Instructional Design

A new approach for Third Grade writing teachers


Role: Lead Designer in collaboration with Lead Teachers


Strong written communication skills are crucial in order to be successful in todays collaborative world. However, students aren’t gaining maximum benefit from writing time because they view writing tasks as a “check-the-box’ activity. They complete the tasks using the minimal required effort, then move on to the next thing as quickly as possible, and often don’t internalize what they’ve learned. Teachers in an elementary school in Austin, Texas had implemented a Writer’s Workshop model in order to move away from the templated approach to writing instruction and help students find more creativity and freedom in their work. They realized having mini conferences with each student was important in helping them be successful. The only problem was, teachers are incredibly time-strapped and can’t meet the individual needs of 20+ students within a 50 minute time block.

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How might we help teachers find more time to conference with students and help students find autonomy and pride in their writing?


The Hypothesis

We observed that students learn from each other. While listening to a peer’s piece they become more thoughtful about their own writing. We believed we could capitalize on the classroom community to support writing instruction by designing a method for students to learn from each other. 

According to the Learning Pyramid developed by the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in Virginia, learners retain...

90% of what they learn when teaching someone else and use it immediately

75% of what they learn when practicing what is learned

50% of what is learned when engaged in a group discussion.


The Experiment

We devised a structure for writing time called Writing Circles that allowed students to give and receive peer to peer feedback. If successful. the teacher could confidently hold mini conferences while the students continued to push their own writing pieces forward.




Phase 1 - Critique Workshop

In order to implement this new model, students had to be trained on how to give feedback that is

Student created guide on giving feedback

Student created guide on giving feedback

  • Helpful

  • Specific

  • Kind

We utilized a lesson from Ron Berger, and had students practice giving feedback on a drawing. The drawing went through several iterations, taking the feedback into consideration each time. Students reflected on the type of feedback that was helpful, and the type of feedback that wasn’t. 

As a group that students created a guide to help them give good feedback. 


Phase 2 - Circle Structure

We developed a distinct structure for each Third Grade classroom depending on the class size and group dynamics. Generally speaking we divided the classroom into three feedback groups, or writing circles. 

During the writing block, time was divided as follows:


  • 10 minutes, mini lesson

  • 40 minutes, writing conferences with individual students


  • 10 minutes, mini lesson

  • 15 minutes, independent writing time

  • 15 minutes, writing circles

  • 10 minutes, writing time

The structure worked well because it helped students build writing stamina by breaking up the block with in-person interaction. At the same time, it gave the teacher more time for one-on-one instruction.

Additionally, the teacher established rules along with her students as to how the circles should function. Each class was different, but some of the rules were: 

  • Eyes on the reader to show you are listening

  • Sharers rotate in a circle

  • A thumb on the knee signifies a student has a piece of feedback to share, and the reader can call on them

Classrooms also assigned a job to each student within the group.

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Phase 3 - Assessment

After the first two weeks, we decided to assess the success of the writing circle model. 

Did peer feedback help student writing?

Did students feed autonomy in their writing?

Did the teacher have more time to spend conferencing with students?

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Quickly, it was evident that the structure of the circles needed to be adjusted. Only a few students were able to share within a 15 minute period and we needed to maximize this time. We reduced the size of the groups, made roles simpler and less formal, and made sure students had time to implement the feedback they received at the end of each circle session.




At the end of the writing unit the classes celebrated with a publishing party. All students had created and iterated on an original piece of writing that reflected their own personalities. The writings were rich with description and imagination, meeting the writing standards outlines in TEKS for third grade. While there was still much variation in skill level among the students, 85% of students when interviewed said they were proud of their writing.

I saw my students become more thoughtful about their writing than they ever have been. They actually care and are invested in their own writing.
— Teacher

The writing circles did give more time back to teachers, but many still felt they needed to spend part of that time overseeing the discussion in the writing circles.

  • Many of the students became really skilled at giving useful feedback

  • Students really did learn from each other and took more ownership over their writing

  • They even became better "noticers" of other writings we read in class

  • Students began talking and thinking about their writing outside of the writing block