TRT Podcast #22: Do’s and don’ts for teaching young writers
You know teaching writing is important, but you keep running into roadblocks. Your students are at such different places … can you really meet all their needs?
This episode kicks off an 8-part series about teaching writing. We’re going to tackle those roadblocks head-on!
In today’s episode you will learn important do’s and don’ts for teaching writing in K-3. You will also discover:
- The best approach for teaching writing
- An important tip to follow when writing in front of your students
- When to schedule writing time
Listen to the episode here!
Full episode transcript
Episode 22: Do's and don'ts for teaching young writers.
So I'm going to start this episode with a little backstory. Last week my daughter's wonderful first grade teacher, whom I love and respect very much, came to me in the parking lot. She told me that my daughter was having a hard time during Writing Workshop - to the point that one day she was in tears! The main issue was that she could not think of what to write about and she was shutting down. Now, this is my little girl, and I know how she shuts down. This did not come as a big surprise to me. We've been working on this at home, which I'll get to in a future episode.
But my point in bringing this up is to show you that teaching writing is an exercise in problem solving. My daughter's teacher has been teaching for a long time. She's a wonderful person and a spectacular teacher. Even though she's been doing everything right, she still has students like my daughter who need extra support. Here's the secret that no one wants to say out loud: teaching writing was never meant to be easy. It's not for people who rely heavily on worksheets and prompts. Teaching writing is for creative, problem solving teachers, like my daughter's teacher, who love their students and are always looking to improve their craft. Teaching writing is for teachers like you.
I have EVERY confidence that you can do this and that you can do it well. Starting today, I'll be sharing an eight part series about how to solve common problems when it comes to teaching writing. You and your students can look forward to writing time and enjoy it every day or almost every day. We're going to start today with do's and don'ts for teaching writing.
Number one: DO make time for teaching writing. Lately, when my first grader and her third grade brother get into the van after school, I do two things. I ask her to take off her mask because we're in the middle of COVID-19, and she's so used to that thing being on her face that she forgets she's wearing it! And then I ask her, did you write today? Now by that question, what I mean is, did YOU write today? When the teacher had you write, did you cry or did you think of something and write? But she always says, "Mom, I told you, we write every day." Even though she hasn't exactly answered my question, that's music to my ears because it means her teacher knows that kids can only get better at writing if they do it consistently. For that to happen, the teacher HAS to make it a priority.
Here's a good goal for you. Make writing time such an ingrained part of your day that your students never ask, "Are we going to write today?" Just like they never say, "Are we going to have lunch today?" They know they're going to have lunch; they should know they're going to have writing.
Our second do is: Do use the Writing Workshop approach. Now I've been over this many times on my blog and in other episodes, so I won't go into this in too much detail. But just a quick overview: the Writing Workshop is a structure that works for teaching writing across the grades. I would say kindergarten, even through high school, could use Writing Workshop. You teach a mini lesson appropriate to your students. Your students write independently for a period of time (of course, with very young children that could include drawing). And then they come together for a sharing time at the end. This approach can work in any setting, even virtual. Which (spoiler alert) we're going to talk about next week.
Tip number three: model, model, model. It is very tempting to put a journal prompt on the board or have a really quick mini lesson in which we just tell students what to do, but what we might skip is the SHOWING part. Students need to see you write. Most of all, they need to see you struggle with the same things that they struggle with. I challenge you to put yourself in their shoes. When you're thinking about the modeling you're going to do, try not to put too much thought into it in advance because your students don't get to. When you ask them to write, they just basically have to start from scratch. They haven't been spending the day before, most likely, planning what they're going to do. So I want you to try to do that. Challenge yourself to model writing without a lot of forethought.
So you might say, "Boys and girls, today, we're going to write about something real from our own lives. So I'm going to be in first grade today and I'm going to write just like you. I'm going to write up here on this big chart paper so all of you can see. What's the very first thing we need to do when we want to write?"
The first thing should be, think of a topic. What are you going to write about? So you want to help them see you do that.
So, "All right, boys and girls, let me think. You know, one thing we've talked a lot about in first grade is that we write about things that we've done with people we love. So, let's see... I remember when I was a little girl, I liked to play school with my sister. So I'm going to write about that today. Now, sometimes I find it helpful to think about a few things I'm going to write before I start, just to make sure I have some ideas for this topic. So I used to play school with my sister. We would play in our playhouse in the yard because it had a chalkboard. We used to use our old worksheets and workbooks from school. We used to put stickers on the papers. That's four fingers of ideas; I think I have enough to write about for this topic. So let me think about what my first sentence could be. Well, I'm in first grade, so I'm going to write this like I'm in first grade. I'm going to write, 'I like to play school with my sister.' Why don't you watch me write the sentence on the chart? Okay, now what else could I say? Well, I could think about what we do when we play school. We write on the chalkboard in the playhouse, so I'll write that next. 'We write on the chalkboard in the playhouse.'"
So there you go, you get the general idea. That mini lesson and that modeling is really about thinking of an idea and expanding on it. That's why I was really focused on what to write about and what to write next. You may have a different focus for your mini lesson, and then in that case you might focus more on those things. For example: what to do when you come to words that are hard, or how to revise your writing. But it's good to do a lot of this "thinking of an idea from scratch" and "getting started", especially if that's what your students are struggling with - which is a very common issue.
Tip number four: DON'T do all of the work for your students. Thinking of what to write about is actually a really big part of the writing process. Too often, we do this for our students, especially when we make a habit of having them write to a prompt in a journal. I'm not saying that you can never use journals or prompts. There are definitely times when those make sense, but it is not something you should be doing every day or have that being the only thing you do when you're teaching writing. Prompts should not be a regular part of writing time because students need to find their own topics.
In the same way that we don't want to do all their work of finding a writing topic, we don't want to do all their work for spelling. There are times that we will give a spelling, especially if a word they're going to use is going to be in the writing many times. We also have a word wall, and we show them how to use it. We might provide personal word walls. We're teaching them how to stretch out words and write the sounds they hear. If they're older, we teach them how to use a dictionary. We expect that they will spell patterns they've learned correctly. If you're not sure about the spelling thing, don't worry because I will have an episode coming up all about helping them with spelling during Writing Workshop.
Another thing that we tend to take over is the revising process. We shouldn't tell our students every little thing to change. We want to help them discover how to choose what improvements to make. If you're hearing that and thinking, "Fat chance, my students never want to revise." Don't worry because we'll be covering this in a future episode.
Number five is another don't: DON'T dive in too quickly. I am totally speaking from personal experience here because as a teacher, that was one of my biggest challenges. I had so many ideas that I thought were wonderful and that I wanted to start with right away. I didn't want to take the time to lay the foundation of procedures and routines to make sure it went smoothly. Often my great ideas, which were probably pretty good, fell on their face because I didn't spend the time in advance training my students: what to do when they need help, where to get the materials, what to do in different situations, etc. I ended up being interrupted and it just didn't go over well.
So you have to ease yourself into Writing Workshop. I definitely think you can start with Writing Workshop very early in the year, even the first day of school. But it's going to look a lot different than it's going to look three weeks from then. Writing time will be very short, so maybe two or three minutes of them actually being expected to write on their own, especially if we're talking kindergarten. You'll also be doing a lot more handholding at the beginning. You're slowly training them to be independent so that when you're ready to start individual conferences with students (again, coming in a future episode), they'll be more prepared for that and you'll get fewer interruptions.
Finally, tip number six: DO schedule writing time when you and your students are at your best. That's because all of you need patience. Your students need patience to work through those inevitable writing challenges, and you need patience as you watch them work through these challenges or get stuck in the process. Because they WILL get stuck, that's how writing works. I write for a living: I write blog posts, I create courses, I prepare these podcast episodes. Some days for me, the writing flows and flows and other days I just get stuck. And I've been doing this for a lot of years! We have to expect that our students are going to get stuck. Our goal is not to create environments where they're never going to get stuck because that's not realistic for any writer. Instead, we want to teach them strategies for what to do when they are stuck.
Now, certainly we want to create an environment where they're not going to get stuck every day. That's going to require a lot of things like modeling and supporting and teaching routines. But we can't be surprised when it happens. That's why it's important to schedule this at the beginning of the day, or if you have a break period for yourself, maybe right after that when you're fresh. Find a time that you are more likely to be patient when your students are stuck. Because if you've been teaching writing for more than a day, you know that it's going to happen. In a couple of weeks, I'm going to share an episode about what to do when students won't write. I hope that will help you solve this challenge of students who are getting stuck more often than not.
Let's recap what we talked about today. Tip number one: DO make time for teaching writing every day if possible. Number two: DO use the Writing Workshop approach: mini lesson, writing time, sharing time. Number three: DO model a lot. By modeling, I mean, basically starting from scratch a lot of the time. So have your students watch you think of a topic and develop it. Try not to prepare it in advance because that's not realistic for them, and you want to do what they're going to have to do. Tip number four: DON'T do all of the work. Don't think of all their topics for them; don't do all their spelling; don't always tell them what to revise. Number five: DON'T dive in too quickly. Take a few weeks to teach the routines and ease your students into Writing Workshop. Finally, number six: DO schedule writing time when you and your students are at your best - when you have the most patience.
Before I sign off today, I want to share with you two things that can help you as you teach writing. First, my guidebook for teaching writing. It's a Writing Workshop guide for K-8, so it has tons of ideas in there for how to start the year, how to teach routines, what mini lessons to teach, etc. Many of the chapters end with troubleshooting tips, like what to do when something isn't going well. I'd also like to share with you my online course, Teaching Every Writer, that I created with Becky of This Reading Mama. It's for classroom teachers and homeschoolers of kindergarten, first, and second grade. In that course, we go through all of this in great detail, and we include over 200 ready-to-use mini lessons for K-2. You'll find links to both of those in the show notes, which you can find at themeasuredmom.com/episode22. Thanks so much for listening, and I look forward to sharing the rest of our teaching writing series with you. Talk to you again soon.
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