Three Easy Ways to Incorporate Depth and Complexity into Your Writing Instruction

Written communication is integral to learning and is used across all subject areas. But what does a language arts teacher use to help students improve their writing skills? Depth and Complexity, of course!

Start with the Basics 

An easy entry when it comes to adding Depth and Complexity to writing instruction is right at the beginning. Present the class with a Big Idea anchor chart when launching the writing workshop. Simplicity is the key here, so start the discussion with a blank anchor chart and use your student’s ideas to fill it in. No need to create the anchor chart on your own! 

Talk to the students about why people write and work together to develop a Big Idea for your class’ writing workshop. Next, discuss the Details of a writer’s workshop and what students can do during this time to be successful. Then, explain and document the Patterns of a typical writer’s workshop period. Spend some time talking about Thinking Like a Disciplinarian from the writer’s Perspective and how that relates to their work as writers. Finally, address the Unanswered Question that every student asks – What do I do when I think I’m done?

This super-simple anchor chart can live on your writing bulletin board year-round to serve as a placeholder for the writer’s workshop.

Layer Depth and Complexity into Minilessons

The heart of a writing workshop is generally the shortest piece – the minilesson. Teachers know they have approximately five minutes to communicate the teaching point before their students’ minds wander. Layering in the iconic lenses of Depth and Complexity helps to focus students’ attention and gives them a common language to carry into their partner and independent work.

A common minilesson for students across most grade levels is adding details. Whether this lesson asks students to paint a picture in their reader’s mind, showing not telling, or has something to do with watermelons and seeds, the idea is the same – good writers add details that are important to the story. For a minilesson like this, I come prepared with a short, bare-bones writing sample. I read it to the students and ask what might be missing. They usually tell me the story is too short or they have questions. Next, I add the Details and Unanswered Questions icons to the side of the anchor chart and ask them prompting questions.

What important information can I add to paint a picture in my reader’s mind?

What information is missing in my story? What questions does my reader have?

Students help me annotate my writing sample with the Details and Unanswered Questions icons. I then explain that these annotations help me know where to add descriptive elements to my story. Next, I demonstrate how I would revise my writing with various strategies such as adding adjectives, describing the setting, showing a feeling, etc. Finally, I invite students to read my revised story and tell me what they notice. By adding the icons of Details and Unanswered Questions, my students can easily see how and why I made adjustments to my writing and are given a clear picture of how they can practice the same procedure in their writing.

Plan with a Purpose

Many authors will tell you that the conceptualization portion of writing is the most important piece of the process. But the usefulness of planning can sometimes be lost on students. Adding iconic prompts is the easiest way to generate a quality writing plan. There is no need to re-create the wheel here. You can simply drag and drop Depth and Complexity or Content Imperative prompts onto your current planning document using our free Chrome extension

If you are looking for a new way to spice up your student’s writing plans, try using an icon as a graphic organizer. For example, if your students plan to write a personal narrative, the Patterns or Contribution icons are perfect placeholders for ideas that follow a sequence.

Another tried, and true method for writing planning is with a frame. For example, if your students plan to write a persuasive essay, have them think through the Big Idea and how they can prove their reasoning. Pairing icons here will raise the task’s rigor and also produce more complex ideas. The student first jots down the Big Idea or claim in the frame example below. Then, they work around the outside of the frame to document their rationale through the various icons. By the time students have completed the frame, they have fully developed their ideas and are ready to begin writing a very persuasive piece.

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