A second grade class writes animal reports in the fall. As kids start to write the teacher sees lots of run-on sentences, misuse of apostrophes, and misspellings of common words. This is getting in the way of looking at the content of the writing. If you were this teacher, what would you do?
You could stop everyone and do a big lesson on run-on sentences and apostrophes, which you probably weren’t planning on, and don’t have the time for. The risk here is having a lot of kids on cognitive overload as you cram them with new information.
You could decide to modify the project and give everyone fill-in-the-blanks worksheets on their animal so they don’t have to write so much. This would help, but it would lower the level of writing practice and diminish the experience of real writing.
You could do a week of editing. Since second graders don’t yet see all their own writing mistakes or those of others, this means a lot of work on the teacher’s end. Do you have a couple of hours to spare? OK, great! But just keep in mind that even when students fix mistakes, it doesn’t mean they have learned strategies and rules for preventing them.
Or, maybe you just decide to let let all the mistakes go because, after all, they are only second graders. I know that none of my readers would choose this option, because you always have a high standard for success!
Well, how about preventing this whole problem?
How? By frontloading all the skills you know will be needed. Work on sentence writing skills and punctuation skills for a few months and get your class excited with the knowledge that they are building up to some big writing projects. When sentences have been mastered, do lots of practice with writing good paragraphs and adding details. Practice things like neat handwriting, writing to the end of the line before starting a new line, and spacing.
Each grade level has skills that should be frontloaded during the first half of the year. If you are teaching kindergarten, handwriting and basic drawing should be priorities before doing other writing projects. For first grade, handwriting, sound spelling, spacing, and some writing stamina should be firmly in place before giving important assignments.
For those of you using Growing Writers, this means focus on Growing Writers for the first half of the year! Spend all the writing time you have on it, 3-5 days a week. First graders should ideally be finishing Book 4 by the end of January, because these are the basic writing skills that will enable them to do class writing projects in reading, science, and social studies. These four books cover all the letters for handwriting. If you are still on Book 4 in March or April, it means that handwriting is still being introduced very late in the year.
For second grade, Book 1, the Lists activity, and Book 2 should ideally be completed by mid-January. This work, done thoroughly, will set the tone and the standard for all the writing done for the rest of the year.
Kindergartners should ideally be done with Books 1 and 2 by Winter Break, giving them a good start on fine motor control and handwriting.
Here’s an example.
When I taught first grade, I finished Book 4 by the end of January. We always took a field trip to the local Children’s Museum in early February. On our return that day, I would give students a piece of paper with lines (we called it hat-belt-foot lines) and simply say “Write words about what you liked about the Hands-On Museum.” Up until this time they had only written in their Growing Writers workbooks, where pictures were always allowed after a few lines of writing. This was a whole blank page! At first I would get some looks like, “Are you kidding me???” And then, magic. Every student, even the lowest performers, wrote about the field trip with perfect handwriting, spacing, and fairly understandable sound spelling. I didn’t expect punctuation because I hadn’t taught that skill, but every skill I had taught was there. What a proud bunch of kids I had as they handed in their work. If we had chosen to edit and do a final draft, the editing would have been on spelling and punctuation – fairly easy for the amount they wrote. You can see some examples of these on this website under Results.
If you started late in the year, or haven’t prioritized teaching basic writing skills, resolve to start earlier next year and prioritize skills over projects. You will be amazed at how easy every other writing assignment becomes later on.
Frontload skills, frontload skills, frontload skills.
You will have a more successful classroom. Guaranteed.
Twelve years ago I went to the state library to find out more about the connection of learning handwriting to being a proficient writer. I came up with one article. Granted, research is much easier now. I didn’t even own a laptop then and I had no high speed internet. We were still in the microfiche age.
But I believe a big part of why I only found one article is that handwriting was not a topic of interest or research at the time. Now, brain research is showing a link to handwriting and cognitive functioning. There is also research to show the connection of handwriting to better composition.
This summer I spent a number of hours in a college library enjoying instant access to many research studies. The studies I read confirmed what I have seen for myself – that learning handwriting increases confidence, helps young children write faster and therefore keep up with their thoughts as they write, and helps young children retain letter recognition.
Here is one article that discusses some of the research. Handwriting isn’t a frill – it’s essential!
When should you give a specific assignment and when should children be able to “free write” about whatever they want? I think both are very valuable depending on the purpose of your lesson. Can you justify your assignment with one of the following reasons? If not, maybe you need to re-think the assignment or give your kids a break from being told what to write about.
Reason 1: To give children experience writing in different genres.
Be explicit as to why you are giving the assignment, and explain why they will need this type of writing in school or in life. Here are the genres I introduce in Growing Writers level 1:
Fiction writing (not a common core standard but is great for creative thinking and problem-solving!)
Reason 2: To get some children out of a rut because they always write about the same thing in almost exactly the same words.
This isn’t a specific prompt about a specific topic, but it is a little redirecting and limiting of choice. So, if Tyler writes about video games every day, today he will need to use his imagination or write about some facts.
Reason 3: To use the writing as the basis for a class discussion.
Writing is a great way to allow for “think time” before a discussion. Children, like adults, are not always prepared with ideas when a discussion is on the spot. Some children don’t speak up in a class discussion. Whether the topic is “What did you learn on our field trip?” or a sensitive one such as “Do you feel safe in school? Why or why not?”, having children write first will ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. You can also have annonymity for sensitive topics and use the information to start a discussion without using any names. In kindergarten and first grade this writing may include more pictures than words.
Reason 4: To teach a specific skill.
My second graders are learning how to write a more detailed personal narrative. Since detail is so important, I’m limiting them to very small chunks of time in this writing assignment: 3 events that happen before they get to school in the morning. When one event is simply brushing your teeth or eating breakfast, you have to include detail. If I didn’t give them a prompt which narrowed their story to a short amount of time, it would be a lot harder to teach the skill.
Reason 5: To have fun.
Specific prompts can be fun once in awhile. Last year we enjoyed the prompt: “What would be the most amazing sandwich you could make?” Everyone got to share their answers and they were funny. The caveat here, is that the fun is short-lived if prompts like this are given constantly. After awhile they become boring and lead to lack of true ownership in writing.
Other than these purposes, my feeling is – let kids have some time to just WRITE.
To truly be a writer you must learn the skill of generating your own ideas. Children learn to do this by first being exposed to different genres and practicing them. Children who have learned to generate their own ideas tend to be very invested in what they are writing. Why should we deny them the enjoyment of writing about whatever they want?
Prompts can definitely be a tool for teaching, discussion, or fun. However, if kids are constantly getting specific prompts, they will see writing as something they do in school to please a teacher, rather than loving writing as a form of self-expression.
Can you think of reasons I left out? Do you have a balance between free writing and assignments?