In elementary school classrooms across the country, it seems that writing instruction is often limited when compared to the amount of reading instruction provided. We wonder if this might be because teachers see themselves as strong and avid readers, while relatively few consider themselves to be strong writers. Knowing the value of a role model, perhaps teachers feel they can comfortably model their enthusiasm for reading and provide instruction on how to become better readers yet might not feel nearly so comfortable modeling and teaching writing.
Recognizing the reciprocal relationship that exists between reading and writing—that as we get better at one, we simultaneously get better at the other— but also recognizing that writing instruction is often neglected in elementary school classrooms, Turbill and Bean (2006) describe writing as reading’s “feared cousin” (p. 1). Just as the old saying reminds us that one cannot choose one’s relatives, we believe that teachers cannot choose to teach reading but then disavow or disregard writing instruction. We believe that whilst continuing to teach reading, we need to devote appropriate time and energy into teaching that feared cousin—writing.
Heavily influenced in our thinking by the process-oriented approach to writing instruction advocated by the likes of Donald Graves (1982) and Lucy McCormick Calkins (1986), we believe there are some key principles for elementary teachers to consider as they design writing instruction.
Students should frequently choose what they write about. This may be difficult for those of us who believe that we will lose control of what is produced if students select their own areas of interest for writing; but if we are willing to release the reins, our students are likely to produce more advanced writing because of their increased engagement.
Children who write for their own purposes invest greater effort than those who write to complete an assignment mandated by their teachers. We recall one group of Grade 3 students who seized the opportunity to persuade their teacher that they deserved some of the limited supply of chewing gum that was on offer. Each student wrote a persuasive letter that included reasons why he/she should get a piece of gum. The lengths those students went to in order to convince their teacher they deserved the gum was incredible! The students were engaged in constructing their letters and they had great fun when they shared their work with peers. For them, writing became an authentic, purposeful activity that could help get something they wanted.
Writing should be a collaborative exercise. Just as a published author collaborates with others—at least an editor, but most often many others—students should have opportunities to share and discuss their writing. Taking a sociocultural view of writing, Prior (2006) argues that all writing is collaborative—whether as a result of face-to-face interactions or simply as recognition that writing is contextually situated and, therefore, socially influenced by what is going on around the writer. This social element of literacy is a powerful motivator (Bryan, 2009).
An environment that values writing and supports the writing process is important. Students need regular and predictable time for writing in order to develop writing skills—and an implicit message about the value of writing is sent when there is regular writing time built into classroom schedules—but this should include time for them to reflect on what they want to write about, to brainstorm ideas, to converse with peers, to edit and rewrite. A relaxed environment without time constraints and pressure to produce a final product in one sitting will reap benefits.
Modeling writing is a powerful strategy. It is not enough to instruct students on how to choose powerful words or how to employ writing conventions; we need to share our own writing with students. This helps children to see the teacher as a fellow writer similarly seeking to express thoughts and feelings and to convey information through writing. What better way to demonstrate the writing process than by seeking students’ feedback as we model writing and rewriting for our own purposes? Students will see that the teacher does not magically arrive at the completion of an accomplished piece of writing but, like them, the teacher will carefully, thoughtfully and collaboratively work through the writing process.
Favourite children’s books are another resource that can be used to model writing. While rereading a popular book, the teacher can draw attention to specific words, sentences or punctuation that the author used to convey a message. Reading various genres and then discussing with students the author’s word choices or writing style can also help students to understand how writers succeed in painting images in the readers’ minds. Mentor texts or exemplars are powerful and effective instructional tools and should be widely used in the classroom (Gallagher, 2011).
Finally, it is still important that teachers provide instruction to assist students. Offering a supportive environment, modeling, providing opportunities for choice, authentic writing and collaboration are all critical, but so too is instruction from a knowledgeable teacher who identifies areas where each student can improve. Instruction should be carefully planned and delivered so that it does not constrain writers. Depending on the needs of students, teachers can provide whole class, small group or individual instruction in the form of mini-lessons that allow students ample time to write. Instruction can include strategies such as brainstorming and organization of ideas, word choices, sentence structure, audience, purpose, conventions, writing prompts, genres or types of writing, characters, plot, setting, dialogue and revising.
Graham and Perin (2007) stress the importance of writing in schools as “a means of extending and deepening students’ knowledge,” saying that writing “acts as a tool for learning subject matter” (p. 9). We believe that as we approach writing instruction with these principles in mind, it is likely that we will be pleasantly surprised by the results. Perhaps that “feared cousin’’—that often-neglected or long-lost relative of reading instruction—will become an adored and familiar presence in classrooms.
Bryan, G. (2009). Exploring the reading non-engagement of two grade six students during sustained silent reading. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C..
Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gallagher, K. (2011). Write like this: Teaching real-world writing through modeling & mentor texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high school – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Graves. D. H. (1982). A case study observing the development of primary children’s composing, spelling, and motor behaviors during the writing process. Final report. NIE Grant No. G-78-0174. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 218 653).
Prior, P. (2006). A Sociocultural theory of writing. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 54-66). New York: Guilford.
Turbill, J., & Bean, W. (2006). Writing instruction K-6: Understanding process, purpose, audience. New York: Richard C. Owen.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Gregory Bryan is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. He specialises in children’s literature and literacy education.
Ms. Jeanne Remillard is a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. She currently works as a student services teacher in a French Immersion elementary school. Ms. Remillard has also been an early years classroom teacher for the past 28 years.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Apr/May 2013 issue.