The Art of Teaching Writing in Application: Writing Workshop in Writing Instruction

I went to Malang for TEFLIN 2009. It was my first experience to be UNNES representative for an international conference. Though I didn’t get full financial support from the faculty, I could go there and present after all. My presentation, workshop to be exact, was attended by four participants: one from Indonesia, two from Brunai, and one from Malaysia. It’s really an international conference 🙂 Unfortunately, I was the only Indonesian running a workshop at that slot, Wednesday 9, 2009, at around 4pm. The other workshoppers were all Americans. Actually, I expected that there would be some Americans attending my workshop, as I learned about Writing Workshop from an American writer and lecturer. I got a grant from TEFLIN Board because of my paper; it was categorized as one of the best papers, will be promoted to be published in national-internationally aspirated journal. I am thankful for the reward/grant I got. It’s an appreciation for my effort to keep on learning. The following is the paper:

The Art of Teaching Writing in Application:  Writing Workshop in Writing Instruction

Puji Astuti, S.Pd., M.Pd.

English Education Program

English Department

Faculty of Languages and Arts

Semarang State University

Writing is perceived as the most difficult skill to teach by teachers (Alwasilah, 2003). It implies that most teachers are short of informed knowledge about writing and appropriate ways of teaching it. Alwasilah and Alwasilah (2006) argue that it is one of the mistakes of Indonesian education system. This paper intends to describe and discuss a method of teaching writing namely writing workshop and its advantages for both student writers and writing teacher. Lucy McCormick Calkins (1994) in her book, The Art of Teaching Writing, sets down components of writing workshop that include:  mini lesson, work time (writing and conferring), peer conferring and/or response groups, share sessions, and publication celebration. A needs analysis of student writers that I conducted from 2005 to 2006 indicated that there are four features that the student writers consider essential in a writing instruction, they are: 1) sample writing, 2) collaborative writing, 3) group/class discussion, and 4) feedback. If writing teachers apply writing workshop in their writing class, it is high time that those four features are present in their instruction.

In mini lesson, teacher offers something to the class that is meant to inspire and instruct or introduce a writing strategy, done at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the workshop. Work time is an indispensable part of writing workshop. During work time, students start their new piece of writing or go on to the next stage of their writing. Teacher moves among individuals, conferring with them. These conferences are at the heart of teaching writing.

Peer conferences or response groups provide a forum for students to talk about works in progress. Response group begins with the “status of the group” reports in which each member of the group says, in a single sentence, what he or she needs that day. Out of these requests, a student who is acting as the facilitator of the response group sets up an agenda.

One format for a share session is that each of three or four students take a turn sitting in the author’s chair at the front of the circle reading notebook entries or a draft aloud and soliciting responses from listeners. Another format is that the group shares their process of writing, perhaps talking about t an upcoming deadline or brainstorming together on what individual writers can do when they are stuck.

At regular intervals throughout the semester, student writers come together to publish and celebrate their finished work. The publication could be in the form of portfolio, anthology of students’ work, blog, or others.

It is suggested that writing teacher arrange the components in a variety of different ways, depending on the needs of the class. If the components become regular activities in a writing class, the students can anticipate and plan for it since they know what to expect. On the part of the teachers, applying writing workshop allows them to listen and respond to individual students. Such conduct is an evidence of professionalism in writing instruction.

Key words: writing instruction, writing workshop, components of writing workshop


The following student writer’s testimony describes his past experience in learning writing which he considered bitter and how his new writing teacher really appreciates his work, resulting in growth of confidence as a writer:

I can honestly say that I was never taught to write. I got more red-pen comments that any other students. Circles, cross-outs, underlines, and the worst one ever:  the question mark. This didn’t help my writing, it only bruised my ego. Not one teacher ever said to me:  “This is what I want to see.” They never showed me any example of good writing that I could learn from. I knew I couldn’t write and I knew it, too. But nobody ever tried to change that. There was no such a thing as a first or second draft, only the final. I would just turn something in and hope for the best.

Now I work for a new teacher and he points out all the positives and helps me to improve the negatives. He shows me what I am already doing well and helps me learn how to fix my problems. I actually have a writing process, not just a piece of paper with million different ideas scattered everywhere.

It feels good when you can turn something in and know people will respond well to it. I was capable of being a good writer, I just needed to be shown the basics—things like sentence fluency, organization, voice, or even word choice. Writing has, in one way or another, helped my whole outlook on school and own future as well—two things I never really thought about. Things are going great… This year, writing has come more easily to me. Actually, I love it. I’m now able to write a piece of work that I’m really proud of… My life is completely on a different path that it was a year ago. Actually, it’s going in the opposite direction. I love it, too (Peha, 2003).

What do we learn from the above testimony? There are two types of writing teachers that the student writer described. Which type of writing teacher you are more into? Is it the one in the past or the new teacher? Or, you are in between the two conducts? Well, it is obvious in the testimony that student writer needs sample writing, writing processes, feedback, words of encouragement, and audience. This article intends to discuss and describe a teaching method namely writer’s workshop or writing workshop and its advantages for both student writers and writing teachers.

Process Approach in Writing Instruction

Writing workshop method is under the umbrella of process approach to writing instruction. Adewumi Oluwadiya in Krall (1995:122) lists down principal features of this approach:

  • a view of writing as a recursive process that can be taught;
  • an emphasis on writing as a way of learning as well as communicating;
  • a willingness to draw on other disciplines, notably cognitive, psychology and linguistics;
  • the incorporation of a rhetorical context, a view that writing assignments include a sense of audience, purpose, and occasion;
  • a procedure for feedback that encourages the instructor to intervene during the process (formative evaluation), and so aid the student to improve his first or initial drafts;
  • a method of  evaluation that determines how well a written product adapts the goals of the writer to the needs of the reader as audience; and
  • the principle that writing teachers should be people who write.

The features listed above, to a certain degree, are found in writing workshop in writing instruction. There are some indispensable parts of writing workshop that have the features of process approach to writing instruction, they are: individual writing processes, individual conferences, sharing and feedback session, mini lesson, and publication.

Related Research that Supports Writing Workshop

As an effort to evaluate a writing curriculum implemented in an undergraduate English education program of Semarang State University, I conducted an analysis of the needs of student writers in the program. The study was conducted from 2005-2006. It focused on four aspects of the curriculum: 1) the goals/objectives of the writing courses, 2) the approaches/methodology, 3) the classroom management, and 4) the class/program resources.

In terms of classroom management, the study indicated that the number of writing assignments during a semester should not be too many; four would be an ideal number during a semester. With that number, students could go through writing processes with necessary feedback both from peers and lecturer. Assignment should allow student writers learn writing through the act of writing or reading. Another aspect in the scope of classroom management that the study revealed is words of encouragement. The student writers in the study asserted that they need words of encouragement given by their writing lecturer on a regular basis during the course since writing is not an easy task for them.

In terms of approaches/methodology, it was revealed that the approach and method of teaching and learning employed in the writing courses were not contextual and did not meet the students’ needs because of some reasons: 1) teaching method mainly applied in the four courses was lecturing, this teaching method made the students bored with their writing course, 2) the needs of most of the students to do collaborative writing in their writing class was not accommodated, 3) the four courses employed product approach to teaching writing while process approach to teaching writing was more suitable to the students’ needs, 4) necessary feedbacks on the students’ writing assignments were not given, and 5) the four courses hardly connected reading and writing as the agenda of class session or as part of assignments during the course. Student respondents in the study see four aspects they considered essential in a writing course, namely: group/class discussion, sample writing, collaborative writing, and feedback.

The research suggests the program to employ a method of teaching writing namely writing workshop since the four features do exist in the components of writing workshop: mini lesson, work time (writing and conferring), peer conferring/response group, share session, and publication celebration (paragraphs that follow describes each of the component). Group/class discussion is done in mini-lesson, peer conferring/ response group, and/or share session. Sample writing is presented or discussed in mini lesson, collaborative writing in peer conferring/response group or share session, and feedback is provided in mini lesson, work time, peer conferring/response group, and share session. Even in publication celebration, student writers might get either written or oral feedback from the readers of their work, be it from their neighboring classes, teachers in the school, parents, or form a wider context of audience.

Writing Workshop

Writing workshop is a style of individualized writing instruction that enables students to learn at their own pace. The key to writing workshop is highly individualized instruction as well as a communal effort that encourages sharing. Every student learns at his or her own pace, and writing workshop can accommodate for each student on an individual basis, which allows students to learn at a developmentally appropriate rate (Waganan, 2008). Calkins (1994) suggests five components of writing workshop which, according to her friend Pat Wilk, are like modular furniture that can be arranged in a variety of different ways. The components are described by Calkins as follows:

  • Mini-Lessons

Some teachers begin (or end) every workshop with the ritual of a mini lesson. Students usually gather in a close circle, often sitting on a carpet. The teacher (or eventually, a student) offers something to the group that is meant to inspire and instruct. The teacher may begin by saying: “I want to read something that I found that is lovely. In the silence after I read, let’s all go back to our desks—absolutely quietly—and begin to write.” Or the teacher may begin, “Last night, I was looking through your writing and realized that many of you are struggling with something that is difficult for me as well…” When the mini-lesson is about something every writer needs to do often, such as rereading one’s work or keeping an image of one’s topic in mind, the mini-lesson end with the teacher suggesting that each writer spend more time that day (or even right then and there) doing a particular thing. Often, the teacher introduces a strategy that may go onto a class chart or into student notebooks for future reference, but that is only timely for a handful of students. Those writers may work together after the mini-lesson while the rest of the class disperses.

  • Work Time (Writing and Conferring)

Work time is the only indispensable part of the writing workshop. During work time, students go to their desks, tables, or patches of floor space as artists in a studio go to their stations, and they work on their ongoing projects. Unless the class is doing a genre study (such as reading and writing poetry), students will probably be writing very different things, while one student writing an essay, another a poem. At the beginning of the year, students may move along somewhat in unison, while teachers suggest that everyone might try this strategy or that one. Later in the year, it’s much more likely that a handful of students will be gathering entries toward finding a topic, while others are editing finished work. Once they year is underway, students tend to take different lengths in time on their pieces, with one spending a week on a piece, another, two weeks. Generally, the rule is that during the workshop, everyone writes. When you finish one piece, you move on to another. Some teachers write alongside students for a few minutes of silent work time, then, generally, the teacher moves among individuals, conferring with them. These conferences are at the heart of our teaching.

  • Peer Conferring and/or Response Groups

Response groups meet almost daily for at least twenty minutes. Frequently, the response group begins with the “status of the group” reports in which each member of the group says, in a single sentence, what he or she needs that day. Out of these summaries and requests, the child who is acting as the facilitator of the response group sets up an agenda. “We’ll help Ben with this ending and then help Jerome with getting an idea and then help Sarah with her “Is it done?” question,” the facilitator may say. When it is a student’s turn for help, he or she talks about the writing, read relevant sections aloud, answers the groups’ questions, and thinks aloud about the writing. Most of the talk about a piece is done by the writer. The group acts mostly as a sounding board. Often response groups end with each member saying in one sentence what he or she will do before the group meets again. As writers, we need to be able to see what is almost there in a draft; we need to be able to see possibilities. We need to be able to imagine a draft written differently. People learn this special kind of reading by reading work in progress and talking about it. Peer conferences and response groups provide a forum for this. Peer conferences are usually student-initiated, five-minute-long talks about works in progress. Response groups are usually formed by students at the teacher’s suggestion, and there are usually four or five members in a response group.

  • Share Sessions

Share sessions generally begin after the entire class has gathered on a corner carpet or in a circle of chairs. The overt purpose of these sessions is to share and support work in progress, but there is also another purpose. Share sessions function as public, teacher-supported conferences. One format for a share session is that each of three or four children take turn sitting in the author’s chair at the front of the circle reading notebook entries or a draft aloud and soliciting responses from listeners.  Another format is that the group shares their process writing, perhaps talking about how they feel about silent writing time or about an upcoming deadline, or brainstorming together on what individual writers can do when they are stuck. These formats provide models for what students can do in their response groups and peer conferences.

  • Publication Celebrations

At regular intervals throughout the year writers come together to publish and celebrate their finished work. Some teachers set up a schedule so that four students publish every Friday, and before their day these students work on final revisions and hold editing conferences. Other teachers use celebrations as a way to punctuate the year for the entire class. These teachers may think of the year as divided into six-or-eight week units, with a celebration climaxing each unit. For example, a class of sixth graders may publish writing in a genre of their choice in mid-October. They may then all work on a poetry course of study, which ends with a second celebration, this one focused on poetry. Most teachers do different things in different celebrations. They may invite parents and grandparents into the classroom for one celebration, another time help each writer make an audiotape of his or her best work, and another time publish and toast a literary anthology.

There are some points regarding writing workshop and its components that need our attention, as follows:

  • Work time or individual writing should be given the biggest amount of time and it is an indispensable part of writing workshop.
  • Individual conference is the heart of writing workshop. I believe it is when the art of teaching writing flourishes in the classroom.
  • The outline of the writers workshop is more or less this way:
  1. Mini-lesson (5-10 minutes)
  2. Work time, writing and conferencing (20-40 minutes)
  3. Peer conferring and/or response group (2-5 minutes)
  4. Share session (10 minutes)
  • Teacher needs to be creative when it comes to publication celebration. It does not only mean posting students’ works in school wall magazine or publishing them in school magazine. Think of a more creative way to publish students’ work, for example, posting them in a blog. The point is students’ works are read by a wider context of audience.
  • It is a good thing that reading-writing connection attends in writing workshop. It is conducted in mini lesson. For example, we can read aloud from a wonderful literature to learn from the author’s way of coming to a resolution.
  • Writing workshop is definitely possible to be applied in any context of writing instruction. However, I believe, it is more advantageous in a class of not more than 30 students.

The Art of Teaching Writing in Application

Writing teachers or instructors, first of all, need to have a broad knowledge on writing. Secondly, they must have broad knowledge on principles and methodologies of teaching writing. Thirdly, they must have continuous passion both in learning about writing and about how to teach it. If those requirements are not met, it is high time that writing instruction is not on a professional track, resulting in students’ very slow progress of writing proficiency. Alwasilah (2003) argues that writing teachers or instructors must be writer themselves because a writer instructor does not only know how to teach but also has first-hand experience in writing. No-writer instructors, Alwasilah claims, tend to emphasize theories of writing because of their lack of empirical experience.

Applying writing workshop method means experiencing the art of teaching writing. It is because there is mutual interaction in writing workshop, Alwasilah (2003) states that mutual interaction is where students are treated as human beings that need rewards, encouragement, and motivation. During the workshop, they get comments, corrections, and advice for improvement, be it from their peers or from their teacher. It is an indication of professional writing instruction. Moreover, applying writing workshop in writing instruction means applying student-centered teaching; there is always negotiation between students and teachers, students are empowered, and their voices are heard. It is an art. Both parties, students and teachers, can express their feelings in writing workshop.


Alwasilah, A. Chaedar. 2003. Language, Culture, and Education: A Portrait of      Contemporary Indonesia. Bandung: Andira.

Alwasilah, A. Chaedar and Alwasilah, Senny Suzanna. 2005. Pokoknya Menulis: Cara Baru

Menulis Dengan Metoda Kolaborasi. Bandung: PT Kiblat Buku Utama.

Astuti, Puji. 2007.  Analyzing the Needs of Undergraduate Student Writers of the Department of English Education of Semarang State University as a Means of Evaluating its Writing Curriculum. Unpublished thesis.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick. 1994. The Art of Teaching Writing. Ontario: Irwin           Publishing.

Peha, Steve. 2003. Writing across Curriculum. Teaching that Makes Sense.

Waganan, Jennifer. 2008. Teaching Writing with Writers Workshop: An Individualized Method to Teaching Students How to write.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Adewumi Oluwadiya PhD said,

    I am thrilled that a chapter from my. Doctoral thesis is useful to Writing teachers and researchers all over the world. I will gladly send more materials to journals soon from that. Thesis so more benefit can be derived by all in Writing Pedegogy and Research. Greetings from Abuja , Nigeria’s capital city.

    • 2

      Dear Adewumi Oluwadiya PhD,

      Very nice to get a comment from you.
      The principles of process approach to writing instruction you wrote was really helpful for my paper. Unfortunately I couldn’t trace Krall (1995) so I could not put it in my bibliography, so sorry about it. By the way, I am sorry for asking but are you a Ms or Mr? I am curious about it, could not guess from your name. I am an Indonesian, a she, teaching at English Education program of Semarang State University, Central Java.

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