differentiating materials in writing

there are some non-negotiables materials-wise in our writing workshop. namely: that everyone has, and writes regularly in, a writer’s notebook; that we draft outside of the notebook on loose paper (in our class we have yellow legal pads as an option for drafting); that we have a writing folder to keep our writing materials inside (like copies of mentor texts, drafts that we’re publishing, copies of charts, etc.); that they come to the mini-lesson every day with a writing utensil that is able to write.

so, while we all have some of the same materials, how those materials look varies student to student based on the individual needs of the writer. that is, the materials are differentiated.

paper: on the first day of school when we do a narrative on demand, a base-line assessment of their story writing, we introduce paper choices to our students. on our writing shelf, there are four black trays with different types of paper, and they stay there for the entire year. these are loose paper options that could be used for drafting, publishing, on demands, and any other time a student needs a piece of notebook paper that’s separate from a notebook.

we start by reminding the students of the activities we’ve already done as a class that showed that we’re all different, and that this would mean we would need different things. we show them the different paper choices, describing the differences to the students; we typically have: a lined paper (in fourth grade we use wide ruled rather than college), a wide lined with a dotted line through the middle of the line, a wide line with a dotted line through the middle and the bottom half shaded in, and lined paper with a picture box that covers the top third of the page. we ask students to think about which paper feels like the right fit for them right there at the carpet so that, when their team is called to go choose their paper, they already know which they’ll choose.

throughout the year, this paper is available to the students, and we always remind them of the importance of choosing what they need – what feels like the best fit, and what they’ll do their best writing on. some students keep the same paper all year, and others switch around.

notebooks: we hold off on giving out writer’s notebooks until a few days into the school year, when we’ve taught some gathering strategies and had students try them orally. when it seems like they have lots of stories in their minds – they’re sort of bursting out of them, burning to be told – then we introduce writer’s notebooks as the tool a writer needs to help hold onto all of those ideas. (that’s just one of the purposes of the notebook, of course, but the first one we introduce.)


a photo of a writer’s notebook during our notebook decorating party. we have a notebook decorating party in school at the end of the first week.

we are sure to have two notebooks for our writers to choose from: a wide-ruled notebook (usually this black marbled one) and a wide-ruled notebook with the dashed line across the middle of the lines (this red one is the one we use; we cover the white block that says “third grade” with a large, sticky, white label where the writer can write his name so as not to label that notebook as one for third graders). we remind students that, just like on the first day there were different types of paper that they chose based on what they needed, they’ll need different types of notebooks. we show the two options and then ask students which they’d like, pass the notebooks out, and send them off to write down the ideas they had just been sharing with a classmate before they’re forgotten.

many of our students need a second notebook during the year (the red ones fill up faster because they have fewer pages), and they’re always given the choice between the two notebooks again. some stick with the same notebooks, others are ready for something different. and, that makes sense – their needs change just as they grow and change.

notebook organization: our kids’ writer’s notebooks are set up in basically the same way, no matter the notebook they have. there are a few things we’ll adjust to support students who struggle with organization. one is a post-it to mark the page they’re on. this is great for students who skip around in their notebook. (not until we taught did we realize that moving front to back in a notebook is not an innate understanding, and something that needs to be explicitly taught.) a post-it marks the current page they’re writing on, and moves forward as the pages are filled. this is also helpful for writers who sometimes avoid writing work by searching and searching for the page they should be on. similarly, a post-it can be used to mark lists in the back of the notebook, and even labeled with what the list is (e.g. if the post-it is marking the page that a writer’s writing territories are on, the part of the post-it that sticks above the page, and seen when the notebook is closed, can be labeled “writing territories).

all of our students make plan boxes at the end of a mini-lesson to show the focus for their writing work that day during independent writing time. most of our students make the plan box at the top of the space they’re working on, writing a 1, 2, 3, and boxing it out themselves. for some students, this doesn’t work. it may be because they struggle spatially in writing in an appropriate size and spacing so that their plan box doesn’t end up too tiny (and impossible to read) or too gigantic (and taking up half a notebook page). it may be because they struggle with fine motor skills, and as a result are slower writers, and so the actual act of writing the plan boxes takes time away from their independent writing time. or maybe they’re a kid who often forgets what they need to do when they’re creating a plan box; using the class anchor chart at the front of the room isn’t helpful, and so having an individualized copy of it is supportive.

for these students, who could use a little support in making their plan boxes, we staple a piece of paper at the back of their writer’s notebook where their plan box is made every day. the paper has pre-made boxes with the numbers 1, 2, and 3 already set for the students. it also has two sample plan boxes at the top of the paper and a reminder of the steps we taught when first learning how to make a plan box. we’ve found that this scaffold added to their notebooks helps to make those students who need it quicker and more independent when making their daily plan box.

pens vs pencils: we have a slight obsession with paper mate flair pens. they’re pretty much what we use exclusively in our room for all types of writing. there’s just something about a good pen (and, let’s be honest, the colors only make it more fun). we usually end up giving our kids their own paper mate pen at some point in the year – as a gift, usually, sometimes after the first writing unit in which we expected drastic revision, and the pen is given as a revision pen – but before they’re given one individually, we pull them out to meet the needs of our writers.

colleen cruz first turned us on to the magic of pens, especially colorful ones. have a group of kids who are reluctant to revise (that can, truthfully, sometimes be all kids…)? pull them in a small group, remind them of a revision strategy or have them choose one from the chart, and put some colorful pens out. and, like magic, they’ll revise. all over the place. for real.

colleen also taught us how beneficial pens can be for students who bare down too hard as they write; you may notice that this is the case because of the heaviness of the pencil on the paper or a student may complain about his hand being tired because he’s holding and pressing too hard. pens can help with this, too. (another tip from colleen for those students who bare down too hard with a pencil: place a dish towel under their piece of paper; pressing too hard will send the pencil through the paper, so they’ll have to adjust how hard they’re pressing.)

we don’t have strong opinions about pens versus pencils. really, what’s most important to us is that they’re being used to write. so, whichever the writer needs, we’ll encourage that.


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