Thursday, 7 January 2016

It's More Than A Continuum

I was once asked why I would spend professional learning time on creating a writing continuum rather than simply "working on the teaching of writing." My response was that by building a continuum collaboratively, we are working on writing. The process of moderating samples as a team - be they writing, math problem solving, reading comprehension etc. - is time well spent and some of the best professional learning I have ever participated in.

And then, once you have actually created the continuum, you have a common instructional tool that can be used across the school or department to help students understand the learning destination, where they are in relation to it, and what their next steps might be. At a webinar I did last year on this topic one question surfaced again and again:

So we have a writing continuum ... now what? 

In this post I want to focus on how we can use a continuum of samples in our planning. Using samples from a continuum created by the team at St. Louis School in the Kenora Catholic School Board and shared with me, I can create a learning destination or target for students to work toward. Here are five samples from the continuum, selected because most of the students in my "class" fall within the middle three:















As I read the descriptors, I see several big ideas:
  • I think about making my writing interesting for readers
  • Others can read my writing
  • I use what I know to share my message
These big ideas are like the criteria, with the statements from the continuum becoming the details:

I think about making my writing interesting and clear for readers
  • I have some details that support my idea
  • I use an opening sentence
  • My writing has a title
  • My sentences make sense
  • My sentences begin in different ways
  • I use sentences of different lengths
  • I use an engaging opening sentence
  • I have an engaging opening sentence, supporting details and a closing sentence
  • I am beginning to use exclamation and/or question marks
Others can read my writing
  • I use spaces between my words
  • I am beginning to use upper and lower case letters
  • I am beginning to use periods where they belong
  • I am starting my sentences with an uppercase letter
  • I use upper and lower case letters correctly
  • I use punctuation correctly
I use what I know to share my message and keep myself writing
  • I use letter friends
  • I stretch out my words and write the sounds I hear
  • I spell some sight words
I could also write a learning destination in student friendly language that simply says:


I think about making my writing interesting and clear for readers.
I can write so that others can read my writing.
I use what I know to share my message and keep myself writing

Or I could write one more for myself or my team:

Students will:
Know and Understand
  • writers think about their writing and the readers
  • writing is about sharing a message
  • writers use what they know and resources in the room to keep themselves writing
Do and Say
  • use finger spaces to make writing easy to read
  • use capitals at beginning of sentences and punctuation to show the reader where the sentence ends
  • spell some sight words correctly
  • re-read and make changes to writing for their reader
  • use the resources in the room
I could add to this learning destination based on the particular writing genre we are doing, the specifics of my Language Arts curriculum, and whether or not I am writing in the content areas and therefore also have content that needs to be considered. For the purposes of this example, I am going to keep it simple. Beginning with the end in mind - the learning destination - I am now ready to consider how to use the writing continuum as one of the ways I help students see what quality writing looks like. 

A sequence of lessons might include:

  • Model deconstructing one or more of the samples - actually making marks on the sample to show evidence of the descriptors in the writing. What does it look like to think about our reader? What evidence do we see that this writer is making the writing interesting for the reader?

  • Try it together - students and teacher - Where can we place stickies to show that this writer is thinking about his writing? Where is the evidence that this writer is keeping herself writing? 

  • Working with a partner or small group, place 3 stickies on a sample from the continuum that shows why this sample is where it is in the continuum.

  • Model how to match a sample of writing to the continuum, showing students how you decide which range of samples it is most like. Think aloud about how the continuum also shows what you might try in order to move even closer to the learning destination.

  • Try doing this together, using samples from another year, another class, or another school.

  • And then ... ask students to take a piece of their own writing and find the range of samples it is most like and to show the evidence. Or to find where it currently fits and then to ask, "What could I do to move even closer to the learning destination?"

And then ... go with a friend to the continuum and ...



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