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.