CONDITIONS FOR EFFECTIVE WRITING
Most teachers of writing and writing researchers say students need to write a minimum of 30 – 50 minutes a day, three days a week to become effective writers.
Writing researcher Donald Graves says that even three days a week are not enough:
“If students are not engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade, they will have little opportunity to learn to think through the medium of writing. Three days a week are not sufficient. There are too many gaps between the starting and stopping of writing for this schedule to be effective. Only students of exceptional ability, who can fill the gaps with their own initiative and thinking, can survive such poor learning conditions. Students from another language or culture, or those who feel they have little to say, are particularly affected by this limited amount of time for writing.” (p.104 A Fresh Look at Writing )
And from writing researcher/teacher, Nancie Atwell:
“When students have planned, consistent writing time, they will prepare for writing in out-of-school time, thinking about possible topics, perhaps jotting down overheard dialogue, or a description of a place.”
If you are having trouble finding time for writing, Graves suggests you consider some of the following ways of carving out blocks of time:
- Bring handwriting, spelling, and language skills into the writing block. Teach these skills through mini-lessons.
- Start the day with writing. The minute children come into the classroom in the morning, have them get out their writing folders and start to write.
- Combine the teaching of reading and writing into a ninety minute language block. (Reading and writing should be taught together anyway, since each contributes to the development of the other.)
- For older students especially, combine the teaching of literature with writing. Teach them to read like writers read–looking to see how a story is crafted: admiring good word choices, fluent sentences, well-defined characters, etc.
A typical Writing Workshop session looks like this:
Mini-lesson (5-15 minutes)
Writing and conferring (30 minutes)
Group share (4-10 minutes)
Children need to learn to choose their own topics when they write. We all have different interests and experiences, and the ideas and things that excite our imaginations are equally different. When children tap the issues and concerns of their everyday lives it can add depth to their writing. (Author Katherine Paterson says she writes about things “that make a sound in my heart.”) There are times, of course, when you will ask students to try a particular type of writing (essay or fiction or poetry, for example). But the choice of topic is still best left to the student. Even when a topic must be assigned (say, a paper on some aspect of the Civil War), students can be taught how to focus and shape their writing so that it still reflects their individual interests and what matters to them.
Children need to hear the responses of others to their writing during the composing process, so that they can discover what their readers do or don’t understand. Helpful response comes from you the teacher and from peers, with your consistent modeling of the kinds of restatements and questions that help writers reflect on the content of their writing.
Writing is a craft. It needs to be demonstrated to children through mini-lessons that range from how to choose a topic to polishing a final draft. When you write (and share writing) with children in front of the room, speaking your thoughts aloud as you write, you can effectively model for children the mood of discovery and experimentation that surrounds the composing process.
DISCOVERING WHAT MAKES AN EFFECTIVE PIECE OF WRITING
Here are two short stories written by third graders on the same topic. I like to read both early in the year as an introduction to talking about what makes writing effective. After students have listened to both stories, ask them which story they think is better (1 or 2) and why. Record their ideas about effective writing on a chart or transparency to refer back to as the year goes on. They’ll want to add to their ideas about effective writing as the year goes on. and perhaps compare their ideas with the 6-trait rubrics.
THE EASTER BUNNY (Story 1)
One day a Easter bunny came to Wendy’s house on Easter. The bunny knocked at the door. Wendy answered it. The Easter bunny said, “What color of Easter eggs do you want? Do you want red, blue, pink, yellow, green, orange, gray, black, brown, or violet? Which color?” said the bunny rabbit.
Then Wendy said, “I-I-I really do not know which one but I think I would like the blue one and the yellow one.”
The Easter bunny said, “All right. I will bring you that one tonight. Good night!”
HELPING THE EASTER BUNNY (Story 2)
Early Easter morning Molly was taking a walk when she met a Bunny. He had a big basket full of eggs.
“Good morning,” called Molly.
“And the top of the morning to you,” the Bunny called back.
“And who might you be wandering around out in the woods with a basket of eggs,” asked Molly.
“Why I am the Easter Bunny,” answered the rabbit.
“Oh my,” said Molly, “you sure have a lot of eggs to deliver before the sun is up.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” said the Easter Bunny.
“I have an idea,” said Molly. “I will help you!”
After Molly delivered the last egg she exclaimed, “Oh my! I must be getting home now.” She went back to where the Easter Bunny had left her, but he wasn’t there. All she found was a note that read:
I have gone home now. You were a great help to me. For helping me here is a special Easter egg for you.
Molly was so delighted with the egg (even if there didn’t seem to be anything special about it), that she ran all the way home. She was almost home when she tripped, fell, and broke her egg. Out popped a little chick!
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com