Moving Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

Supporting Student Writers - Creatively Centered Workshop Details

During my presentation at the Secondary Schools Writing Centers Association (SSWCA) Conference recently, a participant asked how she could support her student writers without relying on formulas such as the commonly-taught 5 Paragraph Essay. 

This is a great question and is one many educators grapple with. In fact, it is one of the most common questions I field when presenting at conferences. Many teachers understand the importance of moving away from writing formulas, but very few of us have the tools we need to provide support for students absent those writing formulas.

So we've developed a five-part blog series where we’ll explore this question at length, focusing on one formula-free approach in each blog. 

This post, is all about quick writes.

What is a Quick Write? 

As the name suggests, a quick write is a piece of writing that students can produce in a short amount of time, usually 5- or 10-minutes. These activities are great for educators because they are both easy to integrate and very versatile.  

Integrating regular low-stakes writing opportunities for students is a great way to get them writing on a daily basis. Many teachers, for example, build in quick-writes as part of their daily instruction, often in the form of bell-ringers or exit-ticket reflections. 

Quick Writes as Bell Ringers

A bell ringer is an activity that students conduct at the very beginning of class (just after the bell rings) and has the added benefit of giving the teacher time to conduct administrative tasks such as taking attendance before core instruction commences. Integrating quick writes as bell ringer activities is one of the easiest ways to get students primed and ready to go for their upcoming instruction. 

  • Review Prior Learning: Begin your class by asking students to reflect upon their learning from the previous class or the prior unit. Keep it fun by, for example, posting a picture prompt to the board and asking them to explore, in writing, the connection between that image and what they have already learned. Or ask students to develop a simile that compares their learning to something seemingly unrelated: the life cycle of a fly is like x because y. Extend the review activity further by gamifying the activity: each table group selects the best simile to put forth as a contender for the class. Then the class votes on the best, funniest, most-accurate, etc. simile for a small prize or even just bragging rights. 
  • Anticipate New Learning: Begin class with a paired quote or debatable prompt that students must respond to in 1-2 paragraphs. Have students share their responses with others in their table-groups or ask for volunteers to share their responses with the class for a brief discussion. Use this activity as a springboard for that day’s learning, returning to some of the responses throughout the lesson as appropriate. As with the review activity, be careful to keep things fresh as the year progresses and don’t be afraid to link quick writes to your existing anticipation activities. If you have questionnaires for some of your units, for example (the ones where students agree or disagree with related statements), have students select one from the list to elaborate upon more fully in writing. 

Many teachers understand the importance of moving away from writing formulas but very few of us have the tools we need to provide support for students absent those writing formulas.

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Quick Writes as Mid-Lesson Informative Checks

While less commonly integrated in the middle of a lesson, quick-writes are an easy way to break up a longer lesson and provide teachers with an informative check for understanding before the lesson progresses too far. If you have 90-minute instructional blocks, for example, breaking up the lesson into smaller chunks can be a great way to keep students motivated.  

  • Learning Stations: If you are moving your students through learning stations, include a quick-write activity as part of each station. Be sure to mix up how you integrate the writing task into each station so the process doesn’t begin to feel too repetitive. At the beginning of one station, for example, you might ask students to write a short paragraph that explores what they already know about the topic. At the end of another, the prompt may be to explore what they have just learned. At a third station, they might get a writing prompt in the middle of the activity that provides a picture they must connect to the content they are studying. This way, each station pushes students to reflect to their learning in writing, but in a way that feels different and fresh each time. 
  • Pop-up Debates: After a certain amount of content has been taught, pause the instruction to build in a quick write. Provide students with a debatable prompt connected to your topic and ask them to agree or disagree, in writing, providing reasons to support their position. Then, using their quick write to fuel the debate, position students on opposing sides of the room based on whether they agreed or disagreed. They must provide one of the reasons they discussed in their quick write before they can return to their seat. This approach builds in both an opportunity to process their learning in writing and an opportunity to stretch their legs during a lengthy class. 

Quick Writes as Exit Tickets

Exit tickets are activities that signal the end of instruction and offer opportunities for students to reflect on that day’s learning, express any lingering confusion, or anticipate upcoming lessons. Not only do exit tickets provide much needed reflection for students, allowing them to deepen their understanding of that day’s learning, but they also allow teachers to conduct informative checks for understanding and to address any questions or confusion that may be lingering for students before the unit gets too far underway. 

  • Menu Boards: Provide students with a menu board of questions. Ask them to select one or more to respond to in writing (including providing the option to combine multiple questions into one response). Make this activity universally accessible by varying the types of prompts students can respond to: written questions, images, music, etc. While you want to keep the response format written, provide options for students to write in a genre of their choosing, such as expository, narrative, poetry, song lyrics, etc. 
  • Synthesis: Challenge students to synthesize their learning, either from that day’s lessons or as part of the larger unit/yearly learning by developing a quick write in which they explore connections across learning topics. The prompt should challenge them to explore how each document set or multiple lessons (for example) deepened, challenged, or complicated their understanding of the topic, providing evidence from their learning activities to support their claims.

A Word of Caution

While quick writes are important and necessary exercises, don’t fall into the trap of confusing quick-writes with the cure-all for formulaic writing. Rather, viewing them as a springboard for deeper learning will ultimately provide more utility for teachers and students alike. 

Quick writes do provide low-stakes writing opportunities and, importantly, a chance for students to anticipate or reflect upon their learning. But because, as the name implies, they are quick writes, they still limit the depth of practice and range of writing experiences students are exposed to. Building in time to return to these quick writes later in the unit provides an easy opportunity to extend student learning and ensure students recognize the value of these exercised over all. 

Take student quick writes to the

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About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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