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Teaching Reflective Writers

Being reflective helps us improve in so many areas of our lives… in teaching, in parenting, in cooking, in marriage.  It pushes us to be better, to grow.  The same is true of writing.  Reflective writers are better writers.

Throughout the year in our school district, our students in grades Kindergarten through 8th are asked to choose written pieces to put into their writing portfolio.  They are encouraged 1) to choose pieces that demonstrate their growing abilities as a writer and 2) to describe what they tried as a writer in each piece.

Picture A

We are trying to teach them to be reflective writers. A reflective writer can step back from a piece and think, “What did I do well here?  What worked in this piece?  What does this piece say about me as a writer?  What am I able to do now that I wasn’t able to do before?  What have I learned about writing through this particular process?”

Hefty questions, right?  How can we teach children as young as kindergarten to be reflective?

Picture B

First, a writer needs time. Immediately after finishing a piece, our writerly minds are still turning.   Perhaps our ending line is still circling around in our mind, or maybe our final revisions on word choice are still pinging around in our heads. Our emotions may be still be raw.  We need time.  We can’t reflect immediately after finishing a piece of writing.  So, we ask our students to put all their writing aside in a classroom folder and reflect once a quarter.  On Portfolio Pick Day, we pull out all the writing from that quarter and begin to ask ourselves those hefty questions.

A reflective writer is usually working with a goal in mind.  Perhaps the goal is to make the reader laugh or to accurately convey some information or to describe the tiniest details of a scene.  (For this piece that you’re reading now, my goal is to be practical and straightforward.  How am I doing?)   No matter the goal(s), a reflective writer is able to decide whether or not a piece of writing met the goals.  They ask themselves, “Did this piece of writing do what I wanted it to do?” To this end, we encourage our teachers to have learning targets for each lesson and to share those targets with the kids.  For example, a kindergarten class might have the learning target: I can tell about my story in the order it happened.  A 7th grade target might be: I can use dialogue to develop my characters.  The targets provide a point of reflection for our students.  They are the lenses through which we look at each piece of writing.   Additionally, the learning targets provide a writing vocabulary for the students so they can articulately reflect on “leads” and “pace” and “dialogue” and “sequence”.  They help our students talk and interact like writers.

And, finally, a reflective writer knows that writing is social.  It is hard, perhaps impossible, to deeply reflect on a piece of writing that has never been shared.   Writers have to know how their writing impacts others.   Even writers who prefer to work in solitude eventually need to share their writing.   It’s a social act.  Even when sharing simply means clicking “publish” and waiting for comment notifications… we all need to know how our writing made others feel and/or what it helped our readers learn.  So, even though we are encouraging self-reflection, we still need peer conferences, specific teacher feedback, and time to talk about our writing in the classroom.   The reactions of others help us think about the impact of our writing.

In our lives, we all turn to others for feedback and support.  We seek the counsel of those we trust: our parents, our mentors, our friends and colleagues.  Let’s nudge our students to also look within themselves.  Let’s teach our students to reflect – to give serious thought and consideration – to their writing.  Let’s teach them to be their own critics in order to become better writers.

Dana Murphy is a Literacy Coach in Midlothian School District 143, located in the suburbs of Chicago.  She provides professional development for the staff and coaches in the K-8 classrooms.  At home, she likes to spend her time reading, writing, and playing with her two young daughters.  She blogs at Murphy’s Law: Musings from a Literacy Coach and Tweets at @dmurph08.

9 thoughts on “Teaching Reflective Writers Leave a comment

  1. This is a great post. I think reflecting can help students see that they are growing. Their writing might not be the best in the class, but it is improving, which is what we want! And I think when kids see personal growth, they gain confidence and will hopefully continue writing. I think one of my personal teaching goals will be to reflect weekly- whether it be in a blog or a journal. I can see this helping me tremendously. Thanks for your thoughts!


  2. When you talked about how writing is social, I think that’s one of the most important parts. Over the past few years I have totally changed my thinking about this. My students are talking while writing and sharing before they even write and sharing after they write. It truly helps them in their thinking process.


  3. Reflection happens when the writers emotions are still raw…this makes me think that I could open Portfolio Picks freely at any point a student knows they have a piece they want to keep. This is different from having one week only to choose portfolio picks or a “Portfolio Picks” day!

    Always love your writing 🙂


  4. Dana, there are so many things I could say….but I have decided to keep it simple. Honestly, I believe this is only the beginning for you. I see you accomplishing phenomenal things and helping others succeed along the way. Your parenting, teaching, writing skills are but glimpses of how amazing you are……perhaps it’s because you realize the significance of reflection….


  5. You inspired me to go back and reflect on my own writing! I’ve been in the almost editing stage for a few weeks not but have been dragging my feet. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of being my own critic 🙂


  6. Reflection that is rooted in the goals we have set for ourselves. Makes sense! The part of your piece that resonated with me the most was the idea that the act of writing is a social one. That’s why it feels so good to walk into a classroom during writing and hearing this beautiful buzz of talk. “Writing floats on a sea of talk”, I once heard. It’s so true. I started looking at myself as a writer when other people started looking at me as a writer! Their comments and their ideas pushed me to be even better. Thank you for highlighting this instructional tool to help students start early on their paths to being writers!


  7. Dana, I think you hit on something huge here! I hear so often that teachers have difficulty teaching their young students to reflect on their writing. Reading your blog entry makes me think that one of the issues could be that the students don’t have a clear vision of what they’re working towards. In order for our students to reflect on their writing, or anything else they do for that matter, they have to have a goal, focus, or purpose in mind, or some standard that they are aware of and working towards. A kindergartener who knows that he is trying to write an opinion and has a clear understanding and model of what an opinion is can definitely reflect on his writing. Thanks for your piece!


  8. Gosh Dana, I too believe in the importance of reflection! Our students need us to model being a reflective writer. I have many days where reflection is very difficult, but there are also many days where I reflect constantly in all that I do. The importance of sharing with others and talking with peers cannot be forgotten! Last March when I participated in the Slice of Life I was able to see myself as a writer, thanks to others!


  9. Interesting take on how to really think deeply on another mandatory classroom form to fill out. I wish more teachers understood that things like the portfolio picks are in place to help better their instruction! Most importantly, they give the accountability back to the student and they can take ownership of what they produced throughout the year. I’m making a huge effort this year to bring writing to the forefront of every classroom I work in. I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to copy and share the quote below. It’s simply well-stated and just brilliant. Thanks, Dana. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    “In our lives, we all turn to others for feedback and support. We seek the counsel of those we trust: our parents, our mentors, our friends and colleagues. Let’s nudge our students to also look within themselves. Let’s teach our students to reflect – to give serious thought and consideration – to their writing. Let’s teach them to be their own critics in order to become better writers.”


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