Immersion to improve student writing

Don’t overlook this critical aspect of genre studies…

Pre-Writing, Drafting, Revising, Editing and Publishing. While these are the five steps most closely, and most generally associated with the writing process, we must not forget one critical aspect of genre studies, the “Immersion Phase”.

It was early in my teaching career when I engaged in the planning of a genre study with my grade level counterparts. I was eager, excited and goal/product oriented. I dove right in, offering suggestions for mini-lessons! Mrs. Oliveri, a seasoned, veteran teacher on our grade level team, calmly and gently interrupted, “We can’t forget about immersion. The children need EXPOSURE to the genre,” she said. “The children need TIME with the genre,” she said.  “The children need to MAKE SENSE of the genre,” she said.

Immersion, I wondered. I had heard of immersion as it pertained to a foreign language. It was the method of teaching a foreign language by exclusively using that language. But, immersion as it pertains to Writing Workshop? Could immersion in Writing Workshop be a similar method?

Sometimes the best way to learn is to do. So that’s what I did. I asked my colleague to share why immersion was an important phase and what the children should learn from it. Then she helped me plan how it would go- the books I would read, the kinds of conversations we should have, the anchor charts we would create, and then… I jumped right in.

The Immersion Phase generally takes place prior to the implementation of the Writing Workshop sequence of mini-lessons. During this Phase, the educator exposes students to the genre of focus intentionally and strategically through literature and through other instructional methods and techniques.  This helps the students get a general sense or big picture understanding of the genre and provides students with an opportunity to analyze and discuss elements specific to the genre before asking them to write within that genre.

There were several different ways we chose to immerse students into the genre study. One very effective method was through the reading aloud of mentor texts.  After all, according to Ralph Fletcher, “The students’ writing is only as good as the literature being read.”  We selected a set of mentor texts within the unit of study that reflected the type of features we hoped to highlight for students in upcoming mini-lessons. These mentor texts were discussed, studied and analyzed from a writer’s perspective.  We also used these mentor texts to generate a “noticings” chart by eliciting from students all the genre specific elements they “noticed.”

Immersion to improve student writingThe impact this had on student writing was incredible! Students REALLY understood the elements associated with our unit of study. They participated more profoundly in mini-lessons, they took greater risks when writing independently and their confidence grew tremendously. The students were knowledgeable, motivated and excited! They acted, felt and wrote like the REAL authors I always knew that they were!

Other ways to immerse students into a genre study is through the studying and analyzing of exemplar pieces and through the creation of a genre specific rubric. Again, the “noticings” chart can be very useful in guiding these discussions and in highlighting elements.

Ultimately, immersion is a critical phase of the writing process. Immersion can happen through the use of different instructional methods and techniques and can truly support the understanding of genre specific elements that students will use in their writing throughout the unit of study. Your students’ will be more motivated to write, their ideas for writing will broaden, their confidence will soar, and their finished products will more closely resemble the genre of focus.