Guided writing is a small group approach, involving the teacher meeting with a group of students with similar writing needs. It can be thought of as a group conference or small group mini-lesson, undertaken strategically in response to an identified challenge faced by the selected students.
The formation of the group, the focus and the time they spend together is based on the teacher’s ongoing formative assessment processes.
The focus for the guided writing conference could be:
- authorial (expanding noun groups to provide more detail in an information report, adding circumstantial details such as how or why in an explanation, evaluative vocabulary choices to describe a character’s appearance or judge their behaviour)
- secretarial (use of talking marks in direct speech, making choices about ending punctuation or attending to spelling when revising one’s writing, etc.).
While the students may undertake some writing under the guidance of the teacher during this time, collaborative discussion and problem solving, coupled with explicit teaching may be the best use of this small group opportunity.
Rationale for a focus on guided writing or the writing conference
Strategic writing instruction involves teachers responding to students’ needs at the point of need. This means the teacher is attentive to when whole class, small group or individual instruction is needed.
Often, small groups of students in the classroom encounter similar challenges at the same time. These might relate to, for example, structuring a certain genre of writing, making their writing more detailed or using correct punctuation.
Responding to such needs, the teacher might convene a small group for one (or more) guided writing sessions (Department of Education, WA, 2013). These are sometimes referred to as mini-lessons (Calkins, 1994; Tompkins, 2010) or group conferences (Graves, 1994). These groups are needs-based and, as such, change their composition according to the writing needs of the students.
How guided writing/ writing conferences benefit EAL/D learners
Guided writing groups and writing conferences provide an opportunity for EAL/D learners to receive targeted instruction and feedback at their specific point of need. The smaller grouping provides a more private, less formal space for EAL/D learners to work within. Learners can feel less intimidated than in whole class discussions and more willing to discuss concerns, ask questions and give opinions. Guided writing groups and writing conferences can be invaluable spaces for students to gradually ‘talk through’ their ideas with others and serve as a supportive context to build EAL/D students' confidence to make contributions in larger, mixed groups (Swain, 2008).
A typical guided writing/writing conference session
At Levels F-2, guided writing/small group writing conferences might support students to create (or attempt) simple sentences or short written passages to accompany an idea that has been first represented pictorially.
Mackenzie (2011) suggests teachers view drawing as an important element of early authoring or meaning making. Guided writing in such contexts might also support students’ understanding of early print concepts (directionality, spaces between words, etc.) as well as strategies for spelling and basic punctuation.
At Levels 3-4, guided writing/small group writing conferences can be employed to support students’ expanded understanding of different text types or genres. For example, students who are writing narratives might need to be supported in a small group to focus on both the structure (orientation, complication, resolution) and the features (past tense, action verbs, first or third person, use of nouns and pronouns, direct or indirect speech) of this text type. The same would apply to other genres such as arguments, explanations or reports.
At Levels 5-6, guided writing/small group writing conferences might both expand and deepen students’ adeptness with different text types or genres. They might also focus on aspects of the writer’s craft that draw on literary devices such as simile, metaphor, euphemism, personification, idiom, rhetorical questioning, and how these can be deployed to create a distinct and personal authorial voice.
In these senior years, the students might benefit from guided writing/small group writing conferences that focus on aspects of multimodal authoring – although it needs to be noted this form of communication begins as early as when students combine words and images (or symbols) to make meaning and communicate to an audience.
Guided writing/ writing conferences for EAL/D learners
Writing at any year level is a complex practice and all students benefit from support. The pedagogic focus of guided writing or conferences may change as learners progress through school and become more competent writers.
EAL/D learners will share many of the needs of first language learners of English in relation to writing but possibly not at the same stage as their peers. For example, a Year 3 EAL student in the early stages of learning English tasked with writing an information report about a planet in the solar system may have notes, diagrams and drawings created in English and home language. They then could talk through these in English for support with the language needed in writing the report. Thus, for some EAL/D learners, a writing conference may take place before the actual writing begins.
A more advanced EAL/D learner may require conferencing on a grammatical point such as appropriate verb tense (‘Last Saturday I am going to the market’) or the making of plural (‘I buy five banana’) which may not be relevant to first language users of English.
While conventions (correct spelling and grammar) are very important for all language users, they are a vehicle for content and creativity. The correction of surface level spelling and grammar features should not be the main focus of guided writing/conferencing for EAL/D students. EAL/D writers also need feedback on their content and ideas and whether they achieved the purpose of the text (e.g. to entertain, to persuade, to inform) as well as language choices and correct use of language patterns and structures.
The teacher’s role in guided writing/writing conference
Ascertaining and understanding students’ current writing needs is pivotal to the successful formation of a guided writing/small group writing conference. The teacher needs to be aware of common strengths and needs the students currently possess, and form groups accordingly.
Recording notes and observations during the session allows the teacher to identity areas of strength as well provide guidance for future teaching focuses
In the session, the teacher might actually engage students in some writing while supervised, or ask students to review what they have written prior to the session. In any case, the teacher should – as always – affirm what has been attempted and build skills and understandings from there.
Studies in EAL/D writing show writing conferences can be
'effective in three ways: a) improving students’ understanding of the teacher’s responses, b) maintaining students’ confidence about their writing and motivating them to revise their drafts, and c) assisting students to revise their drafts' (Xiang & O’Loughlin, 2008, p. 5).
During writing conferences, the teacher is not the author of the students’ stories – only students can generate the meaning and direction of their own text. It is important that teachers do not give out simple solutions to students’ writing or language needs even if class time is limited, and students sometimes expect teachers to tell them what to do.
Instead, teachers can adopt the role of a mediator using prompts, asking leading questions and offering tailored feedback on students’ concerns to guide students’ development beyond their current capabilities. For guidance to be successful, the teacher determines what learners can or cannot do, before, during, or as a result of instruction.
Discussing concepts and processes around writing using English can sometimes be very complex and the information may not always be available in dictionaries nor easy to find online. If the teacher has knowledge of some of the EAL/D students’ home languages, they could use it strategically to help students engage in meaning-making and thinking. The teacher does not give out the ‘answer’ in the home language but asks leading questions that help students think about the meaning they want to generate.
According to Hattie (2018), 'the power of teaching is in the art of listening'. As with all teacher-student interaction, teachers may dominate the conversation with EAL/D learners. Small groups and teacher-student conferences are opportunities for EAL/D students to drive the conversation.
The teacher could also:
- ask students what they would like feedback on or help with to build their sense of efficacy (e.g. Bandura, 1997)
- record conferencing sessions between the teacher and an upper primary EAL/D student so the student can access the information more fully outside class through repeated listening, strategic pausing and transcribing relevant sections of the recording
- ask EAL/D students to collaborate on a summary of the key points of the writer's conference. This provides the teacher with feedback that the student has understood the key messages and knows 'where to next' (Hattie, 2012).
The students’ role in guided writing/writing conference
As guided writing/small group writing conference is a collaborative classroom arrangement involving students and teacher, a spirit of generosity and cooperation needs to characterise these sessions.
Peer and teacher feedback on any writing attempt needs to honour the genuine communicative attempt that has been made, and suggestions should be offered in positive and constructive ways.
The idea of “two stars and a wish” (two compliments followed by a constructive suggestion) is a useful template when incorporating peer feedback into the guided writing/small group writing conference session.
Other options for grouping EAL/D learners in guided writing/writing conferences
The teacher assigns EAL/D students in writing conference groups according to the purpose of the session. The teacher could:
- group EAL/D students who share a common language and are at a similar level of English language proficiency. The advantages of using home languages to scaffold guided writing/writing conferences include:
- creating a private sphere to ask questions or give feedback according to shared cultural norms
- the ability to discuss the feedback with greater facility and accuracy or to demonstrate understanding through translation
- ensure that an EAL/D student is paired with another ‘student helper’ who shares a common language to encourage participation. However, the teacher needs to ensure that the student helper is not supporting the EAL/D student throughout the guided reading/ small group writing conference, but is also participating in the process. To achieve this, the teacher might limit the student helper’s involvement to translating questions and responses
- group EAL/D students according to the shared focus in language learning, regardless of their language backgrounds. The varied linguistic repertoires of the students contribute to a rich exchange of knowledge about how English works. Students use English as the single shared language to communicate with one another, but no one is an English expert, so students are different but equal.
The teacher may also incorporate peer feedback into the guided writing/ small group writing conference session by pairing first language and additional language users of English. The first language users of English may want to 'fix up' the writing themselves rather than provide feedback. In these instances, the teacher provides a structure for the interaction between the students. The EAL/D student reads their work aloud and responds to questions the listener asks. This will provide the EAL/D learner with feedback on the comprehensibility of their work. Once the content of the piece is established, then general feedback can be given that would apply to all learners in the class.
Feedback tools such as 'two stars and a wish' or PMI charts could include sentence starters to assist EAL/D students when providing feedback. Models of appropriate language, particularly when providing constructive criticism are a useful scaffold for EAL/D learners. It may be possible to provide translations of key support materials in the most commonly spoken languages in the school.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.
Department of Education, Western Australia (2013).
First steps: Writing resource book. Calkins, L.M. (1994).
The art of teaching writing. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Graves, D.H. (1994). A fresh look at writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hattie, J. (2012). The flow of the lesson: the place of feedback. In Hattie, J., Visible Learning for Teachers (pp. 115-137). London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. (2018).
Getting Feedback Right: a Q&A with John Hattie. Education Week
Mackenzie, N. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school? Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34 (3), 322-340.
Swain, M. (2008). Language, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency. In H. Byrnes (Ed.), Advanced language learning (pp. 95-108). London: Bloomsbury.
Swain, M., Kinnear, P., & Steinman, L. (2015). (Eds.). Sociocultural theory in second language education: An introduction through narratives (2nd Ed.). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Tompkins, G.E. (2010). Literacy in the middle grades. (2nd ed.). (pp. 228-257). Boston: Pearson.
Xiang, W., & O’Loughlin, K. (2008). The effectiveness of writing conferences in TESOL. TESOL in Context, 18(1), 5-12.