Tailoring Our Teaching: Strategy Lessons Support Writers

Tailoring Our TeachingI learned about strategy lessons in 2005 while I was teaching 26 fifth graders as a NYC Public School Teacher.  My ears perked up when I heard about these dynamic, heterogeneous groupings of students who you’d gather together to teach a particular strategy.  Sometimes teachers gather together groups of kids based on their ability level, while other times they gather a group of kids based on a particular need (e.g., a teacher notices several students are writing narratives devoid of internal thinking and teaches a strategy lesson, rather than holding several of the same conferences, to explicitly teach students how to include internal thinking in their writing).  As someone with a class of 26 students, I relished the idea of meeting with several students at one time since that would allow me to check-in with more students during independent writing time.

As described in The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins describes these strategy lessons as follows:

In a strategy lesson, we again work with a small (although sometimes a large) group of readers and we usually have a shared text. We teach a strategy, usually by demonstrating it and then we scaffold readers as they try that strategy, helping them become increasingly independent with it. Later, we observe to see whether the tool we taught has become part of each reader’s ongoing repertoire. Strategy lessons are rather like small-group minilessons in the middle of the reading workshop (2001, 44).

Strategy lessons are for reading and writing workshop.  You can think of them as small-group minilessons based on needs you notice the young writers in your midst exhibiting.

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Here are five ways teachers can form groups for strategy lessons:

  1. Active Involvement: If you notice there are a handful of students who are confused by the active involvement, then you can reteach your minilesson in a different way by pulling them in a small group before independent writing time begins.
  2. Drafts:  Reading students’ drafts helps you understand what students are struggling with as writers.  If you notice your entire class isn’t doing something (like proving their claim throughout their writing), then it’s time to re-teach that strategy in another minilesson.  However, if you notice just a few kids are having trouble with this, teach them how to do it again in a strategy lesson.
  3. Experience Level: You can pull together a group of inexperienced writers, mid-range writers, or sophisticated writers to teach them a strategy that will help them gain more experience as a writer.
  4. Notebook Noticings: As you read through your students’ writer’s notebooks, look for commonalities.  For instance, if you have several students who write a solid chunk of text on a page gather them together and teach them how, when and why to paragraph.  If you notice you have a group of students who are telling what happened rather than describing it, pull them together for a “show, not tell” strategy lesson.  (You might need to pull the latter group a few times so you can teach them a variety of ways to show, not tell.)
  5. Plan Boxes: This end-of-minilesson check-in will allow you to see what your students’ intentions are for their independent writing time.  If you have a few students who seem to have the same needs, then gather them for a strategy lesson group for the day.

In addition to your conferring toolkit, have the following things on-hand for your strategy lesson:

  • A mentor text that demonstrates the strategy you’re teaching.
    • I think it’s best to teach a strategy lesson using your own writing or a published author’s writing.
    • If possible, provide students with their own copy of the text.
  • Record-keeping sheets or a special form you customize in a conferring app so you can keep track of the students you meet with (just as you would when you confer).

Strategy lessons should not be a substitute for one-to-one conferences.  While it often seems easier to meet with a group of kids rather than conferring with each student in your class, strategy lessons are not as individualized as writing conferences.  You don’t develop a writer-to-writer relationship with kids when you meet with them in strategy lessons.  While you may compliment the group, you’re not building up each child with a specific compliment.  Therefore, I suggest pulling students for at least one strategy lesson per week in addition to the one-to-one writing conference or peer conference you have with them.  This allows you to meet each child’s needs while maximizing your own time during writing workshop.

Want to learn more about strategy lessons?  Click here for some archived posts.