Evidence-Based Directives in Developing English Learner Writing Proficiency

By Dr. Kate Kinsella

Current research on teaching academic content and writing to English learners in intermediate and secondary grades points to the need for explicit guidance and targeted language supports to help students move from information presented in a graphic organizer to writing sentences, and from writing sentences to composing paragraphs. Additionally, planned and interactive examination of accessible exemplar texts must undergird units of study in informative, opinion/argument, and narrative writing. Scheppegrell (2017) advocates for such “genre-based” writing instruction for English learners at all ages and levels of English proficiency to ensure they comprehend the organizational features and language forms characteristic of distinct writing types. Another key finding is that pre-writing lessons should integrate intentional, interactive language instruction in priority vocabulary, sentence structures, and grammatical forms students can later leverage in formal assignments (What Works Clearinghouse. April 2014. NCEE 2014-4012). 

Steps in Introducing English Learners to a Formal Writing Type

Years of supporting English learners in grades 4-12 to successfully transition from the routine journal and story assignments of primary and newcomer coursework to grade-level, standards-aligned course demands like an argument essay have deepened my understandings of the conscientious teacher planning and intentional instruction these students deserve. I don’t purport to cover every instructional imperative in this brief article, rather some bedrock instructional supports for English learners that their English-only classmates will no doubt equally appreciate. 

Step 1: Prepare a Clear Definition of the Writing Type

Many English learners, novice and long-term alike, are apt to approach a prompt for a formal assignment such as an opinion paragraph or personal narrative essay with comprehension gaps regarding the essential elements of the writing type. Without a firm handle on the expectations for organization and development of ideas, many simply respond to the general topic but not the specific task demands. 

It is imperative to present an accurate yet accessible definition of the assignment writing type, one suitable for their age, level of English proficiency, and literacy skills. I offer the following definitions as examples from my English language development (ELD) practice in 4-12 contexts: the first pitched at an entry point for a younger or emergent speaker with basic English literacy skills; the second more detailed and nuanced for an adolescent English speaker and reader at intermediate to advanced proficiency.

Opinion Paragraph Definition for Novice English Learners

What is an Opinion Paragraph?

Opinion Paragraph Definition for Intermediate – Advanced English Learners

OPINION PARAGRAPHAn opinion paragraph states a claim in a topic sentence, and supports it with reasons and evidence from sources. The introductory (topic) sentence clearly states the writer’s claim about the topic. 
Detail sentences support the writer’s claim with logical reasons and evidence from text or the writer’s prior knowledge and experience. Transition words or phrases connect opinions, reasons, and evidence. The concluding sentence restates the writer’s claim about the topic.

Step 2: Prepare an Appropriate Writing Exemplar 

Based on consistent feedback from former English learner students, whether in K-12 or college coursework, the most valuable second-language writing instruction they have received included analysis and marking of an accessible exemplar that met the specific assignment expectations. Being provided with an appropriate writing model for a major assignment would seem to be common practice in intermediate and secondary coursework across subject areas. However, this practical learning scaffold is rarely afforded multilingual learners and striving readers. Whether it is a model of a science fair proposal, a current event news article summary, or a personal narrative, English learners depend on their teachers across the school day to serve as the informed writing coaches their families can rarely be. This includes showing them a well-crafted and comprehensible model of what they are intended to produce. If the teacher isn’t capable of identifying or creating an appropriate assignment exemplar, one can question the fairness of charging an English learner or striving reader with the task. 

A predictable challenge for educators of English learners is identifying a writing exemplar that is not only on topic but also suitable for learners within a specific English proficiency range. Early in my career, while directing a Freshman English Program for first-generation college students, I learned the hard way how important it is to come equipped with an approachable writing model that can at once engage and educate students. My well-intentioned yet naïve colleagues and I included in our syllabus a traditional anthology of iconic essays written by published U.S. authors, from Joan Didion to James Baldwin. Because our students were recent high-school graduates from immigrant households, they found the essay subject matter far from compelling, and text structure to be an inaccessible model of the writing they were expected to produce. Out of desperation, I scoured my files of former student writing and selected an opinion essay on a contemporary issue that these first-semester bilingual college students found immediately comprehensible. In future classes for college and high school English learners, I compiled a course reader with previous student essays that served as catalysts for animated pre-writing discussion and engaged exemplar analysis. 

Because a relevant exemplar is such an axiomatic teaching and learning tool, I advise composing a suitable model or adapting a piece of former student writing. If I devote time to writing an exemplar paragraph or essay for a more advanced ELD cohort, I can easily modify it for learners approaching the task at earlier stages of English proficiency. Optimally, colleagues can collaborate on identification and development of appropriate exemplars for prompts that will become curricular mainstays. Once students have submitted final work, these compositions can be archived with permission and adapted to serve as models or drafts for practice revising and editing. 

Experience has shown me that the exemplars provided by English Language Arts curriculum publishers are frequently unwieldy, irrelevant, or devoid of intent to promote positive identity development. I have not found it beneficial to devote class time to extensive analysis of a writing sample that is completely disconnected from the specific prompt I intend to assign. English learners are often challenged by the shift in conceptual focus and struggle to perceive the essential text features. Of equal concern, the unrelated model lacks precise topic words, suitable transitions, and phrasing for the introductory statements and reflective conclusion they might repurpose.

Sample Introductory Opinion Prompt and Exemplar

Prompt: Teachers, parents and students often have different perspectives about the influence of texting on students’ communication skills. Based on experience as a middle-school texter and writer, is texting ruining students’ academic writing skills? Write an opinion paragraph that states your claim and supports it with reasons and evidence. Draw from your background knowledge and first-hand experience.

Sample Opinion Paragraph Exemplar (Intermediate – Advanced English Learners)

Texting is Not Harmful

After learning about texting and students’ writing skills, I firmly believe that texting is not ruining students’ academic writing. A key reason is that students know when it is appropriate to use textisms, and when they need to use correct spelling and grammar. For example, I regularly use emojis and GIFs when I send messages to my classmates and friends, but I never include them in my homework assignments, presentations, or essays. Another major reason that I am not convinced texting is ruining student writing is that most of us use technology with software for writing like GoogleDocs and Microsoft Word. If I accidentally use a textism like IMO instead of the phrase In my opinion, the computer will immediately point it out as a mistake for me to edit. So even if I apply texting language in a draft, I can easily correct it. For these reasons, I conclude that students’ writing is not seriously harmed by texting. 

Step 3: Guide Fluent Reading of Writing Exemplar

Guide reading of the exemplar using an evidence-based reading fluency routine.

To reap the benefits of a writing exemplar, English learners must first be able to read the material fluently. Fluent reading includes accurate pronunciation, appropriate pacing, pausing at meaningful intervals, interpreting punctuation, and expression. Because English learners are often basic readers in their second language who approach academic prose with gaps in language knowledge, they cannot be expected to comprehend text after a teacher read-aloud when they have been simply listening. They also cannot grasp the exemplar features from a displayed model with no concrete analysis tasks other than the teacher’s commentary. 

Structure multiple accountable readings of a writing exemplar and provide effective models of fluent reading for all basic readers. Otherwise, any attempt at exemplar analysis will be fruitless. The Oral Cloze Fluency Routine is a productive alternative to unproductive strategies like Popcorn Reading and passive teacher read-alouds (Harmon and Wood, 2018; Kinsella, 2020).  

Rather than passively listening as the teacher reads aloud a writing model or text section, students follow along with a copy in hand, silently tracking and chime in with a word the teacher has selectively omitted within a sentence. Students pay close attention to the teacher’s pronunciation, intonation and timing. They stay actively engaged and poised to fill in the missing word. This low-stress fluency-building routine with an active and accountable process can be repurposed with peers during a Partner Reading of the writing model or assigned text passage. 

Oral Cloze Steps

Read aloud a single paragraph and omit a few selected words while students follow along silently and chime in chorally with the missing words. Model fluent reading at least twice, omitting different words, and picking up the pace slightly.

Partner Cloze Steps: 

Students read the assigned paragraph three times: once silently to choose words to omit while reading to their partners, once aloud to their partners, and once following along and chiming in with the words their partners leave out. 

Choosing Words for Oral Cloze

  • Omit three or four words per paragraph, each within a different sentence and evenly distributed from the beginning to the middle and end. 
  • Omit nouns or verbs at natural places to pause, after a meaningful phrase or at the end of a sentence.
  • Choose words that drive text comprehension, such as academic vocabulary you have already taught. 
  • Choose topic-related words that were introduced earlier in the text.
  • Do not choose words that will pose pronunciation problems. 
  • Do not distract students by omitting too many words or stopping mid-phrase and interrupting fluent reading. 

Exemplar with Words Highlighted in Preparation for Guided Fluency Reading

Prepare for introducing an exemplar by reading the text in advance and carefully selecting the words you intend to omit on the first and second read. If you omit words on the fly during a spontaneous read aloud, you are less likely to select strong yet familiar choices that come at the end of phrases or clauses.

Yellow = 1st read Blue = 2nd read

Step 4: Guide Discussion of the Writing Exemplar

Along with an assignment exemplar, students benefit immensely from a set of marking tasks and response frames to guide reading, discussion, and text marking. When the exemplar is merely projected on a screen, students lack a tangible resource to interact with and return to for precise language choices and review of correct grammatical forms. Additionally, when the exemplar is simply read aloud by the teacher without a visual aid, English learners cannot hold the teacher’s verbal analysis of the text’s strengths in their auditory storage. Distribute a hard copy of the writing model accompanied by a set of specific marking and discussion tasks. A familiar set of marking tasks and response frames can be repurposed as students read and offer feedback on each other’s drafts. 

Sample Text Marking and Discussion Tasks for Opinion Paragraph

Mark the opinion paragraph text elements. Discuss them with your partner.

  1. Put brackets around the writer’s claim within the topic sentence. 

The writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Draw a box around transition words or phrases that introduce a reason

(One, Another) transition that introduces a reason is ___.

  1. Underline and label reasons that support the writer’s claim with the letter R.

(One, Another) reason that supports the writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Underline and label evidence that support the writer’s claim with the letter E.

(One, Another) piece of evidence that supports the writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Star six precise topic words. Check six high-utility academic words.

(One, Another) topic word is ___; (One, Another) high-utility word is ___. 

  1. Put parentheses around the restated claim in the concluding sentence.

The writer’s restated claim in ___. 

Step 5: Create a Precise Word Bank with the Writing Exemplar

A well-crafted exemplar paragraph or essay can be mined for vocabulary English learners can later apply in their own drafts. When I adapt former student writing to use as an exemplar, I regularly strengthen the work by adding more words related to the prompt focus as well as high-leverage academic words used in formal writing. Topic-focused words in the exemplar paragraph include nouns like software and assignments as well as strong verbs like harm and edit. High-utility academic vocabulary includes words not commonly used in casual conversation but widely applied in academic interaction and writing. Within the exemplar addressing the impacts of texting, two high-leverage academic word choices are the adjectives key and major used as frequent word partners with the noun reason

English learners approach most any writing topic with gaps in vocabulary knowledge. It isn’t fair or productive to simply encourage them to consult a peer or use a thesaurus when they are likely to be assaulted with a tome of unfamiliar words. I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to equip developing English speakers with portable words for the assignment topic and the text type. Every class has a range of English proficiency so I strive to include words that will provide a suitable lexical stretch for my diverse learners. While analyzing the exemplar and identifying precise word choices, I can point out the writer’s efforts to use synonyms as lexical chains as in the conscientious selection of the nouns students, friends and classmates or the verbs ruin and harm. Students enjoy the process of identifying strong word choices with their teacher and classmates and compiling the precise word bank. This resource can be posted as a visual display or duplicated and distributed as an assignment reference. 

Precise Word Bank Generated from Student Writing Model

Writing Topic Words

High-Utility Academic Words

    to text, texting, textism    students, friends, classmates    academic    writing skills    to ruin, to harm, harmful, harmed    spelling, grammar, language    emoji, GIF, message      software, technology    homework assignments, essays    to edit, mistake, draft

    to firmly believe    key, major     appropriate    correct     regularly    to include    to be convinced    opinion, reason, example    to apply    to conclude

Closing Thoughts

English learners approach standards-based writing assignments with formidable language and literacy challenges. We can support them in becoming more effective English writers by devoting more class time to planned, intentional, interactive instruction that ensures they understand assignment expectations and approach the task with accessible models and applicable language tools. 

Kate Kinsella, Ed.D. (drkate@drkatekinsella.com) writes curriculum, conducts K-12 research, and provides professional development throughout the U.S. addressing evidence-based practices to advance English language and literacy skills for multilingual learners. She is the author of a number of researched-informed curricular anchors for English learners, including English 3D, Language Launch, and the Academic Vocabulary Toolkit. 


  • Harmon, J., and Wood, K. 2010. Variations on Round Robin Reading. Middle Ground 14 (2).  
  • Kinsella, K. 2020. English 3D: Language Launch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  • NCEE. April 2014-4012. Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School: Educator’s Practice Guide/What Works Clearinghouse. Washington, DC. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
  • Schleppegrell, M.J. 2017. Systemic Functional Grammar in the K-12 Classroom. In Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (Vol.3), edited by Eli Hinkel. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Perhaps Radical Change Comes From Radical Hope

By Brent Gilson

I am writing this post less than 48 hours before I return to the classroom for what will be my 12th year of teaching. Every summer, I spend time reading, reflecting, and planning. I look back on the previous year and the successes along with the struggles. The last few years have provided me with many struggles. Professional stumbling blocks partners with a global pandemic have impacted my self-confidence as an educator. That weed that is imposter syndrome has had the perfect growing conditions and grow it did. Like the vines that have overtaken my wife’s garden, I can push it back for a time, but without removing the roots, we are bound to end right back where we started. So I look at the 2021/2022 school year this year as a chance to pull the weeds. To do as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad recently reminded me and focus on GENIUS and JOY.

Last spring, as a Grade 12 valedictorian was giving his closing remarks, he thanked a teacher for helping him develop a love for reading. Unfortunately, he targeted another for ruining his love for reading. The cause of that breakdown? Mandatory journaling. I love Notebooks for myself, and I love having students use them as thought collectors. I often struggle to remember moments of books, even the key ones when they happen early in a text. A notebook has always served as a record keeper of sorts. That said, I have learned that, like all things, when we take away autonomy, so many things become tasks of compliance rather than tools for success. I pondered those words a lot this summer. How often has the work I champion seen as a task to the students I learn with?   

This pondering has led me to explore my practice, the 20 minutes of Independent Reading, the organized periods of writing and reading time, the whole class novels, the poetry unit. I think we all are familiar with these structures. They “work”. But what about the kids they don’t work for?

Covid-19 and its impact on our year were widespread. Now we have countless snake oil salesmen monetizing the interruptions and roadblocks with an imagined term to draw on the insecurities and fears of decision-makers. “Learning Loss” has been used to market solutions, but very little will be done to address issues. So, as I reflect, I am also considering this, “ What am I doing to help my students showcase their GENIUS, facilitate JOY, carry ourselves with EXCELLENCE and ignore the noise of those who are looking to profit off a pandemic.

I see many people mention the time pre covid as the before time. When I consider the changes that I will be instituting this year, the “before time” practice of dedicated independent reading is first in my mind. I often wielded it as a must because I was worried that kids wouldn’t take the time to read if I didn’t. Last year during the pandemic, I kid watched a lot more. What did their reading habits look like? What did mine? Was I sitting down and reading every day? Were the distractions and stresses of Covid impacting my students’ ability to read and focus as much as they were mine? We started making room for other Literacy related tasks. Students began exploring poetry and multimodal representation. They were writing more, writing music, writing comics, and creating.

I wondered about how I could make room for this every day. We have a limited amount of time and, unfortunately, a mandated year-end test. I decided that it was time to loosen the expectation of mandatory 20 minutes of reading. Now before you saw, I have lost it let me explain. Students will, of course, have time protected to read if they choose it. But, they will also have those same minutes to create, share, write, and explore. I have settled on calling it Studio time. A still protected everyday portion of time that students can pursue the literacy goals and interests they have.  

Reading will also be a class venture with a whole text, shared experience with book clubs, and responsibilities to independently complete and share reading of their choice. We are not removing the reading requirement, but I am extending the respect to my students that I believe they are responsible enough to do this work, alongside me, without me telling them when and how to do so. We will be responding to the questions around theme and conflict, character reflections, and discussions around the text in multiple ways. We will, of course, write essays, but we will also explore multimodal representation. We will showcase our thinking in ways that work best for the citizens of room 157 while also preparing to achieve excellence in more “traditional” forms.

We are writing with beautiful mentor texts as our anchors. Essays and articles by incredible writers as we study their craft, follow their lead, and then create our unique writing voices. I often make connections to my hobby of weightlifting when I talk to my students, I am successful, but I become better with a coach. My trainer has video tutorials. These are the mentor texts of weightlifting, and these beautiful pieces of writing we will explore will provide us with that same example of excellence. We will also write in new ways: digital compositions, photo essays, poetry anthologies, picture books, films. Text creation needs not be limited to the strokes of a keyboard just because we are comfortable with it. We will arm ourselves with our notebooks and a pencil or pen; we will storyboard, draft, and erase… a lot. But we will practice the craft we are studying. Rather than just working through practice exams as they have in the past, we will become authentic writers; then, no exam will serve as a roadblock.

As I sit here putting some ideas down on a page, I am reminded of how much I love the process of weeding my professional garden. Taking out the things that no longer work, that choke out the creativity and joy. What do we intend to plant in our classrooms this year? What changes will help our garden thrive? These are the questions I hope we all ponder before they blow the dust off our filing cabinets, change the dates from 2020/2021 to 2021.2022 and continue to let the weeds take over.

Brent Gilson teaches in a junior high setting in Canada. He enjoys reading MS and YA literature so he can share it with his students.  Brent’s teaching life was changed after attending professional development with Kylene Beers and he continues to strive to improve his practice and student access to texts of all forms. Follow him on Twitter @mrbgilson and read his blog ThingsMrGSays

Using Robust Practices to Nurture Successful, Engaged Readers

By Judy Wallis

We have so much research to show that many factors contribute to the growth of capable and confident readers: a coherent curriculum, robust teaching practices, the volume of reading, access to high-quality, engaging texts, productive talk, and a supportive classroom context (Duke & Pearson, 2002). All of these provide the very foundation upon which exemplary teaching and student success rest. There is also wide agreement that teachers who differentiate instruction ensure greater student success. Because students differ in their knowledge, skills, and cultural background, individual differences present challenges for both readers and teachers. While teachers and students faced unprecedented challenges during the past year, both continued to learn and grow. One of the most important things I learned from working over the years with Regie Routman (2007) is a whole-part-whole approach results in greater gains for learners in all areas but particularly in the area of comprehension. The challenge, then, is to ensure that students have instruction that ensures they develop the “flexibility and adaptability of their actions as they read” (Afflebach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008, 368) so that they move from effortful and deliberate use of strategies to automatic use of skills in the service of understanding.  

Gradual Release of Responsibility

We know from years of research, planning teaching using the gradual release of responsibility is most successful in teaching comprehension (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). There are three regions of responsibility within this model. The first region is mostly the teacher as modeler and demonstrator; in the third, the responsibility shifts mostly to the student; and in the middle, teacher and student share responsibility. For students to arrive successfully at full responsibility, shifts in participation occur that include increasing participation by the reader and well-planned scaffolding by the teacher (Au & Raphael, 1998). The teacher’s role is to determine when and how these shifts occur and what support a reader might need.

Too often, the middle region is either skipped or shortened, which results in students’ lack of long-term success. When this occurs, teaching is often planned around a narrow, isolated skills approach that makes learning harder rather than easier. To ensure success, teachers need to consider learners’ potential independence with a task and the probability that learners can transfer that learning to a new and similar task (Cambourne, 2001). 

Two Approaches to Supporting Students’ Growth in Comprehension

The challenge for teachers supporting striving students is finding the best way to approach gaps in learning. For example, one approach is to take an isolated or part-to-whole approach in which the teacher focuses narrowly on one skill at a time. This parsing approach has enormous appeal in that it uses the premise that it is more manageable for students, and they will put the parts/skills together taught over time to become successful readers. However, the skills may not make sense to the reader in the absence of the whole (Perkins, 2009). Too often, using this approach results in never demonstrating how the parts “look” in a whole task/performance. The other approach to learning is first situating learning within a whole task/performance, focusing on the part, and finally demonstrating the part within the whole. As Routman (2018) notes, whole-part-whole teaching needs to become part of our beliefs system about teaching and learning. 

Using this approach, along with the gradual release of responsibility, results in much more successful teaching and learning and is actually more efficient. 

If, for example, students are striving to be more successful making inferences, we could explain what an inference is and then send them off to make inferences in a text. Students may understand what inferring is, but they may lack the procedural (how) and conditional (what) knowledge needed to actually apply the strategy within the performance of reading a text.  On the contrary, we would likely be more successful using a whole-part-whole approach by situating inferring in the “whole” performance of reading. Too often, we try to teach an isolated skill (e.g., determining character’s feelings) without identifying it as an inference and what it looks like and sounds like when we read a text. Duke and Pearson (2002) suggest students need explicit modeling of strategies to become skilled readers followed by a great deal of time reading. Here’s an example of what whole-part-whole teaching might look like. It foregrounds inferring but nests it in a real text, includes explicit modeling, and offers students opportunities to engage in collaborative use.

Teacher: We are going to be reading a terrific book today. The title of the book is Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. As readers, we do many things to make sense of and monitor what we read by listening to the thoughts inside our heads.  Today, we will focus on one particular strategy as we read—inferring. Inferring is when the author doesn’t tell us everything, and we as readers must combine our own background knowledge (BK) with the clues the author provides in the text (TC). So, inferring is really like teamwork or partnering with the author. I’m going to start reading and making inferences as we go. But before I begin to model my thinking, turn and talk with a thinking partner about what you understand about what a reader does to infer. 

Students: Turn and talk—teacher listens in. 

Teacher: Let’s have a couple of you share what inferring is. [Students share.] So, we all agree that inferring is using our background knowledge along with text clues to understand a text.

Teacher: (Begins reading) Ah, the text says that Chrysanthemum’s name was “absolutely perfect” when she was born, and as she grew, Chrysanthemum thought so, too. I am inferring she was pretty happy her parents named her that. [Reading on.]

(Teacher may record inferences on an anchor chart.)

Hmmm . . . I’m inferring things are changing when Chrysanthemum goes to school. Her friends start making fun of her name, and she’s feeling pretty unhappy about her name. [Reading on.]

Let’s talk about what the author says and what we can infer from the text clues: “She walked as slowly as she could. She dragged her feet.” Turn and talk about what you are inferring using the text clues and your own background knowledge and experiences.

Students: Turn and talk—teacher listens in. 

Teacher: As we read on, I’m going to give you opportunities to turn and talk about the inferences you are making. 

Teacher: Before we read on, let’s look at some of the inferences we made as we read. In every one of them, we used our background knowledge and the text clues to help us understand the story. So, inferring is an important strategy that readers use in everything they read. We make inferences when the author leaves a gap for us to fill. But, we always use the text to support what we are inferring. 

Teacher: Continues reading the remainder of the text and providing opportunities for collaborative use through turn and talk.

Teacher: Let’s review all the inferences we made. We found places in the text where we as readers had to fill gaps the author left. As readers, you will do the same thing as you read independently today; think about what you are understanding and when and why you need to be partner with the author. As readers, we are aware of our inner conversation that helps us monitor our understanding.

This example shows how we start with the whole (reading a text), focus on a part (inferring), and then refocus on the whole (reading a text). The reminder to use what was learned is essential as is “daily access to irresistible books” (Harvey & Ward, 2017, 88). Teachers often use a part-to-whole approach with striving students, which leaves them on their own to understand how the parts fit together. While an atomistic approach sounds like a time-saving one, it is actually inefficient and results in learners waiting to put the parts into the whole performance of reading. Perkins (2009) calls this principle of learning: “play the whole game” (8). One important idea to keep in mind is that we watch for the hard parts to foreground them to strengthen learners’ potential for independent use. 

Scaffolding and Talk

Scaffolding and talk play key roles in working with students both in accelerating learning and addressing gaps. In the previous classroom example, we can imagine places where scaffolding and additional opportunities where student-teacher and peer-to-peer talk might be both necessary and productive. While originating from Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development (the gap between what the learner can do independently and with assistance), the term scaffolding comes from the work of Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1978). Scaffolds are temporary. Pearson (personal communication) suggests that we always have a plan for taking down a scaffold. The point of a scaffold is not to make the task easier but rather to create just the right conditions for a learner can be successful. That means we have to be “in tune” with learners. Often, we provide too much support, resulting in learned helplessness. I think of scaffolding as climbing a rope ladder. As teachers, we move one knot/scaffold at a time, providing only the necessary support.

When working with readers, and particularly striving readers, instead of identifying specific gaps, too often we use a checklist, part-part-part approach. Research has demonstrated that reading is a complex process, and there’s little evidence to support that teaching the single components of reading one-by-one leads to gains (Oakhill et al, 2019). Another important consideration is the extent to which a student has initially engaged in modeled instruction and had opportunities for supported practice. The gradual release of responsibility is key here because too often students move from teacher-focused instruction to independent use, skipping the valuable area of shared responsibility and coached performance. When this occurs, learners don’t have the value of those temporary supports that ensure they will later be able to successfully carry out and transfer learning to new situations. 

Scaffolding is largely dependent on talk—both that of a teacher to student and also peer to peer. Vygotsky (1978) and Johnston (2004, 2012) demonstrate how individual thought is created through the process of thinking, talking, and acting together with others. We know that when learning is scaffolded through talk, students’ understanding of both the process (procedural knowledge) and the product (comprehension) are strengthened. Teachers use talk to facilitate and support learning, and students use talk in exploratory ways (Barnes, 1992) to develop and revise their thinking. Instead of defaulting to the traditional Initiate, Response, Evaluate (IRE) pattern (Cazden, 1988), teachers can shift form an interrogational stance to one that incorporates much more student talk. Allington (2002) found that exemplary teachers encouraged and modeled this type of talk. Not only does talk support and promote learning, it also offers teachers valuable opportunities to gain insights into students’ understanding and their gaps and misconceptions.

We know that reading is complex, that teaching reading is complex. However, when we implement practices and structures that we know make a difference, we uncomplicate our teaching and increase our students’ potential for success.  Some years ago, I wrote an op-ed about not forgetting joy. As we strive to support learners in these challenging times, we must stay focused on what we know works and the exemplary practices that help our students grow into strong, successful, and engaged readers . . . and the joyful experience of being present to witness extraordinary moments of learning. 


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Routman, R. (2007). Teaching Essentials. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R. (2018). What You Need to Know about Professional Learning. Heinemann Blog.

Wallis, J. (2013). Teachers, don’t forget joy. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-teachers-dont-forget-joy/2013/10 

Wood, D., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. 17(2). https: //doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-1976.tb00381.x

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Children’s Literature Cited

Henkes, K. (1991). Chrysanthemum. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Judy Wallis has spent the past five decades as a teacher, literacy coach, university instructor, and staff developer. She served two large and diverse Houston-area school districts as director language arts and provided leadership support to literacy coaches for 21 years. Her professional work focuses on reading comprehension, writing, and whole-school/district change through robust literacy instruction and shared beliefs. She has also worked to link research and practice and to nurture and celebrate the strengths in others. In addition to the “Blue Pages” in Conversations with Regie Routman and Comprehension Intervention with Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Judy has authored a number of book chapters and articles. 

Learning About Our Writers and Growing Our Community with Face-to-Face and Virtual Celebrations

By Stacey Shubitz & Lynne R. Dorfman

In a writing workshop, we often find ways to celebrate our writers and their writing throughout their process of imagining, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing their work. We use nonverbal cues – a nod, a thumbs up, a pat on the back, or a smile to acknowledge the small steps students take to create a writing piece. Larger celebrations are important for writers because they give them an opportunity to engage with a new audience, creating excitement and enthusiasm to continue to revise and edit as well as to continue to do the hard work of imagining and creating future writing pieces.  

Face-to-Face Celebrations

In many classrooms, portfolio celebrations occurred once per marking period.  Writers select the piece they wanted to share and their rationale for their choice. Often, this includes an explanation of why the piece is valued. For example, the piece could show how the writer took a risk and tried something new such as a new organizational format or genre. Perhaps it was chosen because the topic was so important to them or they felt it represented their best effort that semester.  Students share their process during portfolio celebrations, giving the audience a closer look at their work. In this way, the teacher, the writer, and the writing community gains some insights into a writer’s identity, not just the individual piece of writing.

There are so many ways to organize a celebration of writing. At the end of the year, Lynne secured the gym for two hours and had tables and chairs arranged café style. Parents contributed tablecloths and flower arrangements. Students sat with their family members and friends to share their writing. Sometimes, students collaborated to share their poems for the entire group. Mics for speakers were provided and copies of the poems for audience participation. The audience was instructed to snap their fingers (1950s Beatnik coffeehouse style) as applause. Guests for this event received a personal invitation created by the authors and snail mailed complete with a return reply. In this way, writers could experience yet another real-world writing experience.

Like the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, you might offer an artist-in-residence program where local writers of newspapers, magazines, and authors and illustrators of children’s books can visit to share their thoughts about their own writing processes and provide feedback for students’ final drafts. Here, students can be encouraged to enter writing contests and/or submit their pieces to local newspapers, community and school newspapers, children’s magazines such as Stone Soup, completely written and illustrated by kids from 8 to 13.  Finding places to publish and acquire new audiences is a way to celebrate our students’ writing. 

Students can create a poster of their work, a biographical sketch of their life as a writer, related artwork, photographs, and artifacts that help to highlight a piece of writing. These posters can be displayed around the room so that students can carousel to read and to comment. Students can create a QR Code to connect their audience to a tape recording of the author reading their piece aloud. Half the class will remain in their seats and continue to write independently to reduce circulation problems. Students should be able to take their time so they can offer responses on sticky notes at the bottom of the poster page (Be sure to leave some space!) or use note cards provided by the teacher to respond and drop the envelope with the notecard inside on the author’s desk. 

Another popular celebration in elementary school is the author’s chair. Reading a final draft or published piece is a great way for students to build confidence and self-esteem by receiving feedback from audience members. A student writer volunteers to sit in the author’s chair; he is not assigned to do so. The writing that is shared has already gone through revisions and edits. A special chair is designated as the author’s chair – a rocker, a director’s chair, a spare teacher’s chair.  Usually, the audience gathers on a carpet in front of the chair to listen to the reading. Audience members share praise, ask questions, and offer suggestions for revision. Authors may respond to the comments they receive. The teacher’s role is to model the feedback they hope their student writers will give to each author. Not only does the author’s chair provide a wider audience for student writers who want to share and receive feedback than a traditional teacher-student or peer conference, it helps all students develop listening, reflection, and critical thinking skills. 

Virtual Celebrations

Many teachers are still teaching students remotely, which means writing celebrations need to be reimagined for the virtual world. 

Consider a virtual author’s chair in a couple of ways. First, gather your class on video conferencing software so each student can “have the mic” to read their piece. If you’d prefer to lead an asynchronous author’s chair, then use Flipgrid. Students can record their writing aloud and peers can stop by to leave a comment after hearing their writing read aloud.

Celebrate process, rather than product, by leading a virtual Author Q&A using video conferencing software. Invite students to share an excerpt from their piece that represents something they worked diligently on as a writer. Encourage them to talk about the strategies they used or a risk they took to bring their writing to life. 

Utilize an online board, such as Padlet, for celebrations. You might lead a virtual gallery walk by creating a Padlet board of your students’ finished writing pieces. You could use Padlet as an online portfolio tool by allowing students to save anything to their portfolio that reflects their writing process, research process, evidence of collaboration with a peer, or their finished product. Then, provide time for students to work in small groups to share their Padlet portfolios with their peers. (If your school doesn’t utilize Padlet, you can use whatever learning management system your school uses so students can share and comment on each other’s work.

Entertain the idea of creating a podcast to celebrate students’ writing. You can create several episodes which invite students to come on to read their writing and talk about their writing lives and process. Once the podcast is live, invite members of your school community and caregivers to listen to the episodes!


Writing is not easy!  It takes a lot of time, patience, and plain hard work! Writing workshop celebrations give students several sessions each year to share a piece of writing, receive feedback from classmates, friends, family members, and teachers, and just have some fun!  Writing celebrations help to reinforce strategies good writers use and highlight ways in which authors write and problem solve. Children learn from each other as the writing community cultivates a sense of pride and accomplishment. Looking forward to sharing their writing in the author’s chair motivates writers to work hard during independent writing time. Writers write to communicate their ideas with others. Writers need and want an audience – that’s why writing shares are crucial to engagement and perseverance. Writing celebrations can provide a wide variety of audiences and help writers continue to do the hard work of writing every day. Finally, writing celebrations will foster a love for writing and help students imagine the possibilities for their craft as they listen to each other’s writing and receive feedback in these positive environments. Isn’t that what we want for all our writers?

About the Authors

Stacey Shubitz and Lynne R. Dorfman are the co-authors of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021) and Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works (Stenhouse, 2019). 

Lynne is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and K-8 literacy consultant. She is a co-editor of PA Reads: Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association and co-president of KSLA Brandywine/Valley Forge. Lynne is co-author of many books including Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 and A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Students with Formative Assessment, K-6. She blogs at https://lynnedorfmanblog.wordpress.com and MiddleWeb.

Stacey is a literacy consultant and a former elementary school teacher. In addition to the above-mentioned titles, she’s the author of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.

Using Inquiry-Rich Invitations to Ignite Word Learning Across ALL Grades

By Pam Koutrakos

Looking to counteract the current level of stress in the classroom? Wondering about ways to reinvigorate spelling and vocabulary learning? Try extending an invitation… specifically, an invitation for students to actively explore and investigate words! Teachers can use open-ended questions to invite students to discover more about featured sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words! The playfulness inherent in student-directed exploration acts as “learning mise en place,” setting the conditions for word learning that sticks. These joyful opportunities are not only beneficial for young word learners. Playful, exploratory learning makes sense and matters for humans of all ages! Through this stance, teachers are able to use inquiry-rich invitations to:

  • spark curiosity
  • jumpstart engagement
  • build momentum 
  • nurture creativity and critical thinking

These practices are substantiated by researchers and practitioners. Zaretta Hammond’s work teaches that the brain craves and needs students to be active constructors of learning. Peter Gray’s researched insights highlight the vast cognitive and socio-emotional benefits of play. Ellin Keene’s work around engagement echoes the importance of open-ended and student-initiated learning experiences. Kristi Mraz and Stephanie Parsons remind us of how we open access when we build the structure and framework for learning through discovery. 

What follows are actionable ideas for infusing inquiry-rich invitations into word study. Each creates opportunities for students to feel invested in learning more about sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words themselves! 

Emerging Word Learners 

Emerging word learners are often found in preschools and primary-grade classrooms. They are naturally curious and need little encouragement to wonder and explore. Creating inquiry-rich invitations for these learners usually involves curating open-ended materials (loose parts) and providing opportunities to manipulate, tinker, contemplate, and create. Common examples of open-ended materials include readily-available resources found outside: sticks, pebbles, acorns, and shells. Additionally, other “loose part” options can be found in most early childhood and elementary classrooms: beads, buttons, counters, blocks, and more. For certain word-themed invitations, teachers might also set out images, letter manipulatives, word cards, etc. Prompts and questions (like those listed below) invite students to contemplate ideas and construct learning by purposefully and creatively using the materials that have been set out. Follow-up instruction and feedback then builds upon and enhances all that was initially learned. Balancing opportunities for discovery with explicit teaching results in deeper and more nuanced understanding. 

Sample Invitations:

These inquiry-fueled questions encourage learners to explore sounds, letters, names, and resource tools. 

  • What do you notice about the sounds you hear?
  • What can you discover about these letters?
  • What can you make with these letters?
  • How could you sort these… (letters, sounds, words)?
  • What’s the same? What’s different? (letters, sounds, words)
  • When do we see these words? Where could we use them? 
  • Why, how, and when would these tools be useful? 

In this classroom, content-aligned Reggio-styled provocations are set out to spark discovery. Students are welcome to explore materials independently or with peers. 

Tip: There’s no need to purchase anything new. Utilize and repurpose readily available loose parts and/or natural materials. These are perfect for word-themed invitations. This Reggio Routines mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared after introducing this kind of learning to students. 

Developing Word Learners 

Very often, students in mid and upper elementary grades are actively developing their word knowledge. Since student-initiated discovery builds interest, motivation, and investment, it makes sense that teachers in these settings would also incorporate inquiry-rich invitations into word study. For example, instead of handing students a list of vocabulary words or directing them to look up definitions, students can instead jumpstart meaningful learning by investigating words/word parts and then sharing their findings with classmates. In as little as ten to fifteen minutes, students can explore sounds, recognize patterns, and begin to develop theories. Additionally, these efficient experiences offer the chance to delve into multiple meanings of words, synonyms, antonyms, cognates, and more. In the days that follow, teachers can then capitalize on this momentum by following-up with explicit instruction, guidance, and opportunities for additional practice. 

Sample Invitations:

These thought-provoking prompts intend to help students actively investigate prioritized vocabulary, words, spelling patterns, and processes for learning: 

  • How will you explore these (letters, patterns, parts, words)? 
  • What similarities and differences do you see? What could this mean? 
  • What theories can you create (and support) about the letters, sounds, and parts of these words?
  • What words “go” with this topic? How are they connected? Which are most important? 
  • Are there any more interesting and precise words with very similar meanings? Which words have very different meanings? 
  • How could these discoveries help you as you read? Write? 
  • How could you share what you discovered? 

This remote-classroom artifact was created as part of a mini-inquiry that intended to jumpstart initial ideas around inflected endings. First, students had the opportunity to explore ideas and share knowledge. Then, the teacher guided the class as they delved further into learning about these affixes.

Tip: Strategically design prompts: ideally, these invitations are flexible enough to be used — and reused— with a variety of patterns and words. Open-ended questions (like those listed above) encourage students to investigate and discover more about words and word parts. Over time, these often become “habit of mind” questions students ask themselves. These two mini-charts: Sort It! Alike or Different and Question Craze (Koutrakos, 2019) are student-facing tools that can be shared after an introductory lesson on mini-inquiries. They remind students of their role in activating their own learning and supporting peers’ understandings. 

Extending Word Learners

Although time is always a consideration, perhaps the creative use of each minute is most essential when working with middle schoolers and high schoolers. When teachers have one period to integrate all aspects of literacy, high-impact efficiency matters! Content area teachers are also often looking for ways to support understanding and use of domain-specific vocabulary. Authentically embedding word work into all that’s already being done is an effective solution. One example of how to do this is turning “regular” learning stations into conver-stations. For example, in many classrooms, teachers set up different learning experiences, AKA-stations. As students rotate from station to station, small groups actively investigate content area topics by viewing, listening, reading, writing, discussing, building, problem-solving, or creating. With minimal effort, teachers can easily turn these “regular” stations into conver-stations. By doing so, students have repeated and authentic opportunities to infuse domain-specific lingo as they discuss prioritized content— and related wonders, ideas, and takeaways. As an alternative, one station may also simply be presenting an inquiry-rich invitation with some accompanying words to investigate. Less is more: embedding joyful opportunities to explore words never needs to be an extra or add on!

HELPFUL HINT: If the station-rotation model of learning is new for you, check out Dr. Catlin Tucker’s work. Her researched suggestions are incredibly smart and especially helpful during times of remote, hybrid, and blended learning. 

Sample Invitations:

Extending word learners also benefit from delving into word-themed inquiries. Often, these center around affixes, roots, tone, mood, and content-area vocabulary. 

  • How many ways could you strategically sort and categorize these… (patterns, affixes, parts, words)? 
  • What theories can you create about the patterns and parts within these words? How might you clarify, substantiate, or extend these theories? 
  • What other “related” words can you discover? How are they connected? What similarities and differences do you notice? 
  • Where and when will you use what you discovered? 
  • What feelings did you get as you read this piece? What words helped to create that feeling?
  • What words are closely connected to this topic? What words keep coming up in your conversation/reading/writing? Why? 
  • How do you want your reader to react? How could you create this tone? What words will you choose?
  • How could your discoveries contribute to the learning of your classmates? 

 “Which One Doesn’t Belong” is a playful critical thinking routine where students choose which option they believe does not fit – and explain why. It’s important to note that each option represents a correct answer because there are reasons why each could be the outlier. This reading-themed “Which One Doesn’t Belong” conver-station was used to help students collaboratively explore different genres and formats of texts… and the academic language aligned to each. 

Tip: Use ongoing, embedded collaborative inquiry to build community and collective capacity. This Talkin The Talk mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) provides a basic understanding of what students do at conver-stations. This Show Off mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared with students after introducing different ways for classmates to teach others what they have learned. 

Essential Follow-up for All Word Learners

Student-driven discovery changes the tone of a classroom. The engagement, excitement, and investment that result from this kind of word play are hard to replicate. Gained insights are vital contributors to overall success. However, please know that these inquiry-rich invitations don’t stand on their own. Teachers also need to strategically nurture, nudge, and deepen initial discoveries. This happens through modeling, direct instruction, and loads of along-the-way feedback. It is the combination of discovery, explicit teaching, and guided learning that yield a deep understanding of the why, what, and how of words and the know-how in how to apply and transfer word knowledge. A commitment to shared ownership recognizes that all members of a class community have the right and responsibility to contribute to collective learning. 

A Final Note

Celebrate the synergy and spirit created through inquiry-rich, collaborative classroom experiences. Widen your lens and reimagine the possibilities for word study. When teachers highlight joy and center students as activators of learning, they simultaneously bolster understanding and create more long lasting success. 

Pam Koutrakos is an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC where she works with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 12. She authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6. Both include ideas, lessons, resources, and tools for teachers of all subjects. Her third professional text is slated to be released in the coming months. Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou and on LinkedIn.