The Pain Points of Writing in the Elementary Classroom

Nicolle Stearns, National Curriculum Specialist, and Former Educator

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
8 min readFeb 20


I spent thirteen years in the classroom with varied grade levels facilitating writing instruction, and very few of those years did I feel truly successful teaching writing. In my additional twelve years spent as a curriculum specialist facilitating discussions, I’ve had time to work with educators and reflect on my own teaching experiences, and I have identified what I believe are several pain points that consistently interfere with teaching writing.

Those pain points start within ourselves and our own relationship with writing. Even as I write this, I feel the need to let readers know that I do not feel as though I am an accomplished writer. Oh, I can write an email, a cover letter, or even a letter to my state representatives and dabble here in this space, but I agonize over every word (yes, I did agonize over the use of the word “agonize”).

As educators, we need to make peace with our writing. Perhaps writing with our students will facilitate peace and confidence around writing within our students. It is a common practice for teachers, including myself, to immerse students in fantastic literature. I can recall picking my personal favorites to share with students to promote the love of reading and the importance of being a reader. I find my approach to writing did not follow that same school of thought, however, and I have often wondered why.

Obstacles to Teaching Writing

Several pain points easily come to mind. This is not a conclusive list but what I believe are key areas that plague teachers and can diminish well-intentioned student outcomes:

  • Time
  • Quantity vs Quality
  • Management
  • Peer Editing

In this post, I plan to delve into each of these pain points and explore some solutions.


“Not enough time” is the concern I hear most often from teachers. Teachers have such limited time during the school day to dive deeply into many areas, and writing is not excluded from this. Teachers consistently express that time to create and display worthy products is a real challenge. Much of how we structure the elementary day is not going to change anytime soon, so perhaps the solution is our definition of “writing time.”

As I interact with teachers, their definition of “writing time” often mirrored my own: a quiet time in which students were deeply entrenched in the writing process: planning, drafting, editing, and revising. But in reality, these big phases of writing require ideas to already be formed and don’t directly address the function of constructing good sentences.

Perhaps, we should redefine “writing time” as:

Small tasks of constructing one or two connected sentences.

Those sentences may be a response to a text or part of a genre-specific draft. Small chunks of writing to construct a few amazing (or simply complete) simple sentences are the kind of daily victories we need when we think of facilitating writing instruction for our students. Our students would benefit from frequent mini-writing opportunities that continued focusing on developing sentences that are supported by scaffolded sentence frames.

This scaffolding also allows students to pick up the nuance of using mentor text and the works of accomplished authors as examples of good writing and as an invitation to be the authors we know they can be. Every time I ask my students to pick up a pencil, I invite them to mimic the authors and genre we have been reading, much like someone learning to play an instrument who mimics great work. I have always found it curious that when learning to play an instrument, we are never asked to create our own songs but rather mimic scales and music written by accomplished musicians. If we make that shift into writing, we have been asking students from the beginning to create their own masterpieces and have the audacity to be shocked and appalled when they fail.

Only when we shift our thinking on how we view writing time will we provide our students the chance to turn constructing sentences into muscle memory to grow those writing pieces into crafted, edited, and revised published pieces of work.

Quality vs Quantity

It is not coincidental that I began this conversation of pain points with time because as we better understand how to use our time, we have a better understanding of quality vs quantity.

I have proposed smaller chunks of time to drive the development of quality sentences. Pushing students to create full paragraphs in an hour-long writing session does not necessarily yield a quality product. Any teacher who has been asked by their students, “How many sentences am I supposed to write?” or, “How many lines do I need to complete?” know this is a failure on the topic of developing strong writers.

Writers have something to say. Developing a writer’s voice takes time. Developing those ideas and trying them out loud in oral sentences takes time. Students need to speak their sentences out loud before they write them. This creates opportunities for our students to begin to enjoy sharing their voices and the interesting things they have to say. This is how we get quality instead of quantity — longer writing tasks are broken into smaller workable chunks and oral opportunities to share ideas and sentences before they write.


The practical part of the writing experience we facilitate for our students is in how we manage the drafts and the space in which our students write. Our management should make it easier for students to find and reevaluate what they have written. It doesn’t matter what grade level you work with — we have all pulled out the “accordion” looking piece of work from a desk or cubbies crammed with miscellaneous work to find writing works in progress. Now, we have wonderful tools in our arsenal, such as writing notebooks and writing folders as well as digital resources like Google Docs, interactive work texts, and online writing tools.

But in a K-5 classroom, these types of tools can still be hit or miss. I am now convinced that my error in management was not based on age or even the tools I chose to use but rather the intensity and energy with which I introduced and modeled writing. What I know from facilitating writing is not everyone begins and ends at the same place every time they write. I also know that in the business of teaching, I tended to celebrate finished products very differently than works in progress.

I invite you to shift your thinking about writing much in the same way an art teacher treats the work of her students. Art teachers safeguard the process. They keep the works in progress in bins, just the way students left them, in a space that goes untouched until students can approach the work again. I realized that in my writing class, this wasn’t happening. We were roughly shoving drafts back into a work folder because we needed to shift to another task. I wasn’t celebrating where my students were in the process but rather calculating what we would need just to FINISH. How could I possibly get my students to value the writing process if their work was not valued and protected at all its necessary stages? I needed to start celebrating the rough and raw products my students generated instead of creating an environment where students are embarrassed by their products and may even hide, lose, or destroy those works.

As an educator, I should be more interested in the journey we take to get to better writing rather than the final product. The journey reveals so much more about what students are learning and what they know about reading. Even a simple box-sized bin for draft storage might help students begin to truly value their writing and support a better management system that works with the evolving process of writing. I would even go as far as to display the roughly edited and revised draft alongside the final published piece to find joy and pride in the process.

Peer Conferencing

I mentioned earlier that the oral sharing of sentences and ideas was a pathway to producing quality writing. This act of sharing is very much part of the peer conferencing experience. It lives in all stages of the writing process, not just at the end. Here’s why.

How many of us have sat with our friends and colleagues and proposed ideas? The ideas were raw, not formulated, and almost dream-like. In those spaces, we are often our most unafraid because we have no real commitment to the idea yet. We are thinking out loud and the ideas come rolling in. This is also where we are unafraid of feedback on our ideas. Personally, I feel very differently about feedback after I have spent hours cooking a meal and I’m eager for my family to taste the final product since any changes are much more difficult to perceive, achieve, or even salvage after all of that work.

Peer conferencing should begin early in the grade level and early in the writing process, including formulating letters, writing words, and writing sentences. Giving students an opportunity to dialogue with each other about good writing better informs the writer themselves. If my students can identify that a finger space needs to be added to better write words, this tells them something about writing and in turn, develops a stronger critical eye for their writing products. Identifying an incomplete or run-on sentence better arms students with the ability to spot it in their writing. But let’s be clear: peer conferencing does not eliminate all errors in student writing. It creates a dialogue around what good writers do. Even our most celebrated authors engaged in an editing and revising process.

We need our students to understand that we must all move through this stage to get to the best version of what it is we are trying to say. One of the most engaging ways to get there is through peer review and conferencing. This requires lots of modeling, observed conversations, sentence frames to help students present their feedback, and a safe place to extend the joy in the journey of the writing process.

All writers have something to say. All our students, past, present, and future, are writers.

Nicolle Stearns joined the McGraw Hill curriculum specialist team in August 2010. Prior to joining McGraw Hill, she devoted thirteen years of service to elementary education. She began her career as a certified third-grade teacher in Western New York for two years, continued her elementary teaching career in Arizona for an additional nine years, and then transitioned instructional coach on a “turnaround” team for failing schools. Ms. Stearns expanded her scope of teaching and educational expertise to include the following: grades K– 8 teacher mentoring, ongoing professional development, classroom observations, analyzing, maintaining, and presenting student data for instruction K-8, lesson building and modeling, intervention, and implementing programs for reading instruction. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Creighton University and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from State University of New York College at Brockport. Her areas of expertise are technology instruction for blended learning, effective teaching practices for literacy inclusive of foundational skills, comprehension, listening, speaking and writing, the dual immersion classroom, and differentiated instruction.



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