by Ophélie Tremblay (Université du Québec à Montréal) and Ruth Audet (Centre de services scolaire des Hautes-Rivières)
How can we help students with learning disabilities (LD) develop their enjoyment of writing, while supporting them in learning the different components of the writing process? The Writing Circle is an innovative teaching approach used to teach writing at the primary level, which ￼ supports students with LDs during the writing circles, in order to:
- encourage their enjoyment of writing,
- activate and increase their knowledge of writing,
- enable them to acquire new writing skills, both in planning and revising texts.
Writing circles: an approach for learning and teaching writing to all students
Writing circles correspond to a collaborative learning approach for writing, and was developed by Jim Vopat (2009). The students share their writing with each other during the four stages of the writing process, described by Hayes and Flower (1980): planning, writing, revision, and correction.
Initially, the students collaborate to share ideas and plan the text, based on either a writing prompt suggested by the teacher or a theme that they choose together; this is the planning circle (Tremblay and Turgeon, 2019). After exchanging ideas, each student writes a text of the length and genre of their choice. The students then gather in a sharing circle to mutually read what they have written. The purpose of this step is to build self-confidence in a caring and respectful space. The students provide positive feedback to the writer, which requires the students to listen attentively and to formulate positive feedback about the text that they have heard. When students have produced several texts (either within the context of planning/sharing circles or simply from writing assignments planned by the teacher), they choose a text that they would like to distribute or publish.
The next step is the revision circle: the students meet in teams and help each other improve the content and style of each of the texts (Turgeon and Tremblay, 2019). Spelling and grammar correction takes place during the last step of the approach: ‘the publishing circle’.
Through writing circles, the teacher has the opportunity to discover the students’ ‘writer’s voices’, in particular by choosing to evaluate the students’ ability to write after they have had the opportunity to rework the text in depth. This also allows the teacher to make an overall assessment of the development of each student’s writing skills, as pointed out by one of the teachers who participated in an action-research project on writing circles (Bhérer, 2020). In fact, this teacher has entirely changed her way of evaluating her students’ texts, and reports that she now takes newfound pleasure in this task! Other teachers have leveraged this approach to develop the students’ social skills (Rainville, 2020), or their oral communication skills (Champagne, 2020). For the writing circles to function smoothly, teachers should:
- Encourage the students to build connections and mutual trust
- Emphasize respect as a common value in the classroom
- Teach students how to be open to feedback when others comment on their text
- Teach students how to formulate relevant comments in response to a text
- Teach students how to formulate comments to support the text revision process
The special education teacher can support students with LDs in collaboration with the classroom teacher (or with the teacher providing individual support) so that they can participate in writing circles.
Targeted coaching to support exceptional students in writing circles
This section presents different support measures created by a special education teacher involved in an action research project on writing circles (Audet, 2020). These proposed activities, in addition to being developed to support the functioning of writing circles, meet one or more of the following three criteria: they are short, they are fun, and they allow the student to feel competent.
Activities for Text Planning
As we explained above, the planning circle invites students to share their ideas on a theme or on a writing prompt. Researching and developing ideas often represent a challenge for students with LDs. To equip students and to allow them to participate actively in the planning circle, the special education teacher can put in place a number of activities, including the ring of ideas, free-flow writing, the word association diagram, and the list of likes and dislikes.
Ring of ideas
With the goal of stimulating a student’s imagination and helping them to create a pool of ideas, students are invited to cut out images or photos from magazines or flyers. These images are then glued onto pieces of cardboard and students will write words on the back that relate to whatever the chosen image evokes. Students are encouraged to vary the type of words they choose (i.e. verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs). Finally, the pieces of cardboard are collected on a ring or in a binder that students can keep with them in class for inspiration during writing periods.
Figure 1. Example of a ring of ideas
This activity is aimed at stimulating students to generate ideas and become aware that one idea can lead to another, and then another one again. To begin, a word is suggested to the students (sun, for example). The students say words that come to mind based on this prompt (i.e. heat up, climate, environment, protect, animal, cat, moustache, tickle, uncontrollable laughter, etc.,). The answers are written on the blackboard for the purpose of creating a word bank. Students are challenged to use a certain number of these words in the short text they are writing.
Word association diagram
Like free-flow writing, the word association diagram helps to collect words associated with a theme word. This time, the ideas are directly connected to the theme word, as illustrated in Figure 2. Once again, bringing together these words can inspire or support the writing of a text.
Figure 2. Example of a word association diagram using a winter theme
I like, I don’t like
Writing based on what we know is an interesting approach, but writing from the perspective of our likes and dislikes can feel more engaging. In this activity, the students compile lists of what they like and what they don’t like. They will then have at hand a list of writing prompts to use when they are not provided with a prompt by the teacher. This tool can be used when engaging in self-directed writing.
Figure 3. Example of a list of things that a primary grade student does and does not like
Through short and varied activities, the special education teacher supports the process of developing and organizing ideas by the students being coached. These students will then have access to planning tools and strategies that they can use again in class with their peers, during writing circles, or simply in the context of producing everyday written work.
Coaching students to support their participation in the sharing circle
To share their text in a writing circle, students must read aloud in front of their peers. For some students, decoding is difficult, and reading a text can be challenging, even if they wrote it. Shyness and/or a lack of self-confidence are also likely obstacles to the full participation of students. It may be necessary for the teacher to coach students during the sharing circle step in order to model a caring and supportive environment. Before sharing circles take place, the teacher should remind students of the rules for listening and behaving respectfully toward each other. The teacher should also remind students of the intention of writing circles, which is for them to give and receive one or more positive and constructive comments in response to a text. Finally, students can begin sharing by volunteering to read their text. During this time, the other students are expected to remain silent and attentive. By sitting in with the students during the sharing circle, the teacher can intervene to point out the students’ good listening behaviours or to ask them to adjust, for example by adopting a better listening posture (sitting properly on their chair, looking toward the writer who is reading their text, etc.).
Teachers can also provide students with a list of examples of responses that they can use for their positive feedback. The following figure provides some example responses.
Figure 4: A list of supportive feedback samples to use during the sharing circle
Once the students are familiar and comfortable with the steps of the planning and sharing circles, they are ready to experience a revision circle.
Support tips to facilitate the revision circle
To support students with LDs so that they can participate in the revision circle, teachers can apply the following tips:
Encourage the use of visual supports
Some students will need the paper or digital version of the text to make it easier to provide feedback during the text revision process.
Hear their text read by a peer
Students who have trouble recognizing words may benefit from having their text read by a peer to avoid cognitive overload. They will then be better able to evaluate the consistency of the text: Do the events occur in the proper sequence? Can I form a clear image of the situation being described? Are there missing or excessive elements? These are just a few examples.
Reading their text to their peers using text-to-speech software
In certain contexts, students with LDs could benefit from using text-to-speech software to allow them to be independent and to focus on receiving comments from their peers.
Using checklists during the revision process (consistency, division into paragraphs, variety and appropriateness of words, variety of types of sentences, etc.) enables students to support their feedback and suggestions for revision.
Having peers take notes
For students with motor dyspraxia, it can be useful if their peers write the keywords associated with the comments received, directly in the text. This fosters a genuine collaboration between peers and mutual support throughout the approach.
Being able to read peer texts ahead of time
Finally, for students who have difficulty recognizing words, it is beneficial to read the texts of their peers ahead of time in preparation for the revision circle.
The following table summarizes the methods that we have just presented.
Table 1. Summary of support measures for implementing revision circles
By using the support measures described above to coach writing circles, the special education teacher was able to stimulate learning and help students discover of the joy of writing; encourage students to write often in a stimulating context; help students with LDs discover their writer’s voice; help students feel competence in writing; and target writing interventions based on criteria other than the development of spelling skills. This coaching, provided by the special education teacher, resulted in students’ feeling of accomplishment and joy in writing.
It is important to coach your students so that they will experience pleasure, motivation, and joy in writing
 In Quebec, special education teachers provide personalized coaching for exceptional students. The interventions presented in this article can all be adapted in order for the teacher to provide support to all students, in particular exceptional students.
 The examples of games were inspired by or taken from the book Jeux pour écrire by M. Martin (2017).
 See the following article to find out more about the use of word association diagrams: https://cache.media.eduscol.education.fr/file/Dossier_vocabulaire/57/6/Micheline_Cellier_111202_C_201576.pdf (In French only)
Audet, R. (2020). Apprendre, malgré des difficultés, en plongeant dans le bonheur d’écrire. Revue hybride de l’éducation. p. 135-155.
Bhérer, É. (2020). Évaluer l’écriture grâce aux cercles d’auteurs. Revue hybride de l’éducation. p. 156-162.
Champagne, C. (2020). Enseigner et évaluer l’oral grâce aux cercles d’auteurs. Revue hybride de l’éducation. p. 104-114.
Hayes, J. R. and Flower, L. S. (1980). Identifying the organization of writing processes, in L.W. Gregg & E.R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing, 3-30, Hillsdale: L.E.A.
Rainville, B. (2020). L’importance d’instaurer un climat de confiance pour profiter pleinement de la démarche des cercles d’auteurs. Revue hybride de l’éducation. p. 94-103.
Tarte, L. (2020). Le pouvoir des cercles d’auteurs en orthopédagogie en palier 3 du modèle RàI. Revue hybride de l’éducation, p. 115-126.
Tremblay, O., Turgeon, E. (2019). Collaboration dans les cercles d’auteurs : pistes pour travailler la planification. Vivre le primaire. 32(1), p. 11-13.
Ophélie Tremblay is a professor in the language instruction department at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Her current research work focuses on the writers' circles approach in elementary school, as an approach to develop the skills to write, read and communicate orally. Driven by her love of words and her expertise in lexical teaching, she is also interested in teaching approaches that promote the development of lexical sensitivity (a relationship that is both affective and cognitive towards words) and vocabulary in elementary school students.
Ruth Audet, M.A. Orthopédagogue, has been working with the Hautes-Rivières school board in Montérégie in the province of Quebec, since October 2000. She also previously worked in two private schools in Montreal and at the Cree James Bay school board. She obtained a master's degree in French teaching at Laval University in Quebec.