State-of-the-Science Elementary Writing Instruction at TNCS

As The New Century School grows and expands, the elementary program curriculum is continually refined to provide a progressive education that ensures self-motivated, inquiry-driven, critically thinking students. One area of ongoing focus is on writing, a skill that will serve students throughout their academic careers and is vital to their contribution to any profession post-academically. The ability to write opinions/arguments, informational pieces, and narratives is hailed as such an essential 21st-century skill that it gets quite a large share of attention in Common Core State Standards, but enhancing literacy skills is a primary concern for any school, whether public or private. Accordingly, on a recent Monday this past September, TNCS elementary teacher Adriana DuPrau attended a writing workshop in Leesburg, VA to stay up to date on current best practices and proven frameworks for teaching writing in the independent environment of TNCS.


The Lucy Calkins–led writing workshop gave writing instructors the tools they need to implement a systematic writing curriculum.

Led by veteran writing instructor Lucy Calkins, the workshop grew out of her 35 years of writing instruction research. Ms. Calkins and her colleagues are best known for the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) out of Columbia University. TCRWP was built on the premise that “Students can only become stronger, more confident writers and learners when they know where they are going and have a clear roadmap to get them there.” Students need a  pathway, in other words, to write a coherent piece just as they do to solve an algebraic equation or use the scientific method to conduct a physics experiment. Elements must build upon one another, leading up to a conclusion. TCRWP gives writing teachers grade-specific (K–8) support in the form of “Units of Study for Teaching Writing.”

The good news is that as schools hear the rallying cry . . . to develop school-wide, coherent approaches to teaching writing, they needn’t invent curriculum on their own . . .” writes Lucy Calkins. TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali got the message. She seized the opportunity for TNCS Language Arts teacher Mrs. DuPrau to attend The New Units of Study in Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing Grades 3–8 workshop to learn directly from leading practitioners and researchers in the field of writing education.

Three topics that Mrs. DuPrau found especially helpful to implement a systematic writing curriculum are as follows:
  • The Architecture of Effective Writing Minilessons: The content of the minilesson changes from day to day but the architecture of the minilesson often remains constant. Minilessons begin with connection. This is teaching students something we hope they’ll use often as they write via Demonstration, Guided Practice, Explanation with Example, and Inquiry. Teachers will then give students a quick opportunity to try writing about what was just taught. Last comes linking. To bring closure to the minilessons, teachers usually link the minilesson to what the class has learned on previous days, to that day’s work-time, and to the children’s lives.
  • Conferring with Student Writers: One-to-one conferences are at the heart of the process approach to teaching writing. While they appear to be warm, informal conversations, conferences are in fact highly principled teaching interactions, carefully designed to move writers along learning pathways. Steps include learning about the writer; supporting/complimenting the writer; deciding what your teaching point will be and how you will teach it; teaching it to the writer something, following the architecture of a minilesson; and re-articulating what you’ve taught, encouraging the writer to do the same as he or she writes.
  • Revison Strategies: Add more. Look at the beginning, middle, and end of your piece. Ask, “What have I left our?” Take out parts that don’t belong, that are redundant, or that take away from the overall cohesiveness of your piece. Reread, and ask, “How can it be clearer? Is this really what I have to say? What’s the most important thing I want my reader to know?” Reread for sound (read it aloud or have your partner read it to you), asking, “How can I make it sound better? Where does the sound work, and how can this be extended?” “Where does the sound not work and how can I make it sound the way I want it to?”

An Argument Read Aloud Protocol gave writing instructors specific classroom heuristics.

“It was a really wonderful interactive writing workshop,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “I was given the opportunity to work with a lot of other professionals as well as learn great writing techniques that work in grades 3–6. I liked how it focused on different grade levels so I can see what the expectations are for higher grades as we map and plan our curriculum at TNCS.”

Although the ability to read was once considered the most important aspect of literacy, in the connected era we now live in, writing shares the spotlight, as the ability to convey knowledge becomes almost as important as the knowledge itself. Writing is also itself a learning tool, the vehicle through which critical thinking and inquiry occurs.

TNCS elementary students will conduct research and share findings, they will collaborate and provide helpful feedback, and they will clearly convey meaning across all scholastic disciplines and all through writing. In their future chosen vocations—whether as journalists, engineers, mathematicians, teachers, social or environmental activists, artists, etc.— their ability to write well will help ensure their happiness and success.