Using focus groups to teach writing

“Hi Ross, can you point me in the direction of any research on the effectiveness of focus groups when teaching writing?”


Research, particularly case studies observing the best performing writing teachers, suggests that small group writing instruction can be a powerful way to teach writing. Group instruction is great because it allows teachers to provide more explicit and direct instruction and they can observe and provide more live verbal feedback and responsive teaching to students who need it most.

✅ Increased engagement. Small groups naturally fosters more active participation and engagement among students compared to whole-class instruction.

✅ Peer collaboration. Small groups can naturally encourage peer collaboration, revision and proof-reading. Small group instruction also supports the social and emotional development of students by fostering positive interactions, empathy, and oral language and listening comprehension development (Young & Ferguson 2022). Students in small groups often take more ownership of their writing and are motivated by the collaborative process of crafting and sharing their writing.

✅ Improved writing quality. Research suggests that students can produce higher-quality writing when they receive targeted direct instruction and regular live verbal feedback (Ferguson & Young 2021).

✅ Enhanced revision and proof-reading skills. Small group discussions can focus on the use of revision strategies and help students develop the ability to critically review and improve their writing (Young et al. 2021 and Young & Ferguson 2023b).

However, the effectiveness of small group instruction can vary depending on factors such as the teacher’s subject and pedagogical knowledge, the classroom environment, and the class’ ability to self and co-regulate. It’s essential that teachers consider these factors before implementing small group instruction in their classrooms.

Recommended strategies:

Here are some tips on how to deliver writing instruction to small groups:

  • Bring children together based on their writing needs (Young & Ferguson 2023).
  • Focus on teaching one or two specific craft move strategies at a time. Just like whole-class instruction, follow the principles of SRSD instruction when delivering group instruction. For more information, see our article here.
  • Provide students with opportunities to give and receive peer feedback on how they’ve applied the taught strategy. For more information, see our article here.
  • Provide live verbal feedback to individuals and make sure you’re moving their writing forward (Ferguson & Young 2021).
  • As their writer-teacher, withdraw and work on your own writing when the group is working productively. Be there to provide additional support but only when you’re needed. Use the writing you’re crafting to help you with that support (Young & Ferguson 2023). 

✅ Create a community of writers. For group instruction to work, you need to create a positive and supportive learning environment. You need to create a classroom culture where students feel comfortable sharing their writing and asking each other for help. They need to be able to co-regulate.

✅ Personal writing projects. Personal writing projects are essential if you want group instruction to work in your classroom. For example, it’s important to set up a routine where children know to work on their own personal writing project once they have finished the process goal for that particular writing lesson. This stops students from interrupting you while you are working with your group.

You may want to meet and work with all the pupils in small groups over a number of days. For example, during the revision stage of a class writing project where you are assessing the children’s manuscripts against the class’ agreed product goals (success criteria). The rest of the class should know to work on their personal writing projects during this time.

It’s also possible to find yourself in a position where you want to meet with a small group who, for whatever reason, struggled with the previous day’s lesson. For example, at the planning stage of a class writing project, you may find that a handful of children could really benefit from some additional planning time, feedback and instruction. The rest of your class’ plans are good to go. In this situation, you want the rest of your class to work on their personal writing projects while you work with your specific group that day.

Recommended research

📝 Dix, S., Cawkwell, G. (2011) The influence of peer group response: Building a teacher and student expertise in the writing classroom, English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 10(4), 41–57 [LINK]

This paper discusses the influence of peer group response – a case study teacher’s workshop experiences that transformed her professional identity, building her confidence and deepening her understanding of self as writer and ultimately transforming this expertise into her writing classroom practice.

📝 Hall, K., Harding, A. (2003) A Systematic Review of Effective Literacy Teaching in the 4 to 14 Age Range of Mainstream Schooling London: Institute of Education [LINK]

Although there has been an interest in ‘effective schools’ and ‘effective teaching’ for decades now, it is only recently that there has been a specific focus on literacy and especially on those characteristics and practices of teachers who appear to be successful in their teaching of literacy. We know a great deal about how children acquire literacy and develop as readers and writers, but we are only just beginning to understand more fully the ways and means through which successful teachers promote healthy literacy growth amongst their students. Many curriculum approaches and packages have been found both to work and to fail; what seems critical is the skills of the teacher. We need to know more about how to recognise ‘effective’ teachers of literacy and to understand more fully the kinds of professional knowledge, beliefs and classroom actions that are associated with the successful teaching of literacy

The synthesis of the 12 studies in the in-depth review showed that effective teachers of literacy have a wide and varied repertoire of teaching practices and approaches (e.g. scaffolding, where support in learning is initially provided by the teacher and then gradually withdrawn as the pupil gains in confidence) integrating reading with writing, differentiated instruction, excellent classroom management skills) and they can intelligently and skilfully blend them together in different combinations according to the needs of individual pupils. 

Effective literacy teachers are especially alert to children’s progress and can step in and utilise the appropriate method or practice to meet the child’s instructional needs. The ‘effective’ teacher of literacy uses an unashamedly eclectic collection of methods which represents a balance between the direct teaching of skills and more holistic approaches. This means that they balance direct skills teaching with more authentic, contextually-grounded literacy activities. They avoid the partisan adherence to any one sure-fire approach or method. The synthesis of the three studies (in which teacher effectiveness was empirically demonstrated) that underwent the second and more rigorous stage of in-depth reviewing suggests the actions that teachers can take to promote literacy development in the early years of school. These are as follows: 

  • Balance (direct skills instruction and more contextually-grounded literacy activities)
  • Integration (integrating literacy modes, and linking with other curricular areas)
  • Pupil Engagement (on-task behaviour and pupil self-regulation)
  • Teaching Style (involving differentiated instruction – incorporating extensive use of scaffolding and coaching and careful and frequent monitoring of pupil progress)
  • Links With Parents And Local Community 

There simply is no one single critical variable that defines outstanding literacy instruction. According to the research evidence, however, there is a cluster of beliefs and practices like scaffolding, the encouragement of self-regulation, high teacher expectations, and expert classroom management.

📝 Parr, J.M., Limbrick, L. (2010) Contextualising practice: Hallmarks of effective teachers of writing, Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 583–590 [LINK]

This study identifies practices of effective teachers of writing. Three schools with significantly higher achievement in an area that underperforms nationally were identified and within them teachers whose students exhibited superior progress were selected. Common was: 

  • A commitment to formative assessment practices.
  • Classroom environments supportive of student literacy learning. 

Hallmarks of exceptional teachers included: 

  • Students having a greater awareness of their learning
  • A focus on a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in their writing projects. 
  • A coherence or connectedness to class writing projects 
  • A consistent and systematic routine to their writing lessons and projects.

This paper argues that student achievement in writing is likely to be higher when teachers exhibit strengths in these hallmarks.

📝 Langer, J.A. (2001) Beating the odds: Teaching middle and high school students to read and write well, American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 837–880 [LINK]

This study investigated the characteristics of instruction that accompany student achievement in reading, writing, and English. Analyses specified six features that permeated the environments and provided marked distinctions between higher and more typically performing schools. In higher performing schools: 

  • Instruction in the knowledge and conventions of English and high literacy take place as separated and simulated as well as integrated experiences.
  • Test preparation is interpreted as encompassing the underlying skills and knowledge needed to do well in coursework as well as on tests and integrated into the ongoing class time, as part of the ongoing English language arts curriculum.
  • Overt connections are constantly made among knowledge, skills, and ideas across lessons, classes, and grades as well as across in-school and out-of-school applications.
  • Students are overtly taught strategies for thinking about ideas as well as completing activities.
  • Even after achievement goals are met, teachers move beyond those immediate goals toward students’ deeper understandings and generativity of ideas.
  • The content and skills of English are taught as social activity, with depth and complexity of understanding and proficiency with conventions growing from collaborative discourse.

📝 Medwell, J., Wray, D., Poulson, L., Fox, R. (1998) Effective Teachers of Literacy A Report Commissioned by the UK Teacher Training Agency London [LINK]

A study was commissioned to help the Teacher Training Agency and teachers in England to understand more clearly how effective teachers help children to become literate. Findings suggest that effective teachers of literacy: 

  • Believe it is important to make it explicit that the purpose of teaching literacy is enabling their pupils to create meaning using text.
  • Centred their teaching around “shared texts”.
  • Teach aspects of reading/writing such as decoding and spelling in a systematic, structured way.
  • Emphasise to their pupils the functions of what they were learning in literacy.
  • Have developed strong and coherent personal philosophies about the teaching of literacy.
  • Have well-developed systems for monitoring children’s progress and needs in literacy.
  • Have had considerable experience of in-service activities in literacy.

📝 Young, R. (2019) What is it ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers do that makes the difference? The Goldsmiths’ Company: The University Of Sussex [LINK]

What Is It “Writing For Pleasure” Teachers Do That Makes The Difference? was a one year research project which investigated how Writing For Pleasure teachers achieve writing teaching which is highly effective (greater than average progress) and also affective (pertaining to positive dispositions and feelings).

Findings showed that teachers who teach the principles of Writing For Pleasure at a high level of proficiency have classes who feel the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in writing and in being a writer. Writing For Pleasure teachers attend to self-efficacy, agency and self-regulation in a rich combination. Some principles of Writing For Pleasure were not observed at a high level of proficiency by the teachers as a whole data set and so need to be further investigated. The affective domains of motivation and writer-identity were not realised adequately by the pupils as a whole data set and so need to be further investigated. Finally, a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy is a highly effective pedagogy.

📝 Gadd, M. (2014) What is Critical in the Effective Teaching of Writing? Auckland: The University of Auckland [LINK]

In this paper, Gadd (2014) defines eight dimensions of effective practice and instructional strategies. They are as follows:

  • Learning Tasks – Select or construct writing topics that students can identify as purposeful. Involve students in selecting and/or constructing their own writing topics. Devise open-ended learning tasks that can be undertaken over an extended time period. Promote the purposefulness of the writing topic at the beginning of lessons.
  • Lesson Learning Goals – Involve students in the development of future lesson learning goals. Set a clear learning goal for the lesson that is generally related to a stage of the writing process.
  • Expectations – Have a clear vision of what most students can reasonably be expected to achieve within the lesson. Communicate expectations clearly through displays and resources.
  • Direct Instruction – Demonstrate clearly what students are expected to do. Either through ‘active demonstrating’ (constructing an exemplar or part of an example live) or ‘receptive demonstration’ (provided a pre-written exemplar). Active demonstration is said to be far more effective however. Build on what the students have practised already. Look out for and take advantage of ‘teachable moments’ during the lesson to provide instruction that is clearly linked to the learning goal.
  • Responding to Learners – Ask high-level, meta-cognitive and text-related questions of the children whilst they write. Indicate ‘next steps’ to students when commenting (verbally or written-feedback) on their writing. Get children to address any verbal feedback there and then. Use a range of ways to respond to students’ efforts.
  • Engagement and Challenge – Attend to learning needs through individualised or small group instruction. Ensure students understand how their current lesson links to the future lesson(s).
  • Organisation and Management – Break writing into easily identifiable stages. Set manageable time allocations during lessons. Provide sufficient opportunities for students to practise writing during lessons (on average 2.5 hours a week). Make contact with as many children as possible during the lesson. Ensure that the classroom operates to regularly repeated routines and clear behavioural expectations.
  • Self-regulation – Encourage students to use resources to plan, write, revise, edit and present texts independently. Give time and opportunities for students to write on self-selected topics. Encourage students to write outside writing time (through a home/school writing notebook). Provide opportunities for students to look at their writing collaboratively. Students to set personal learning goals after each piece they complete.

Gadd (2014) suggests that effective teachers of writing employ all dimensions in strategic combination with each other. The effectiveness of each dimension is contingent on its inter-connectedness to other dimensions within the same pedagogical context. The research makes clear that instructional writing actions and activities are effective if regarded as purposeful by learners and if they include meaningful opportunities for learner involvedness. Through his research, Gadd makes it evident that what is suggested here as effective pedagogy for all learners is a particularly effective pedagogy for less experienced writers. What is good for some is in fact good for all.

Recommended literature

  • Reutzel, D.R. (2007) Organising effective literacy instruction: Differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all children, Best Practices in Literacy Instruction, Gambrell, L.B., Morrow, L.M., and Pressley, M. (Eds.) (pp. 313–434). New York: The Guilford Press
  • Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2005) Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties Brookes Publishing Company
  • Serravallo, J. (2021) Teaching Writing In Small Groups Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

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