One School’s Journey to Write More Impactful IEP Goals

Thank you for spending some time with us! Sue Umpleby is a literacy consultant, who is a retired teacher from a public school in Columbus, Ohio, where she was an intervention specialist for 35 years, and teacher- leader. Kristen Robbins Warren is a literacy coach in central Ohio, who studied to be a literacy specialist at Teachers College and taught middle school language arts at a public school in Brooklyn, New York for 14 years, including 7 years of inclusion as the general education teacher. For context, both of us are experienced in the reading and writing workshop model and have studied the work of the TCRWP extensively. We are in the process of creating a blog for passionate literacy teachers (see our new twitter handle below to get updates), but for now we are temporarily posting on Kristen’s blog about books. Welcome!

The Big Question: How can we write IEP Goals that support

One question Intervention teachers grapple with is this: “How can I write IEP Goals and objectives that create a clear focus and enable the student to benefit from being included in writing workshop?” In January, we began working with a group of dedicated middle school intervention teachers who were finding the reality of what happened daily in the inclusion writing workshop and the goals and objectives written annually on the IEP just didn’t align. Often the goals were only relevant to one specific genre. These teachers wanted to jump in to thinking about why this alignment is important: how can we write goals that truly help support student growth all year?   

The Big Picture: Annual Reviews and the trouble when there is a mismatch

Immediately, what came to mind was the accountability that an intervention specialist faces at an annual review meeting: reviewing the growth of a student can feel daunting. As an intervention teacher in a writing workshop inclusion setting, you can feel like you would like to say, “I know these were the goals and objectives we wrote last spring, and they sounded really great then. But, it actually doesn’t seem to reflect what we did everyday in writing workshop or the growth that your child made at all! So, do you mind if I just show you some writing and we talk about what kinds of growth your child really did make and then move on to next year’s IEP Goals? “ Of course instead, you look around the table at the special ed director, or the principal, or the parent advocate, bite your tongue, and proceed to explain that the student did in fact make growth by demonstrating that she could, in fact, produce a piece of writing that met some, if not all, the criteria. Arguably, though, this is not the most important reason for the alignment.

Trouble: Letting the “project”, not the goal, dictate how the workshop goes

What we know as intervention teachers is that the goals and objectives for a student can get lost in the demands of the daily writing workshop. We know that we can end up “helping” a student produce a piece of writing that looks similar to typical classmates, but it doesn’t help the writer grow independently.

Teach the writer, not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing. (Lucy Calkins)

Even with these wise words repeating like a mantra in our minds, teaching to the piece of writing and not the writer can happen so easily. You can picture it. You walk in and the student is struggling to come up with an idea. You talk, help connect what you know about her passions with kind of writing the class is undertaking, orally rehearse, and she starts writing as you coach. You move on to the next student. And, so the thing this writer really needed to learn, in this case how to get started writing independently, gets lost in an attempt to keep her up with the class.

So we wondered, how do we change this? How can we write goals that will drive daily instruction, span different genres of a year-long curriculum, and give both the teacher and the student a roadmap about where we are headed?  How can we write goals and objectives that span all the different genres of writing, that show us, the classroom teachers, and the students where we’re headed in ways that give us direction that guides the focus of each day’s work?

It became clear to us that this was a journey, rather than a one time conversation. We are still in the midst of watching students, studying their writing, and revising our thinking, but the intervention team now feels more unified and purposeful. We are beginning to see ways revised goals can bear fruit in the writing of students. Here are some of the steps we took this year.


After almost two years of implementing a writing workshop curriculum, all intervention specialists, the Director of Special Education, the Director of Academic Achievement and the two of us met in response to teacher concern that existing goals don’t seem to align. We talked about frustrations, but also about vision. Staying anchored in the hope of what we wanted to accomplish was important to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Knowing that the district backed the work and alloted time to think and plan together felt especially supportive.

  • As a school who uses the TCRWP Units of Study, we looked at the writing progressions alongside student on-demand work. Our major discussion revolved around whether what we were seeing was the result of a process issue (for example, difficulty independently generating ideas), a learning behavior (for example, difficulty staying engaged in writing or attending to the mini lesson) or a skill deficit (for example, how do I elaborate?)–and how these three things work together.
  • We visited classrooms and studied engagement and asked: how is this connected to goals?

Conclusions: Teachers left this day of learning with an understanding that they were supported in their desire to write more meaningful goals, and for the goals to be connected to the daily work in which students are participating. We knew though, that this was the beginning, and we asked teachers to continue studying student work and engagement alongside the current goals.


This was a three hour time slot devoted to diving into the intellectual work of what might go into a student goal.

  • In partnerships or individually, teachers studied one aspect of the writing across the narrative, informational and opinion rubrics to see what they had in common. It was really important to give teachers the time to step back from the tunnel vision that can occur within one unit and see how the characteristics of writing really did span all genres.
  • We created a giant chart on the whiteboard for partnerships to share out what they learned about the aspect of writing they studied (lead, ending, elaboration, craft, etc.) For example, we noticed that using transition words and phrases to connect was important to all genres. Although the actual transition words might change, depending on the genre.  Then we brainstormed and co-created transferrable language across the genres. For example, –Writer uses genre appropriate transitions to connect different parts of a piece of writing (between and within paragraphs) Finally, we co-created some ideas how this work might turn into a writing goal. Here’s the picture of our work, but we believe that it was the intellectual exercise of all of us studying together that made it most impactful.
  • Last, we consolidated these ideas onto a shared online document for teachers to begin to use in their goal writing


At our last meeting of the year, we wanted to spend some time checking in on how our work was impacting the writing of goals and begin to make intentional plans on how the revised goals can directly impact daily instruction.

  • The feedback we received from teachers was that our collaborative work directly impacted not only how they were writing IEPs, but also how they were thinking about their students across the year. One teacher commented on the positive impact on students, noting that by creating a clear goal with his cooperating teacher and sharing this with his students, the students had produced more writing, even though that wasn’t necessarily the focus of the mini lesson–but the kids were showing growth in the area they needed it!
  • Our next question in the journey, of course, is how do we use the goal to drive meaningful instruction? We designed this day around the hope that teachers would have a plan for how they would start the year and use the revised IEP goals to drive instruction, small groups, and conferencing. We talked about the roles that on-demands play in our assessments, ways to hold ourselves accountable to checking in with students, and methods of progress monitoring. These are the kinds of things that will drive our study in the next school year.

Our time with the intervention specialists was what we hope professional learning can always look like: collaboratively working through an issue, deepening our own learning, staying close to student work, and revising our practices. The work, of course, never really ends, and we are looking forward to studying more of the lessons, small groups, and conferencing we can do moving forward.

We are also planning to continue this journey of writing…by the fall we are hoping to launch a blog featuring the work of central Ohio teachers and include a regular column about literacy and special education. Writing this post made us realize we could actually write so much more (and much more specifically) about each of the steps we took. And that only covers one small part of our passion! We are looking for contributors, so if you are an Ohio teacher interested in sharing part of your professional learning journey, please reach out! Email For now, follow our twitter account @OHLiteracyLove

3 thoughts on “One School’s Journey to Write More Impactful IEP Goals

  1. Melanie Meehan

    I love the work you are engaging in because so many times the work of special educators focuses on product and not process. This work gets them aligning the work of growing writers, and that’s SO much more permanent!

    This line bears repeating: “Our time with the intervention specialists was what we hope professional learning can always look like: collaboratively working through an issue, deepening our own learning, staying close to student work, and revising our practices.”

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

  2. Stacey

    I enjoyed coming along on the journey with you, Kristin and Sue, as you and your colleagues sought to make the writing of IEP goals more transferrable into the work kids are doing in writing workshop. I look forward to reading about the next steps you will take. Would you mind letting me know once that post (or posts) go live? You’re doing ENORMOUSLY important work!

  3. Schoollog

    Thanks for putting the time and work for the Individualized Education Program. I loved the entire article, as you talked about the different aspects of IEP goals. IEPs are developed by a group of professionals at school. One member of this IEP team typically acts as a case manager and oversees the IEP. Writing the goals down by these professionals would be very beneficial for the child for whom the IEP is being developed.


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