Writing Notebooks

As much as I love to come up with clever writing prompts and activities for my students, I also love to see what they come up with on their own. At the beginning of the year, I make a big deal about how first graders get to make a lot of choices with their learning. One example is with their writing notebooks. Their writing notebooks get to be filled with their creative, brilliant, interesting ideas. Don't get me wrong, I for sure get those kids who end up writing about the same topic over and over (star wars, DS games, and cats to name a few). When I see too much repetition, that's a sign that we need to have a writing conference (or two) to brainstorm some new ideas. Sometimes a small group mini-lesson (or two or three) really help with this issue too. 

At the beginning of the year, we brainstorm a list of ideas for what to write about. It's always so exciting at first with hands shooting up in the air. I learned the hard way that you can't just have this conversation once and expect the excitement to last the whole year. That's why I revisit this over and over again throughout the year. 

Organizing Notebooks:
For their writer's notebooks I just use spiral notebooks, which ends up saving a lot on my copies!

Last year, I started putting tabs in my students' writer's notebooks. 

The tabs are a part of a page that they cut out (basically cutting around the tab) and then they glue it in their notebooks on the next available page. 

There are a few reasons why I did this:

1. Helps with organization (even when they should be putting the date on each page)
2. It's easy to quickly flip to where they left off.
3. It's easy for me (and my student) to see how much they wrote for each month. I know quality is more important that quantity, but I also want to make sure they are meeting my expectations in this way. I love the way the tabs make this so easy to do. 

You can see in the picture below that there were reading logs attached to the tabs. This is meant to be a record of the reading they do during Daily 5 throughout the month. It became a way for me to hold them accountable for Daily 5 and it helped keep them on track as well. I'm so in awe of those teachers who don't need any of these things! 

(Oops, the tab got cut off in this pic)
I recommend training your students to jot down the date and title by practicing this as a class. Get them used to doing this before expecting them to do it every time independently! If it becomes habit, then they're more likely to remember to log down their books when they are independently reading during Daily 5. I tell them not to write it down until they finished the book. Since they keep all their books and writer's notebooks in their book boxes, this isn't a problem (usually) as long as you train them! :)  I also like this because it gets them used to identifying the title and rating a story. We do a minilesson on how to rate a book. A few minilessons about opinions work with with this. (That's one of the common core standards too!) When I meet with them, their "ratings" can be a good conversation topic. If I see a lot of 3 star ratings, I tend to ask lots of questions about what they liked about the books to get them thinking more critically about the books. 

I use these for a writer's notebook:

Print enough for your class (I do one month at a time). Cut on outer solid lines. Glue so that the edge of the paper lines up to the edge of the paper on the notebook page. That way the tab is sticking out but not the rest of the paper.

*UPDATE: As of June 2015, I've updated these reading and writing tabs. These look much better! :) 

When do they use their notebooks?
Students write in their writer's notebooks during daily 5 when I am meeting with reading groups or having conferences. It's one of their rotations (along with literacy centers). 
They also can write in their notebooks anytime they have extra time (early finishers). When I do small group writing lessons, they always bring their notebooks with them. During writer's workshop I do a variety of things, so they may not always use their notebooks (sometimes I model, sometimes we do shared writing, and sometimes I may have a separate writing page with a prompt).

 Setting expectations for Writer's Notebooks
Don't learn the hard way like I did! Set those expectations and be clear and follow through. I was a little too free with writer's notebooks at first. Kids need those boundaries. I confess, I've had a few kids only drawing pictures (well past the point when they were more than capable of writing) or it was so sloppy and all over the place that I couldn't figure out what was going on. Rookie mistake! My expectations for the beginning of the year are:

1. Draw a picture to go with your writing.
2. Use spaces between words and between lines (model and practice this! It's not as easy as it sounds and some kids take a while to start using spaces between words.)
3. Use nice handwriting (don't rush your writing).
4. Use best guess spelling and any other resources (word wall or words around the room)

As the year goes on, they don't have to draw a picture but I do expect more writing. I also have student conferences where I set my expectations with that individual student to go along with goals. I think this is important so I can make sure I'm meeting the needs of each student and giving them an appropriate expectation. I still continue to have tons of lessons where I model good writing and review expectations. Naturally, as you teach new skills, your expectations will evolve.

Here's an example of a student's notebook:
I wish I had a better camera so you could actually read the writing! I like to write notes in their notebooks (with their permission- some prefer sticky notes). If I check these on my own time, then I write my notes and the next time we have a conference together we can go over my notes. 

I don't always "grade" their notebooks the same way I would other writing assignments. Instead, I assess by looking for evidence of certain skills. I use this sheet:

Click on the left picture to go to my Teacher's Notebook store and the right picture to go to my TPT store to download for free. (You don't need to go to both though. All freebies can be found at both.) If you do, please consider "following" or adding to your favorites. 

I circle a few skills that I observed in their notebooks and then I circle one or two things that the student needs to work on.  I try to do a couple a day so that I check every student's notebook every few weeks. This could be done with the student during a writing conference or it could be done after school on your own time. In a perfect world I would do all assessments during a writing conference but sometimes it doesn't work out how I planned and I want to make sure that I check in on everyone's notebooks. 

This year I'll keep track of it all using this checklist:

 These two above are both to keep track of the class.(I'll put multiple checks in each box if I see a skill demonstrated on multiple occasions.

And these two will be per student. Dates will go at the top.

When I need to get an actual grade, I'll choose an entry from the journal or do another writing assignment and use a rubric to get an objective score. To read more about how I use rubrics, click on the pink pictures below. To read more about my reader response pack, click on the green picture.


  1. Sarah, I loved reading about how writing workshop works in your classroom. I use writing and reading workshop in my first grade classroom as well. I am interested in the writing notebook. I thought about it, but I've always been scared as to how it would work. I thought about using a 1in. 3 ring binder, too, but I am not sure how it would work out. I have always used Writing Folders that the kids get to decorate with pictures of family and friends (for inspiration), and the red dot (finished stories) and green dot (unfinished stories)... I have to buy all my own copy paper (and every other supply we need), so it would probably be more cost effective, but I don't know how I could make it work. What do you do if a student has a couple stories going at a time?

    I would love to hear more about what you do and how you use your rubrics for both Writing and Reading. Purchasing anything over and above what I already need to purchase is not feasible at this point. Any pointers?

    :) Camille
    1st grade teacher

    1. Hi Camille,
      Wow, I can't believe that you have to buy all your own copy paper! I would totally recommend the spiral notebooks then. You can get them on mega sales this time of year at Office Max or Depot during their teacher appreciation weeks. The unfinished stories is a tough one! I struggle with that. I usually tell kids to skip a couple pages. You could also have a tab toward the back that is specifically for those ongoing stories. In fact, I think I'll do that this year! (Thanks for the inspiration.)

      Send me your email address and I'll send you the writing and reading rubrics for free. It's the least I could do to help a fellow teacher out. :)

      Let me know if you have any other questions! I'll post more about it when I start school too.

  2. These are wonderful! You have given me some great ideas to think about with my reading and writing this year. :)

  3. I love the tab pages!!! Such a smart way to keep track of their writing throughout the year. I like your snapshot assessment pages too. Thanks for sharing these great ideas! :)

    First Grade Garden

  4. Wow! I am impressed with your writing program and organization! I especially like the snapshot assessment sheets. I struggle with how to check and assess journal writing, but not any more. Thank you for the freebies!

  5. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for these great writing freebies! I appreciate all of your hard work. In the past, I used a tab-shaped punch (from my crafty room) and kids would punch the tabs out and stick them on. This idea sounds better. I'm going to give it a whirl! I’m having my big 100 follower giveaway! I’d love it if you wanted to come on over for a visit sometime. Thanks!
    Your Follower,
    Corinna :)
    Teaching Fabulous Firsties!

  6. These are fantastic. Super love the writing notebook tab pages. Thank you so much for sharing :)

    Sunny Days In Second Grade

  7. LOVE the writing notebook tab pages...you're so clever! Thanks a bunch!

  8. Your stuff is amazing! I don't know how you find the time, but I am glad that you do. I can't wait to use this when school starts! What a way to organize everything.

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  14. I'm moving from 6th to 1st next year. :) I used to teach K so it won't be a complete SHOCK! :)

    I did journal writing with my kinders each day, but the 1st grade teachers follow the reading program so their students pretty much just complete phonics worksheets and language worksheets.

    Of course I'm a rebel, so..... I am loving this post with these awesome ideas!!!!!!! I'm a huge believer in kids WRITING. :)

    Thanks and can't wait to look through the rest of your blog!


  15. I LOVE this reading log printable for my kiddo, but cannot seem to find it in your TPT store???

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