Four Ws of writing instruction from Ruth Culham

"No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song because it's all good" is the moral of Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, which "Trait Lady" Ruth Culham used to kick off a talk about "Teaching Writing in the Common Core Era." Calling the Common Core State Standards movement the largest she's seen in 40 years of working in education, Culham reminded teachers that "change is part of teaching" and that the standards set the goal but educators get to make the tough decisions about how to help students reach those goals.

Four Ws guided her advice for how teachers can do it:

  1. Writing Process — Culham stressed that revision is the tough one and encouraged teachers to model this with students. She shared a third-grade piece about penguins and showed how a teacher broke students into three groups to develop the ideas about what penguins look like, how mothers and fathers are different, and where they live. 

  2. Writing Traits — The traits of writing (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions and presentation) provide a common language for teachers and students to talk about assessing writing and to use in skills instruction. Culham said that they work for any mode of writing and bounce together like balls in a lotto machine. Tons of resources—scoring guides, research, standards connections, and more—are available to download on her website. In addition to that "Ikea approach," she has also developed a complete K–8 writing program with Scholastic. Here's a sample of how the traits align with CCSS for grade 5:

  3. Writing Modes — Culham said that students need models of writing modes (narrative/informative/argument), genres (fiction such as mystery or humor; nonfiction from any of the Dewey decimal system areas), and formats (letters, essays, stories, etc.). She emphasized the importance of informative writing as a base for argument/opinion writing because students need to provide information that supports their opinions instead of just writing "I think..." pieces. Check out this amazing example of a poem Culham shared that won second place in an AARP writing contest.

  4. Writing Workshop — Each of the seven traits has four key qualities. Culham recommends a spiraling curriculum to teach each of them, so students are always working on one of the ideas, organization, voice, word choice, or sentence fluency qualities for revision and one of the conventions or presentaiton qualities for editing. For example, the first week might focus on Ideas: Finding a topic, and the next week might focus on Organization: Creating the lead. That way, all the traits can be introduced in five weeks. This amounts to 20 weeks of instruction, with plenty of "breathing room" to delve deeper or review particular qualities in a typical school year.