What Do Kids Need To Learn About Writing?

What Do Kids Need to Learn About Writing I got some great responses to my last post– many of them in person in school hallways or grocery store aisles, but also via text and email. The overarching themes were:

1- Writing is about so much more than conventions! 

2- Teachers want to be excellent writing teachers but often feel they need some coaching and support to get there.

I agree and am thrilled to engage in this topic here on Wonder Teacher!

Did you try my little exercise from the last post? (You know- the one where you wrote down all the things “good writers” do and then examined your practice to see if you are teaching those things to your students?)

I did! Here’s what I came up with. This is not a comprehensive list, by the way, just a bit of my brainstorm. After each point, I’ll list an implication for our teaching practice.

1. There are many different reasons for writing. To write effectively, you need to have a clear purpose and know your audience in order to communicate your message well.

Teaching point: If we want our students to be great writers, we need to stop making all of our instruction focused on spelling and punctuation marks. As we teach children to interpret the purpose of a piece of text in reading, we can also teach them about the different purposes for writing. (To entertain, inform, persuade, etc.)

2. Real writing doesn’t happen in tidy little 40 minute blocks of time. In my own writing life, I write in bursts and snippets. Sometimes I can sit down and write for hours and sometimes I just jot an idea in my notebook to revisit later because it hit me while I was cleaning the bathroom. (And sometimes I can’t write at all because we have two “weather cancellation days” in a row and my children are home and I simply don’t have space for writing. It’s OK- they are only little once!) This unique season in my life has forced me to get creative with my writing time. I do lots of brainstorming and note-making in carpool lines so that when I sit down to write I can knock it out!

Teaching point: Encourage your students to revisit their writing whenever they get an idea or have extra time. Yes, they should write during your writing block but what about during down time? Or morning work time? There are lots of periods throughout the day when your children could grab 5-10 minutes with their writing notebook/folder if encouraged to do so. Some children even get so excited that they want to work on their writing at home. Why not?

3. Writing usually gets “good” during the revision process. Oh- and that isn’t something you do once to your writing and then check off. Revision is a constant thought process and never really ends. I suppose publication is the “end” but we writers still see things we wish we could change even after our writing goes to print. (It’s agony, I tell you!) Revision begins the moment you finish writing a few sentences in a first draft and it continues until you reach your deadline. Kids need to understand this fact without it becoming burdensome.

Teaching point: Modeling is the very best way to teach this concept. Keep your own writing folder and occasionally pull out an “old piece” to reread and revise in front of the children. Time is the best agent for strong revision- being away from a piece gives you fresh eyes! Help children see that the goal isn’t to “revise” their writing once so they can check it off the list. The goal is to make their writing as powerful as possible! Truly, this is a fairly advanced understanding and young children are often quite happy to leave their writing just as it is! It takes some gentle coaching and a lot of modeling to build this understanding. I’ll share more on this topic in the future.

4. It is easiest to write about things you know; your own life, your experiences, your interests and beliefs. This is the reason prompt-based writing approaches are so ineffective.

Teaching Point: Ditch the forced prompts! Instead, brainstorm with your children a list of possible topics for writing and encourage them to choose their own topics. Here are some ideas: -happy memories such as birthdays, holidays, etc. – funny stories from their own life – vacation memories – information about their favorite sport/ toy/ restaurant – a personal “day in the life” piece – imaginary stories -“innovation” stories about familiar characters having new adventures – an opinion piece on an issue about which you feel strongly – a letter to someone you love to say hello or encourage them or thank them

I know what some of you are thinking: but what about standardized testing? Those are prompt driven! How will my children perform on those tests if I don’t teach them to write to prompts? Here is where I land on this issue: I would rather bring a strong writer to a prompt-based test than a weak writer. Sure, a few weeks before the test I will need to teach my children how prompts work and what is expected of them when they face one. However, I prepare them for that moment by providing them with rich and authentic writing experiences all year so they have some ammo in the arsenal when they get to the test!

Also, you can explore units of study with children that are built around a writing genre (such as narrative or persuasive writing) and still give them plenty of opportunities to write to their passions.

5. Writers need an audience. (A bigger audience than a teacher and a gradebook!) Knowing that people will be reading/hearing our writing and responding to it is a HUGE factor in motivation. This blog is a perfect example. Why would I ever spend the time and effort it takes to write articles for Wonder Teacher if I didn’t think that someone out there in Cyberland would read them? I write for you, dear reader!

Teaching Point: Give your students a wide audience! Over the course of the school year this will take many forms: writing will be hung on the walls, students will be given opportunities to share their writing with peers orally, writing will be published and publishing parties will be held, student-made books will be added to the class library. New technology makes this even more possible- the other day I found my 3rd grade daughter at home on our iPad reading her peers’ presentations made with the “Explain Everything” app and posting feedback via Edmodo. It was new to me but I was so impressed! There are many options- from simple moments to big parties!

6. The writing process isn’t a linear process (brainstorm- rough draft- revise- edit- publish.) I believe we do kids a disservice when we teach it this way. The writing process is more like a twisty and curvy path that crosess and recrosses itself. (Mine looks like this: brainstorm or sometimes jump right into writing if you have a hot idea- rough draft- reread- edit and revise at the same time- add a new section (drafting again!)- reread- edit and revise some more- step away and work on another piece- revisit, reread, and revise….) It’s sort of never-ending until you hit that “deadline” moment.

Teaching Point: Again, modeling is key. You will need to explain this process to students and show them examples from your own writing. One thing we can stop doing is giving kids a writing “check-list” that implies each step is done once and done. I like the circular nature of the writing process chart in this post from Chart Chums.

7. Writers work on multiple pieces at once. At this very moment I have several windows open on my computer: this draft for Wonder Teacher, an email I am composing to a friend, an article for a newsletter, and a Word document that contains a manuscript for a children’s book that I’ve been working on for over a year. (I’m in my umpteenth revision!) My writing brain can work on all these things in one day. I am able to move from project to project and modify my voice and language to communicate clearly to my intended audience.

Teaching Point: It is OK for students to have several unfinished writing projects living in their folder at once. Model this yourself and talk about how to decide which piece to work on. Writers often live deadline-oriented lives and your students might have a similar structure. Let them work on the pieces they choose as long as they understand the deadlines that exist in your classroom.

8. Strong writing is a sum of its parts. Yes, I need a strong lead, but a strong lead doesn’t make a strong piece of writing. Yes, I need descriptive language, but a paragraph jammed with too many expressive, interesting, vivid, glittering, descriptive words gets silly quickly. (So you see.) Yes, I need to use transition words, but if I become formulaic in how I use them, my writing loses its punch. Strong writing has a little bit of everything and as a writer, I pick and choose which devices to use within the context of my purpose and audience.

Teaching Point: Sometimes as teachers we tend to build our instruction around the parts and neglect the whole. It is fine (and important) to teach children about strong leads and descriptive words, but those things should always be framed in the context of the overall piece. The question shouldn’t be: Is your first sentence a strong lead? The question is: Does this piece of writing get the attention of your reader and make them want to read more? A strong lead is one way to accomplish that goal.

9. The more authentic the purpose, the stronger the writing. Once I was observing an excellent young student teacher in a 6th grade classroom. She was reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss and her students were hooked! There wasn’t a sound in that room full of big, bad 11 year olds. When she finished reading, she closed the book and said, “Now we are going to write a letter to the Lorax and tell him why we should take care of the environment.” The kids collectively sighed, shoulders slumped, and the energy went right out of the room. You know why? Because it was a “fake” letter to a “fake” character and 6th graders know it. The Lorax wasn’t going to read their letters- in fact no one would read them besides the teacher. (Remember the importance of audience?) After the lesson I pointed this out to the student teacher and asked her, “How could you have maintained the letter-writing portion of your lesson within an authentic context?” She immediately said, “I guess I could have asked them to write to legislators and policy makers about some of the environmental issues we’ve discussed.” BINGO! What an authentic and purposeful writing exercise that would have been!

Teaching Point: Get rid of the “Write to the Lorax” lessons. As much as possible, find real reasons for your kids to write and give them a real audience. I promise it will make a tremendous difference!

10. Writing is fun. It is a joyful practice and once you “get it” you are hooked for life. I couldn’t stop writing now if I wanted to. Though it is sometimes agonizing and time consuming and super frustrating (!) I love it. I am a writer.

Teaching Point: Let’s teach writers instead of teaching writing. Let’s see our children as competent people who have a lot to say. Let’s believe that they CAN learn all the things I’ve listed in this post and much more! And let’s do our best to become fellow writers ourselves so we can teach from our experience! When is the last time you sat down and wrote? (Grocery lists and dashed-off notes to your child’s teachers don’t count!) Challenge yourself to do some writing and experience the writing rhythm for yourself. Not sure what to write about? Revisit #4.

I think the question many teachers would ask now is this: OK, I get it- but HOW do I teach all that to my students? They aren’t adults like you- they are just beginning/ developing writers. How in the world are they supposed to learn all that?

It happens best within a Writing Workshop structure. I’ll talk about Writing Workshop in my next post. Stay tuned! (And don’t miss the interviews with accomplished writing teachers from a variety of grade levels that are coming soon!)

photo credit: Jose Kevo via photopin cc

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Comments

  1. Carol Cook says:

    Great points, Susan. I think one of the reasons I am enjoying teaching opinion writing to Katie’s precious first graders right now is the sense of purpose and audience. Katie and I are sharing our review reading and writing outside of school and authentically responding to the kids’ writing. Keep the topic going! Love it!

  2. Susan-
    I completely agree with all of your points above. I just wanted to share that Chris Lehman did an excellent keynote at SCIRA on Friday that builds on this. He was very motivating (I already LOVE Writing Workshop but still!). A few points that really stuck with me were…
    We only get good at what we do. We should all be looking at the common core state standards as habits, not as a checklist. Not just something we do a few times or together, but something we (and our students) become independent with. Each of the CCSS is not an isolated activity. We should be building them as habits. I love this!!
    Also, are we writing EDITORS or writing TEACHERS? I’ve often thought this but never phrased it as succinctly. He also cautioned against verbal editing. You, the teacher, are not the co-author.
    Clearly, I loved hearing from him. I’ll stop for now but wanted to share.

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