TRT Podcast#26: How to get your students to write more than one sentence
“I’m done!” These innocent little words may be the writing teacher’s least favorite. Too often, we hear these words very soon after we’ve begun our class writing time.
We’ll address this common problem in today’s episode.
- Learn how starting the year with a different genre can help solve this problem.
- Discover how to use oral language to help students develop their ideas.
- Fill your toolbox with easy strategies to help students add to their writing!
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
"I'm done!" These innocent little words may just be the writing teacher's least favorite. That's because too often we hear these words very soon after we've begun our class writing time. What do you do when you have one or likely more students telling you "I'm done", when they've written just one sentence? We're going to address this common problem in today's episode. So stay tuned for Episode 26: How to Get Your Students to Write More Than One Sentence.
"I'm done!" What do you do when your students know they're expected to write for the entire Writing Workshop, but they feel they're finished just a few minutes into it? While they could technically move on to a new piece and work on that until the timer goes off, we want our learners to develop stamina with a single piece of writing. That's why in today's episode, I'm sharing some strategies to get your students to write more than a single sentence.
Before we get started with today's tips, though, I want to be clear about what students we're talking about here. We're not talking about our very youngest writers who worked so hard even to put a single word on the page. For them, a full sentence is something to be proud of! If they have completed that before the Workshop is done, they are certainly welcome to move on to a new piece.
No, we're talking about writers who are able to write one sentence in a few minutes and then they just want to stop. They feel they've said all there is to say, or they know there's more to say, but they want you to hold their hand as they write each and every sentence. These are the writers we're talking about in today's episode.
I posed this question in our "Kindergarten and First Grade Teaching Ideas" Facebook group. I wrote it like this: Do your students ever start writing for Writing Workshop or journal writing time and get stuck after the first sentence? What's your best advice for getting them to write more? How do you get them unstuck? As usual, I received a lot of great, helpful replies because our Facebook groups are amazing because of the amazing educators inside them. Be sure to check the show notes at the end of this episode so you can request to join one of them. I'm going to be pulling from some of those replies in today's episode.
If you run into this issue a lot at the BEGINNING of the year, when students write one sentence and tell you they're done, you might want to consider starting the year with a different genre. Are you starting with a genre that is very accessible to our youngest writers, or does it present more of a challenge? As a teacher, I always started the year with personal narratives, but looking back, I'm not sure that was always the best choice. It might be worth trying a different genre because personal narratives can actually be quite challenging for kids. When you think about it, it does require quite a few sentences to tell a story.
Jackie, one member of our Facebook group, has her students make pattern books. This could be an excellent way to start the year! She models many different pattern books and then asks her students to write them on their own. As she says, the consistency of a known pattern creates confidence that naturally leads to more details.
You might also want to consider starting the year with free verse poetry, which doesn't require complete sentences at all! There are some really good books called "Kids' Poems" from Regie Routman, and I'm going to link to those in the show notes. She has them for different grade levels. They're awesome because not only do they give you ideas for teaching poetry, but they have a whole bunch of kids' sample poems right at that grade level that you can display for your students. Then they can see examples of poetry that are realistic for them.
Something else to consider is to have your students make books, instead of write stories, on a single sheet of paper. This would make a lot of sense if you're doing a pattern book or if you're doing a personal narrative. It automatically lends itself to having a beginning, middle, and end. I go into this in a lot of detail in my online course, Teaching Every Writer, and in a mini course inside my membership, The Measured Mom Plus. I go into a lot of specifics about how to set this up and how to manage it.
The general idea is that you provide a set of blank books with three to five sheets of paper stapled together. We're just talking about blank typing paper, they could have lines on them, but you probably want to start without them, at least at the beginning for kindergarten. You show your students how to write a part of the story on each page. You can tie this in with oral language, so it can help to point to each page and ask them what they're going to write on each page. You could even start the Writing Workshop with having your students turn to a partner and talk about what they're going to write.
This is a nice segue into a very important point, which is that we need to focus on helping our students use oral language to develop their writing ideas! They really need to talk out the writing before they put pencil to paper, especially when they're very young writers, like in kindergarten and first grade. But when you think about it, oral rehearsal is good for adults too! It helps to talk through your writing when you're stuck!
"Literacy floats on a sea of oral language." This lovely quote is from Jocelyn, a member of our Facebook group and she is SO right. That's why many of these tips that follow start with oral language.
If you have a writer who is very capable, but just can't seem to get past the wall of that first sentence, talk about the story first during your writing conference. Sit down and ask them to tell you details about the story. What I like to do is put up one finger with each detail. Then when they're done, I can say, "Look at that! You just gave me three ideas for your story. Let's talk about what those were one more time. Now you can write sentences - one for each idea."
One person in our group, Shan, has her students tell her their story. So let's just say it's one sentence and they read her the sentence. She repeats it back and she asks if that's the WHOLE story. Usually this leads them to realize they have more to say! You shouldn't expect your students to be naturals at this right away. Even though they've been talking for a long time, they're going to need a lot of guided practice in using talk as rehearsal for their writing.
In our group, Jocelyn actually shared a step-by-step method, which I'm going to share with you here. Number one: you display a picture. Number two: you talk about the picture out loud, and then you have your students talk to a partner about the picture. You can call on volunteers to share their ideas - what they talked about in relation to the picture. Then you model how to use their ideas to construct a sentence, but you don't write it down yet, you just say it. Then you have your students help you create another sentence. Again, this is just oral. Finally, you work together to construct the sentence on the board.
This is a wonderful example of modeling and sharing so that you are taking the lead at first and gradually releasing responsibility to your students. These are strategies to start with.
If you have learners that are ready for something more advanced, you can teach them how to anticipate questions the reader might have, and then answer them in their writing. I actually have a blog post all about this, which I'll link to in the show notes.
Another more advanced strategy comes from my colleague, Becky Spence, of "This Reading Mama". She created a chart called "M-O-R-E". Each letter of "M-O-R-E" gives learners an idea for how to add more to the writing. "M" is move on to what happened next. "O" is observe - why did it happen? "R" is relate to the five senses. "E" is emotions - how did you feel about it? She actually has a printable chart with this acronym, and I'm going to, again, link to that in the show notes.
You want to show them how to use the chart to help them think of a second sentence. I would caution against having them work through all those letters in order. That often leads to awkward writing that doesn't make sense, especially when you include the senses, because so often kids just put in something random that isn't even related. Teach them and practice with them using that chart to spark an idea and not necessarily go through the steps in order.
That seemed to go pretty fast, but I hope that it gave you a whole bunch of ideas for helping your students think of more than one sentence in their writing. Let's go ahead and recap: Number one: consider starting the year with a genre that's easier for kids, such as patterned books or free verse poetry. If you're going to start with personal narrative, that's perfectly fine, but I would consider giving them blank books instead of single sheets of paper.
Number two: start with oral language. You're going to show your students how to use talk to rehearse their story before they actually write. We shared a step-by-step method that you could try.
Number three: try more advanced strategies like using the acronym "M-O-R-E" to help them decide what to write next.
Number four: have them anticipate the reader's questions and answer them in their writing.
If you're looking for more actionable strategies that will help you teach writing to your children in kindergarten, first, and second grade, I recommend my online course Teaching Every Writer, which I have created with my colleague, Becky Spence. It really includes everything you need to teach writing well in K-2, including over 200 writing mini lessons! You'll find a link to that in the show notes as well.
You'll find the show notes at themeasuredmom.com/Episode 26. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you again next week.
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Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Blog post: How to help students add more to their writing by asking questions
- This Reading Mama’s post: How to get kids to write MORE (with a free chart)
- Kids’ Poems books by Regie Routman: Kindergarten Poems, First Grade Poems, Second Grade Poems, Third & Fourth Grade Poems
- Video training for members: How to get started with writing workshop in K-2
- Membership mini-course #2: How to get started with writing workshop in Grades 3+