Interactive Writing: The Most Neglected and Misunderstood Instructional Tool

by Cindy Downend

Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

IW Mural The Mitten

A summary of The Mitten by Jan Brett.  Photo courtesy of Nicole Schmitt, Middletown NY Schools.

Over the past few months, I have been puzzling over the fact that interactive writing is such a powerful instructional tool, yet it frequently gets omitted from the schedules of kindergarten and first grade classrooms.  Somehow, the thought of interactive writing can stir up an emotion close to terror in the hearts of many teachers.  Why is this powerful way of working with children so hard for many teachers to implement and maintain?  After reflecting on this question with several literacy coaches and classroom teachers with whom I work, I have compiled the following practical pieces of advice for those who struggle to use interactive writing on a consistent basis in the primary grades:

1.)   Think of interactive writing as an instructional tool, not as a time of day or “add on” to your literacy curriculum.  Those teachers who are most successful with interactive writing view it as an instructional approach that provides powerful opportunities to demonstrate different aspects of the writing process.  Through the use of interactive writing you can also show children how to use writing for a variety of purposes.  From recording observations during a science experiment to creating a summary of a favorite read aloud for a wall mural, interactive writing can be used in every content area of your curriculum.

2.)   To engage students in the process, develop authentic reasons for writing.  Interactive writing lessons prove ineffective when teachers fail to find real reasons for writing.  Let’s face it students won’t be excited to contribute to the writing if they don’t understand why you are writing something in the first place.  They need to have some buy-in to the process and understand the reason for creating the writing.  They have to understand both the purpose of the writing and the intended audience.

3.)    When composing the message, accept the students’ ideas and language.  Students can quickly disengage from interactive writing when a teacher tries to manipulate a message to what she wants to write.  We have a fabulous video of an interactive writing lesson in which a teacher and her students are creating a label for a brooder.  Wisely, the teacher honors that the children want to call the brooder a “hotel for chicks.”  The students remain highly engaged in the writing.  Had the teacher forced the issue of calling the device a brooder, she may have quickly lost the group’s enthusiasm for constructing the text.

4.)   Keep the lesson pace snappy and organize your materials so they are readily available.  Interactive writing lessons will quickly fall apart if the pacing drags or a teacher is searching for the necessary equipment.  Some interactive writing projects may stretch over a few days.  It is far more productive to keep interactive writing sessions short (10 – 15 minutes) than to lose the students’ interest because the lesson has run too long.

5.)   Establish routines and “standard operating procedures” for interactive writing.  No routine is ever too small to teach.  Students will need to learn many routines for interactive writing including: they will need to take turns during the conversation to compose the text; not everyone will get a turn at the easel every day; say words slowly with the teacher; reread to check and monitor the message; and refer to classroom resources such as name charts and word walls.  For a more comprehensive list of routines related to interactive writing, refer to the text, Interactive Writing by McCarrier, Pinnell and Fountas, p. 56.

Do you have additional ideas for making interactive writing effective?  If so, please share them with us in the comments section.  Let’s help others to make interactive writing the least neglected and most understood instructional context in the primary grades!

One thought on “Interactive Writing: The Most Neglected and Misunderstood Instructional Tool

  1. Cindy – I googled IW in Google images and my pic came up. Thanks for using it in this great article. I love what you wrote and am going to use it in one of my PD classes. (I didn’t even know this article existed.) Thanks.


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