What are the benefits of writing in small groups? Can they work in all classrooms?
Today on the podcast we’re speaking with Jen Serravallo about her new book Teaching Writing in Small Groups. A follow up to its predecessor Teaching Reading in Small Groups, this book reveals how just a few minutes of purposeful, responsive teaching can have a big impact with your students.
The conversation by asking Jen what her inspiration for Teaching Writing in Small Groups was…
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Jen: As with all my books, the inspiration came from teachers. I remember, this was pre-COVID, I was working with a group of teachers in Connecticut, and they wanted to maximize their writing time by doing more small groups. Up to that point, they'd been doing a lot of individual conferring, and they said, "Jen, we're just not seeing our kids frequently enough. I know we've been doing a lot of reading small groups, but can you show us what it can look like in writing?" And so we started working together around different ways to pull small groups or different ways small groups can go. We thought together about different purposes, or different amounts of supports. And so that was one of the sources.
The other one was in my Facebook group, actually. People were responding really positively to the reading skill progressions that are in a Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, and Understanding Texts and Readers, and they kept asking what was out there for writing. And so I decided to make that a part of this book, and it fits in perfectly, because as I say in the book, the best groups are ones where the kids all really need to be there, and the best way to know that is to get really good at evaluating their writing, not only in planning time, but also when you're in the midst of teaching them, whether that's in a conference or in a small group.
Of course, from the point of inspiration to having the book in your hands, a lot happens, and the biggest thing, of course, was COVID. I know originally I was like, I'm going to get in classrooms and film a bunch of new videos with kids, and that became impossible as of last year around this time. So I instead did a lot of online recording, so I have lots of small groups online in the book, and I also went back through old footage that I had from previous projects and was able to use some of that, as well, to demonstrate some of the different small group types. So there's a nice variety in there of me online with kids, which is going to be really common with what a lot of people are dealing with today, and then also what it will look like once we get back to normal.
Brett: In the opening of the book, you really make a great case for why small groups are so important for writing. How effective are they in various classroom types? You also make a point to talk about classroom types for small group work.
Jen: Yeah. So I think there's a lot of different kinds of classrooms, or a lot of different kinds of writing classrooms, where small groups are a perfect fit. I come from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and of course, we advocate for kids conferring. Carl Anderson was one of my mentors when I was a classroom teacher, and of course, Lucy Calkins, and Amanda Hartman, and Zoe Ryder White, all of whom have written a lot about conferring. And so people who do a lot of conferring, like the school that I was working with in Connecticut, are going to find that by mixing it up a bit with small groups, they're going to get to see kids more frequently, they're going to get to more kids in a day, and they're going to see kids more frequently across the week.
There might also be some classrooms out there where conferring practices are not happening right now, and most of their writing instruction time is whole class or whole group instruction time, or like when I was a kid, the teacher would give us writing assignments and would sort of check our work, but there wasn't a lot of feedback. And so those kinds of classrooms could be really helped by small groups, too, because I'm sure all teachers realize not everybody's in the same place, right? So being able to see, "Oh, these kids really need to work on their lead. I'll pull them together for a group," or "These kids really need help with transition phrases. I'll pull them together for a group," you just save a lot of time and you target kids' needs, and therefore, you help them make the most growth possible.
Brett: You mentioned just now just a number of benefits that small groups provide for both teachers and students. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that. One of the things I particularly noticed in the book was identity work. You mentioned that that's a very important part of the benefits of small group work.
Jen: I mean, yeah, kids are going to learn best when they're seen, and when teachers know who they are, and when you have time to honor their language practices and their literacy practices, in a really diverse classroom where kids are ... Where I used to teach, kids spoke multiple different languages at home, kids were all different places in their writing journeys. And giving a lot of time for individualized or differentiated teaching allows kids to be honored and seen for who they are, what topics they want to write about, and how they write, and just the kind of different ways that kids compose.
And you can really do that when it's not, oh, everybody has to write their essay with the same formula or we all need to follow these same steps. It really allows for that flexibility and that responsiveness. So yeah, that's definitely a big pro. I care a lot about engagement, and I know teachers do, too. I've been writing about engagement I think since that 10 year old book you just mentioned. I think I have a chapter called Without Engagement, We've Got Nothing. There's chapters on engagement strategies in both The Reading and Writing Strategies Book, and now during online teaching, it's one of the things I hear teachers ask me the most about. "How do I keep my kids engaged? How do I get them to focus more? How do I get them to really have their heart in it?"
And I think one of the things I've seen that's worked the most, and I hear from teachers that's worked the most, is getting more proximate with kids, working with them one-on-one and in small groups. And I was rereading Zaretta Hammond's Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, and she cites this neuroscientist named James Zull, and he talks about how feedback actually triggers dopamine, which motivates kids to work harder and persevere, and that when kids apply that feedback, it stimulates the growth of neurons. Isn't that so cool?
Brett: That's amazing.
Jen: It's so cool, right? So there's a brain-based reason why seeing kids for one-on-one or small group instruction allows you to give them more feedback, and I go into lots of detail in the book about how to give feedback, and what kinds of feedback, and getting really good at that best feedback that does all that brain change stuff. But the more you can see kids in small groups, the more you can see them one-on-one, you're giving them more feedback, you're giving them more opportunity to really grow, and that in turn helps kids to be more engaged. And of course, being near your teacher and getting undivided attention, of course, that doesn't hurt.
Brett: Yeah. Who doesn't want that?
Jen: I talk about relationship building and the power of relationships. Of course, the efficiency piece, helping kids be more independent. There's some small group types that I talk about in the group that are really about social support, like clubs and partnerships, and any time you can encourage social connection amongst kids, of course, you're going to get greater engagement, and therefore, more learning. So yeah, there's lots and lots of reasons why I think it's a really helpful practice to make sure is in every classroom.
Brett: Let's go back to feedback for just a moment. You write quite a bit about good feedback practices in the book, and I'm wondering what your thinking is about how much, how little? And you also talk specifically about teachers getting feedback from the students. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
Jen: Yeah. I think it's so important that teachers open up a line of communication with kids to say, "Let me know how I'm doing. Is this helping you, or is it not helping you?" I see some kids get really good at playing the school game, and they seem like they're doing okay, and the teacher might feel like, "Okay, we're making progress here," but really saying to kids, "I invite your feedback. I want to know what's helpful for you and what's not," I think that just makes for a really strong relationship, and of course, better teaching, as well.
So again, there's a lot of qualities of effective feedback that I talk about in the beginning of the book, where I lay the foundations for good small group instruction, and I give non-examples and examples. So it's like, "Instead of sounding like this, you might try making it sound like this." So one of the things I talk about is the importance of feedback being actionable, so instead of saying just, "Great job," or "That would get a three on the rubric," instead giving feedback that really tells kids what to do, that offers them or reminds them of the strategy so they can really go back and try it.
I talk about the importance of being brief. I know I can be too wordy sometimes, and I really think about this. The less I can say, the more the kids do. So I want to be as concise with my language as possible, don't repeat myself a lot. So really try to be as brief as possible. Specific, of course. Really saying, "So what do you think you could do?" is less specific than saying, "So we just talked about how important verb choice is. Let's come up with three precise verbs," being really clear and specific to kids.
Timely is another qualification of good feedback, and I think that's one of the other things to think about. When you're in conferences and small groups, you're right there with the kids, so what you tell them, they can put in practice right there, give it a try. I try to make sure that the feedback applies from piece to piece. So it's not just fixing this one piece of writing, but they can apply it again and again. So I talk about generalizable feedback, so that it transfers and that they're able to practice in more than one piece or more than one place. And of course, feedback that's encouraging and helpful, so it really encourages kids to try, and supports them so that they want to take on the work that you're offering.
Brett: I know you get this question from teachers, every time we talk about conferring, every time we talk about small group work, the question is always, "What are the rest of my students doing in the class while I'm doing small group work or conferring?"
Jen: Well, I think that this kind of small group practice can fit into a lot of different types of classrooms, and therefore, what the rest of the class is doing might look a little different, depending on how you run your writing time. But I think generally, the best use of the rest of the class's time is to write. They should spend a lot of time writing, and how much choice they have over topic, or what genre of writing they're writing in, that might vary by classroom. How many days a week they're writing, how long of a period they're writing, that could vary by classroom, but kids need not only the small group time, but also the time to put it into practice.
And so the independent writing time allows for that. It allows for kids to take what they learned in the small group or the conference, give it a try, maybe mess up a little, self-correct, see what was tricky, and then when they meet back with the teacher again, they'll have that experience to lean on. If it's only that you're teaching them in small groups and then they never have a chance to do it, you're probably not going to make progress as quickly, because they won't have that practice time. And then of course, it's an activity that frees up the teacher to focus on the small groups that they're working with.
Brett: Another important thing you mention in the book, goals and progressions. How should we be thinking about goals and progressions related to small group work?
Jen: Yeah. So this is my concrete analytical brain. Every time we talk, Brett, I talk about goals and progression, goals and progression. So this is one of the things I think people have responded to a lot about my writing about reading. So when I wrote A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences and Understanding Texts and Readers, people have been loving these skill progressions, because it makes what they're looking for so concrete. So if I've got this hierarchy of action, I'm looking to see is the writer engaged? Okay, yes. Do they pick a topic? Okay, yes. Do they have a focus to their piece? Okay, yes.
The layer on top of that hierarchy is, well, it's focused, but is it focused enough? It's focused, but is it what I'd expect of this age or this grade level? And so unpacking for teachers what's the progression within focus, what's the progression within elaboration, can help a teacher to really pinpoint and then move the child forward in a way that's nudging them ahead, but not too much of a stretch, so that they can take on the work independently.
So I think these progressions help not only when teachers are planning, looking at a piece of work on their own, kind of going through it, thinking about what the child needs, setting a goal for them, but also when they're in the midst of working with kids in a small group or in a conference, to be able to say, "Ooh, I see what they're doing there, and I see what's next."
So, oh, I see that their narrative is focused on time. They're not writing about the whole vacation, just this one day. I'm going to try to nudge them to think about the significance of this moment, and go from just a time focus to a meaning focus. Or, oh, I see the child's using, maybe they have a goal of elaboration and they're writing their narrative, they're using action and dialogue. What's next? "Oh, I see right here, action, dialogue. Now we're going to do some thinking or some setting description." And so it's just really like an if/then, right there in front of you. I have them on printable note taking forms, so that teachers can have them on a clipboard right there when they're working with kids.
Brett: Something you also teach us about is effective guided practice. I wonder if you could maybe just walk through the principles of what effective guided practice is?
Jen: Yeah. So I think there's different parts of effective guided practice. Of course, the feedback is a really, really big part of it, maybe the most important part, but we have to make sure that we're giving kids feedback based on what they actually need to be practicing. We don't want to direct their attention to things or give them feedback on stuff they've been doing for months. We don't want to give them feedback on things that are not tied to what we told them that we were going to work on today.
And so the first thing I talk about in this chapter on effective guided practice is making sure that we know what kids need, and they have goals, and not only do we know what the goal is, but the kids know what the goal is. And that's not going to come as a surprise to anyone who's been following my work. The Writing Strategies Book is organized by goals. I talk about this idea of goal directed conferring and small group work in my other books. So I think that's a really helpful thing for both kids and teachers. It helps kids, because they know what they're focused on, they can be present in the moment of the small group, and know that they're getting a strategy to help them with that. It helps teachers, because it cuts down on planning time and helps you be more focused with the kids in your class, and it also helps you, for the sake of small group instruction, to find patterns and to form those goals.
And then of course, we want to make sure that our instruction is really clear in the small group. And so, I talk about goals and skills and strategies in writing. Again, this is not going to come as a shock to anybody. I've been talking about this in reading for a really long time, so now I'm talking about it in writing. So what are those goals? How do I find a strategy? How do I break things down into steps?
And then, of course, making sure that we're making sure kids are working. If this is guided practice time, then kids need a lot of experience or a lot of time to put in action the strategies that you've taught. And so I don't think it's very helpful to run a small group where the teacher's there giving a mini lecture for an audience of three. That's not the time for the teacher to do all the talking. There might be some modeling or some example, but we want to hand it over to the kids. We want to let them do it. And we're there to provide the guidance that they need to take it on, to give it a try, so that when they go back and work independently, hopefully it's stuck a little bit and they can continue on their own.
Brett: In the second half of the book, you break down seven types of small groups. Why is it important to have different group types? And can you walk us through a little bit of some of these groups?
Jen: Sure, yeah. So the second half of the book is really the bulk of the book, chapters four through 10, and each chapter takes on a different small group type. They all have slightly different structures. They all have slightly different purposes. I'm recommending them for slightly different grade levels. And so why? I guess responsiveness, that's the short answer, is that I want to make sure that the instruction I'm providing not only matches kids in terms of the goal and the strategy that they need, but also the right amount of support, so that they, again, my goal is that they are able to take it on on their own as quickly as possible. I want them to be independent.
So yeah, so I talk about small groups that people might be familiar with from my writing about reading instruction, like a strategy lesson, for example. So pulling kids together because they have the same need, giving them a clear strategy, letting them work independently as you move around and coach them individually as you would in a conference, and then you pull the group back together. So a strategy lesson, super versatile, works with really any grade level, any goal that you want to work on.
But then I also talk about some that are more specific to other kinds of purposes. For example, interactive writing, which some teachers might do as a whole class structure in kindergarten or first grade, could be a really powerful small group structure because it allows you to target what specifically about language conventions are kids working on, or what specifically about spelling are kids working on, right in that small group. And I always find when I'm doing interactive writing, it's sometimes hard to keep the whole class totally focused at the same time. And again, you have that benefit of added engagement.
Or a group like a writing club, for example, is another kind of small group that I talk about in the book, where kids might opt to work together. I start off the chapter with a story of this group of kids who wanted to write songs and record their songs. They formed this little club to create these songs together. And one of the kids was really good at like TikTok and making videos, and so that was her job. And another one was like the lyricist, another one put the music. So they formed this club together. And then the teacher can coach into that and help them with their writing, in a structure where they're already really motivated to be working on this project.
Brett: I love the TikTok writing club. I love that. As an old TikTok user, I've got to learn from these students about how to up my TikTok game. So I want to join this writing club. I'm very excited about that.
Jen: There you go, there you go.
Brett: Well, for people who are familiar with The Writing Strategies Book, how does this book expand upon what you've written there and how does it sort of complement what's in The Writing Strategies Book?
Jen: So The Writing Strategies Book offers 300 strategies. It's the content, it's the what you're teaching, and this book is really how, so they fit together nicely, because once you're in this book, you can see the strategies coming to life. If you're watching one of the videos, you can see how it looks in action in a classroom. If you're reading one of the descriptions of a small group, you can hear about the way that it goes once kids struggle a little bit, or how to rebound, or how to give feedback with this particular strategy.
So that's sort of the complement. It's the what, and it's the how. I do have call-outs in the book, if people have that other book, so that they can go reference it and read more on that strategy. But if you don't have the book, you don't need it to be able to use this one to its full effect.
Brett: Jen, you know, teachers, you know, teachers are so tired right now, and they've got a lot that they're managing, a lot that they have on their plates. Some folks may not be quite in a place yet where they want to jump into a professional reading, but I think one of the things that's great about this book is it's very short, and much like The Writing Strategies Book, packed with beautiful design. Can you talk a little bit about how accessible this book is for when teachers are ready to jump into a professional read?
Jen: It's super short. It's only 155 pages, because I knew people are tired, right? So I tried to cut back any wordiness that was not essential. Only the essential stuff is here. I think people know me for making resources that are really friendly. And of course, my work with Suzanne, the designer, to make them just so enjoyable to read. It's super colorful. There's really purposeful repeated sections to make browsing or skimming easy, and you really don't need to read the whole thing cover to cover to get a lot out of it. You could just take a bite sized piece right now and try to work on one kind of small group, watch the one video, and come back to it when you feel like you have time, save it for a summer book study later on. It is really friendly, and it's really easy to read in a modular fashion, if people are feeling tired.
I really tried to think about the book coming out now, when people are in all different kinds of teaching situations. Some people are hybrid, some people are online, some people are in person. And there's lots of examples in the book that can be immediately applied to now, even down to the fact that half the videos were filmed using Zoom, online with kids, guiding them through writing, doing small groups in various ways. And I think that, like I said at the beginning of the interview, people are wanting help with engagement. And I think that engagement, when kids are engaged, it actually cheers teachers up and makes us feel like we're being effective. And that's all anyone wants at the end of the day.
And so if there's some tips in here that help teachers to help kids to be more engaged, to get through the spring with a little more energy, I think that that'll be one good reason to pick it up, even if, like I said, you read a part of it now and you can return to it later. My goal is always to make things easier for teachers and more enjoyable for teachers and for kids.
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest titles are Teaching Writing in Small Groups (publishing March of 2021) and Connecting with Students Online, from which she will donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations serving children directly impacted by COVID-19. Her other recent books include Understanding Texts & Readers and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences as well as the Spanish-language counterparts to her strategies books, El libro de estrategias de lectura and El libro de estrategias de escritura.
Jen’s Complete Comprehension: Fiction and Complete Comprehension: Nonfiction are assessment and teaching resources that expand upon the comprehension skill progressions from Understanding Texts & Readers and offer hundreds more strategies like those in The Reading Strategies Book.
Additionally, Jen is the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes, where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Jen is a member of Parents Magazine Board of Advisors for education and literacy. She began her career in education as a NYC public school teacher and later joined the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Through TCRWP, and now as an independent consultant, she has spent over a decade helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals.
Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes.
Learn more about Jen and her work at https://www.heinemann.com/jenniferserravallo/, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community