For the last month or so, I’ve made it my mission to break down Benchmark Advance’s writing component. To be honest, it was the one area that I felt I had not yet mastered using this curriculum. I had (and sometimes still have!) a hard time getting through a week and unit’s worth of writing in the expected time frame. Before I really sat down and learned how and why the writing is structured the way it is, I had confusion around the overall pacing. However, I acknowledged that giving the students practice in all three text types throughout the unit was beneficial, so I decided that I wanted to strengthen this area of my teaching by gaining a deeper understanding.
The WHY: Why is Benchmark writing the way it is?
I started by going back to our dear old friends, the standards. I realized that I hadn’t analyzed the writing standards in a while, and the last time I did dig deep into them, I only looked at the standards for my own grade level, the grade prior, and the next grade. I decided to look at the progression of writing starting from Kinder all the way to fifth, and these were two big things I took away from it.
1. Every single grade level has students writing in all three text types – opinion, informational, and narrative. There is a shift in complexity between K-2 and third grade. However, across every grade, students are being asked to not only write about topics or personal experiences, but about texts.
2. Under Production and Distribution of Writing, there is a shift from K-1 to second grade. Once students reach second grade, they are also expected to “strengthen writing as needed with revising and editing.” This shift changes slightly from 3rd and on.
This is probably not new information for you. I know we all have looked at these standards a zillion times. However, analyzing the standards (and particularly these two strands) with a Benchmark lens, helped me to see not only why the program was written the way it was, but also how brilliantly crafted the writing component actually is.
Each unit is composed of 3 weeks of writing, and each week has a different text type and purpose. Prior to Benchmark, I would focus on one text type per trimester – whichever one was being assessed by our district! By the end of the year, had my students actually gained a solid foundation in the different text types and the purposes for writing? Could I sit them down with a writing prompt and feel confident that they knew what type of writing would be appropriate in order to address the prompt? Would they be able to effectively use a source as evidence in their writing? Probably not. Opinion, informational, and narrative writing is a lot to cover in three weeks, but the spiral of the three is what will prepare our students and what will help them meet the end-of-the-year standards.
But what about the writing process and writer’s workshop? If you look at the standards, taking the students through the writing process (plan, revise, edit) is actually only one standard (#5) of the ten total. So why was I trying to do this with every writing assignment? In Kinder and first grade, students “strengthen writing” by adding more details; however, it is not until second grade that students are actually supposed to “revise and edit.” By the third grade, they are expected to “plan, revise, and edit.” But still, this only accounts for one standard. So what I realized was that I don’t have to push the entire writing process as hard as I am used to for every writing task.
The HOW: How will Benchmark writing help students to reach the standards?
Every single Benchmark writing lesson has students writing ABOUT a text they read. This is called “writing to sources,” and this skill is at the core of the standards (mainly opinion/informational) under the Text Types and Purposes strand. In Kinder and first grade, students respond (tell, draw, or write) to the weekly texts they are reading by giving an opinion, giving facts, or telling a story. Once students reach second grade, the overall structure of the writing program changes in Benchmark. Instead of responding to a new writing task each day, there is one extended prompt for the week that focuses on one type of writing. The prompt requires students to refer to the weekly texts as a basis for their writing. Each week follows a general outline with some variations in terms of specific writing lesson topics.
This is the general outline of a week of writing for grades 2-6 using the CA Edition:
1. Analyze a writing prompt – Students must decompose a prompt to understand the type of text they are to write, and the purpose for writing. I see this as a comprehension task and as a skill that is absolutely essential for our state test. Students need to be able to understand what the prompt is asking of them in order for them to successfully write about it.
2. Incorporate evidence – the “sources” part of writing to sources. Students must find evidence that will support their writing task and that they can incorporate into their writing.
3. Drafting – There are a couple of specific mini writing lessons each week (i.e. “incorporating dialogue in your narrative,” etc.), but every week, students are writing to respond to the prompt. Their ideas and evidence are transferred from brain to paper.
4. Revise/edit – This is found under “Day 5” for second grade, or under “Lesson 15” for grades 3-5. Students apply a revision technique/strategy and an editing skill to their working draft.
Kindergarten and First Grade
In K and 1, there is daily shared writing. For these lessons, you are the scribe and you are writing on the board or large chart paper, with the students verbally participating in the writing process. There is an independent practice part of each writing lesson where the kids either draw or write 1-2 sentences. They are not responsible for doing ALL the writing found in that shared writing lesson on their own. This is very different from process writing, obviously, so check out the Process Writing Handbook that comes with BA for that kind of practice.
A Note About National Edition and the 2021 Edition
The writing component of the program was changed when the National Edition was developed. There are writing tasks related to analyzing a text type during week 1, analyzing a model writing sample in week 2, and then student writing in week 3. There is also performance task practice included. Some weeks will have the same pattern as I outlined above. In the student consumable text, there will always be a student writing prompt on the BuildReflectWrite page that you can use to guide students through the 4-step process described above.
But what about my district’s other writing program?
I have personally decided to not abandon my district’s other writing program, which is Step Up to Writing (SUTW). I do, however, try to teach using SUTW during a different block of time than my Benchmark instruction. I use the Benchmark writing during my designated ELA block and treat it more as a quick, shorter writing task for the week. I use free time here and there in the afternoons to teach SUTW so that my kids still get that longer, very structured process writing.
More recently, I’ve started to make it a point to bring in some SUTW strategies during my Benchmark writing time. For example, Step Up is all about color coding parts of a paragraph in third grade. We mainly use green for the topic or main idea, yellows for facts/reasons, and red for supporting details or events. Being able to use the color-coding system has allowed me to merge the two programs quite easily.
Some districts use Write from the Beginning and specifically, Thinking Maps. I have also found ways to bring Thinking Maps strategies into my weekly Benchmark writing. Although I don’t do this often, I’ve found that using a Thinking Map during the planning stage can help students organize their thoughts before drafting.
Have you found ways to incorporate other writing programs into your BA writing? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
My Benchmark Advance Writing Companions
I really struggled with Benchmark’s writing the first year of implementation, which is what led me to break down the entire writing component this year. I created writing companions to be used with Benchmark’s weekly writing for grades K-6. So far, they’ve really helped me stay on track and keep all the pieces of my students’ writing in one place. Grading writing has also been easier since all the steps in their writing process are together and have a clear progression. And, not to mention, their writing is more concise and to-the-point, which has made it quicker to look over!
There are booklets for every week of all ten units — so 30 booklets total. There are sets for both CA (K-6) and National (1-5). These also come with full-page options and digital options for digital learning.
You can find my writing companions for grades K-6 by clicking here.
Here is a video of my student explaining how she used her writing booklet: