Effective Framework for Primary-Grade Guided Writing Instruction

This article describes the theory and procedures (purpose, format, teacher prompting, and assessment procedures) for small-group writing instruction. Guided writing lessons are intensive, small-group activities that help create instructional support and interaction between teacher and students during writing.

Young writers need instruction. They do not improve their writing skills simply because teachers require them to write (Englert, 1992). Children need explicit scaffolding, constructed within expertly delivered instructional conversations that address the language, knowledge, and strategies required for problem solving in writing. Effective writing instruction provides "richly textured opportunities for students' conceptual and linguistic development" (Goldenberg, 1992, p. 317).

This article describes the theory and procedures for guided writing lessons, which are a specific format for primary-grade, small-group writing instruction based on (a) a sociocultural perspective (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1991), (b) Clay's theories of literacy learning (2001), and (c) the author's study of second-grade guided writing instruction (Gibson, 2008). Guided writing is defined here as a small-group instructional framework presented to students who share similar needs at a particular point in time (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001). Guided writing provides an important context for teachers' in-the-moment assessment and immediate instructional scaffolding of students' construction of their own, individual texts. As students completed their hands-on examination of a celery stalk, for example, the following discussion supported their construction of an informative title for their own text.

Teacher: Okay, now that you've taken a good look at that celery stalk, I want you to think about one interesting idea about celery that you want to write about today. Sean, are you going to write about the strings that you found in the celery?

Sean: I'm going to say, How do you get strings out of celery? Hey, here's what I'm going to do. First, snap it in two.

Teacher: Good! How to get the strings out of celery. And you've thought of a good way to start your story as well.

Cari: That's his title. I don't want the strings.

Teacher: Are you thinking of your own title?

Cari: Let me tell you how celery looks.

Teacher: Great! You've all thought of one interesting idea to write about and are using a title to help your readers understand. I'll help you while you write your own text.

All writing is collaborative. Effective writing teachers collaborate with students, creating apprenticeships for them through guided practice (Englert, Mariage, & Dunsmore, 2006). Thus, writing instruction should include explicit teaching in which teachers step in to model and prompt and then step back to encourage students to make decisions and solve problems while writing (Englert & Dunsmore, 2002). Effective writing instruction should make the elements of good writing and the strategies of good writers visible and accessible to naive writers (Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000). The guided in guided writing lessons, then, refers to the essential nature of the support provided by expert teachers while students write. This article connects guided reading to guided writing instruction with emphasis on children's internalization of the thinking and self-scaffolding needed for effective writing.

The characteristics of effective reading instruction overlap with those of effective writing instruction. Reading and writing share rhetorical and communicative functions, knowledge, and cognitive processes (Nelson & Calfee, 1998). Critical shared knowledge between reading and writing includes metaknowledge, that is, knowing the functions and purposes of reading and writing; phonological and graphemic awareness; and procedural knowledge of the use of strategies (Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000). Clay (1998) emphasized the reciprocal relationship between learning to read and learning to write as well as the crucial role of strategic activity for both reading and writing acquisition. Both learning to read and to write requires the expansion of children's oral language resources and the application of these competencies to understanding and constructing texts within a variety of genres.

Poor writers' systems of learning and development (McNaughton, 1995) are both "limited and limiting" (Glasswell, 2001, p. 349). Young writers typically lack the control structures that allow them to use existing or developing skills to expand their knowledge base. However, these writers do learn strategic behavior for writing when such behavior is taught in supportive ways (Boocock, McNaughton, & Parr 1998; Bradley, 2001; Sipe, 1998). The study from which this article is derived (Gibson, 2008) analyzed the results of daily guided writing instruction presented by the author to five average-progress second-grade writers, referred to as Cari, Kim, Rachel, Sam, and Sean. This study addressed each child's internalization of strategic behaviors for problem solving during writing through analysis of videotaped weekly individual writing events as well as assessment of writing products. Each student demonstrated a strong, clear shift to a more active and strategic stance for writing, thus supporting expanded knowledge of language use for composing, for text and sentence structure, for phonemic awareness, and for orthography.

This article describes instructional steps and teaching behaviors for explicit primary-grade, small-group writing instruction in a supportive, guided context. Each section includes examples of teacher-student interaction during guided writing lessons. The article also describes two specific assessment procedures that support guided writing instruction.

A framework for guided writing instruction

Guided writing instruction in a small-group context allows teachers to provide high levels of immediate, targeted support while each student writes his or her own short but complete text. A typical format for a 20-minute guided writing lesson might include the following four steps:

  1. Engagement in a brief, shared experience that is of interest to students, including both a linguistically and informationally rich activity and accompanying conversation, and expansion of students' ability to talk about content of interest
  2. Discussion of strategic behavior for writing, including a presentation of a think-aloud or a cue for strategic activity along with active discussion of ways in which students can integrate this strategy into their own writing
  3. Students' time to write individually with immediate guidance from the teacher, who "leans in" to interact with individual students about immediate decisions and strategies and uses prompts to guide students' thinking for problem solving while writing
  4. A brief sharing activity in which the writer's immediate work is shared with an audience, and writers experience their newly written texts as a whole

Grouping practices are too often the missing link in effective writing instruction (Flood & Lapp, 2000). It is not necessary, however, for every student to participate in a guided writing lesson every day. Instead, teachers should make intentional, thoughtful decisions about which students are in need of a "shot in the arm" regarding writing at any point in time. A series of guided writing lessons might be presented to students who are not producing much text during classroom writing time, for example, or to students who write a sufficient quantity of text but lack a sense of ownership for their writing. Alternatively, the teacher may work with students who are not appropriating the elements of good writing described in whole-class lessons. Guided writing groups should be flexible in nature and based on observations of students' current needs. These lessons are most successful when presented on a daily basis to the same group of students, perhaps for several consecutive weeks.

The writing produced during guided writing will typically be the result of about 10 minutes of concentrated individual writing time and may or may not be extended, revised, or edited outside of the guided writing context. Guided writing lessons do not take the place of such frameworks as a writing workshop model (Graves, 1983) or interactive writing (McCarrier, Pinnell, & Fountas, 2000). A guided writing lesson might occur after a whole-class writing lesson has been completed and students are writing independently. Teachers typically spend the first weeks of each school year establishing expectations for independent work time prior to beginning guided writing lessons. Guided writing thus provides a strong context for teachers' support of students as they put whole-class instruction into practice. The instructional procedures for guided writing lessons are now described, divided into four steps.

Step 1: Brief, Shared Experience

The orientation provided for students when reading a new book insures that the meaning and language of this particular text are accessible to readers (Clay, 1991). The teacher

creates a scaffold within which children can complete a first reading of a whole story. The teacher and children have rehearsed some responses; others are recent and familiar because the teacher modeled them. The children's own background knowledge has been called to mind, and some new knowledge has been introduced in a measured way. (p. 265)

As described in the next sections, Step 1 of guided writing lessons captures students' interests for writing and allows them to rehearse their use of important conceptual and linguistic resources.

Provide a Strong, Supportive Introduction.

The introductory section of guided writing lessons should (1) expand students' interest and orient them to the writing task, and (2) provide opportunities for students to hear and use the language structures needed for their writing. Possible activities include study of an interesting topic, a short read-aloud from one section of an informational text, and a brief experiment.

Teacher: Today we're going to try an experiment to see how many paperclips will stick to one magnet. I want you to think about the writing that you will do next, though, before you get your magnets. What would be a good first sentence for your own story?

Kim: I, I, I don't know.

Teacher: How could you tell your readers about the magnets and the paperclips?

Kim: I test my magnets.

Teacher: Yes. Do you think you want to write anything about the paperclips too? First I tested…

Rachel: Magnets and paperclips.

Sean: What did it stick on?

Teacher: Yes. You have to put some details in too, don't you? So your text might be about the magnet and the paperclips. You could start your own sentence with something like, This experiment…

Sean: First, I did the experiment. I took my magnet and put the paperclips on it.

Teacher: Good! Listen: First, I did the experiment, period. I took my magnet and put the paperclips on it, period. Say his sentences again: First, I did the experiment. I took my magnet and put the paperclips on it. You are thinking about great ways to start writing. Let's try our experiment, and then you can write your own story.

Engage Writers in Conversation and Rehearsal.

In guided writing lessons, students rehearse new ways of talking about topics of interest using literate and increasingly complex forms of language. Discussion immediately prior to and during individual writing expands students' language base and prepares them to write well. Rehearsal of language structures should be explicit and well connected to the type of text and topic about which students are currently writing.

It is important to recognize the challenges faced by young writers as they work to appropriate the more complex structures of written language. Composing is a skill that has to be learned, just like spelling or the correct use of punctuation. It requires expertise with both overall organization and sentence structure. With strong and consistent input through discussion and teacher explanation, students' written texts can move from simple to complex uses of language. Sean's story about bats, for example (see Figure 1), was written during a guided writing session and supported by a discussion of a section of the book Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies. In contrast to his earlier writing, Sean began this text with a topic sentence and used a variety of sentence structures. He composed his text with relatively sophisticated details about bats, using specific vocabulary. Sean also wrote with an appropriate voice and stance for informational text, including a pronunciation guide for echolocation and a picture to illustrate this important concept. He completed this text in approximately seven minutes of sustained writing, supported by immediate discussion of the language, content, and writing strategies needed for his work.

Figure 1. Sean's Writing

Sean's writing

Step 2: Discussion of Strategic Behavior for Writing

Guided writing lessons provide maximum opportunities for active student engagement in their own writing, supported by the teacher's immediate guidance and explicit teaching of the strategic behaviors used by good writers. In Step 2, teachers work to expand their students' awareness of specific cognitive strategies for writing.

Describe Writing Strategies to Students.

Following a brief shared activity, teachers can present a short think-aloud or introduce a cue card (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986) for a specific strategic activity to students (see Figure 2). Teachers and students should then discuss ways in which students can integrate this strategy into their own writing. In the following example, the teacher extends her think-aloud, demonstrating the construction of a strong opening sentence to students' own thinking.

Figure 2. Cue Cards Designed to Facilitate Students' Writing Processes

Cue cards

Click to view full image

Teacher: I want to be sure to write something about Velcro that people will think is interesting. This cue card can help me to remember what to think about as I start writing: Think of a good first sentence. That's what I'm going to do right now. I'm going to tell how Velcro works. The two sides, the hooks and the strings, are how it works. And I think most people don't know that. So this is my sentence: Let me tell you how the strings and the hooks in Velcro work. Put your cue card in front of you. What are you thinking about?

Sean: I really don't know what to write.

Teacher: You've got to make a choice, don't you?

Sean: I don't really know how Velcro works. I mean, I know the two different textures of the sides.

Teacher: And you know how the two sides work.

Sean: Yeah.

Kim: What does this side do to that side?

Cari: It kind of catches it, the hook.

Teacher: Yes, those are good details. How are you going to start writing?

Sean: I think Velcro's so complicated! It's driving me nuts!

Teach Students How to Write Well.

Teachers need to do more than just tell young writers that they must include appropriate ending punctuation for all sentences or enough detail for clarity. If teachers present an immediately useful and well-contextualized way of thinking about writing, the stage is set for students' success. Writing is a cognitive process (Flower & Hayes, 1981), requiring instruction in how to think and act (Higgins, Miller, & Wegmann, 2006). When teachers provide mental, linguistic, and physical tools, such as cue cards, diagrams, graphic organizers, and clear examples of sentence and text structures, they are directly supporting students' use of procedural steps and higher order strategies for effective writing (Englert, Mariage, & Dunsmore, 2006).

Step 3: Students' Time to Write Individually With Immediate Guidance From the Teacher

The intent of guided writing lessons is not simply to provide more time to write. Instead, lessons are structured so that students are actively engaged in their own sustained, successful writing. Given well-supported, guided concentration on the immediate completion of a short but complete writing product, young writers are able to practice and internalize what they have been taught.

Provide Immediate Guidance for What Students Are Writing Next.

After getting set up for success with a language- and content-stimulating activity combined with teacher think-alouds or cue cards for strategy use, students then write as independently as possible. Teachers should lean in and assist with what each student is currently constructing in his or her writing, providing strong "feed forward" for the individual writer. Feedback evaluates what the writer has already written. In contrast, feed forward focuses the writer's attention on what strategies to use next. In the following example, the teacher provided feed forward to Rachel as she became stuck while writing.

Teacher: Rachel, what do you need to say next in your writing?

Rachel: They're made of metal.

Teacher: So you're going to tell your readers about metal, different kinds of metal?

Rachel: Yeah. And this is different than the others.

Teacher: Think about what your readers would want to know. What could your sentence be?

Rachel: They're made of different kinds of metal.

Teacher: Great sentence. Paperclips are made of different kinds of metal, period. You're ready to keep writing now.

Scaffold Students' Writing Through Prompting.

Teachers should provide immediate guidance that will improve the writer's expertise, not just the written product itself (Gibson, 2007). Prompting during students' writing takes a proactive stance, guiding a young writer's ability to focus attention on composing and in-the-moment revising. Clay (2001) defines reading work as a strategic activity "when the reader directs attention, picks up and uses information, monitors the 'reading,' makes decisions, and activates self-correcting to revise a prior decision" (p. 128). Writing work, then, might be defined as an activity whereby the writer (1) directs his or her attention to key aspects of composing and transcribing tasks, (2) picks up and uses information from interests and resources, (3) monitors the writing piece as it is constructed, (4) makes decisions about the next steps, and (5) self-corrects to improve a text. Teachers should prompt for the in-the-moment writing work in which a student needs to engage.

Table 1 provides a list of prompts, organized by category, that may be useful for teachers during guided writing lessons. When leaning in to guide an individual writer, teachers must decide whether they are calling the student's attention to composing or transcribing processes or perhaps prompting the student to use a strategy to maintain fluency.

Table 1. Teacher Prompting During Guided Writing Lessons

Category Teacher prompting
Directing students' attention to key aspects of composing tasks
  • Pick one small but interesting idea to write about.
  • Think of a title that tells what you are writing about.
  • What would be an interesting first sentence for your story?
  • How will you introduce your readers to the next part of your story?
  • What word(s) would make your readers know what you really mean?
  • Could you start the next sentence like this…?
Directing students' attention to key aspects of transcribing tasks
  • Say your sentences. Can you hear where the period/question mark/exclamation point might go?
  • Say that word slowly to yourself. What sounds do you hear?
  • Clap that word to help you know what parts to write.
Prompting students to use information from interests and resources
  • Think about everything you know about this topic.
  • Did you read or write something like this that you could look at to help yourself?
Prompting students to monitor their writing as it is being constructed
  • Say it to yourself before you write it. How should your sentence sound?
  • Have you included enough details so that your readers will understand and be interested?
Supporting students' decisions about the next steps to take for writing
  • What could you do now to help yourself keep writing?
  • What information are you thinking about next?
  • When you get stuck, rereading will help you to start writing again.
  • When you get stuck, talking to yourself or to a friend about your ideas will help you to start writing again.

It is important to remember that any list of prompts serves only as shorthand for the conversational interaction between teacher and students. For example, as Kim finished writing about veins in an early guided writing lesson (see Figure 3), she lost momentum and asked for assistance.

Figure 3. Kim's Writing

Kim's writing

Kim: I said about the veins.

Teacher: Do you know what to write next? What else do you think would be important to add?

Kim: I already put about to tear a leaf.

Teacher: Yes! Your idea is to write about discovering a leaf, and you added information about tearing and listening and then about seeing the veins in the leaf. Have you included enough details so that readers will understand?

Kim: I could say about oxygen.

Teacher: Good! What do people want to know about leaves and oxygen? Go ahead and write!

The teacher structured her talk to improve Kim's ability to integrate an awareness of information already included in her writing with the need for further details, using prompts like, Have you included enough details so that readers will understand?

Provide Lots of "Just Right" Help as Soon as Students Struggle.

Writing teachers need to provide high levels of instructional scaffolding. Teachers should provide more and appropriate kinds of help as soon as a student is struggling and then either fade the kind and amount of further support or raise the level of challenge (Wood, 1998). Teacher prompting guides students' immediate thinking by directing their attention to both the visible (e.g., use of space on the page, letter formation) and invisible (e.g., phonemes, language choices) aspects of writing. Teachers can provide instructional scaffolding on a continuum from full modeling and explanation to independent task completion (Gaskins et al., 1997). Prompting during writing (see Table 2) requires teachers to decide whether full modeling of a task is necessary (e.g., "When bats are asleep, comma, you shouldn't wake them up. Listen to where I put the comma.") or whether simple cueing of aspects of the task (e.g., "How can you help yourself get started writing?") is the right amount of support.

Table 2. Instructional Scaffolding During Guided Writing Instruction

Instructional scaffolding stages Scaffolding during writing instruction
Full modeling and explanation T: When bats are asleep, comma, you shouldn't wake them up. Did you hear where I put the comma?
Element identification through assisted modeling and generic questions T: Here's my sentence about straw. I think the reason the water stays in the straw is because of the air pressure. What sentence about the way a straw works are you thinking about?
Cueing aspects of tasks, naming and reinforcing strategies T: We're going to do an experiment today so that you'll have something very interesting to write about. But first of all, I want you to think about your writing. How can you help yourself know how to get started?
  S1:First, think of things.
  T: Like one little thing that's interesting?
  S3: Why not make it easy? You could have an object to look at and write about it.
  T: So then you have it in front of you to help you choose ideas.
Strategy naming and prompting T: I heard you clapping. Did the clapping help you? You put under. What part of the word do you need to write next?
  S: Under stand.

Step 4: Connecting Students' Immediate Writing to an Audience

Writers need an audience. Young writers typically dedicate significant attention to transcription and need to experience their own newly written texts as a whole. Dedicate a few minutes for sharing that same day's texts at the end of each guided writing lesson; this provides an immediate audience and context within which the text is revisited. This sharing also supports the development of students' active attempts to convey information to readers clearly and focuses instruction on writers' decision making.

Teachers may want to highlight a different student's writing each day, reading it aloud to the group and asking the writer to comment on decisions made while writing. As his teacher read his story to the group, for example, Sean explained his decision to include parenthetical information.

Teacher: Oh, parentheses!

Sean: Yeah, I put echolocation. So when people read it and say, What's that? then they'll find out.

Students in the group may read their completed text to a partner or switch papers and read a piece of writing independently. It may also be feasible to extend the audience beyond the small-group context. Each author may choose a friend in the classroom and invite him or her to the guided writing table to share a text.

It is also useful to maintain individual portfolios of the texts constructed during guided writing lessons. A three-ring binder or blank journal can be used for all writing accomplished during a series of lessons. These portfolios become a strong resource for students' extended writing and for the teacher's ongoing assessment and sharing of student progress.

Assessment for guided writing instruction

Effective instruction cannot occur in the absence of ongoing and insightful assessment practices. During guided writing instruction, teachers develop a strong knowledge of individual students' writing expertise in a detailed manner, allowing for accurate on-the-spot decisions regarding task difficulty. This section describes an instructional level for writing tasks as well as two specific assessment procedures for guided writing instruction.

Tasks presented to students through teacher prompting should be at an instructional level so that students will encounter some challenges requiring strategy use but will also be able to complete much of the task accurately and fluently. Therefore, one of the primary goals of the teacher's instructional scaffolding during writing is to ensure a high level of student success with a few opportunities for problem solving. As teachers observe students' success with these challenges, they are then able to introduce new strategic processes that raise the difficulty level appropriately.

Anecdotal Observation of Student Writing Behavior

Learners are always appropriating, learning, and adapting a series of strategies from which they choose for the particular task at hand (Siegler, 2005). Assessment procedures, then, need to identify those strategies that are well within a student's independent control, those that the student can use but only with the teacher's input (as well as some effort and a few errors), and those that are presently beyond the student's reach.

Although it is not practical to attempt something as systematic and comprehensive as a running record (Clay, 2002) for writing behavior, anecdotal notes made both during and immediately after each lesson will help teachers know what aspects of instruction have or haven't been appropriated by students. Table 3, for example, shows anecdotal notes made as Kim wrote her text describing her examination of a leaf. The teacher identified four specific points during the writing for which Kim demonstrated interesting writing behavior. During the lesson, the teacher took brief notes, indicating the text being written at each point in time as well as Kim's writing behavior and any support provided to her. After the lesson, the teacher analyzed these notes and made tentative plans for the next steps in instruction. In this instance, Kim's teacher noted aspects of Kim's spelling, sentence structure, and composing processes. The teacher found that Kim needed to move beyond an alphabetic stage (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2004) for spelling while writing and expand her language base for informational text.

Table 3. Analysis and Anecdotal Observation of Kim's Writing Behavior

Text written Description of observed writing behavior Assistance provided Analysis Comments
"descofer" (discover) "lisin" (listen) Kim tapped on table and articulated slowly None Listens for syllables and phonemes • Hears most phonemes well

• f/v confusion

• Needs stronger focus on orthographic patterns

"and"/"And," Kim self-corrected; during rereading, heard need for new sentence; smiled at teacher to celebrate a success None Monitors the sound of sentences for ending punctuation Needs to become more automated and fluent at sentence structures
"Next you can do is when you tear it you can see the veins." Kim repeated first, next to self Peer assisted with idea for veins; Kim consulted her own texts Uses resources well Attempts complex sentences with difficulty
  Kim stuck; requested assistance Teacher prompted: What else is important? May have had limited interest in this topic Needs more attention to planning and elaboration of ideas

Teachers may want to focus anecdotal notes on a different student during each lesson or keep a clipboard at hand to take notes for any student as time allows. These observations should not interrupt instruction but should be made as time allows.

Analytic Assessment of Written Products

Periodic analytic assessment (Fearn & Farnan, 2001) of the writing products arising from guided writing lessons-focused specifically on those strategies that have been taught to students-will help teachers finetune their short- and long-term teaching decisions.

Analytic assessment (Fearn & Farnan, 2001) does not rely on any checklist or rubric, but it is closely matched to instruction. The teacher determines a short list of those skills and strategies that he or she has already taught to a guided writing group and examines a set of recently written texts for those specific factors. The teacher should always be teaching to and assessing both composing and transcribing behavior, from generating ideas to sentence structure and mechanics. Analytic assessment provides a format within which a teacher investigates the degree to which each student has appropriated this instruction. It is important to ask: Are my students actually using the strategies I have taught?

For example, during one point in time, specific strategies for writing clear, understandable texts, with lead sentences, details, and signal words as well as the spelling of high-frequency words, had been taught to Cari, Kim, Rachel, Sam, and Sean. Each student's current text was examined for these specific factors (see Table 4). Based on this analysis, their teacher determined that (a) Rachel was in need of higher levels of support for the planning and structure of ideas within her writing, (b) all students in the group needed to become comfortable writing with more complex sentence structures, and (c) further instruction on spelling strategies would be helpful to all students. This analysis provided specific instructional targets for language development, composing, and spelling. To address spelling, the teacher introduced a more sophisticated spelling strategy to students in the next lesson.

Table 4. Analytic Assessment

Analytic Assessment table

Click to view full image

Teacher: You know how to say a word slowly and listen for sounds. Another way to spell a word is to clap it so that you can hear the parts. Then think of another word that's like it. Let's try it. Clap the word magnet. What's the first part you hear?

Cari: Mag.

Teacher: That's the first part of the word. Does mag sound like the word bag? Bag is spelled B-A-G. So how would you spell the first part of the word magnet?

Rachel: M-A-G.

Teacher: So when you need to spell a word today while you write, you can clap and hear its parts and maybe think of another word like it. Will that work?

Rachel: Like when it has two syllables?

Teacher: Yes. If you hear two syllables, then you can think about how each syllable should look.


Young writers need instruction. The missing link in effective writing instruction may not only be grouping practices (Flood & Lapp, 2000) but also teaching to each student's ability to write better drafts over time. Drafting is absolutely central to the planning, revision, editing, and publishing processes. Conversely, each student's ability to produce text is dependent on his or her ability to engage in immediate planning, revision, editing, and consideration of readers' viewpoints.

Guided writing lessons provide opportunities to observe and teach intensively, using an instructional framework that includes (1) engagement in a linguistically and informationally rich activity, (2) discussion of strategic behavior, (3) immediate teacher guidance while each student writes his or her own short but complete text, and (4) sharing of texts. Thus, guided writing lessons will help students to bridge the gap between whole-class writing instruction and their own active engagement in successful, independent writing.


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