When I was in second grade I brought home a spelling assignment: Use your spelling words to create a story. I sat on my knees in the living room using an end table as my writing table. I didn’t know where to start. My mom sat with me and began brainstorming ideas for a story. Something sparked inside of me. I would write a little and she would throw out an idea that fueled the spark. We kept going until I (with her guidance and support) had spun a tale of mystery and intrigue, thick with plot. My teacher returned the assignment to me a few days later with the note, “You really scared me!”
I was hooked on writing from that experience forward!
Not everyone has a great experience with writing like I did. It is a struggle for many children and adults. If you are an adult teaching children to write it can be extremely difficult, especially if you yourself did not have a good experience. I truly believe everyone can be a good (at least competent) writer with the right guidance.
Interest in what you are writing is crucial. You need that spark, even if it is a small one. You may not be interested in the subject you are asked to write about, but if you dig around a little inside yourself, or through research you will hopefully be able to find an angle, an opinion, a personal spin, a meandering rabbit trail to pursue. This is true for our children/students also. For as long as I can remember I have loved mystery and suspense. I think my mom knew this when she fed me ideas for my assignment along those lines. Her suggestions ignited the tinder of my imagination, which became a spark, which in turn became a constant glowing flame in my soul. I’m introspective and reflective by nature. I began writing my experiences, thoughts and feelings on little scraps of paper around the house when I was 10 years old. My mom saw this and for my birthday she gave me my first journal. It was the first of many notebooks I filled. I rarely share my journal with anyone, but it is a source of comfort, a time-out to process my thoughts, an avenue to live a more reflective, deeper life. Your interests and your children’s interests might be different than mine, but it pays to discover what those interests are and tap them when writing. When you have an interest in what you are writing it is personal and therefor meaningful to you. When your writing is meaningful you take ownership over your writing, you are invested.
I think it is interesting to note here that although I attended public school, it was my mom who taught me the love of writing. Come to think of it, she also taught me how to add and subtract when she saw I was struggling with that. I learned these important things at home!
Focus on Process not Product
The first time you sit down to write something it will not be your best. We all know the term “rough draft”. That is exactly what your first writing will be: Rough. Most of what you write will never be “published”- shared with others in any form. Most of your writing is just for yourself: notes, ideas, thoughts and feelings, etc. When you are writing in the “brainstorming ideas” phase or “rough draft” phase you don’t stop to check your spelling, or to see if your commas are all in the right place, or if you’ve chosen the perfect word. If you worry about those things the joy of expression is lost. When children are doing their first writings we don’t put a focus on conventions (correct spelling, punctuation) and craft (word choice, mood) for that very reason. The focus is on getting their thoughts out, creating, taking ownership of their writing. Only after they write from that creative, thoughtful place do we employ developmentally appropriate strategies to improve their writing so it can be shared with and enjoyed by others.
My family used to visit our local state park for hiking and picnics when I was young. In the picnic area there were several old, well water pumps. My brothers and I loved taking turns pumping the long arm (which took all of our strength) until, to our gleeful excitement, water spurted from the top and we enjoyed cool, refreshing drinks and, of course, splashes. Writing well is like priming a pump. At first you pump, but nothing comes out- it’s dry. You have to put in a lot of effort in the beginning and it seems like the water will never come. What you’ve done though is place a draw on the pipes and soon, if you persevere, the water gushes from the pump and you don’t have to work as hard. The flow may slow to a trickle at times, but only a few more fluid pumps are needed to work up a good flow again. When writing is done consistently (on a daily basis, or a least a few times weekly) it creates that flow. When children know they will be writing each day/week at a specific time and place, subconsciously their minds think about that piece of writing they’ve been working on, or that idea they’ve been mulling over and want to try out the next time sit down to write. It is important to keep a notebook in which to write, a safe place to collect ideas, observations, experiences, and to experiment with new techniques. When all their ideas are in the same place, they can easily look back at previous entries. They may decide to revise an entry and publish it (share it with others in some way), or work a little more on something left unfinished. When they collect ideas in a notebook they begin to see themselves as writers. They grow in their ability to make decisions about their own writing, develop their own style and voice, and gain confidence in their uniqueness as a writer.
Read To Be a Better Writer
Books are a great source and tool for teaching ourselves and our children the craft and structure of writing. Picture books often have alliteration, rhyming, powerful verbs, colorful adjectives, metaphor, simile, plot, etc. that we can point out to readers of all ages. Likewise they are great for teaching structure like beginning, middle, and end, characters, setting, main idea, theme, plot, etc. Chapter books cannot be read in one sitting like picture books when teaching writing craft and structure, however, they often have great examples can be extracted for instructional purpose.
Writer’s Workshop: Simple Guidance for Writing
Writer’s Workshop is the most conducive method I have found to quickly get students writing and create that “flow” we talked about earlier. Writer’s Workshop focuses on the individual development of each child’s skill by putting them in control of their own writing and giving them specific one-on-one guidance from a teacher (you).
The Key Ideas
Write at least 3 days a week for an hour each time. An hour long writing block is comprised of some instruction time (mini lessons), individual writing, conferencing with a teacher, and sharing time.
- Mini Lessons: A mini lesson is a really short and to the point lesson that takes no more than 5-10 minutes. It is given based on what you, the teacher, have observed in your child’s writing. Does your child write really general sentences? You might do a quick lesson on how to unpack a sentence by adding more detail. Do they always choose weak helping verbs like am, is, are, was, were? Show them how to use powerful verbs to strengthen their writing. You might see they are ready for lessons on the writing process; how to brainstorm topic ideas, how to organize their topic, how to revise and edit their writing, options to publish a finished piece of work. They may be ready for a lesson in writing craft; how to create a scene, how to grab reader’s attention with a “hook”, how to use metaphor and simile, how to choose the right word, how to create mood, how to use point of view, how to write descriptive, narrative, persuasive and expository pieces.
It is important to note that the mini lesson you give does not dictate what your child will work on during their writing time. If you want them to specifically practice the skill you taught, have them do it during the 5-10 minute lesson. (You might ask them to turn to a page in their notebook during the lesson and circle all the verbs, then ask them to think of stronger verbs to use instead.) Once they start the writing portion of the workshop it is up to them to employ that strategy or continue working on something else in their notebooks. Choice and ownership are critical to their independence and enthusiasm as writers. They will add that skill to their repertoire and employ it when an opportunity presents itself.
- Writing Time: This is the largest chunk of time spent during Writer’s Workshop and usually takes 30-45 minutes. Children can decide to work on any writing project they previously started or begin a new writing project. They could be anywhere in the writing process. They might spend most of their time brainstorming a list of things to write about. Maybe they are deep in research about penguins, gathering facts for an expository piece about the life and habits of the Antarctic bird. They might be writing from the heart in a rough draft narrative of the time they lost their first tooth. They might be revising a paragraph that didn’t make sense when you read it together. Maybe they are editing a piece of work, or “publishing” a revised and edited piece in some way. If your children are very young, they will spend a lot of time drawing their stories. This consistent, individual time to write is so important. As a writer I personally find that when I step away from a piece of work and come back to it later I can see my work with fresh eyes. I make changes, and add new insights I didn’t have before as I re-read my piece.
- Conferencing: Conferencing happens during the 30-45 minute writing time, but it is so important I thought it deserved its own section here. Conference by listening to your child. Listen to them read their pieces of writing (often mid progress) and respond authentically by asking questions, commenting, laughing at the funny parts. Listen to them express frustration, confusion, need for direction and respond based on what you know about them as a writer. You might make suggestions, referring back to a mini lesson they received that would help them with their difficulty. You might become aware of a mini lesson they need as you conference with them. Give specific feedback. Saying, “I really like the way you use strong verbs in your writing.” is much more instructive than saying, “You are a really good writer.” Try giving one specific praise and one suggestion that you would like to see them improve upon. “I like the way you use strong verbs like ‘yanked’. I would like to see you add more detail about how your grandmother yanked out your loose tooth.” Specific praise and instruction will help them become more aware of themselves as writers, and therefore grow in their skills and confidence.
- Sharing: In a classroom with many students this takes 10-20 minutes. In a homeschool it will not take that long. There is also the question of, who are you sharing with? Siblings, parents, a co-op group? Sharing is a chance for a child to read their work (finished or unfinished) aloud and get some questions, comments, and suggestions from their peers. This may not be possible in your situation, so maybe the sharing happens with you during the conference. If you could find a way for your child to share his/her work (finished or unfinished) for the purpose of feedback from peers or adults other than yourself that would be ideal.
2. Use a Writer’s Notebook (different than a journal) to collect ideas, observations, experiences, and experiment with new techniques.
- Brainstorm: Children can brainstorm ideas by making lists of things to write about. List ideas can include (but not be limited to): Things I know about, Funny things that happened to me, Times I was afraid, My worst experiences, My best experiences, Observations, Questions, Words that can be turned into topics (ex. Cow, muffins, fly, jump, violet), . Children can then pick from this list when deciding on a topic to write about.
- Expand the Notebook: As children write in their notebooks they (and you) may notice a common theme in what they choose to write about. These themes can then be explored deeper through writing.
- Practice Strategies: Children practice the writing techniques they’ve been taught in mini lessons.
- Practice Conventions: While conventions like capitalization, punctuation, correct spelling, writing from left to write, allowing for a margin, proper spacing between words, starting a new paragraph are not the focus of a writer’s notebook, children should begin to employ these skills as they are developmentally and academically ready. Their notebooks should be as legible as is developmentally appropriate for them (your expectations of “legible” for a kindergartener will differ from that of a 5th grader).
- Pull out Ideas: As themes develop in their writing and they practice different writing strategies, children will “pull” ideas from the pages of their notebooks that they want to pursue in more detail. These ideas will be worked on outside their notebooks on separate pieces of paper, or in a word document. Here is where children begin to go through the writing process of a rough draft, several revisions, editing, and publishing. Publishing simply means a polished, finished piece of writing that can be shared with others. It could simply be typed in a word document and printed out: Published! They can make their own book binding and illustrate their pages: Published! They can start their own writing blog to share with friends and family online: Published! There are scores of apps and online options to publish children’s writing as well.
Do your children have a consistent time and place to write?