plans to achieve those goals; studying a great deal of mentor texts to notice craft moves and determining which moves to try out and use within their own writing; reflecting on goals, plans, craft choices, and growth as a writer; and determining new goals and new plans.

The idea is to teach the writer more so than the type of writing. That is not to say that the type of writing is not important, but it is secondary to teaching writers to become independent. Teaching them to set goals, create plans, use resources, and reflect. If you are able to foster that independence, then your writers will be able to succeed in anything they need or want to write.

Digital Notebooks: How Do I Grade Them?

Digital notebooks are amazing tools, especially now with the Slip In Slide add-on which allows you to incorporate different tools like anchor charts. This same add-on can allow teachers to also slip in checklists and scoring guides as well.

One of the biggest questions I’ve received since sharing more about digital notebooks and using the Slip In Slide add-on is, how do we grade digital notebooks?

First, let’s revisit the purpose of the reader’s and writer’s notebooks.


The notebook, whether it’s digital or an old-school composition book, is a playground for student thinking and writing. As they are exposed to strategies, they decide what they will practice using their independent reading or writing. Depending on where they are in a novel or writing piece or how comfortable they feel with any given strategy, for example, will determine their work. What they focus on each day is just as much a choice as what they are reading or writing.

Anchor charts provide options

Because the notebook is a playground, they will messy and even a bit chaotic.

Formative Assessment

Since the reader’s and writer’s notebooks are used daily, they are a continuous record of growth and provide valuable information for teachers in order to meet the goals of individuals, small groups, large groups, and to differentiate based on those needs.

Individual Differentiation

Teachers can look at notebooks and notice patterns with an individual notebook and provide specific strategies within conferring. What does this student need next?

Small Group Differentiation

Teachers can look at notebooks and notice patterns that will separate students into small groups in order to provide specific strategies and meet each group where they are. What does this group need next?

Large Group

Teachers may also see something across the board that is an indication that the class might benefit from scaffolding or additional modeling before moving on.

Summative Assessment

When it comes to the reader’s and writer’s notebook, it is important to note that if you are trying to grade every single entry they write every single day, then you are grading formative assessments that are not meant to be summative. Not to mention, you have got to be super overwhelmed with such a task! And if you are able to easily grade everything they write every single day, then they are not writing enough. However, every few days or so, teachers should provide options for a summative assessment. An entire writing piece (for example, the entire personal narrative) does not have to be read and scored. Students can choose what they want to showcase for a grade based on the work that they have been doing using the current anchor charts.

Choice, Checklists, and Scoring Guides

Whenever something is going to be graded, students should continue to choose the work they want to showcase. Remember, the notebook is a playground and not all entries will be worthy of being showcased, and we want students to feel comfortable to take risks and be okay with stumbling through their practice until they grow.

Students should know in advance what specifically a teacher is looking for when grading. Checklist and scoring guides are a part of preparing students. Teachers can Slip In Slides using the add-on for checklists too!

Teach Students to Determine What Is Graded

In the classroom, it was simple. We would give the kids a certain post it and have them mark the entry that was to be graded. Or take an entry of their choosing to write the “long write”. In the digital world, you could add a star to the page you slide in with the checklist and scoring guide (see image above). Students can copy and paste that star onto the page they want scored (see image below).

Another way to get students more involved in the grading is to have them highlight each part you are looking for (determined in the scoring guide) in a a different color. If they are unable to highlight a part, that’s an indication that it is missing. Or if they highlight something that does not match the expectation, that is a teaching point.

The teacher would have the scoring guide to copy and paste into the identified page and would use it to score. See the example below.

Finally, and this part is crucial, feedback can be added to support the student and to provide a record or expectations for the future.

Looks like a lot of work, right? Actually think about the feedback you provide. How often is it the same comment over and over? You can do the work on the front end and have a page of common comments already prepared (see below). You can even color code them to what students highlighted to keep yourself focused. When you copy and paste a prepared comment in, you can customize it if you choose. Notice how the comments added to the notebook page above were customized to provide a bit more feedback compared to the generic one created in advance below.

This work continues to allow for choice and puts the ownership on the student. It also provides specific feedback that would need to be applied in the future.

Student chooses this page to showcase the work on elaboration
Teacher pastes in scoring guide and feedback

If you have any questions, feel free to email. Common questions determine future posts!

Where Does Grammar Fit Into the Workshop?

The best way to teach and learn grammar, mechanics, conventions, style, rules, or whatever you want to call it, is to study and practice it in context. In our district, we support writers with the works of Jeff Anderson, Jennifer Serravallo, and the lessons found in the Units of Study, particularly in the If…Then…Curriculum of the Writing Units. While doing this work, we can pull mentor sentences from our read alouds, independent reading, and any other example of great writing.

What can we learn from great writing and great writers?

While reading the first chapter of Jason Reynolds’ Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, I was blown away by some of the great mentor sentences I could pull that reflect not only the elaborate style of “show not tell” but also the use of punctuation. Just look at this incredible example right on page one!

There are so many lessons that can be pulled from here, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. For example, look at the mentor sentence below.

By presenting a sentence and asking what they notice, it invites students to look at not just what authors do but also why they do it? What impact does the comma have on this sentence? What about the hyphens? Can we create rules for these or start an anchor chart? This is done best when students can talk it out with one another. In a remote setting it may be a slow discussion in Schoology or Google Classroom if not live.

Building an anchor chart over time

How about the comma in the mentor sentence below ? What do we notice? What impact does this comma have on the sentence? Can we continue to add to the anchor chart?

Not only are we focusing on the rules of punctuation, but we are examining beautifully written sentences that emphasize the magic of elaboration and “show don’t tell”.

Now how about this one? There are multiple commas. What do you notice about the commas? What impact does each have on the sentence? Can we add another rule to the anchor chart?

Jason Reynolds is my hero!

Look at more of the beauties I found just in chapter 1, focusing on similes, sensory details, commas, hyphens, dashes, italics, contractions, possessive nouns, types of sentences, dialogue, quotations, ellipses, and so much more!

Sentence stalking

Once you have students noticing and examining what authors do and how the writing is impacted, you can invite students to imitate and look into their own writing to use or correct.

You can also encourage students to pay attention to their own independent reading books for mentor sentences they can collect or even share with moves they can try to use within their own writing. Here’s one I found last night while reading.

What about grammar exercises?

There are many who learned grammar the traditional way with grammar textbooks, worksheets, and sentences to diagram or those who look to sites that are the modern version of those same things, but the research behind the effectiveness of that approach is very telling.

Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English*.

NCTE National Council of Teachers of English

For more on this, here is a short podcast/blog post “How to Deal with Student Grammar Errors” from The Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales.

How do I know what to teach?

The best places to look include:

  1. The Writing Progressions for each genre found in the Units of Study online resources under the title Writing Pathways.
  2. Student Writing for patterns and needs based on pre assessments, post assessments, and entries in the writer’s notebook.
  3. The Eligible Content found in the PA Standards.
  4. The Scope and Sequence recommended by PATTAN (click here). Look to see when skills should be introduced, reinforced, and mastered. The development of a skill and the need for reinforcement is generally spread out over several grade levels.
any questions