Extending Interactive Writing Into Grades 2–5

Extending Interactive Writing Into Grades 2–5

Interactive writing is a dynamic instructional method where teacher and students work together to construct a meaningful text while discussing the details of the writing process. The writing demands of the Common Core standards require explicit and efficient teaching guidance, which is at the heart of interactive writing. Learn four specific ways teachers can adapt this practice when working with children in grades 2-5 who are more developed writers.

The Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices [NGA Center] and Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2010) make clear the types of writing students should produce each year. This includes writing opinions and arguments with text-based evidence, informational pieces that consider complex ideas and topics, and narratives filled with details and well-structured sequences (p. 18). This clarity around the “what” of writing empowers practitioners to plan curricular units and daily lessons with confidence. What is not addressed in the Common Core standards, however, is the “how” of writing instruction. How should teachers approach writing instruction in order to meet the rigorous writing expectations embodied in the Common Core? What are the key teaching practices that will ultimately improve independent writing? Herein lies the opportunity. As schools make the transition toward full implementation of the Common Core standards, it will be increasingly important to develop clear, explicit, and powerful methods for supporting students' independent writing.

Interactive writing, an instructional practice widely considered effective and most appropriate for very young writers (Brotherton & Williams,2002; Button & Furgerson, 1996; McCarrier, Pinnell, & Fountas, 2000; Roth & Guinee, 2011), has recently received well-deserved attention as a successful strategy for supporting developing writers (Fisher & Frey, 2013; Patterson, Schaller, & Clemens, 2008; Wall, 2008; Williams, Sherry, Robinson, & Hungler, 2012). Specifically, it has been suggested that interactive writing can be “successfully adapted for use beyond the primary grades” (Wall, 2008, p. 152).

In a recent issue of The Reading Teacher, Fisher and Frey (2013) linked interactive writing with disciplinary learning, noting that it “facilitated students' thinking about content and built their composing skills” (p. 99).

In this article, we assert that interactive writing is indeed a powerful teaching approach worth revisiting and refining to support writers in grades 2 through 5. Moreover, we believe that the writing demands of the Common Core standards require explicit and efficient teaching guidance, which is at the heart of interactive writing. With this in mind, we begin with a definition of interactive writing followed by four specific ways teachers can adapt this practice when working with older children who are more developed writers. These changes allow the practice to respond to the unique needs and complexities of fluent writers. We then identify four universal principles of interactive writing across all grades. Finally, we suggest ways for launching interactive writing in upper elementary classrooms.

Interactive writing: quick definition

Interactive writing is a dynamic instructional method during which the teacher and students work together to construct a meaningful text while discussing the details of the writing process. In a short lesson each day, students gather as a class alongside their expert writer (the teacher) to craft and write text in a variety of genres. The “interactive” piece involves both group collaboration in composing the writing through guided conversation and a unique “sharing the pen” technique where students do the actual writing. During interactive writing, there are frequent opportunities to differentiate instruction in order to meet individual student needs. For example, the teacher selectively chooses how each student will participate in the lesson and negotiates the key teaching points based on the instructional value for her students at that given point in time.

The essential parts of an interactive writing lesson

Interactive writing follows a predictable sequence which reflects the writing process (i.e., planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing). Although the lesson is organized and structured (McCarrier et al., 2000, p. 72), it holds both dynamic and organic aspects. Teachers adapt interactive writing to fit their style and the writing needs of their students. The recommended sequence is as follows:


The piece to be written is motivated and informed by a shared classroom experience. There are many experiences that meet this requirement, such as a book read together, the content studied in a science or social studies lesson, a math procedure the class is working on, or a class field trip or school assembly.


The teacher and the students consider the form and function of the writing. Together they think about who the audience is, the overall message they want to convey, and why it is important. For example, in response to a field trip they might decide to write a letter to thank the hosts, a retelling to share their experience, or a report to share what they learned.


The teacher and students discuss the specific content of the writing. Students share their ideas as the teacher helps the class negotiate the precise language of the text. During this phase, she provides instruction to support students' writing development by synthesizing the ideas she hears from students, proposing vocabulary or language that will advance the ideas, and, in some cases, ultimately suggesting the final sentence based on their discussion. The teacher might also use think-alouds to model for students why that sentence is most appropriate.

Share the Pen

The text is written on sentence strips or chart paper with an innovative technique unique to interactive writing in which the teacher and students take turns with the pen (or marker). The teacher writes some of the message and then chooses students to write at points of high instructional value. Students might contribute individual letters, letter clusters, whole words, or punctuation. Editing of conventions is done either at point of error or at the end, often by using correction tape to cover mistakes so that the final piece is in “publishable” form. As in the compose phase, the teacher may often use think-alouds to model specific points about the writing that are emerging in the lesson. This thinking might address letter formation, spelling, spacing, or other important aspects.


After the message is complete, the teacher helps the students to revisit a few of the instructional points emphasized. The teacher asks students to continue interacting with the message to find examples of principles explicitly taught during the lesson. She might ask someone to come up and find a word that ends with the -ing sound or a word with a capital letter. The review often ends with the teacher briefly summarizing what is learned about the craft and conventions of writing; for example, “Today we used a question for our lead. It was a good choice because it will immediately get our audience interested in our writing. We also focused on adding -ed to words to show the story already happened.” The teacher uses the opportunity of having a text in which all students have ownership to reinforce key writing principles that the students will use in their own writing.


The class continues to use the completed writing piece as an instructional tool. For example, the teacher might mount the writing to make a class book or mural that the students can reread regularly, or she might share the writing with families in a newsletter. Students may also write similar pieces on their own. Students often illustrate final pieces with collages, photographs, or other forms of art that match the style of writing.

Interactive writing: why and how it works

Interactive writing is an evidence-based approach to instruction that has been shown to increase the level of writing proficiency for participating students (Roth & Guinee, 2008) It is grounded in theories about language and literacy learning and teaching (e.g., Clay, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). Interactive writing is unique in the way it offers a high level of support while simultaneously involving students throughout the entire process. However, it is not intended to be the sole form of writing instruction in an elementary-grade classroom, but rather is designed to be a valuable part of a comprehensive literacy framework that offers many opportunities for instruction and independent problem solving (Button et al., 1996). This method complements and strengthens other writing practices (e.g, writing workshop, shared writing, and journal writing) by explicitly guiding students through the constructive experience of writing. Every lesson is multifaceted and scaffolds student knowledge in multiple areas simultaneously (e.g., craft, organization, audience, conventions) as the piece of writing takes shape. The lesson is always linked back to the students' own writing. Thus, the guided whole-group interaction supports and propels independent writing. The approach is also beneficial because it brings together the overall literacy curriculum, including work around language, reading, and writing development. Moreover, an efficiently planned interactive writing lesson is time and cost effective; it can be implemented with very few materials and in a relatively short amount of time.

Interactive writing may be used for a range of authentic purposes, such as writing a letter, recording a science experiment, summarizing or extending a story read aloud, or labeling a diagram. Because the students actively participate in the writing of the text and read it many times in the process, they create text that not only is accessible and readable but also employs conventional spelling and punctuation. Many of the pieces of interactive writing become educational resources with ongoing instructional value, helping the children continue to learn more about reading or writing (McCarrier et al., 2000). However, while the writing products created during interactive writing are important, it is the process that is considered most valuable (McCarrier et al., 2000).

Interactive writing: beyond the primary grades

Interactive writing helps young children make progress in their own writing by inviting them to participate, with support, in the act of writing (McCarrier et al., 2000). Theoretically, this makes sense for older writers as well. Teachers continue to show older students how writing works, and students participate with support. However, the question remains: How do teachers adapt interactive writing for our older and more fluent writers? Specifically, what changes need to be made to make the method developmentally appropriate for children in grades 2–5?

Four key shifts in grades 2–5

While the essential components of an interactive writing lesson stay the same throughout all the grades, there are four key shifts to consider as writers become more fluent and mature: (1) The lesson sequence is more fluid and dynamic; (2) Elements of Share the Pen are modified; (3) Lessons decrease in frequency while increasing in length; (4) Teaching points expand and extend around genre.

Lesson Flow: Fluid and Dynamic

In the primary grades, the interactive writing lesson format is linear. Because of the age and skill of the readers and writers, the class usually writes one sentence each time. The actual writing is slower, and students benefit most from simple texts. They agree on one sentence during the Compose phase and then write it while sharing the pen. They edit their writing as they go and then move onto reviewing their work when the sentence is complete. While they often spend several days working to complete an entire piece, they typically complete a single sentence during each interactive writing lesson.

Once students become more fluent writers, there is more flow between the Compose and Share the Pen phases. Depending on the teacher's goals, the time frame, and the writers' skill, they might write several sentences or whole paragraphs in one interactive writing lesson. To do this, the class would move back and forth between the composing and constructing phases. They would negotiate the precise message sentence by sentence and then share the pen after each sentence is decided. Then they compose and then write again. For example, a second-grade class returned from a field trip and wrote an informational piece on the town they visited (see Figure 1). The text, which includes seven sentences, was written over two days.

Figure 1. Interactive Writing in Grade 2. Informational Text Written About an Ancient Town Visited on a Field Trip



Share the Pen: Modifications in Pace, Discussion, and Medium

In grades 2–5, the Share the Pen phase shifts in three key areas. The critical feature of including the students in putting the message on the paper is retained; however, the pace and discussion are modified and even the medium for writing may shift. In prekindergarten through first grade, the teacher and students share the pen and write the message on a word-by-word or even a letter-by-letter basis. They talk about each word as they go and reread the message after they finish each word. This helps them remember the next word to be written and to check that their writing continues to make sense.

As writers become more fluent, the pace with which they write increases. By grade 2, one student might come up and write several words or an entire phrase. Alternatively, the teacher can write a significant part of the piece if the pacing of the lesson requires this. For example, if there is a string of high-frequency words that are easy for students, the teacher quickly writes all of them or selects one student writer to do so. Conventions are discussed in the moment as the letters, words, or punctuation marks are written. However, not every single letter and word is addressed. The teaching points are always carefully chosen by the teacher.

In grades 3–5, the teacher can guide the students in talking about the conventions for the entire sentence before the pen is shared. This is especially true when one student will write an entire sentence. The teacher can address conventions as a student is writing, but most of this teaching is done before the actual writing as a quick reminder for these fluent writers. For example, after the sentence has been composed, the teacher might say, “Are there any tricky words to spell?” or “What do we need to think about for punctuating this sentence?” Fluent writers who are used to the Share the Pen process can transition from the Compose phase to Share the Pen with a simple, overarching question: “Is there anything we need to think extra carefully about when writing this sentence?” The teacher might use a small dry-erase board to highlight some points of instruction in front of the class; however, this can be done in advance of the sentence being written on the whole-class text or while one student is writing.

Another modification to Share the Pen is the incorporation of typing or keyboarding. As literacy and technology continue to merge and evolve, the opportunity to write using a keyboard or touch-screen technology can support faster scribing, efficient revisioning, and unique presentation options. While technology is not required for upper-grade implementation, it can be effective and engaging. For example, Figure 2 shows a third-grade classroom where the teacher shared the keyboard with his students for every lesson while the writing was displayed on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the class. This class had been studying the California Gold Rush in Social Studies. During a series of interactive writing lessons, the class wrote a narrative text to explore the genre of historical fiction. The final part of their story, featured in Figure 3, was written in one interactive writing session. The teacher typed and also chose students to type and edit just as one would choose students to share a pen or marker.

Figure 2. Interactive Writing in Grade 3. Students “share the keyboard” as they Compose a Narrative Text



Figure 3. Interactive Writing in Grade 3. The Resolution Section of a Historical Fiction Text



Lesson Frequency and Duration: Less and More

A third difference in implementing this instructional method with older students is the lesson frequency and duration. For students of any age, interactive writing lessons need to be fast-paced and demand a high level of engagement. As expected, lesson timing needs to be adjusted to fit the needs of maturing writers.

Interactive writing is recommended as a daily practice in the early grades (Roth & Guinee, 2011). Young students have much to learn about how print works, so frequent lessons are essential. Daily lessons are not necessary for older children. At the beginning of the year, when teachers launch their literacy block, they might start by using interactive writing three times per week. Then, as the writing curriculum moves forward, interactive writing can be used periodically to highlight key writing principles, particularly around features of different genres. Beginning in third grade, teachers might opt for this supportive level of guided practice for several consecutive days and then shift to other types of writing practices.

To simplify this difference, one can think about how a teacher initially prepares what to teach during interactive writing: Prekindergarten through first-grade teachers often begin planning by asking themselves, “What will we write about in interactive writing today?” Around the middle of second grade to the beginning of third grade, the question transitions as teachers ask themselves, “What do I need to teach my students about writing today, this week, or within this unit of study, and how will the method of interactive writing help support this writing principle?”

Furthermore, while the lessons might occur less frequently over the course of a year in upper elementary classrooms, each lesson may be longer in duration than in a classroom of emergent writers. While a lesson might average 10–15 minutes a day in a first-grade classroom (Roth & Guinee, 2011), in grades 2–5, lessons generally last between 20–30 minutes. As students grow and develop, their attention spans are greater, and they are able to absorb more in one lesson. They are also able to generate more text in one lesson because they are more fluent writers. The lessons become progressively more in-depth as the writers advance, and it therefore follows that interactive writing lessons would require more time.

Teaching Points: Expand and Extend Around Genre

A fourth and final critical shift for using interactive writing in the upper elementary grades is the expansion and extension of genre instruction. For students at any grade, the writing completed during an interactive writing lesson must hold an authentic purpose. It is created around a topic that is relevant and engaging for the entire class. Over the course of the school year, students in all grades can explore a variety of genres using interactive writing. Students always consider their ideas, organization, word choice, voice, and sentence structure as they work through the Compose phase of the lesson. They also consider the best way to convey their message to the intended audience. Genre therefore plays an important role at all levels. In grades 2–5, however, the focus on genre expands and becomes a central goal of the lesson.

Interactive writing works particularly well in classrooms where students work on writing through a genre-based unit. For example, it can be used early on in the unit as a method for teaching students about the genre itself. As the unit continues, interactive writing might be used again to highlight strategically a particular aspect of the genre that students need to practice in order to expand their understanding of it.

In the upper elementary grades, finished interactive writing pieces can serve as exemplars for students. For example, when a fourth-grade class finished their piece entitled How To Write a Rap, the teacher displayed it on the wall (see Figure 4). Then, in a contrasting color (red), she labeled the text as her class helped identify the important features of this genre. The exemplar noted that how-to texts should begin with a list of materials and use action words for each step. The teacher used interactive writing with this feature-identification approach to begin each genre study in her class. Over the course of the year, the walls in her classroom were filled with writing exemplars. Because students had co-constructed these pieces, they had deep understanding of the text. Therefore, these exemplars became powerful student resources that influenced and supported their independent writing.

Figure 4. Interactive Writing in Grade 4. Explanatory Text Which Highlights Key Features of the “How To” Genre



The Common Core State Standards define three broad writing genres. Specifically, students must be able to write (1) evidence-basedopinions; (2) explanatory pieces using facts, definitions, details, and precise language; and (3) well-sequenced narratives that include descriptive details. Table 1 shows how opinion writing, according to the Common Core standards, progresses in grades 2–5. In second grade, students are expected to state an opinion with reasons. In third grade, they are expected to organize these reasons. In fourth grade, students are expected to write with clarity, group their ideas according to their overall purpose, and have a concluding statement or section that links back to their opinion. Ultimately, in fifth grade, students strengthen opinion writing through “logically grouped ideas” and “logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details” (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010, pp. 19–20).

Table 1. Expansion and Extension of Opinion Writing in Grades 2–5

Grade 2
  • Introduce the topic or book they are writing about
  • State an opinion
Grades 2 and 3
  • Supply reasons that support the opinion
  • Connect opinion and reasons using linking words
  • Provide a concluding statement
Grade 3
  • Introduce the topic or text they are writing about, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons
Grade 4
  • Introduce the topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer's purpose
  • Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details
  • Link opinions and reasons using words and phrases
Grades 4 and 5
  • Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented
Grade 5
  • Introduce the topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are logically grouped to support the writer's purpose
  • Provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details
  • Link opinion and reasons using words, phrases, and clauses

Interactive writing is an ideal method for addressing this expansive view of opinion writing because it can provide explicit instruction and guidance for students at each of these developmental shifts, and each new nuance of the genre can be presented with teacher support. For example, within a lesson, the teacher can highlight a key aspect of genre by asking something like, “How do we include facts and details to support our opinion?” Thus, students are able to understand specific genre features before they are expected to apply them in their own writing.

Universal elements of interactive writing: four principles that hold for all grades

In addition to the four distinct shifts, there are four universal principles that hold for interactive writing across all grades: (1) Value each step in the lesson; (2) Balance the planned and unplanned teaching opportunities; (3) Make intentional teaching decisions as students develop; and (4) Make explicit links between a whole-class lesson and students' own writing.

Value Each Step in the Lesson

Research suggests that good literacy teaching is instructionally dense so that a single lesson includes multiple goals (Wharton-McDonald, Pressley, & Hampston, 1998). Interactive writing exemplifies this principle as each lesson component (i.e., Experience, Prewrite, Compose, Share the Pen, Review, Extend) plays an essential role in offering myriad teaching opportunities. For example, in the composing phase of a lesson, the teacher and students work together to negotiate the message they will write. During this process, the teacher works to develop students' writing craft, including ideas, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and voice. When the class works together to construct the message while they share the pen or keyboard and when they revisit their writing at the end of the lesson, the teacher focuses onconventions of writing, including spelling, punctuation, grammar, handwriting, and text layout.

Table 2, informed by the work of Pinnell and Fountas (2011), Spandel (2005), and the Common Core State Standards, provides an abbreviated menu of possible teaching points for writers in grades 2–5. The numerous opportunities for craft and convention instruction can only be met when each step of the lesson is carefully planned and implemented. Thus, teachers should avoid eliminating any of the steps in interactive writing, as that would eliminate valuable and unique learning opportunities.

Table 2. Possible Teaching Points for Interactive Writing in Grades 2–5

  • Organize a text in various ways for various purposes (sequences, categories, how-to, compare and contrast, problem and solution, etc.)
  • Use a variety of leads to hook and engage the reader (i.e., direct, engaging, purposeful)
  • Use a variety of closures (surprise, circular) to satisfy the reader
  • Use thoughtful titles, headings, and/or table of contents
  • Write about topics that are personally important
  • Incorporate details (supporting information or examples) that are accurate, relevant, and helpful and that enhance meaning
  • Gather information, then write it in own words
  • Use memorable language (i.e., vivid, striking, or unexpected)
  • Show through language instead of telling
  • Cite ideas or sentences from other writers/texts
  • Use both simple and complex sentences to enhance the flow of the piece
Word Choice
  • Vary the writing by choosing alternatives for overused words (e.g., happy, fun, like, said)
  • Use both simple and complex transitional words for time flow (e.g., then, after, because of this, the next day, finally)
  • Use strong verbs
  • Include sophisticated words well beyond grade-level spelling
  • State ideas/information in unique and surprising ways
  • Use punctuation (ellipses, dashes, end marks, etc.) to interest and engage the reader
  • Use voice to influence meaning and to provoke strong reader response
Text Layout
  • Arrange print (and illustrations) to support meaning
  • Use underlines, bold or italicized print, and/or capital letters to help the reader notice important information, titles, headings, and subheadings
  • Consider the optimum choices for layout, spacing, and size of print
  • Use a range of complete sentences (simple, compound, and complex)
  • Incorporate grade-level grammar rules: subject/verb agreement; noun/pronoun agreement; correct use of prepositional phrases, adjectives, adverbs, and plurals (simple and complex)
  • Select the appropriate tense (past, present, or future)
  • Use capital letters for first word of sentence, days of week, months, cities, states, names of people and specific places, titles, headings, first word of greeting in a letter, etc.
  • Consider how punctuation helps a reader understand text
  • Use periods, exclamation points, and question marks as ending marks
  • Use quotation marks appropriately
  • Use commas to identify a series or to introduce clauses
  • Use ellipses to show pause or anticipation
  • Use dashes and ellipses for emphasis or to slow down the text for readers
  • Use periods after abbreviations
  • Use apostrophes in contractions and possessives
  • Correctly spell grade-appropriate high-frequency words, consulting references as needed
  • Use correct spelling for possessives, contractions, compound words, studied words (spelling lists), or relevant vocabulary
Handwriting/Word Processing
  • Form uppercase and lowercase letters efficiently
  • Begin and develop efficient keyboarding skills
  • Use technology to plan, draft, revise, edit, and publish

Balance the Planned and Unplanned Teaching Opportunities

A well-planned interactive writing lesson considers where student writers are and what writing skill or strategy is most needed to propel them further. The lesson planning occurs before the interactive writing session and is informed by student data (both formal and informal writing samples) and by the teacher's unit- or grade-level plans. During the interactive lesson, however, there are always unplanned instructional opportunities. The most effective teachers seize these opportunities and use them to lift the instruction to a new or higher level. For example, a teacher has planned the instruction around a particular genre and has thought ahead about key principles to highlight. The conversations during Prewriting and Composing are carefully facilitated so that the key writing principles are included. Still, there will be spontaneous and organic aspects of this experience that will be unique and genuine to the interaction. One never knows in advance the exact wording students will choose for their text and, therefore, cannot always anticipate the conventions and specific aspects of craft that will be relevant to teach.

For example, a fourth-grade teacher planned a lesson for her students on how to write an explanatory text. Ahead of the lesson, she identified four important features of how-to texts that she wanted to teach students: begin the piece with a title, include a materials list, number the steps, and begin each step with an action word. She also had preplanned the specific topic that the class would write about (i.e., how to write a rap). The students had been working on this topic in their music class, so she knew everyone would be able to participate in the lesson. Additionally, she considered the word study concepts her students were learning, the conventions that were challenging for them, and how reading their writing aloud would help the editing process. She was prepared to address these concepts as needed. Finally, she planned to begin the lesson by asking the students to think about their audience, as this would impact the voice they used in their writing. Even with this thorough lesson planning, she could not anticipate the exact words the students would choose in their composition. So, as the class crafted the piece, she had to decide in the moment what to highlight (see Figure 4).

Finding the balance between thoughtful planning and organic teaching can be challenging. However, teachers can master this skill as they become more experienced with the method. As a result, they will maximize the potential learning opportunities for their students. The overarching goal of interactive writing is to teach students strategies about writing that they can use themselves. It is the skillful balancing of planning ahead and teaching in the moment that allows teachers to achieve this goal.

Make Intentional Teaching Decisions as Writers Develop

Although interactive writing offers a clear structure for a lesson, following this structure alone does not guarantee student learning. Moreover, thoughtful interactive writing instruction does not mean having the students write every letter of every word or attending to every learning opportunity that arises. The real power comes from instructional decision-making relating to the unique strengths and needs of students at a particular moment in time. The most effective teachers make strategic decisions about each child scribe and are very intentional about each teaching point in order to maximize student learning (Roth, 2008). The roots of these instructional decisions, which fuel an efficient and effective lesson, come from teacher analysis of formal and informal assessments of students' literacy skills. The teacher uses this data to select the most appropriate writing skills and strategies for students. Thus, the lessons are matched to the students' needs rather than a concept that may have already been mastered or one that is too hard.

Simultaneously, teachers thoughtfully adjust their interactive writing instruction over the course of the year and across the grades as students develop as readers and writers. They create a developmentally appropriate gradient of text for students in their class by starting more simply in the fall, making adjustments throughout the year based on data and, ultimately, becoming more sophisticated by the spring. After considering the unique needs of students, consulting a menu of possible teaching points is also helpful (see Tables 1 and 2). Moreover, a writing continuum such as the continua written by Pinnell and Fountas (2011) and Spandel (2005) in addition to the Common Core standards can guide long-range instructional planning.

Make Explicit Links to students' Own Work

The ultimate goal of interactive writing is to improve students' independent writing. Teachers who are most effective with this method are deliberate in their talk with students about how to apply what they are learning during whole-class interactive writing lessons to their independent writing (Roth, 2008). Some students will make these connections independently, while others need explicit direction. For example, a teacher might say, “The way we put commas between words in the list we wrote today is what you always need to do in your own writing,” or “The way we deliberated about the best words to describe the fun we had on our field trip is the kind of thought you as writers should be putting into choosing your own words when you write.” This explicit link to students' independent writing happens in every interactive writing lesson.

Getting started with interactive writing (grades 2–5): seven points for preparation

Hours of coaching and observing teachers in grades 2–5 effectively implement interactive writing has yielded both specific and general guidelines for helping others get started. The more general suggestions articulated are particularly salient for the interactive writing approach because it is a complex method of instruction that requires teachers to be thoughtful about engaging an entire class of students at varying levels. However, there are some specific strategies for interactive writing that can assist teachers in executing many of the principles of quality literacy teaching by providing a framework for instruction that encourages them to consider teaching higher-level skills and strategies.

Teach Routines First

Take time in the first lessons to break down procedures to the smallest detail, such as how students need to move up to the easel quickly when it is their turn and stand off to the side when using a pointer to lead the class in rereading. At this time, it is also important to consider how to organize materials efficiently (e.g., white tape, markers, pointers, technology). For example, using hook and loop tape to attach a marker to the easel ensures that a marker will always be available. Familiarity with routine procedures will free the teacher and students from other distractions and encourage them to focus on the important activities of teaching and learning.

Consider Carefully the Time of Day to Deliver the Lesson

Be thoughtful about what time of day to do interactive writing. Interactive writing demands a high level of focus from students and, therefore, it is essential that the students come to each lesson able to be attentive. First thing in the morning, after recess or lunch, or after an activity that involves movement are a few good choices.

Create a Comfortable Space Near Writing Resources

Interactive writing is a community experience with teachers and students working together as a group to produce a written text. Proximity to each other and the place of writing matters. The physical environment is important for bringing everyone together in supporting the shared nature of the task.

Use Highly Visible Materials

Teachers have found that some types of materials (e.g., paper, writing implements) can distract from the potential learning opportunities of an interactive writing lesson (Roth, 2008). For example, chart paper without lines is problematic because students have difficulty focusing on handwriting without clear lines to guide them. In addition, multicolored messages are hard to read, and marker choice can become a distraction. Young students do best with sentence strips with handwriting lines (Roth, 2008). Teach upper elementary-grade students to use two lines for print, with the middle line indicating the midway point for “tall” vs. “short” letters. This uniformity helps in the readability of the message. In addition to the ruled paper, a sharp black marker is the clearest writing tool because the color is bold and uniform. For a more colorful presentation, encourage students to illustrate the writing after it is complete using a variety of techniques, such as collage, painting, or drawing.

Prepare to Make Thoughtful Teaching Decisions

As stated earlier, the most effective interactive writing lessons are those that are well planned. This means reading and analyzing students' writing to determine what they are doing well and where they need support. At the same time, teachers must keep in mind the overarching writing expectations required by the Common Core standards, district or school curriculum, and any specific writing genre unit they may be implementing. Interactive writing is a teaching approach that can simultaneously advance both the individualized needs of writers and any grade-level goals. With thoughtful advance planning, teaching decisions will be strategic and most effective.

Keep All Students Engaged

Interactive writing lessons must be fast-paced and relatively brief. It is critical to maintain student engagement, which means not only engaging the student who is at the easel or typing but also the students who are sitting and watching. Some activities for the seated students include writing in the air or spelling words aloud. Additionally, while one student writes, the class might practice a specific convention or craft on individual dry-erase boards. This could be spelling a challenging word, using a new form of punctuation, or brainstorming synonyms for overused words (e.g., said or fun). Students might also engage in a quick “turn and talk” with a classmate to quietly discuss the message, an aspect of craft or conventions, or a rereading of the message. The sentence-writing should also go quickly at this level and students are constantly rereading the message as a group to check on sentence fluency, to edit their work, and to hold onto the meaning as they add to text they are writing.

Be Patient With Yourself!

It typically takes a class several weeks to find a natural rhythm in interactive writing. Planning, pacing, and management are often adjusted as teachers become more comfortable. As classroom routines become more secure, teachers are able to home in on their instruction, refining it to better meet the needs of their students.


The Common Core State Standards provide clear guidance on the types of writing to teach. Further, they require students to engage in the writing process and to write routinely. The standards have also increased expectations by requiring students to write concisely, deeply and, therefore, with more authority. It is now up to thoughtful practitioners to revisit and refine the best teaching practices to answer the question of how to teach writing in the age of the Common Core. More voices are urging the utilization of interactive writing, a powerful and instructionally rich teaching practice linked to stronger independent writers (i.e., Fisher & Frey, 2013; Mermelstein, 2013; Wall, 2008; Williams et al., 2012). The thoughtful and intentional shifts articulated above extend the successful implementation of interactive writing far beyond first grade. The explicitness and efficiency of interactive writing make it a particularly effective teaching practice that can support both emergent and fluent writers.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

  • Brotherton, S., & Williams, C. (2002). Interactive writing instruction in a first-grade Title I literacy program. Journal of Reading Education, 27(3), 8–19.
  • Button, K., Johnson, M., & Furgerson, P. (1996). Interactive writing in a primary grade classroom. The Reading Teacher, 49(6),446–454.
  • Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). A range of writing across the content areas. The Reading Teacher, 67(2), 96–101.
  • McCarrier, A., Pinnell, G., & Fountas, I. (2000). Interactive writing: How language & literacy come together, K–2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Mermelstein, L. (2013). Self-directed writers: The third essential element in the writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors.
  • Patterson, E., Schaller, M., & Clemens, J. (2008). A closer look at interactive writing. The Reading Teacher, 61(6), 496–497.
  • Pinnell, G., & Fountas, I. (2011). The continuum of literacy learning, grades prek–8: A guide to teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Roth, K. (2008). Interactive writing: Investigating the effectiveness of a dynamic approach to writing instruction for first graders. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.
  • Roth, K., & Guinee, K. (2011). Ten minutes a day: The impact of interactive writing instruction on first graders' independent writing. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 11(3), 331–361.
  • Spandel, V. (2005). Creating writers through 6-trait writing: Assessment and instruction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wall, H. (2008). Interactive writing beyond the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 62(2), 149–152.
  • Wharton-McDonald, R., Pressley, M., & Hampston, J. (1998). Outstanding literacy instruction in first grade: Teacher practices and student achievement. The Elementary School Journal, 99(2), 101–128.
  • Williams, C., Sherry, T., Robinson, N., & Hungler, D. (2012). The practice page as mediational tool for interactive writing instruction. The Reading Teacher, 65(5), 330–340.

Kate Roth & Joan Dabrowski (2014). Extending Interactive Writing Into Grades 2–5. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 33–44 doi: 10.1002/trtr.1270


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Dr. Joanne Meier
Dr. Joanne Meier
February 14, 2014
"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." — Lemony Snicket