Independent Writing Time: Beyond the Fundamentals of Writing Workshop

Last week I met with a teacher about a writer who worries her.

Feb 2018 Blog Series - DRAFT“Where’s his writing?” I asked.

She pulled out a piece with a date on it, and the date was from over a month ago. This second grader had written a few words on each page, and when we looked closely, many of the words were copied from a planning document that an adult had clearly helped him create.

“It’s not enough writing, is it?” the teacher asked.

She knew what I was going to say.


In order to make growth in writing, whether we are five or fifty, we have to spend a fair amount of time…writing. One of the important components of writing workshop is that students have blocks of independent writing time. These blocks of time occur after the minilesson and after the mid-workshop interruption. Ideally, independent writing time should be the bulk of a writing workshop. Depending on how long you have allocated for the instruction of writing, there should be 30 to 40 minutes of writing time for students. Sometimes, these blocks become times for students to find anything to do except write. Many students, especially the ones who are striving, become experts in task-avoidant behaviors. Here are some ideas for making sure that students, regardless of their grade, are producing during independent writing time.

Practical Strategies

  1. Date the work. Have a date stamp on hand or teach students to write the date wherever they begin their work. Dates hold us accountable and let us recognize patterns of (un)productivity. This system does not always work if students are doing significant revisions, but often times, the students who are spending a lot of revising aren’t the ones who are concerning from a productivity standpoint.
  2. Get rid of erasers. Really. Get rid of them. Teach students to make a single cross out when they make a mistake or want to make a change. Students who struggle to produce typically spend a LOT of time erasing. They’ve learned how to look busy without getting a lot of writing done.
  3. Consider using pens (Beth wrote one of my favorite posts of all times about pens versus pencils that you should read if you haven’t already), and for that matter, seriously consider teaching students how to use Flair pens. That way, each day, they can use a different color. I know one teacher who bought big packs of them in four different colors, and each day, everyone used a different color. Think about the accountability and the information you’d have if you could glance at piece of work and see how much has been done on any given day. Likewise, you could teach older students who compose on keyboards to switch their colors on a daily basis. It’s a simple request and it provides lots of information.
  4. Think about the paper choices you offer students and the messages those choices send. For some students, output increases when you provide more lines. For other students, those same lines could freeze a student.

RB 2018-02-04 10.38.11

The following ideas are more theoretical concepts that we should all check in with. How are we creating environments that value the writers within our classrooms and make them feel safe and empowered to share their words with the world? Writers have to be brave!

  1. Value the process over the product. Not everything students produce will be anywhere close to perfect. I know that sounds obvious, but ask yourself, what do I really want this student to learn from writing this piece? Recently, I’ve been working with fifth graders on research-based essays. My group of students had no understanding of how to state a clear claim or create any kind of organizational structure. If I kept them on the same essay and had them go through all the elaboration strategies other students were learning, they would probably not have retained their ability to state a claim and recognize the importance of paragraphs.
  2. A related point is that not every piece has to have every teaching point represented within it. We are teaching repertoire to students. If you are running a true workshop where students are at different points in the writing process, working on different elements or story or text, then not everyone will be ready to use that teaching point on that day. It might be that the relevance will come later, but because you’ve posted it and there’s an understanding of how to use teaching points and build independence and repertoire, the teaching point of the day may show up on a different day.
  3. Staying with teaching points… they should be posted and should stay visible to students throughout the writing unit. Something that gets in the way of volume is students’ tendency to do what was taught only on that one day. Today, we learned how to write introductions, so once I’ve written an introduction, I’m finished for the day. Nope. Today, we’ve added introductions to the repertoire of skills and strategies we are developing in this unit. This is a subtle, but important shift in thinking, and this mentality will dramatically increase the volume of writing that happens during independent writing time.
  4. Provide tools for independence and teach students to access them. Charts are tools of independence. So are checklists, as well as mentor texts, and writing partners. I love asking students what they are working on when I sit down next to them, and I have also started asking “How are you working on that?” This question encourages them to think about, access, and independently use tools that scaffold independence.

One last theoretical and critical point: Your striving writers, and writers in lower grades, should be writing more pieces than your high-flying writers. A striving fourth-grader will make more growth if s/he writes several pieces that approximate lessons and standards than if s/he writes one or two pieces with lots of coaching and scaffolds that meets grade-level standards. Left to his own devices, that student will not be able to duplicate the process unless he’s had a chance to try it out on his own through a model of gradual release, and not through a model of step by step instructions.

Don’t let perfect get in the way of the good is such an important statement for both teachers and students of writing.

Link Roundup:

Suggested Reading:

Giveaway Information:

  • Back and ForthThis giveaway is for a copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan. Thanks to Heinemann Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 11th at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BACK AND FORTH BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.