The Big Three


My husband works in the automotive industry, so to us, the ‘Big Three’ refers to Ford, GM, and Chysler. But during the past couple of years, the “big three” has come to have a different meaning for me. I’m talking about the three big skill areas of a writer: structure, development, and conventions. Understanding that writing skills can be categorized into these three skill areas has been like lifting a veil off my face regarding writing instruction. For many elementary teachers, the teaching of writing holds a lot of mystery. I used to feel the same way. But once I understood how to break writing down into these three categories and then further into a number of subcategories, I gained so much clarity.

I often have teachers look at samples of student writing and ask them to make a list of what they notice that the writer is doing well, what the writer still needs to work on, or possible ‘next steps’ teaching points for that writer.  Almost without fail, I find that teachers gravitate first to the writer’s spelling and punctuation.  While these writing conventions are important, we need to remember that this is just one skill area in which writers need to develop proficiency.  We can’t ignore structure and development!

Whether we are teaching students how to write a narrative (personal narrative, realistic fiction, fairytale) or an informational piece (how-to, informational chapter book, historical report) or an opinion/argument piece (a review, persuasive essay, literary essay), we will be teaching them how to structure the piece, how to develop it (elaborate and use author’s craft), and how to use proper conventions (spelling, grammar, and punctuation). 

I have been using the following analogy  to explain this:  You can think of each piece of writing like a house.  First we build the house. We start with the foundation, the frame, the drywall.  We can’t start decorating the house before it is built.  In the same way, a writer “builds” a piece of writing by planning and attending to the structure and overall organization.  Once the house is built, it begins to take on the personality of the owner.  We put up light fixtures, paint the walls, buy furniture.  What does decorating look like in a piece of writing?  This is the big skill area of development.  This is where the writer elaborates on the piece, adds details, make choices about author’s craft and voice.

Once our house is built and decorated, we like to invite people over to entertain, maybe for a housewarming party.  What do we do to get ready?  We tidy up the house and make it presentable for company.  That’s where conventions come in.  If an audience is going to read our writing, we need to tidy it up so that it is easily readable.

I have found that getting a good handle on the Big Three helps teachers become much more knowledgeable and confident as writing teachers. Many teachers across the country are gaining this new confidence about writing because their districts have adopted the Calkins Units of Study for Writing.  If you teach in a school that has not adopted this curriculum, I would like to suggest a resource that is available to anyone. 

It is called Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and​​ Learning Progressions K-8.  I recently recommended it in another post because of the tools included that help us give targeted feedback to students.  Today I’m recommending it because of its ability to help writing teachers become more knowledgeable about the Big Three and in turn, more confident about teaching writing.  Every tool included in the resource section is broken down into the three big writing categories.

Each category is then divided  into subcategories.  For example, structure is divided into the subcategories of leads, transitions, endings, and overall organization.  Development is divided into elaboration and author’s craft. Conventions is divided into spelling and punctuation.

The tool shown above is called a student checklist.  Notice the three big writing categories at the top of each section and then the subcategories listed along the side.

Not only do these tools help teachers become more confident, but they help students, as well! I believe this is a must-have resources for every writing teacher.  I’m not sure how I ever taught writing without it!

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