GUEST BLOG: Am I A Teacher-Writer? By Sadie Phillips

This is a guest blog by Sadie Phillips. You can read more by visiting her blog here.

If reading is the key to learning, then writing is the lock.

Or rather, writing is the medium through which we unlock potential and empower children (and adults). We still depend on writing as the largest indicator of success and progress in learning. Therefore, it should have just as much emphasis as reading in school. For example, if we are Reading for Pleasure daily, should we not also be Writing for Pleasure daily too? If we are explicitly teaching children how to read, are we explicitly modelling the writing process to them too?

“Students can go a lifetime and never see another person write, much less show them how to write. Yet, it would be unheard of for an artist not to show her students how to use oils by painting on her own canvas, or for a ceramist not to demonstrate how to throw clay on a wheel and shape the material himself. Writing is a craft.”

(Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994)

Here, Donald Graves reflects on his own life as a writer-teacher:

 

Cremin and Myhill (Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers, 2012) state that the roles a writing-teacher needs to adopt are:

  • an engaged and reflective reader
  • an authentic demonstrator of writing
  • a scribe for class compositions
  • a fellow writer, alongside younger learners
  • a response partner
  • an editor, co-editor and adviser
  • a publisher of their own work and their students’ work
  • a writer in their everyday lives

As part of a year-long CPD project, Raising Attainment in Writing (CLPE), I took some time to reflect on myself as a teacher-writer. This can be a useful exercise for all teachers and could involve the following:

  • Have you viewed yourself as a writer at different stages throughout your life? At which points? Do you still consider yourself a writer now?
  • Are you a reader? In what ways has reading influenced your writing?
  • What kids of writing do you engage in and which do you enjoy? (diaries, notes, social media, reports, articles etc.) It’s also worth considering writing that you don’t enjoy!
  • How important were your own teachers in your learning to writer? What did you learn from them? What did they do that inspired you?
  • Have you ever worked with professional writers? What did you learn from them?
  • What are your routines for writing? How do you feel about it throughout the different parts of the writing process?
  • How would you describe your style of teaching writing? What are your guiding principles or values? Is it your specialism or do you lack confidence? Can you think of examples where you’ve encouraged children to make progress in writing?

My personal history of writing

There have been many stages of my life where I have considered myself to be a writer. At school, I loved writing poetry and fictional stories. I was lucky enough to have many inspirational teachers throughout my years at primary (Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Robertson-Ewart) and secondary school (Mrs. Matheison, Mr. Crump and Mrs. Ross) who inspired and engaged and indulged my passion for writing. I can still vividly remember many lessons and writing projects throughout my time at school: performing Greek scripts (with our own accompanying music), writing war-diaries on tea-stained paper, reciting Shakespeare and poetry by heart. I can recall a poetry lesson where we had to emulate the voice of a young child, I still remember the feeling of enormous pride when my teacher commented on my use of the word ‘tree-cher’ (it was supposed to be a mis-heard word by the small child, who thought they were called ‘tree-cher’ due to the fact they were as tall as a tree). The fact I can remember in such detail is astonishing. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a terrible memory! I wish I had a copy of that poem now. Their enthusiasm as teachers was infectious.

As a teenager, I’d pour over lyrics by Eminem and Jay-Z (in the days when lyrics were printed on the sleeves of CDs), I kept a diary and I wrote notes to friends daily. I actually used to write a funny poem inside each birthday card for friends, it became a bit of a ‘thing’ and they almost looked forward to the personalised poem more than the present! I think this idea originated from my mum, who writes poems sometimes too. Most recently, she scribed a poem inside a book she gave me at Christmas. I always enjoyed reading her poems so much. It obviously inspired me to pass that joy onto others!

I went on to pursue a career in communications and completed a masters degree in International Public Relations, where I honed my academic writing style (although not my preference!). I used to hand-write letters and postcards to family members throughout my years at university and have always loved receiving post.

Just a few years after graduating, I progressed to marketing manager at Rick Stein’s where I found myself writing press releases, news articles, features, leaflets, website copy, emails and newsletters. I also wrote in my own time as a food and drink blogger during this period of my life and often reviewed cookery courses, restaurants and recipes. I was eventually shortlisted for the Carol Trewin Young Writers’ Award.

As a teacher, I now write for work (lesson plans, twitter chats, modelling to children, writing with children, writing letters, cards and notes to children, emails…) and for pleasure (such as messages and emails to long distance friends, this blog!). I am constantly writing notes in numerous notebooks and more recently using my iPhone notes or my laptop to quickly get ideas down. I even keep a notebook in my bedside table for ‘middle-of-the-night’ thoughts.

I suppose I have always considered myself to be a writer and I’ve always taken pleasure in writing.

Personal Routines for Writing

I do see writing as a process, but the elements that are most important for me personally are the pre-writing stages. I need time to read, scribble threads of ideas and notes, time to think and play and rearrange and adjust, I need time to explore vocabulary and time  to plan. If I am faced with a blank piece of paper, with little input or inspiration to write, I can become easily frustrated and lack ideas. I need something to spark my imagination or provoke thought before I can put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

I also love the opportunity to publish and share my writing with others, if it’s a person or group I know well (I’m much more timid in front of strangers!). First drafts are always messy! The process can vary dependent on the genre. Poetry often seems to flow out of me much easier than anything else. I love the fact that there are no rules!

Here’s a poem I wrote for my class on National Writing Day earlier this year (based on The Staffroom by James Cole). This is the published version which I wrote for inclusion in our National Writing Day Poetry book, which is still sitting in our book corner:

POEM

Teaching Writing

I definitely think my own personal experiences of writing affect the way I teach. I am always looking for exciting ways to engage the children in writing and as a result I do tend to give more time to the pre-writing part of the process. I’ve realised that perhaps I don’t place enough importance on (or give enough time to) redrafting and editing. I hope that my enthusiasm rubs off on the children in the same way that my own teachers’ enthusiasm did!

I try to always explicitly teach the writing process to children in my class and to give them authentic purpose and audiences for their writing. We have published and celebrated their writing in numerous ways, from performances, to publishing books on Amazon or handmade books in our class library, to sending letters and publishing a school magazine. I believe that if children can see the point of the writing, the end goal, they are more likely to engage in (and be excited by) writing. Publishing written work also highlights the importance of revising and editing – something we are working on!

For more details on my personal philosophies and strategies for teaching literacy, you might like to read previous blogs on publishinggetting to grips with grammarspelling in a reading rich curriculum, inspiring writing with quality textswriting for pleasure (or free writing), engaging ways to teach or build vocab, as well as ways to use working walls to inspire writing and, most recently, widening our reading repertoires.

Points for personal development

Reflecting on my writing practice and personal history has made me think about choice. I think I need to start giving children more choice about what they write and how they write it. At the moment, I use this technique for some, but not all, units of work. I can see that children enjoy writing when it is something they have chosen to write, rather than something they’ve been instructed to write. I am going to look at revising plans and units of work to incorporate more choice for the children.

As a result of this reflection, I would also love to spend more time writing with the children(although this isn’t always feasible!) as I know this shows them that I value what they are doing. I also know that they love hearing and reading what I’ve written. It also allows me to personally experience each task as a writer (so I can see how difficult it might be) and verbalise the process for the children (e.g. “I’m really struggling to think of a way to describe X, how could I generate some ideas?”). It also allows them to see that it’s ok to make mistakes and it’s ok to have a messy first draft!

Further reading which may be useful:

Advertisements

50 Ways Children Can Improve Their Writing

I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for a while.

My understanding of pupil conferencing (the process of talking and giving advice to children whilst they are undertaking their writing) has got much better, sharper and focused since I first wrote about it here. The list below takes in the most common  and valuable advice I give to my apprentice writers. Some of the advice here comes too from Gary Provost’s book 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing.  Like any good writer-teacher, everything below is advice I try and enact for myself too.

Anyway – I’ll leave you to read. I hope you find some of it useful.

50 Ways Children Can Improve Their Writing

  1. Read. Read a lot and read all sorts of things.
  2. Set up a writing club.
  3. Ask your teacher to become a writer-teacher so they can teach you how writers really work.
  4. Think about what you’re writing as you go about your day.
  5. Have a particular time in the day where you’ll sit down and write something.
  6. Copy something. Find some writing that you like and copy it, change part of it or re-invent it completely.
  7. Keep a journal but only write in it when you feel the need to.
  8. Talk to people about what you’re writing. Share your writing with people. Ask them what it might need. Importantly, find the bit they think is most interesting and focus on that.
  9. Always dabble and dabble often. Dabble around with little notes, words, phrases, ideas, pictures, lists, plans, descriptions and thoughts before you begin a draft or a plan.
  10. Know who you are writing for. Who might you be giving the writing to?
  11. Only write on ideas or topics you’re interested in. If you’re not enjoying it, abandon it and maybe you’ll come back to it another time or maybe you won’t. Either way, it’s alright.
  12. Find your diamond moment. In your mountain of an idea, find that one special diamond moment – the most important reason for writing what you’re writing and focus on it. Treat it with care, think about it a lot and make it shine.
  13. Don’t start too far upstream. Don’t start your writing too far away from the roar of the waterfall. Your diamond moment is often your waterfall. Don’t mention unnecessary boring things. If you do, make sure you cut it from your final piece.
  14. Try out different openers before picking your favourite one. Story openers can include: question, description, action, shock/surprise or monologue.
  15. Steal. Always be on the look-out for little phrases, characters, ideas you’d like to use as part of your own writing.
  16. If you don’t know what to write next, talk to someone. Tell them what still needs to be said. Otherwise, it’s often because you want to move on in time or place. You can do this by starting a new paragraph or by using a time or place opener. Meanwhile, over the other side of town, or After a few full moons.
  17. Get up out of your seat and perform your writing – act it out. Do this while you’re writing but also perform your writing once it’s finished. 
  18. When describing a setting think about: the weather, time of day and the historical period. What could your setting be compared to? If your setting was a person, what would they be like and how would they behave? What is your character’s mood and feelings towards this setting?
  19. Stop your writing when you have nothing else left to say and don’t feel bad about it.
  20. Stop and listen to what you’ve written so far. Do this all the time! Make sure you read out loud too! Check for ‘sticky bits’. These are bits that don’t come out of your mouth too smoothly. Fix them.
  21. Write with a friend. Write as a team. Write with your writer-teacher. Write with someone at home.
  22. Try to write how you would talk to someone.
  23. Show, don’t tell. Sometimes cut out words like is, was, are and were as these are telling words and replace them by showing your readers what is happening instead. The boy is walking up the hill instead becomes the red-faced boy, heaving, complaining and puffing away, really struggles to get himself to the top of the hill.
  24. Remember, you are often painting a film in your reader’s mind. What do you want them to see on the screen? Use both wide views and close ups.
  25. Pretend you are a mind reader. Listen in to what your characters are thinking and share this with your readers. As the narrator, try not to get involved in the story.
  26. Provide proof by giving your reader tiny little details – little things that only you have noticed about your characters.
  27. The climax to a story should be there to prove something.
  28. Dabble a lot about your main character in a story. Answer some of these questions before you begin writing: What are you disguising your character as?

    What would you compare them to?

    Sight: What do they look like

    Smell: What might they smell like?

    Touch: What is their mood like and what would they feel like to touch?

    Sound: What do they sound like and what might they say?

    Action: What might they do and how they might do it?

    Taste: If your character had a taste, what would they taste like?

    What do they spend their time thinking about?

    What’s their reputation? What do other people think of them?

    How do they live their life?

  29. Write down a couple of potential endings to your story – you don’t have to keep to any of them but it’s good to have an idea of how it could end before you begin. Strong endings include a message, feeling, action, uncertain or happy ending.
  30. Use hyperbole, exaggerate or even bend the truth completely when writing memoirs or prose poems.
  31. Use imagism. This is where you can’t say what you think or feel – you can only describe it.
  32. Be playful and silly with words. Use puns, alliteration and repetition. Don’t count your owls before they are delivered… Don’t cry over spilt potion and Terrible teeth in his terrible jaws? He has knobble knees, and turned-out toes or It rapped. It grated. It snarled. It scarpered. It shrieked. It growled.
  33. Compare a person, place or thing to something else. The teacher was a witch and A sea of chaos or Dark clouds raced across it like wild horses.
  34. Pretend that a place or a thing can behave like a person. The cruel waves screamed and swallowed the boat and Trees are scratching at the sky or I heard a plane threading the clouds high above us.
  35. Write using a variety of senses. What do you notice, hear, taste, taste, touch, smell and think?
  36. Remember, the first draft of anything is usually pretty rubbish.
  37. Think about and sometimes replace your nouns for nouns that pack more meaning into a small space. People becomes strangers, light becomes glare and beach becomes the water’s edge.
  38. Modify only one or two slots in a sentence. [The pilot] [took off] [his helmet] becomes [The battle-weary pilot] [struggled to remove] [his helmet].
  39. Use strong verbs. Sharpen what you actually mean when you use a verb by being utterly precise. Broke becomes shattered, hug becomes clutched and pushed becomes jostled.
  40. Give a specific image of something rather than a general one. Picture a cat. Now picture a black cat. Now picture a black cat with shiny silver paws. You can see the cat more clearly as it becomes more specific.
  41. Spend most of your time focusing and writing about your characters.
  42. Share your opinion. Say what you think. Share how you feel. Talk about what you believe.
  43. Use and share anecdotes. Share stories from your own life. Use these in your poetry, stories and non-fiction writing.
  44. Don’t use words you don’t know the meaning of and don’t use so many big words that your reader has to dash for the dictionary every five minutes!
  45. If you are going to share your opinion or an anecdote in your non-fiction writing – do it at the beginning or at the end.
  46. Spend time thinking about your title. Don’t put the first thing that comes into your head. Use your favourite line or create a title with a sense of intrigue.
  47. Re-read and improve. Some writers will re-read and improve their writing over a 100 times. You should give it at least a day though before you start. Never revise a draft the same day you finished it. Re-reading and improving can mean cutting, adding or replacing words, phrases, paragraphs or even changing the whole thing!
  48. Proofread your work at least four times using the CUPS technique. 1st for Capitalisation, 2nd for Use of vocabulary, 3rd for Punctuation and finally correct your Spellings.
  49. Write for the pleasure it brings you and/or for the pleasure of sharing your writing with others.
  50. Finally, don’t always listen to these tips. Writing is an art, not a science.

The Things That Matter: Writing Memoir

The Things That Matter: Writing Memoir

A few Saturdays ago,we were lucky enough to attend the Oxford Writing Spree, a day conference organised by teacher Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) in his own primary school, Larkrise, on the outskirts of the town. We were in the company of some excellent speakers and a large group of teachers, all interested in thinking and talking about children writing at home and in school.

We were there to run a workshop in which we would ask teachers to write a short memoir of an experience from their own lives. We had found in our Year 5 class that personal memoir was a much enjoyed and successful writing project, and we had decided to give participants the same kind of teaching and resources we had used with our pupils. We described techniques for the generation of an idea and how to find the ‘pebble moment’ (the one metaphorical pebble on the whole beach which would be the specific intense focus for the piece), talked about planning and drafting, and offered support in the form of conferencing as the teachers wrote. At the outset we expressed the hope that everyone would gain a little, both personally and professionally, from the writing experience. It has to be said that there was a little noticeable consternation at the prospect of putting something on the blank page, but most of the writers were happy to work in pairs talking over possible ideas and obviously gained confidence this way. During conferencing, one pair said rather plaintively that they both led very boring lives and so could think of no subject for writing. A little later, however, one of them had settled on a memory which she described as ‘banal’ – but had realised, as she said, that ‘banal is fine!’ In fact, her memoir of a first sleepover at a friend’s was one that reflected on the feelings of a child encountering for the first time an unfamiliar domestic routine, and learning that people do things differently –  an important life-lesson.

One teacher, Gemma (@MissBPrimary), wrote alone and intently for thirty minutes. She was persuaded at the end of the session to share her writing, and with her permission we include her piece here:

Four words.
Who knew that four words could prompt an existential crisis in a 7-year old? Who knew that a 7-year old could even have an existential crisis?
I do.
I did.
“You’re a gypsy Gemma”
Reflecting now, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels with a similar set of 4 words which have changed the lives and journeys of countless children around the world.
“You’re a wizard Harry.”
Just as those words prompted a journey into the magical unknown for Harry himself, and for the endless army of children whose lives have been transformed by the words of J.K.Rowling; mine was transformed, reshaped and turned upside down by those very similar set of words, spoken by my dad.
If he had been able to read, one could be forgiven for believing that he had been inspired by Rowling’s words too, but in this instance, it appears only to be a happy accident.
From the moment I walked into a classroom for the first time, I knew that things in my life were about to change. Brought up outside with no walls to confine me, this room, full of garlands and banners and words and numbers and people and furniture was far from what I was used to and the apple tree painted clumsily on the wall looked very different from the ones in the orchard where I had spent my summer. Those trees had been covered in hundreds of leaves, each one a slightly different shade of green and all of them hiding what seemed like hundreds of apples that would thud down onto the rooves of the caravans below if only you shook the branches hard enough. This tree was too straight, the apples too round and the leaves one big cloud-like mass of a single tone of green. But that is not to say that I did not like that classroom. I did.
In fact, I loved it: the things to discover, the stories to hear and the children to play with, children who spoke a language which sounded strange to me – somehow familiar yet somehow so different to the words I heard at home. I could not wait to enter that room each morning and keep on discovering this strange, new world of walls and windows and words and colours.
Friends. I had friends. Friends from outside of the orchard walls and from beyond the country lane on which we were staying. As time wore on, their cadence felt less strange and their language less foreign. I began to share their ideas, understand their questions and use their words.
“Rain” was my favourite word. I would mumble it under my breath over and over again as I watched water droplets race down the caravan windows. I loved the way it sounded in my mouth, its shortness and the way it ended with an ‘n’ sound, not an ‘ee’ sound like the word I had always used to describe the water which fell from the sky – ‘parni.’
“Ark at that parni, God’s a drumming,” my grandmother would remark as she stoked the fire, whilst in my head, I was repeating the new ditty I had learnt at school. ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…’ silent to the world outside and almost feeling mischievous for using a word that was not our own. But ‘rain’ sounded more definite, more final, like the water itself as it dropped from the bottom of the window and was swallowed by the earth below.
I loved their words; strange and dissonant sounding and much less lilting than the cadence I was used to.
It wasn’t long before I learnt another one.
“Gypsy.”
I didn’t quite know what it meant but it knew it was a bad thing to be. If someone took your crayon you called them a gypsy. If they pushed in front in the line. If they were mean or if you really wanted them to know you did not like them, then this was the word to use. I certainly did not want to be one. It meant you were horrible, dirty and mean; someone to keep away from. I never really had any enemies in class but I stored up the word in my arsenal just in case I ever did.
“Defend yourself if you need t’,” my Dad had always said, “don’t let no one mess ya round.”
So, when my older brother, only a few weeks later, gave me much more than a light nudge that ended with me face down in the mud, my dungarees torn and my knee cut open by a stone, I had the perfect insult up my, now ringing wet, sleeve.
“You stupid gypsy,” I sneered, “what’cha do that for?”
At that very second, my dad, who had been bent over the open bonnet of his latest project, stood up straight and looked me straight in the eye, with a strange look I had never seen from him before; somewhere between shock, confusion and disgust. It was during the following conversation, with him lent on the bonnet of the car and me sat on the steps to our caravan, in which he uttered those four words which would change my life and make me question everything. Maybe I was not like the other children in my class after all. Maybe I would never be like them. I was the thing they were so afraid of, so hateful towards, so cruel about and I never even knew. Did they know? What if they found out?
I was a gypsy.
But I still had no clue what that really meant.
It does seems important to note here, that whilst working that out would completely change my life and the way I view the world, it never did lead me to Hogwarts…

 

This memoir hardly needs any comment. It speaks for itself as a very accomplished piece of writing in which the feelings still seem raw. The audience was silent after the reading, then there was spontaneous applause. Gemma said she didn’t write regularly, but that she would like to and probably would from now on. She wrote to us a few weeks later to say that she had posted her piece on Twitter and had a great response. She also mentioned that her class had started to write memoir and told us about one boy in particular:

‘He came to me at the start of last academic year (start of Y3) as aY1 emerging reader and working towards Early Learning goals in writing. Now he is a fluent reader and writer, secure Y4. He just flew – not even sure what made the change so dramatic.  He chose to write about the time he felt the happiest, which was when he stood in front of the class last Nov.and read ‘In Flanders Fields’ perfectly. None of his friends knew he could now read as we had been working together before school every day and he was too nervous to read aloud. It was the most amazing piece of writing! One of the others has written about a particularly great meal at Wetherspoons, which I also love! The things that matter!’

 

And that’s the point. It’s the things that matter, whatever they may be, that fuel the writing and not just for memoir either but for all kinds of texts…  

Our Most Popular Blog-Posts All In One Place

We appreciate your feedback about the website. Some of you have said it is quite hard to find what you are looking for. Therefore we have placed all our most popular blog posts here. Enjoy!

Reading:

  1. Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Helpful Friend.
  2. Creating A Community Of Readers: A Reading For Pleasure Article
  3. Creating A Community Of Readers: The Power Of DEAR
  4. A Guide To Reading With Children
  5. The Four Week Reading Programme
  6. The Year 5 ‘Rights Of A Child Reader’ Guide.

Teaching Writing:

  1. Our Real-World Literacy Approach To Writing
  2. Introducing Our Genre Booklets To The Class & Their Impact.
  3. Writing Study: Lessons That Last Forever PACK
  4. #WritingRocks_17
  5. How To Have Children Writing Independent ‘Assessable’ Pieces Everyday
  6. Teaching Writing: Research Summaries With Easy Access
  7. What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?
  8. What Can Cause Poor Writing Outcomes? The Writing Is Primary Research Findings
  9. Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing
  10. A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference
  11. Why The Over Use Of Writing Stimuli & Book Planning Could Be Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.
  12. How We Created Self-Regulating Writers & The Improvements We Have Seen
  13. The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.
  14. If In Doubt, Circle It Out! How To Create A Class Of Independent Spellers
  15. Teaching The Writing Process Is The Best Way To Improve Children’s Writing
  16. Murray Gadd: What Is Critical In The Effective Teaching Of Writing?
  17. What The Research Says: The 13 Most Effective Ways To Improve Children’s Writing
  18. They Won’t Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils Are ‘Culturally Deprived’
  19. Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?
  20. The 29 Rights Of The Child Writer
  21. Is The Trick In The Publishing? Reflecting On Why The Children Are Writing With Such Care & Attention
  22. What The EEF’s ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two’ Report Tells Us About Teaching Writing Effectively.
  23. Time For Reflection: The Major Approaches To Teaching Writing And Their Limitations
  24. What Is Writing? Why Do We Write?

Writing Topics

  1. Give A Class ‘One’ Book To Write Through And You’ve Taught Them For A Day. Teach Them How To Use ‘Any’ Book And You’ve Taught Them For A Lifetime
  2. Children Writing Memoir : A Great Literacy Topic
  3. Bored With Your Pretend Journalism Topic? Have Children Writing Real Advocacy Journalism Instead!

Writer-Teachers

  1. Books That Change Writing-Teachers
  2. In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?
  3. ‘All Children Can Write’ A Tribute To Donald Graves
  4. Are You A ‘Teacher Writer’ Or A ‘Writer Teacher’ And Why Does It Matter?

“All Children Can Write”: A Tribute To Donald Graves

All Children Can Write

Donald Graves: 1930 – 2010

The following article by Donald Graves (written in 1985), considered by many to be the “father” of the process approach to writing, is a classic piece on the need for a change in the way writing has typically been taught in schools. This article helped spark the movement now known as ‘The Writer’s Workshop’ or ‘Process Writing’ approach and has influenced our modern interpretation called ‘Real-World Literacy‘.

This article is excellent because Graves discusses the challenges and needs of students, clearly lays out how teachers can establish a community of writers and the writing process, and provides examples of teachers and students working together.

Donald H. Graves University of New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Focus, 1985

Many children who have learning disabilities are poor writers. They equate their struggles with handwriting, spelling, and language conventions with a lack of ideas and information worth sharing. The writing-process approach to teaching first emphasizes what children know, then the conventions that will help them share their meaning with others in the class. This approach has led to major breakthroughs for young writers, particularly those who have learning problems.

This article reexamines writing as communication for oneself and for other audiences. This process occurs in classrooms where children see how teachers demonstrate their own learning in the midst of a highly structured environment.

Four essentials to a successful writing-process program are described: the adequate provision of time (at least 4 days per week), child choice of writing topic, response to child meaning, and the establishment of a community of learners.

Continued success in teaching writing depends on teacher’s work with their own writing. Study programs, as well as additional reading materials, are suggested.

I stood at the side of Ms. Richards’ third grade classroom watching the children write. We were at the beginning of our 2-year National Institute of Education study of children’s composing processes. The school had diagnosed two of the children in Ms. Richards’ room as having severe visual-motor problems. They were not hard to find.

Both leaned over their papers, their elbows crooked at right angles to their bodies to protect the appearance of their papers. I walked over to take a closer look at one of the two children’s papers. Billy’s paper was smudged, wrinkled, letters blackened; in several instances, his paper was thinned and blackened still more where he had gone through several spelling trials on the same work. The more serious aspect of Billy’s writing profile was not his visual-motor difficulty, the appearance of his paper, or his numerous misspellings. Billy was a self-diagnosed poor writer. He connected his writing problems with a lack of worthwhile ideas and experiences. In addition, he was well-versed in what he couldn’t do.

Billy had been in a separate program emphasizing visual-motor skills, letter formation, and various fine-motor tasks. No question, using a pencil was painful and arduous for him. Teachers complained that Billy rarely completed his work and was constantly behind the others, though he seemed to be articulate. Billy’s program was skill-based, disconnected from meaning, and filled with positive reinforcement about his ability to form letters on good days. There was not attempt to connect his writing with the communication of ideas.

Children with learning disabilities often work on skills in isolation, disconnected from learning itself, and therefore disconnected from themselves as persons. Therefore, like Billy, though their skills may improve slightly in isolation, the children do not perceive the function of the skill. Worse, they do not see the skill as a means to show what they know. Skills work merely supplies additional evidence for the misconception that they are less intelligent than other children.

Billy was in a classroom that stressed writing as a process. This meant the children received help from the time they chose a topic to the time they completed their final work. Ms. Richards played the believing game, starting with what Billy knew, particularly his experiences. In fact, Billy’s breakthrough as a writer came when his teacher discovered his interest in and knowledge of gardening. As Ms. Richards helped him to teach her about this subject, she learned how to plant, cultivate, water, fertilize, and provide special care for certain varieties of tomatoes. Although Billy wrote more slowly than the other children, he became lost in his subject, forgot about his poor spelling and handwriting, ceased to cover his paper, and wrote a piece filled with solid information about gardening. Once Billy connected writing with knowing-his knowing- it was then possible to work with his visual motor and spelling problems, but as incidental to communicating information.

Ms. Richards is now one of the thousands of teachers who teach writing as a process in the United States and the English speaking world. New research and publications, university courses, and numerous summer institutes, are now helping teachers and administrators to find out for themselves what students can do when they focus on the meaning of their writing. Much of the focus of these institutes and courses is on the teachers’ own writings: most of us had to rediscover the power of writing for ourselves before we could learn to hear what these young writers had to teach us.

Although writing-process work helps all writers, it seems to be particularly successful with people who see themselves as disenfranchised from literacy. I place in this group learners like Billy who have diagnosed learning disabilities and the accompanying “I-don’t-know-anything” syndrome.

The writing-process approach to teaching focuses on children’s ideas and helps children teach the teacher or other children in the class what they know, with emphasis first given to ideas and clarifying. This is the first experience many children have with other humans who work hard to point to what they know, instead of what is lacking in the message. Small wonder then that the writing process works best with the disenfranchised, who become a bit giddy at the prospect of seeing their words on paper affecting the thinking of others.

Understanding writing as communication is the heart of teaching the writing process. This article will first focus on the nature of writing, look in greater detail at research on the writing process itself, examine two principles in teaching writing, and then describe four basics in establishing a writing program. It also has a brief section on further reading and recommendations for summer programs for people interested in continuing their study of the writing process.

What Is Writing?

Writing is a medium with which people communicate with themselves and with others at other places and times. When I write, I write to learn what I know because I don’t know fully what I mean until I order the words on paper. Then I see … and know. Writers’ first attempts to make sense are crude, rough approximations of what they mean. Writing makes sense of things for oneself, then for others.

Children can share their writing with others by reading aloud, by chatting with friends while writing, or (in more permanent form) by publishing. Billy found that writing carried a different authority from spoken words. When he took the gardening piece out in December, he found that words written in September could be savored 3 months later. Furthermore, when he read the published books of other children in his room, he began to realize that his book on gardening was read by others when he wasn’t present.

Written language is different from oral language. When Billy speaks, he reinforces his meaning by repeating words and phrases. Unlike when he writes, an audience is present; when the audience wanders or indicates disagreement, he changes his message with words, hand signals, facial expressions, and body posture. This is the luxury of oral discourse. “Error,” adjustment, and experimentation are an expected part of oral discourse.

There is a different tradition surrounding most teaching of writing. Only one attempt, one draft is allowed to communicate full meaning (without an audience response). Red-lined first drafts are the norm; we blanch at any misspellings or crudely formed letters.

Still worse, writing has been used as a form of punishment: “Write your misspelled worry 25 times.” (This is called reinforcement of visual-memory systems.); “Write one hundred times, I will not chew gum in school”‘, “Write a 300 word composition on how you will improve your attitude toward school.” Most teachers teaching in 1985 were bathed in the punishment syndrome when they were learning to write. Small wonder that most of us subtly communicate writing as a form of punishment. We have known no other model of teaching.

The Writing Process

When children use a meaning-centered approach to writing, they compose in idiosyncratic ways. Each child’s approach to composing is different from the next. Some draw first, write two words, and in 10 minutes or less announce, “I’m done.” Others draw after writing or do not write at all; instead, they speak with a neighbor about what they will write. Some stare out the window or at the blank page and write slowly after 20 minutes of reflection. At some point in their development, writers believe one picture and two words beneath the drawing contain an entire story. In the writer’s mind, the story is complete; members of the audience shake their heads and try to work from drawing to text and back to understand the author’s intent.

Such idiosyncratic approaches by children seem capricious to outsiders, confusing to children, and bewildering to us as teachers. We intervene with story starters to “get them going,” produce pictures as stimuli for writing, and consult language arts texts for language activities. The texts provide “systematic” approaches, often through the teaching of the sentence, advance to two sentences, and finally development of the paragraph. Our detailed observation of young children writing shows they simply don’t learn that way. Rather, they write three sentences in one in their first year, not understanding where one sentence ends and the other begins. Studies of children’s understanding and use of sentences show they don’t acquire full sentence sense until much later (about fifth grade).

The most pernicious aspect of teacher interventions is that children begin to learn early on that others need to supply topics because they come to the page with nothing in their heads. A focus on skills and form to the exclusion of child initiated meaning further confirms their lack of fit with the writing process.

Prepared materials seek to reduce the stress and the uncertainty that writers face when they encounter the blank page. But the attempt to produce certainty through standardization by-passes the opportunity for child growth. There is good reason to expect tension when a child first writes.

When writers write, they face themselves on the blank page. That clean white piece of paper is like a mirror. When I put words on the page, I construct an image of myself on that whiteness. I may not like my spelling, handwriting, choice of words, aesthetics, or general cleanliness of the page. Until I can begin to capture what I want to say, I have to be willing to accept imperfection and ambiguity. If I arrive at the blank page with a writing history filled with problems, I am already predisposed to run from what I see. I try to hide my paper, throw it away, or mumble to myself, “This is stupid.” But with every dangerous, demanding situation, there is an opportunity to learn. Teachers who follow and accompany children as they compose help them to deal with what they see on the page. The reason writing helps children with learning disabilities is that they do far more than learn to write: They learn to come to terms with a new image of themselves as thinkers-thinkers with a message to convey to the world.

Teaching Writing- Two Basic Principles

After 12 years of working with writing research and the teaching of writing, I have found two principles essential for effective teaching of writing:

  1. The teacher teaches most by showing how he/she learns, and
  2. the teacher provides a highly structured classroom.

The best demonstration of how teachers learn is through their gathering of information from the children. They place the children in the position of teaching them what they know, usually through conferences. “Now you say that you have to be careful how deep you plant lettuce, Billy. Can you tell me more about that? And do you think the precise depth should be in your piece for the other children? Will they want to know that?” Billy’s teacher has shown him how she learns and how he should learn to listen to questions he soon will be able to ask himself.

Ms. Richards, Billy’s teacher, has a basic lifestyle of learning from everyone. Whether seated next to someone on a plane, in the teachers’ room, or talking informally with children, she wants to be taught; in a lifetime she has learned how important it is to help others to teach her. People leave Ms. Richards’ presence surprised they knew so much about their subjects.

Ms. Richards’ classroom is a highly structured, predictable classroom. Children who learn to exercise choice and responsibility can function only in a structured room. Furthermore, the up-and-down nature of the writing process itself demands a carefully defined room. Predictability means that writing occurs daily, at set times, with the teacher moving in the midst of the children, listening to their intentions, worries, and concerns. They know she will be nearby attending to their work. She rarely addresses the entire class during writing time. She works hard to establish a studio atmosphere. Predictability also means she won’t solve problems for them. Rather, she asks how they might approach the problem. She listens, clarifies their intentions and their problems, and moves on.

Children learn to take responsibility not only for their topics, content of their drafts, and final copy, but also for carrying out classroom decisions. A structured classroom requires an organized teacher who has set the room up to run itself. The teacher has already made a list of the things to be done to help the room function. From September through June, he/she gradually passes on those duties to the children. Attendance, caring for room plants and animals, room cleanliness, lunch lines, desk supervision, and cleaning are but a few examples of these delegations. When room structure and routine do not function well, the teacher and students plan together for the best way to make it function more smoothly. Ms. Richards’ room is based on extensive preparation in room design and knowledge of materials, the children, and the process by which they learn to take responsibility.

Teachers who function well in teaching the writing process are interested in what children have to teach them. Writing-process teaching is responsive, demanding teaching that helps children solve problems in the writing process and in the classroom.

Carrying Out A Writing-Process Program

I am often asked, “What are the essentials to strong writing programs?” Although the list could be extensive, I think that if teachers understand the following four components, their writing programs will serve the children well. These components are adequate provision of time, child choice of topic, responsive teaching, and the establishment of a classroom community, a community that has learned to help itself.

Time

Our data show that children need to write a minimum of 4 days a week to see any appreciable change in the quality of their writing. It takes that amount of writing to contribute to their personal development as learners. Unless children write at least 4 days a week, they won’t like it. Once-a-week writing (the national average is about 1 day in 8) merely reminds them they can’t write; they never write often enough to listen to their writing. Worse, the teacher simply has no access to the children. He/she has to scurry madly around the room trying to reach each child. With little access to the children, the teacher can’t help them take responsibility, solve problems for them, or listen to their responses and questions. The very important connection between speaking and writing is lost.

Although teaching writing 4 to 5 times a week helps the teacher, it helps the children even more. When children write on a daily basis, we find they write when they aren’t writing. Children get into their subjects, thinking about their texts and topics when they are riding on buses, lying in bed, watching television, reading books, or taking trips. When they write regularly, papers accumulate. There is visible evidence they know and are growing. They gain experience in choosing topics and very soon have more topics to write about than class time can accommodate. Children with learning problems need even more time. They need to listen to themselves with help from the teacher. In summary, regular writing helps:

  1. Children choose topics,
  2. Children listen to their pieces and revise,
  3. Children help each other,
  4. Teachers listen to child texts,
  5. Skills develop in the context of child pieces,
  6. Teachers to have greater access to children.

Topic Choice

The most important thing children can learn is what they know and how they know it. Topic choice, a subject the child is aware that they know something about, is at the heart of success in writing. Billy struggled with handwriting and spelling and equated those problems with not knowing topics to write about. When his teacher helped him to discover his knowledge and interest in gardening, he began to write, first haltingly, then with greater flow. He was open to help with spelling and handwriting when he knew he had something to say. Skills are important; learning disabilities cannot be ignored, but neither can teachers or researchers forget that writing exists to communicate with self and others.

“How can I get the child to write? Do you have any good motivators?” are frequent questions asked of me in workshops. The word get embraces the problem. There are thousands of “motivators” on the market in the form of story starters, paragraph starters, computer software, animated figures, picture starters, and exciting “sure-fire” interest getters. We forget that children are very sophisticated consumers of motivators from Saturday morning television alone. Worse, motivators teach the child that the best stimulus comes from the outside. Writing actually demands dozens of motivators during the course of composing, but they are motivators that can only be supplied by the writer himself. All children have important experiences and interests they can learn to tap through writing. If children are to become independent learners, we have to help them know what they know; this process begins with helping children to choose their own topics.

Very young children, ages 5 through 7, have very little difficulty choosing topics, especially if they write every day. As children grow older and experience the early effects of audience, even under favorable learning conditions, they begin to doubt what they know. From that point on, all writers go through a kind of doubting game about the texts they produce. They learn to read better and are more aware of the discrepancy between their texts and their actual intentions. If, however, overly severe, doubting teachers are added to the internal doubts of the child, writing becomes still more difficult.

If children write every day and share their writing, we find they use each other as the chief stimulus for topic selection. If teachers write with their children, demonstrating the origin of their topics, and surround the children with literature, topic selection is even easier.

Topic selection is helped through daily journal writing where children take 10 minutes to record their thoughts. Teachers may also give 5- to 10-minute writing assignments, such as: “Write about how you think our room could be improved” just following a discussion about how the room could be improved with the entire class or “That upsets you? Well, blast away on paper with the first thoughts that come to mind. But write it for you; if you feel like showing it to me, okay.” The teacher finds many occasions where it is useful to record thoughts and opinions on paper. Each of these approaches demonstrates what writing is for, as well as helping the children to have access to what they know and think.

Response

People write to share, whether with themselves or others. Writers need audiences to respond to their messages. The response confirms for the writer that the text fits his/her intentions. First, the teacher provides an active audience for the writer by confirming what he/she understands in the text and then by asking a few clarifying questions. Second, the teacher helps the entire class to learn the same procedure during group share time. Each writing period ends with two or three children sharing their pieces with the group while the group follows the discipline of first pointing to what is in the text, then asking questions to learn more about the author’s subject. All of these responses, whether by the teacher or the other children, are geared to help writers learn to listen to their own texts.

While the children are writing, Billy’s teacher moves around the room, responding to their work in progress. Here is an interchange Ms. Richards had with Billy about his piece “My Garden.” (The child’s text is presented, followed by the conference with the teacher.)

My Grdan

I help my Dad with the grdan ferstyou have to dig it up an than you rake an get the racks out of it. Than you make ros an you haveto be cerfull to make it deep enuff so the letis will come up.

Ms. Richards first receives the piece by saying what she understands about what Billy has written. She may also have him read the writing aloud to her:

Ms. Richards: You’ve been working hard, Billy. I see that you work with your dad on your garden. You know just what you do; you dig it up, rake it to get the rocks out, and then you have to be careful how deep you plant things. Did I get that right?

Billy: Yup.

Ms. Richards: Well, I was wondering, Billy. You say that the lettuce has to be planted deep enough so the lettuce will come up. Could you tell me more about that? I haven’t planted a garden for a long time.

Billy: Well, If you plant it too deep, it won’t come up. Lettuce is just near the top.

Ms. Richards: Oh, I see and did you plant some other things in your garden?

Billy: Yup, carrots, beans, turnips (I hate ’em), spinach (that, too) beets, and tomatoes; I like tomatoes.

Ms. Richards: That’s quite a garden, Billy. And what will you be writing here next?

Billy: You have to water it once you plant it.

Ms. Richards: Then you already know what you’ll be doing, don’t you.

There are many problems with Billy’s text: misspelled words, run on sentences, missing capitalizations, and incomplete information. But Billy has just started writing his piece. Therefore, Ms. Richards works on word flow, helping Billy to know that he knows something about his subject and that he has a clear understanding of what he will do next. Later, when his piece is finished, she will choose one skill to teach within the context of his topic. Above all, she works hard to help Billy teach her about his subject, to keep control of the topic in his hands, no matter how uncertain Billy might feel about his subject.

Notice that Ms. Richards has spent no more than a minute and a half in response. She then moves to other children while responding in the same manner, receiving a text and asking questions. As she moves to different children in other parts of the room (she does not move in rotation or down rows; the movement appears to be random), the other children can hear that the teacher expects them to help her with what they know. Lengthy responses tend to take the writing away from the child. For example, if Ms. Richards were to say, “I had a garden once, Billy. I planted all kinds of things too: I planted cabbages, those same turnips, yellow beans, pole beans, and corn. Yes, It’s hard work,” she’d be identifying with Billy’s garden and the hard work that goes into it, but she’s now the informant. Such sharing should come only when his piece is completed and his authorship of this piece established.

Ms. Richards’ statement is specific. When she receives Billy’s text, she uses the actual words he has composed on the page. All writers need to know their words (the actual words on the page) affect other people. Notice that very little praise is given to Billy in this type of response. Instead, the listener, Ms. Richards, points with interest to the words; they are strong enough for her to understand and to remember them. The use of specifics, rather than the exclusive use of praise, is a fundamental issue in helping Billy to maintain control of his piece, as well as to take more responsibility for his text.

Establish A Community Of Writers

Writing is a social act. If social actions are to work, then the establishment of a community is essential. A highly predictable classroom is required if children are to learn to take responsibility and become a community of learners who help each other. Writing is an unpredictable act requiring predictable classrooms both in structure and response.

Children with learning disabilities often have histories of emotional problems. Many have become isolated and feel very little sense of community. They themselves may produce unpredictable classrooms. Their histories in taking responsibility are equally strewn with failure. Notions of choice and responsibility are threatening and require careful work on a broad front. The following ingredients help to build a structured, predictable community of more independent writers.

  1. Write daily, at the same time if possible, for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  2. Work to establish each child’s topical turf, an area of expertise for each writer.
  3. Collect writing in folders so that writers can see the accumulation of what they know. Papers do not go home; rather, the collected work is present in class for student, teacher, parent, and administrator to examine. Some writing is published in hardcover or some more durable form.
  4. Provide a predictable pattern of teacher participation by sharing your own writing, moving in the midst of students during writing time, and responding in predictable structure to your students’ writing.
  5. End each writing time with children responding to each other’s writing in a predictable format: receiving, questioning.
  6. Set up classroom routines in which you examine the entire day to see which responsibilities can be delegated to the children. Solve room problems in discussion. The group learns to negotiate, whether in working with a draft or solving a classroom problem.
  7. Continually point to the responsibilities assumed by the group, as well as the specifics of what they know.

The writing classroom is a structured, predictable room in which children learn to make decisions. The external structure is geared to produce a confident, internal thinking framework within which children learn what they know and develop their own Initiative.

Continuing Education Of Professionals

Most teachers have been drawn into process work because they have seen significant personal growth by their students with learning problems. Students who lacked confidence and initiative and were disenfranchised from literacy learn to write, share their writing with others, and take charge of their own learning. Although some teachers may wish to start work on the writing process based on this article, I suggest additional reading and work with their own writing.

The single most important help to teachers who work with young writers is work with the teacher’s own writing. Both the National Writing Project and our work here at the University of New Hampshire stress work with the teacher’s own writing. Thus teachers become acquainted with writing from the inside by actually doing it themselves. It would be unheard of for a piano teacher, a ceramicist, or an artist working with water colors to teach someone their craft without practising it themselves. Most of us have had little instruction in learning the craft of writing. We’ve written term papers, letter, and proposals, but we haven’t worked with someone who has helped us to know what we know, then showed us how that knowledge is increased through the writing process.

Final Reflection

Before children go to school, their urge to express is relentless. They learn to speak and to carry messages from one person to another. They burst into their homes to tell what just happened outside. They compose in blocks, play games, mark on sidewalks, and play with pencils or crayons. For most children, early audiences are receptive: adults struggle to make sense of the child’s early attempts to communicate.

When children enter school, their urge to express is still present. A few enter already scarred from attempts to communicate with others. But the urge to be, to make a mark on the universe, has not left them. As children grow older and spend more time in school, many become still more disenchanted with writing. They can’t keep up with the rest of the class and equate their struggles with handwriting, spelling, and early conventions as evidence that their ideas are unacceptable and that they are less intelligent than others. Even for these children, the urge to express, to make worthwhile contributions, to express a meaning that affects others, does not go away.

The most critical factor for children with learning disabilities is the meaning-making question. Teachers need to first believe they know important information, then work overtime to confirm for the child the importance of that information. The children see their teachers write; they see and hear them struggle for meaning on an easel or overhead projector as they compose before them. The children become apprentices to the use of words.

When children write, they make mistakes on the road to communicating their messages. The teacher’s first response is to the meaning. Before a piece is completed, the teacher chooses one skill that will enhance the meaning of the piece still further. From the beginning, the teacher works to build a strong history for writers through collections of all their work, some publishing, and the writers’ effective sharing with other members of the class.

Most teaching of writing is pointed toward the eradication of error, the mastery of minute, meaningless components that make little sense to the child. Small wonder. Most language arts texts, workbooks, computer software, and reams of behavioral objectives are directed toward the “easy” control of components that will show more specific growth. Although some growth may be evident on components, rarely does it result in the child’s use of writing as a tool for learning and enjoyment. Make no mistake, component skills are important; if children do not learn to spell or use a pencil to get words on paper, they won’t use writing for learning any more than the other children drilled on component skills. The writing-process approach simply stresses meaning first, and then skills in the context of meaning. Learning how to respond to meaning and to understand what teachers need to see in texts takes much preparation.

The writing process places high demands on the teacher. The room is carefully designed for developing student independence: Decisions are discussed, responsibilities assigned and assumed. Routines are carefully established with writing becoming a very important part of the room’s predictability. Initially, response to the child’s writing is predictable with receiving of the child’s text, followed by questions of clarification, and the child’s next step in the writing process.

Teachers who use the writing process to greatest advantage spend time working with their own writing. They read and become involved in many of the National Institutes that are helping teachers use writing as a tool for their own learning. Soon they find their students’ learning careers change as well.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and the wise words of Donald Graves, we highly recommend that you purchase his fantastic book Writing: Teachers & Children At Work

You can also watch him being interviewed here:

Article adapted from: http://www.ldonline.org/article/6204

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**