As a school, we are gradually implementing Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). This is already well established in our lower grades and it is working its way through school year by year. As Year Four teachers, it’s finally time for us to get involved and see what the fuss is all about! To help us with the transition, we enjoyed PD from TCRWP Lead Staff Developer Grace Chough, supported and organised by Nicole Wilson (our Head of English and Literacy Coach). As always, writing about PD allows me to consolidate my learning while simultaneously helping others (hopefully). But keep in mind that I am new to TCRWP and it is, therefore, quite possible that I have misinterpreted or misunderstood some of these points. If so, please feel free to correct me in the comment section below. Also, this post discusses writing only. I will learn about TCRWP reading at a later date. With all that said, here is my overview of TCRWP writing, based on my learning from Grace and Nicole. It’s going to be a long post (maybe my longest ever) but stick with it because there are some important principles here that can be applied to any teaching of writing.
The “bottom lines”
First of all, Grace encouraged us to reflect on times in our lives when writing really mattered to us, and why. I’m sad to say, I have no memories of this earlier than university. Even then, it was for a grade rather than for enjoyment. It was this self-initiated blog that made me fall in love with writing for the first time in my life. The reasons are quite obvious: I have an audience, a purpose, a choice of topics, responses and, for many reasons, it just feels important. It benefits me more than anyone else, but it also has wider significance beyond just me. On an ongoing basis, I am excited and motivated to write because of these conditions. There’s no reason why we can’t provide the same writing conditions for our students. In addition, other “bottom lines” include the belief that explicit instruction, the writing process and sufficient time are all essential components of developing young writers. All TCRWP units have been carefully designed with these conditions in mind and end with some sort of celebration of students’ writing.
A “writerly” life
The main aim of TCRWP is to develop independent, lifelong writers. Is this taught or caught? In my experience, we can teach students the craft of writing and develop their skills but, like reading, lifelong enthusiasm is usually inspired by the people around them. When TCRWP is properly implemented, the classroom should feel like a community of writers and the discussions between students, teachers and peers are very much writer to writer. In TCRWP, the teachers play an important role as writing role models and, to a certain extent, need to be willing to write themselves. This is perfect for me because I already love sharing my blog and my love of writing with my students.
When we have “writerly” lives, ideas and inspiration can hit us any time, any place. This is why, as a blogger, I carry my notebook everywhere with me. As writers, TCRWP teachers and students do the same.
The photo shows my blog’s notebook (that I have always used to capture and develop ideas for this blog) and an example of a classroom notebook from my teaching partner. While there is value in sharing my authentic one, it’s also useful to have a separate one for modelling writing in other contexts and genres. Teachers and students use their writing notebooks to collect ideas and write entries. I think of entries as pre-drafts. They allow students to develop their ideas beyond just words and phrases and, over time, develop their writing stamina. This is the Generate part of the writing process, followed by Rehearse, Draft, Revise, Edit and Publish. Later in the unit, they can choose the entries with the most potential and take them through the rest of the writing process.
When we have a “writerly” life, we intentionally learn from writing mentors. For example, I read other blogs to see how others write in this style. If I wish, I can adopt some of the same techniques. Young writers should be explicitly taught how to do this. When teaching a new technique, it is useful to share an existing, published example of when another writer has used it well. As teachers, we can act as a bridge between the published author and the students, modelling how to learn from mentor texts and apply the same techniques to our own writing.
The key to TCRWP is routine. While teaching points, discussions and genres continually change, the structure of the lessons remains predictable. TCRWP adopts the workshop model. The same model is used across various programmes; it is not exclusive to TCRWP. However, the diagram below includes TCRWP terminology.
In order to maximise the time that students are actually writing, the minilesson should be around ten minutes only and follow a predictable structure: Connection, Teach, Active Engagement and Link. Within this short time, the teacher should briefly explain how today’s teaching point builds on previous learning (Connection), introduce one new teaching point with demonstration, guided practise or examples (Teach), allow a short time for students to practise (Active Engagement) and explain how this teaching point can be used beyond today’s lesson and throughout their writing lives (Link).
2. Independent writing
This section of the workshop is, as Grace described it, the “heart” of TCRWP. While students are independently writing, the teacher can support, guide, nudge, mentor and coach through a balance of one-to-one conferences, small group work and table compliments (all outlined below). The aim is always to improve the writer rather than any specific piece of writing. The approaches are carefully chosen based on the needs of the students. In all of them, the teachers should show a genuine interest in the children and a desire to see them progress as writers.
I use this template to keep track of discussions and teaching points. There might be better templates available elsewhere, but feel free to make a copy. There should only be one teaching point in each discussion so any other noticed issues can be added to the “postponed” section for later consideration.
One-to-one conferences are highly-personalised, student-led discussions about themselves as writers. They follow a predictable structure: Research, Compliment, Teach, Active Engagement (optional) and Link. The Research section allows the teacher to delve deeper into the writer’s habits, routines and goals. Then, they can offer a sincere compliment about a writing strategy, habit or behaviour that the student is already demonstrating (Compliment). This should be followed by one suggestion of how the student can improve as a writer (Teach) and this can be tried out together, if necessary, with teacher prompts and coaching (Active Engagement). Finally, the student should summarise the conference, restate the teaching point and explain how it will be useful moving forward (Link). Done correctly, students should leave conferences feeling proud of their work and motivated to continue writing.
Small group instruction
When teachers notice multiple students with the same need, they can support them together in a small, teacher-directed group. The structure of this is similar to a minilesson but with greater emphasis on the Active Engagement part. During a small group session, the students should be doing the “cognitive heavy lifting”. First, the teacher should explain why they have been selected for the group (Connection). The teacher should then name and demonstrate the teaching point (Teach) and then coach the individuals as they write (Active Engagement). Importantly, the teacher uses the Link section to set the expectation for upcoming workshops, emphasising that the group is not just a one-off. Rather, it marks the start of a series of sessions together. They should continue to practise the strategy with increasing independence. For those selected students, the next few workshops should focus on the same skill but with reduced reliance on the teacher and an increased expectation to support each other.
A simple way to nudge students is to notice one positive thing that a student is doing in their writing and share it with the rest of their table group. You can gently encourage the other writers to adopt the same strategy.
Mid-workshop instruction (approx. 2mins)
Partway through this independent writing section, teachers get the students’ attention again to offer a quick tip, a reminder or some motivation. This is typically used when students start to lose stamina. After the short input, they are then encouraged to continue with their writing.
The Share section wraps up the workshop and should be around five minutes only. The teacher might use this to recap the teaching point or prompt reflection. Often, it is used as an opportunity for students to share their writing, typically with their regular writing partners. Children are usually aware of their partner’s targets and can, therefore, offer meaningful coaching, encouragement and support with these in mind.
After the week of inspirational (yet intense) training, Grace enjoyed a couple more days in Hong Kong to enjoy the sights, enthusiastically accompanied by Nicole. It was my pleasure to welcome them both to Lamma Island where we continued discussing TCRWP over a lovely seafood lunch. These ladies never switch off from their shared passion and, believe me, it’s infectious!
I hope that this overview is helpful to you, but keep in mind that I have barely scratched the surface! Whether you adopt TCRWP or not, these points are just good practice and can be applied to any programme/classroom. For example, we invited writing expert Matt Glover to school last year. He is not connected to TCRWP but he also promotes the workshop model and shares the same writing philosophy. If you’re interested, click here to revisit my blog post about Matt’s ideas. You’ll notice lots of crossover!
To conclude, I wholeheartedly believe in this approach to teaching writing. It just makes sense! In fact, I wish I had learnt to write in this way and, if I had children, I would want this for them too.
Finally, I recommend visiting the Heinemann website for information and resources. If you have anything to add to this discussion, please contribute below. Don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help you in any way.
To receive blog updates, find the ‘Follow’ icon (below or in the sidebar) or ‘Like’ my Facebook page. Your ongoing support and encouragement are very much appreciated.