Small Group Writing Planning Made Easy

Teachers and administrators alike put a lot of emphasis on small group instruction.  Reading tends to get the lion’s share of attention, but writing is equally important.   Reading and writing are reciprocal, so your students will become much stronger readers if they also become strong writers.  This is true for our youngest and oldest students.  In Read, Write, Lead, literacy leader Regie Routman reminds us that “a student’s ability to think rationally, argue with credible evidence, and speak eloquently to defend a position…are all enhanced through thoughtful writing.”  This is where strong small group instruction in writing comes in.  

Just like in reading, your students will be at a wide variety of skill levels, and you’ll need to meet all of their needs.  So it’s well worth your time to push your students further in their learning through small group instruction in writing.



Writing can be hard for teachers.  As a literacy coach, one refrain I hear all the time is “I just don’t feel comfortable teaching writing.”  I get it.  Writing IS big.  The authors of This is Balanced Literacy explain why:

“The act of writing is the product of a constellation of habits and skills that place high cognitive and metacognitive demands on students.”

Fisher, Frey, & Akhavan

Writers have to plan a message, remember it, think how to spell the words, form the letters to write it, reread it, consider how to improve it, be willing to revise it, and then actually revise–and edit.  All of this, while also keeping text structure and audience in mind.  It’s a juggling act that can be a lot for kids (and adults!), and it’s not something that any download of worksheets or task cards can do. 

And just to add more complexity…writing is very vulnerable.  Writers of any age often fear that their words are not good enough, which can either cause them to put in no effort at all or become overly anxious and perfectionistic.  

The cognitive and metacognitive demands are enormous.

But once teachers learn how simple it can be to teach,  they begin to love it.  (If you’re in the “writing is hard to teach” camp, check out this post).   If you’re ready for the next steps in teaching writing that will really make an impact on your students’ literacy skills, keep reading!

What to focus on in small group writing instruction 

First, it’s important to know that just like with small group reading instruction, there are many things you might teach in small groups for writing.  To name just a few:

  • Generating ideas
  • Spelling strategies
  • Focus
  • Revision
  • Organization
  • Sentence development
  • Elaboration and word choice
  • Editing
  • Engagement/Work habits/Independence

Whatever you teach in small groups for writing, it must be connected to what you’re teaching.  This is very important, or it’ll never land and you won’t see improvement in student work.  To quote Mike Ochs, Teachers’ College staff developer,

“Small group instruction  is not a solve-all. It can be spotty and not aligned with the rest of your lessons.  Small group instruction MUST give kids access to the regular curriculum.”  

Mike Ochs, TCRWP

So, how do you ensure that what you’re teaching in small groups is connected to what you’re teaching in your mini lessons?  

Data is the secret sauce.  

Quickly thin-slicing your students’ writing, where you look at just specific aspects, is one fantastic way to gather information.  Use the bulleted list above for ideas.   

You can also simply look through your kids’ work for evidence of volume, stamina, idea generation, and revision.  Again, just focus on one lens at a time.  Pair this with an engagement inventory for even more information.  


Another way–and one of the most powerful–is through getting more from conferring notes.  I talk about how I take conferring notes in this post, so definitely hop over there to learn about it.  Just as in reading, the way you write your notes is key.  At the end of a typical two-week round of conferring with kids, you’ll have all the information you need to plan targeted, efficient, small groups in writing.  Combine this with periodically looking holistically at student work and engagement, and you’ll be fully armed with knowing exactly what your kids need you to teach.  Click here to see a video about how I use my writing notes to form small groups in writing (there’s a weird flashing when it opens; just ignore that and hit “play!”)

Using your notes gives you real-time, authentic data.  It allows you to let your students guide you in what they need next to ensure that you are working squarely in their zone of proximal development.   This is the ultimate goal, so that your teaching will stick and your kids will grow as readers and writers further, faster!

Want a free copy of the conferring notes I use?  Click here for a set of notes that can be used for any writing unit! 

Could you use help determining what your students need to grow as writers?  Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts:   How to Have Awesome Student Writing Conferences, Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Anatomy of a [Reading or Writing] Conference, One [Paper] Stone, Many Birds, Small Group Instruction:  What Does it Really Mean, How to Quickly Assess Student Writing, Easy Method for Teaching for Transfer in Writing

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