differentiation · notebooks · Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool Blog Series · writer's notebook

Differentiating the Writer’s Notebook for Every Stage K-8: Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool

November 2018 Image

A few days ago I was hiking with some friends. It was dark and icy and I slipped on a rock. I reached out my arm to stop my fall and landed on it with a crack. I knew right away that it was bad. A few hours later, emergency room x-rays confirmed that my wrist was broken in two places.

For the past week, I’ve been easing back into my work routine without the use of my right hand. I’ve been figuring out accommodations for everything from brushing my own hair, to buttering toast, to signing grocery store receipts. 

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to keep writing… without being physically able to write or type the way I used to. This brings me to the topic of this week’s blog series. Writer’s notebooks.

The writer’s notebook is the perfect tool for collecting all your great ideas quickly before you forget them. It’s perfect for drawing a quick sketch, making a list, or jotting a quick small moment or memory. You can carry it around with you easily, no need for a power cord or Wi-Fi connection.

But if you can’t sketch quickly or jot words quickly, or the lines in on the paper feel too small, or you find it difficult to organize your ideas on a blank page, then perhaps there might be other tools that are a better fit for you.

One of the tools that allowed me to get back to work has been voice-to-text. It has allowed me to answer emails, text my friends, and even write this blog post. Without this tool, I would have missed deadlines and fallen even further behind in my work.

This post is not just about voice-to-text, however, this post is about thinking flexibly about the many tools that can help writers. The writer’s notebook is just one of those tools, and there are many others as well. Sometimes the writer’s notebook is just the right thing. Sometimes it’s not.

Many adult authors do use a writer’s notebook.  However, plenty of adults do not. Adult authors use many strategies for gathering ideas and planning drafts, such as storyboarding, folders of loose paper, notebooks, and digital tools. Why wouldn’t we give our students choices for gathering ideas, planning, and drafting as well?

Differentiating Writing Materials

I physically can’t use a notebook for the next six to eight weeks. I’m wondering how many students out there physically cannot use a writer’s notebook comfortably. They may not have something as obvious as a broken arm, but we all know how uncomfortable writing by hand can be, how our hands can cramp up, or how painful writing for long stretches of time can be. Many of us can also relate to how intimidating a completely blank page can feel.

Good teaching starts with really knowing your students. Before thinking about differentiating the materials your students are going to use, first assess to see what stage they are at as writers. From there, you can match the appropriate materials to the appropriate stage.

Take a look at the most recent on-demand writing from your students and study it through the lens of developmental stages. Keep in mind that most learning is not strictly linear, and the kids might resemble one stage during one time of day and a different stage during another time of day. 

In many schools, writers notebooks are introduced sometime around third grade. As someone who has spent many years working Pre-K to 8th grade, I can tell you with confidence many 3rd, 4th, and even 5th-graders would benefit from using booklets, blank paper, or digital tools to gather ideas and make plans for their writing– instead of a writer’s notebook.

The stages below are loosely based on several sources. I looked across the TCRWP Learning Progressions (Calkins, et al) for writing, as well as Fountas & Pinnell’s reading levels (Fountas & Pinnell, 2018), and at the stages of spelling development in Words Their Way (Bear, et al 2017). Experienced literacy teachers know there are loose correlations between students’ development as readers, writers, and spellers. These shake out to the approximate stages outlined below. While the suggestions for materials are my own, many others before me have conceptualized literacy learning in predictable stages.

Instead of expecting all your students to use the same tools and materials, consider where they are in their literacy learning and guide them toward materials that will support them. Teach your students to make choices, reflect, try out different materials, and find what works for them.

stages-5c-20of-_33980950 (1)

Click here to read my original post regarding paper choices for writing workshop.

Click here for more details on how the writing process might go, in and out of the notebook, in grades 3 to 8, and here for more detail on “popping out of the notebook.”

Tips for Managing Materials in Writing Workshop

If you and your students are accustomed to a classroom where everybody’s generally using the same materials for writing, it might be hard to envision a writing workshop where students are using a whole range of materials from blank paper booklets, to notebooks, to laptops and other tools.

If you teach third grade or older you might consider providing all of your students with both a folder and a notebook. This way, when a handful of your students are using a folder, it’s just a tool that everybody has access to, not something that makes a few students feel hyper-visible. You can also provide different types of notebooks that look the same on the outside but have different types of paper on the inside. Or, if that’s not possible, teach students different ways to modify the paper on the inside of their typical notebook so that it’s a little more user-friendly. This might include drawing a line across the top of the page to create clear space for drawing versus writing, or using large post-its to make space for a quick sketch. Lastly, if you can present each new material as a choice, this will ensure that the student is the one making the decisions (with your strong guidance and encouragement of course).

It will also be helpful to find a space in your classroom to create a writing center:  a place where various paper choices, folders, writing utensils, and everything kids might need can be stored in an organized way. Here are a few links to resources for thinking about writing centers.

Back to Basics: Writing Centers

Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Writing Centers to Organize All Your Materials

For third or fourth graders (or older), students who are fluent in keyboarding and benefit from typing instead of writing by hand (meaning they can get more and/or better writing done through typing), a digital writer’s notebook might be a possibility. Just like a “regular” writer’s notebook, a digital writer’s notebook will need to have each entry dated, and you’ll have to decide if it makes sense for all the entries to go in one big document (using google docs, for example), or if it makes more sense for students to open up a separate document for each notebook entry. There are pluses and minuses to both ways of doing it. You’ll also need to spend time setting expectations that students will be typing in their notebook the entire writing workshop and not clicking around to other applications during that time. You’ll also have to set up some expectations for how much time is reasonable to spend choosing a font, color, inserting images, and other potentially distracting options on the computer. Here are a few links for more food for thought on digital notebooks:

What’s So Great About Google Drive?

Thinking About My Writer’s Notebook in the Digital Age

Google Docs + Writing Workshop =Happy Writing Teacher (and Happy Writing Students)

Conferring provides a structure for introducing new materials in a manageable way, one student at a time. You might begin a conference by complimenting the great work the student is already doing. Then suggest one or two options for other materials that will support the student. Share an example of a piece of work that was done using those materials and suggest to the student that they might have just as much success if they give it a try as well. Leave the student materials they need to get started, making sure your writing center is stocked with extra materials for when they’re ready to go and get more. (You don’t want students to have to rely on you to hand out the special paper or folder or whatever the tool might be.) Set up a routine that sets them up for independence.


I mentioned voice-to-text technology earlier. There may be students in your class who might benefit from this technology. You will want to weigh the pros and cons. For times during your school day when the most important goal is getting ideas down onto the page quickly, and you’ve already tried every other accommodation you can think of, then voice-to-text might be a great option. I have seen voice-to-text change students’ learning lives.

However, there are limitations in what voice-to-text can do. First of all, you will have to invest a bit of time teaching the student to use voice commands that are specific to the technology. For example, the voice-to-text application I used to write this post requires me to name the punctuation at the end of each sentence. I have to say aloud the word “period” or “exclamation.” I also have to say aloud the words “new line” to start a new paragraph.

Sometimes voice-to-text doesn’t do what I want it to do. It frequently substitutes the wrong words. Sometimes there’s too much background noise and it can’t understand me. Plus, it’s not that easy to use it in public since it disturbs others.  I have to reread everything I dictate and add in capital letters, spacing, fix spelling, and delete the extra words. It’s much slower for me than regular typing, and quite frankly–very frustrating. Please take this into consideration before investing students’ time and energy in voice-to-text technology.

In the end, whether your students are writing on sheets of paper saved in a folder, in a writer’s notebook, or in a digital version of a notebook, our goals are the same. The materials we choose should support our students in creating a writing life for themselves.

In what ways have you modified or adapted writer’s notebooks for your students? How do you manage the different kinds of materials and tools that each of your students might need? Leave us a note in the comments to keep the conversation going, And don’t miss our “ slow chat”  this week on Twitter. Just use the hashtag #TWTBlog to join in all week long.


  • This giveaway is for a free 20-minute classroom Skype session with author Amy Ludwig VanDerwater whose popular blog Sharing Our Notebooks is an excellent resource for notebookers of all ages and interests.
  • For a chance to win this Skype session with Amy, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 11th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Betsy Hubbard 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, November 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can link you up with Amy if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the Skype session, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMY LV. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

4 thoughts on “Differentiating the Writer’s Notebook for Every Stage K-8: Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool

  1. Wow! I am finally catching up to the posts I missed… this one is another keeper! i especially appreciate the developmental writing stages as it relates to notebooking. I love the mini notebooks. I used to give my students mini composition notebooks they could hold in their pockets and carry around. Thanks for providing links to prior posts – so helpful.


  2. Beth,
    What an amazing post in spite of your broken wrist. Heal well! What an opportunity to study the world from the left-handed view!

    Paper choice is so critical for so many students because if the child does not view themself as the kind of writer that can fill a page, a page with too many lines is a roadblock before even beginning to write. I’d love to see more conversations between teachers so that August teachers have out the paper students used in May . . . something familiar to start the year.

    May planning: And just as we now have book bags packed by students for their day one in the next grade, what about a writing bag packed with paper and a favorite writing piece from the current grade to take to the next grade? Or a “When I am in third grade, I plan to be the writer who writes stories about . . . ” (Thoughtful transitions)



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