Today on the Heinemann Podcast, The Writing Strategies Book author, Jennifer Serravallo. In 2015, The Reading Strategies Book made the New York Times Best Seller List by making it simpler to match students’ needs to high-quality instruction. Now, in The Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo does the same, collecting 300 of the most effective strategies to share with writers, and grouping them beneath 10 crucial goals. When we sat down to talk a few weeks ago, I wanted to know how Jen approached the organization of The Writing Strategies Book.
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Jen Serravallo: We considered organizing it by genre, so having like an information writing section, a non-fiction ... a narrative writing section, an opinion writing section. We considered organizing it by process, like pre writing strategies, drafting strategies, revision strategies, but the truth is that so many of them actually overlap. For example, I don't only consider making my setting clear and my narrative after I've written a draft. I could. I could go back to my draft and say, "You know, I mentioned that I was at the supermarket, but I didn't really describe what it was like there" so I can ... added more sensory details to make it better, but I can also do that thing before I draft it. I could, in my notebook, pre-plan how it is that I want my setting to look, or look and sound in the draft. I didn't feel like I could organize it by process because so many strategies I could use across the writing process, before drafting, during drafting and after drafting, and the idea of organizing it by genre there, again, I felt like there was a lot of overlap, so strategies that might help me to get ideas for coming up with a story, like thinking of important people in my life, hey, that could also help me come up with an idea for an opinion piece. I could think about those important people and the things they care about, and I could write to persuade them or I could write to convince them of something or I could write about something they care about too. I could also take those important people and write an informational piece all about that person. It feels like many of the strategies sort of went across different modes of writing, different genres of writing. Many different strategies applied across different points in the writing process. So the way I decided to handle it was to organize the book by goals, and then in the margin I have a note of which parts of the process that would work best with, which genres it would work best with, and also which grade levels it would work best with. I think a writing teacher approach is planning for a unit of study. Often times you're thinking, what's the genre? And what are the ... and you're thinking about the process. I plan out how I'm going to teach my kids how to collect ideas and then choose one, and develop it and draft it, revise it, publish, edit. You think about the genre. What do I know about writing essay and how am I going to take that essay, the finished piece I envision, and plan out a sequence of lessons that are going to help my kids write well?
Brett: Talk about what kind of writing goals you're helping teachers with in The Writing Strategies Book.
Jen Serravallo: There's 10, 10 writing goals. The first writing goal is about helping kids who maybe don't even write conventionally yet; maybe kids who don't know their alphabet or writing random strings of letters on the bottom of the page or have a little bit of ability to write words. It's a goal called Composing with Pictures, and so that goal is about helping kids to tell their stories on the page with pictures to teach others from their illustrations, to convince people. I know my four year old does this. She's already got her list for Christmas in pictures of what she wants to get, so it could be really for any genre of writing. The next goal is engagement. You know I care a lot about this and making sure that kids really love to write, that they see themselves as writers, that they have the ability to focus, and they write with stamina, and helping them with their volume because the more they write, the better writers they're going to be. The next goal is helping kids with generating ideas. It's really hard to be a writer unless you have some topics that you care a lot about and you know how to tap into what topics you care about, and write about them. Then I go into some different qualities of good writing. The first one is focus, the ability to have a really clear meaning for your piece and to focus on that meaning. Depending on the genre, it could mean focusing on a topic, an idea, a theme. It may be even focusing in time, so not writing all about my entire vacation; I'm just writing about the rollercoaster ride. The next category is organization and structure, helping kids to understand the parts of their piece. If it's a narrative, a beginning, a middle and an end. Organizing into a lead and a conclusion and a body. Making sure that the organization is very clear and the parts between the ... the transitions between the parts are very clear to help your reader understand what you're trying to say. Then there's two side by side goals. Elaboration, helping kids to add detail. Making their writing more elaborate, so adding more detail, but also considering the purpose behind the details, making sure they match the meaning. Using a variety of different types of detail so they're not just writing all action, for example, and narrative, but they're varying it with action and dialogue and inner thinking. Side by side with that goal is word choice, helping kids to be really precise and careful about the verbs and the nouns, and if I'm teaching someone about a topic, the content specific vocabulary that I would need to use. Then I get into conventions and I have two side by side conventions' goals. One is around punctuation and grammar, helping kids to understand how to communicate their ideas clearly to others, making sure that they understand the rules of English and of grammar, but that doesn't mean they always follow them. They might break them for a particular effect or for a particular craft. Then convention spelling, so making sure that they understand the rules of spelling and that they're able to apply those to their own writing. The tenth goal is around helping kids to work collaboratively in partnerships, in writing clubs; how to support your peers all throughout the writing process. I think a lot of people use collaborative groups for editing, but in this goal it's really about helping all across the writing process from getting ideas to storytelling and rehearsing your writing out loud, to giving feedback once a draft is written, and of course working on conventions at the end of the process.
Brett: Jen, whole districts are studying together with The Reading Strategies Book. When they read Writing Strategies Book together, what should they think about across the grade levels?
Jen Serravallo: It's been so fun watching conversations on Twitter and Facebook, and people sharing the way that they're working together as a whole staff in a school or across a district with the book. I think there's a lot of similarities to how they can learn together with The Writing Strategies Book. One of the things that a lot of people are engaging in is making sure they're looking closely at student work so that they're choosing goals appropriately. Just as we did that with reading ... with writing, I could see conversations with teachers bringing student work together, studying it together, discussing what they think are some possible goals for that particular student, and then making decisions based maybe on the hierarchy of where to begin.
I see a lot of teachers who are working across grades, having conversations across grades, thinking about how a particular skill or a particular, in this case, quality of good writing, how it builds across the grade. So having conversations about, in the first grade, we're going to expect kids to write with these kinds of details and the second grade these kinds, the third grade these kinds. They're able to have cross-grade conversations and then find within the book the strategies that are going to best benefit their curriculum, if they're using the lessons for a whole class instruction, or which of the strategies they're going to use for their small group or their individual instruction.
Brett: How do the goals in The Writing Strategies Book relate to The Reading Strategies Book?
Jen Serravallo: There's a lot of different ways you can mix and match them, and see similarities between them. If we start at the beginning of the hierarchy on each, the emergent reading category, goal category in reading, helping kids to read from pictures correlates to the composing with pictures goal in writing. Of course, both Reading and Writing have engagement. Teaching kids to write with stamina and high degree of volume and being able to focus on their reading.
In Reading, we talk to kids about print work, reading with accuracy and making sure that we're self-correcting on the run, and that we have strategies for decoding. In Writing that feels similar to spelling and making sure kids understand how words work and how they get the words on the page, and go back and make sure that they're spelling accurately. Fluency in Reading, that could relate to a couple of different things in Writing. It could relate to conventions and grammar with the way that an author chooses to punctuate a sentence, or the length of a sentence that an author chooses sort of dictates the reader how it should be read. That's the flip side in reading, but there's also something about reading fluently that connects to engagement in reading and writing, so that could be a correlation.
Let's see. Focus, being able to focus my piece on the key meaning, the central topic. That relates to main idea, so being able to know what's the author's main point from this particular non-fiction text, and in fiction relates to themes and ideas, knowing a lesson, central lesson, central message that the author is trying to communicate. Organization in writing can relate to a couple of different things. I think non-fiction writers organize their writing typically with main idea and details that follow, topic sentences and elaboration, and then they lay out the page carefully with text features. That correlates with fiction in writing. Organizing my writing and fiction probably more like the plot and setting goal, which has to do with helping kids understand how to retell a story in sequence in the proper order. I could go on and on right now.
Jen Serravallo: This is turning into a very long answer. There are a lot of similarities. I think that you can make connections. I'm talking now about connections on the goal level, but there's also connections on the very specific strategy level. For instance, if you're teaching a child who has a goal of engagement in reading to think about how many pages he or she wants to read before taking a break, and sticking a post-it on that page and reading up to that page. In writing you could do something similar. Have a child count how many lines they think they can write, put a dot in the margin and try to get to that line in a certain amount of time. Even on the strategy level, there's ways to flip a reading one into a writing one, and a writing one into a reading one.
Brett: What sort of instructional approach can The Writing Strategies Book be used with?
Jen Serravallo: Anything. You teach writing? I think you can find some help in this book. I'm from a workshop background. I spent years at the Reading and Writing Project with Lucy Calkins, and have read every word of everything she's written. Because of her, I've also read from a number of other people who talk about a workshop approach to teaching, like Nancie Atwell, for example. I'm very oriented that way. I would use the book. I would look through the book to find lessons for my mini lesson, my whole class instruction. I'd look through the book to find ideas for my conferences and small group instruction to target just what my kids needed. But not everyone uses a workshop approach and I think that strategies still have a very important place in any writing classroom. Even if people are right now, let's say, doing a prompted writing where you're studying animals and science, and everybody in the class gets an animal and they all have to write a report about the animal, you could still teach kids strategies of how to do that better or how to organize their writing themselves, how to engage with the topic, how to elaborate with a lot of different types of rich detail. Of course, people who do a daily five or centers' spaced approach to teaching often have writing as one of their centers. I think there, again, we're asking kids to be really independent.
Teaching them some specific strategies to help them to make that time be really valuable for them I think is a really helpful use of strategies as well. I've worked with a couple of districts that use Basal readers right now. A lot of time in a Basal reader program, they have writing prompts at the end of each chapter and there's not a lot of instruction around how to write it. They just tell the kids what to write, the genre, and maybe a prompt or a question to follow. The kids are supposed to turn it around pretty quickly. There, again, I think looking carefully at what exactly am I asking the kids to write and how can I teach them how to do it? Not just what to do, but how to do it. Strategies could really be helpful there too, so really any approach I think the strategies can help.
Brett: How do I know which writing strategy to use?
Jen Serravallo: I think ideally you're not just going through a chapter and teaching all the strategies in the order, and you're not just looking through the book to find all the fourth grade strategies and just teaching the fourth grade strategies. Instead, ideally, you're looking at your kids first, so you're doing a close look at the kids you have in front of you and you're saying, "What's going to make the biggest difference for each one of them?" So formative assessment is really important here. In The Writing Strategies Book I have a little, at the beginning of each chapter, a little really basic summary of, here's what the goal is and here's how I know if it'll work for my student. If it's helpful for people, at my Literacy Teacher's Playbook there's one for K-2 and one for 36. They could have a deeper dive into assessment and give a lot more examples and a lot more help with really knowing just what's the right goal at the right time.
I'm also going to mention the Writing Pathways book by Lucy Calkins. That one I think is a really helpful guide to help people to know, what should I expect at a particular grade level? And having exemplars of student work. Really any of those sources could be helpful, but the important thing is I'm looking at my kids, I'm looking at what they need, and I'm making careful decisions, not just picking randomly from the book.
Brett: When, during instruction, do I use these strategies?
Jen Serravallo: They could really be used at any point — for whole class instruction, small group instruction, individual instruction — because they're content, right? So the methods you're going to choose are hopefully going to match the purpose you have, so if most of your kids need a particular strategy, maybe you'll teach it to the whole class. If some of the kids need a strategy, small group. If it's a one on one situation, you'd teach it in a conference.
I think teachers can also think about using these strategies to weave into various balanced literacy components, so it's not just a whole class direct instruction mini lesson necessarily, but teaching them during shared reading lesson and interactive writing lesson. You can weave in different ways to use the room to spell the words that you're trying to spell, think about the conventions, make a plan for what you're going to write, organize the writing on the page, adding details. All of these are things that teachers can be voicing over and thinking about with kids during those other balanced literacy instructions too, so really any time.
Brett: What kind of questions from teachers have you received that you're really excited to address in The Writing Strategies Book?
Jen Serravallo: I would think it's fair to say that elementary and middle teachers think of themselves as reading teachers. Either reading teachers who teach kids how to read or literature experts who teach kids how to read with more depth in the case of middle school, but I think not everybody thinks of themselves as a writing teacher. I think some people find it a little bit intimidating because maybe they themselves don't write aside from emails or shopping lists. Trying to approach teaching a child how to write an essay or how to write a story, a narrative, if they're not someone who regularly does that, it can feel overwhelming.
I think one thing that teachers ask me a lot or they appreciate a lot is how I try to make things feel a little bit more doable, and make it feel like it's a little bit something they can wrap their head around, and that they can turn around and do it in the classroom the next day. I'm excited to answer questions of just, how do I get started with this piece? How do I help kids to like to write? You know, the really practical help that I think teachers need to feel like they themselves are writers and that they have the ability to teach kids to write well.
Brett: I'm sure too there must be some part of you on some level that's hoping that this encourages teachers to take on their own writing as well? Not just become better writing teachers, but also increase their own comfort level with their own writing.
Jen Serravallo: Absolutely, yeah. I say again and again in the book that the more that you try these strategies yourself before you teach them to kids, the more you're going to be able to sell it to them because you're going to say, "I just did this and here's what was tricky for me" or, "I just tried this and I came up with this thing I didn't think I was going to come up." The more that they're going to then start to be able to feel like a writer, feel like they have the business, that they're equipped to be able to be teaching kids to write, and to write well because they're going to have their own sample pieces, ideally, that they're sharing with kids as they work through the process.
My thanks to Jen for her time today, if you’d like a guided tour of everything that’s inside the Writing Strategies Book, you can watch a special video from Jen on Heinemann.com/WritingStrategiesBook. You’ll also find on this special page many more videos of Jen talking about the book, you’ll get a preview of the goals Jen talked about and so much more.