How do I select FCAs that will work effectively for my students, including ELs and special needs students?

Kristine Gibson, Featured Blogger

By Kristine Gibson, Consultant, Collins Education Associates

Collins Associates have over three decades of experience working with teachers who are using focus correction areas (FCAs) to focus their instruction and guide student writing development. We know focus correcting works (see Results & Research at our website). But we also know that some FCAs are better than others. The art of using FCAs is selecting those that will help students make solid, incremental progress toward improved writing.

Keep these general guidelines in mind when designing FCAs for your students:

  • Ensure That FCAs Are Appropriate for the Task. When deciding on FCAs for a specific task, ensure they are appropriate for the mode of writing (like those suggested for opinion/argument, informative, and narrative writing on our website) and reflect your students’ needs and abilities.
  • Establish FCAs for Where Students Are, Not Where They Should Be. For myriad reasons, some students are not where we would like them to be with certain writing skills. There is a temptation to simply set FCAs that reflect grade-level standards, irrespective of the gap between where students are and where they should be. Setting the bar too high can actually discourage, rather than promote, writing growth. FCAs should be rigorous, but they should be ones that can be attained with support and guidance.
  • Use FCAs for Incremental Progress. Most students progress through incremental improvements in their writing rather than with great leaps forward. We want students to write with increasing sophistication, but setting “rich sentence variety” as an FCA for a third grader who is still writing mostly short, staccato sentences is not likely to yield much improvement. However, specific FCAs such as “attention-grabbing lead,” “vary sentence beginnings,” “3 similes,” or “4 powerful verbs” will, over time, improve incrementally students’ ability to write with greater sophistication.
  • Make FCAs Specific. The less experienced a writer is the more specific the FCAs need to be. A good rule of thumb is “when in doubt, make an FCA more specific.” That is, state FCAs in ways that get beyond the categories of effective writing (such as “well organized” or “write with voice”) and provide guidance to specific characteristics of effective writing (such as “strong topic sentence” or “vary sentence lengths”).
  • Quantify FCAs Whenever Possible. If an FCA can be quantified, it’s probably a good idea to do so. For example, a vague FCA such as “sufficient support” would be much more helpful to writers if it were “3 reasons with text evidence for each.” Another option is to provide a range to describe the expectations, as in “3-5 central ideas (in your own words)” or “3+ science vocab words used correctly.” Both of these FCAs set a clear standard for success but also provide potential for students to stretch themselves.
  • Balance FCAs to Ensure Growth. Avoid the temptation to overemphasize FCAs related to conventions. While oversights in rule-based conventions are the easiest problems to spot, they are not necessarily the biggest weaknesses of a piece of writing. Substantive content, organization of ideas, and engaging style are equally important factors in making writing effective. FCAs are most effective when they are mixed for content, organization, style, and conventions. For young writers especially, this sends a signal from early on that writing is about ideas and how those ideas are presented—it’s not just about avoiding convention errors.

Here are basic guidelines for creating a set of FCAs:

  • Limit to three FCAs
  • Have at least one clear, content-based FCA
  • Limit to no more than one convention-based FCA
  • Use one FCA for organization or style

Teach and model FCAs prior to writing 

Assigning FCAs—even thoughtfully selected ones—without teaching them is unlikely to make much difference in your students’ writing. Students perform best when given clear models and instruction for success, as well as some coaching along the way. Showing examples—whether mentor texts or authentic student work with minor flaws—makes those expectations more concrete for students. Looking at text and discussing how writers have included certain features or how specific problems might have been avoided goes a long way toward demystifying writing. This strategy, effective for all writers, is especially important for inexperienced and EL writers.

For your emergent writers, special needs students, and ELs consider these suggestions:

  • Create a Supportive Environment. Writing is a challenge for most students, so we must create a supportive climate where risk-taking is encouraged and valued. Place a premium on effort (something every student is capable of), not just success. Persistent effort will lead to success. Model frequently for students and build in regular opportunities for student-student interaction. Students benefit from talking about and hearing ideas.
  • Use Symbolic FCAs. Normally, students are asked to write their FCAs on the top of their papers. But for some students, it may be more practical to use symbolic FCAs that are preprinted on their writing paper. You can create your own or use our starter kit of symbolic FCAs with Collins primary paper.
  • Set Challenging, Attainable FCAs. We want to use focus correcting to bring more realistic rigor to our writing instruction. Selecting FCAs that are out of reach for students—even if they are standards-based—is not rigor. That is frustration for students and teachers alike. Select FCAs that, with student effort and support from you, can be achieved.
  • Differentiate FCAs. In small group settings, it may be possible to individualize FCAs for students with different needs. But even in larger group settings, differentiating FCAs is manageable. For example, you might select two FCAs for a task that all in the group use and then meet with individuals or small groups to briefly identify and explain a third, differentiated FCA tailored for specific needs. You might also adjust the quantity expected for some FCAs. For example, you might ask some students to explain “3 reasons with 2 examples each” while others are asked to focus on “2 reasons with 1 example each.”
  • Use Graphic Organizers. Many students struggle with either generating ideas or with expressing them cohesively on paper. Using basic, but structured, graphic organizers strategically during prewriting can have a positive impact on students’ writing. Graphic organizers well suited for the writing task at hand can help students map out and organize their ideas before they begin writing.