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Relationship-Building for Effective Writing Instruction

By Jen McDonough and Kristin Ackerman
 | Aug 17, 2017

Girl WritingHelping young children grow as writers can be overwhelming for many teachers. How do you jump-start their creative processes? How should you structure writing time? Should you ask your students to share their writing? With so much to consider, it can become entirely too overwhelming to begin. Now what? We encourage you to step back, breathe, and remember what is most important when working with budding writers.

We argue that, above all, the most important first step in effective writing instruction is forming strong relationships with your students. Writing is hard work and extremely personal; if you do not have trusting relationships with students first, they will most likely shut down when you try to talk to them about their writing. The relationships we form with our students become the foundation of our learning partnership. We have found the following tips to be most helpful in creating a classroom culture of mutual trust and respect:

  • Writing teachers need to write. Period. If you haven’t experienced the difficulty of finding an idea, deciding how to shape a story, understanding mechanics and conventions, overcoming writers block, and more, it will be hard for you to help the writer sitting next to you. You must do the work you are asking your students to do. Before you start a new genre or writing project, try it first. As you write, think about what was tricky for you, potential problems that might arise for the students, and what felt good. Take notes and use them to help plan the lessons and conferring strategies you might teach. Students know when you are being authentic and will trust your guidance when they see you as a learner too.
  • Start with strengths. Nothing shuts down a relationship faster than only focusing on the problems. Each time you meet with a writer, find what “glows” before you work on the “grows.” Praise should focus on specific strategies and techniques. We start the first two weeks of writing time just complimenting our students. We know the heavy lifting will come and we know the pressures of meeting curriculum needs. We also know that when students feel success in learning, they are more apt to continue.
  • Listen, really listen. As teachers we often bring our own agendas. We know what needs to be taught and what the steps are for getting there. The problem is when we make a student’s piece of writing our agenda. When you sit next to a writer, ask questions and really listen to what the writer is trying to accomplish. Help the student move forward in their own direction. The agenda items get checked off, but the writer still feels in control.
  • Know your students. Even small gestures—such as greeting them at the door, noticing new shoes and haircuts, holding morning meetings, or occasionally hanging around at recess or lunch—go a long way. When you take the time to get to know your students, you are in a better position to help them record and share their stories and passions with the world.

When conferring with young children, many teachers jump right into “teacher mode” and forget the vulnerability that comes with the process of writing. From finding your voice, to mastering spelling and grammar, to mustering up the courage to share your work—writing is not easy to do or to teach. We believe that teachers who take time to build a relationship of trust with students, who show that they understand the challenges and the hard work that accompany writing, and who make an effort to truly get to know their students will see the best results.

Kristen AckermanKristin Ackerman is a teacher, writer and presenter. She has been teaching for 14 years and is passionate about supporting students and teachers. She is the co-author of Conferring with Young Writers:  What to do When You Don’t Know What to Do both published by Stenhouse Publishers. Kristin presents to teachers across the country on reading and writing topics. You can find her on Twitter or on her blog

Jen McDonoughJen McDonough has been a first grade teacher and part-time literacy coach for 17 years. She is the co-author of A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades with Georgia Heard and more recently co-author of Conferring with Young Writers:  What to do When you Don’t Know What to Do both published by Stenhouse Publishers. Jen presents to teachers across the country on reading and writing topics and is excited about her new role as a K-4 literacy specialist at The Pine School in Hobe Sound, FL. You can find her on Twitter or on her blog

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