Breaking Down the Stronghold of Dependency: Building Self-Efficacy in Young Writers


Students will only see themselves as writers when they have the ability and the tools to transfer what they’ve learned to another day and to another task independent of our presence (and prompting) as teachers.  In Visible Learning for Literacy, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie refer to the two sub phases of learning: acquisition of knowledge and consolidation (2016). Ensuring that students acquire the foundational skills necessary to be successful in our absence is an essential springboard into the important work that will occur in the consolidation phase.

Unpack these words, “In the absence of our presence…” and you will find the driving force behind the WHY of this lesson.  Too many times, students are simply handed a note-taking strategy to complete in an attempt to organize their own content.  These note-taking strategies are often ones they have utilized before and are familiar working with. Some examples include: Venn Diagrams, T-Charts, Webs, Timelines, etc. As if we have twenty-five identically cloned students in our class… we frequently ask twenty-five unique learners to utilize the same strategy to organize their content. All of the strategies mentioned are wonderful tools. All of the strategies mentioned have their place in a writer’s toolbox… IF the tool makes sense for the writer, fits the individual needs of the writer, and is a tool chosen by the writer. In The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays that Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them, Katherine Bomer refers to this type of uniform teaching as “writing by numbers.” (2016) She goes on to say, “Writing by numbers is easier to teach and easier to grade.”  In other words…it keeps the teacher in control.

Last month I ran an Informational Writing Lab for students in grades 3rd-5th. The intention was three-fold: to learn alongside a mentor author, identify and study text structures utilized, and generate note-taking strategies that could be applied when collecting and rehearsing a topic within each structure.

To begin, students generated individual lists of five expert topics.  It was understood that our definition of “expert” meant that we did not know everything about the topic, but we knew enough to teach someone else a good bit about it.  Each student was then invited to choose one of their five expert topics to explore as we examined the landscape of our informational mentor text.  While reading closely we noted the following six structures to emulate with our own expert topics:

  1. Boxes and Bullets
  2. Sequential
  3. Compare/Contrast
  4. Problem/Solution
  5. Cause/Effect
  6. Pro/Con.

In analyzing the mentor’s topic and varied structures on each page, we unpacked the possible components needed to craft within each structure. We thought about how the author’s notebook might have been organized and how that author might have collected, rehearsed and planned the pages before drafting. Finally, and most importantly, we generated our own note-taking strategies that met our needs in planning for our expert topics within each structure.  Here are some of the note-taking strategies that students came up with for each of the six structures identified.


As students rehearsed their topics across each structure, they experimented with one or more note- taking strategies generated by themselves or by their peers.  In sharing through turn and talk, it was clear that each student made sense of their topic utilizing varied strategies of organization. They made sense of their topic in a way that made sense for them.  Here is a snap-shot of some of the pages in their writer’s notebooks.


Dance and Acting: Compare/Contrast notes with a Venn Diagram, a Sequential Order/How-To with Box and Bullets, and a Pro/Con T-Chart


Horses and Cattle: Compare/Contrast  with a Venn Diagram and a How-To with a Box and Bullets

Nerfing and Gaming: Compare/Contrast Venn Diagram and a Web on How-To Sing

BMX and Baseball: Compare/Contrast with Three Circles and a Math Timeline of the Process

By affording students the opportunity to generate and explore varied note-taking strategies that fit their topic across six different structures yielded a valuable lesson. It built self-efficacy in these young writers giving them the tools and the confidence to think for themselves and establish note-taking systems that make sense for them and their individual needs as writers. It empowered them to make future decisions as writers in the absence of their teachers. This work supported independent transfer to another topic on another day; in essence, it fostered problem solving and confidence in their future independent decision making as writers.

Ponder: Are there methods and practices being utilized across our teaching day that perhaps unintentionally creates dependent rather than independent thinkers and learners?  If so, how could those methods and practices be flipped to support student agency and continue to build self-efficacy in student writers?

~ Val Piccini


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