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Getting to Know You Write Now!

28 Mar

So, for the last few days I’ve been talking about ways to get to know your students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. In previous posts I talked about how to reach students on a personal level through individual student conferences in reading and writing. I also talked about how to gain a deeper understanding of students’ reading needs through a variety of formal and informal assessments.

Now, we’ll turn our attention to how to do this for writing. In the same way that you have to listen to students read in order to assess their reading strengths, you’ll have to see a student writing in order to assess their writing strengths. You can collect a random sample of student writing, ask a child to write toward a prompt,  or let a child write and choose their own topic. After taking a few minutes to look over the student writing, ask the student to tell you about it. Ask them to tell you what they think is the best part of the writing and what part they think they might be able to improve. Have them explain why they identify a section as the best or worst. Ask them to tell you about what steps they go through to compose a piece of writing. Ask them to tell you what is their favorite and least favorite modes of writing. As the student talks to you, jot down a few notes to help you remember what was discussed. After the student leaves, you’ll want to take a close look at the writing. As you look at the writing determine what the child is already doing well. What can you praise? Even if the writing seems very weak, you’ll want to find at least one thing you can point out to the child as a “praise point”. Most of us learn from our strengths and identifying (and helping a child identify) strengths is an important beginning in building confidence as a writer. Next, make a list of needs. Before zooming in on grammar and spelling look at the overall structure of the piece. Here a few questions to ask as you look at the writing:

  • Is the writing organized?
  • How is it organized?
  • Does the child have an awareness of audience?
  • Does the writing pull you in, making you want to read more?
  • Does the child use clear and vivid vocabulary words and descriptions?
  • Does the child use any “techniques” such as figurative language?
  • Does the child have an awareness of literary structures?
  • Does the piece have a good beginning or ending?
  • Does the child use transitions?
  • Does the child vary word choice?
  • Does the child use an active versus passive voice?
  • Can you hear the personality of the writer in the writing style?

After you’ve begun to make a few notes about the overall content of the piece, you’ll also want to look for understandings and misunderstandings in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Once a child understands how mechanical errors impact meaning, they’ll be more motivated to correct them.

You’ll also want to think about the child’s individual interests (that you learned about from your reading assessments). If a child is very interested in horses, dinosaurs, or rockets, chances are good that those are topics the child will be more interested in writing about. You’ll need to determine a child’s efferent stance toward writing as well. Does the child hate writing? Why? What parts of writing are frustrating for the child? Is there an issue with the act of handwriting itself or is the problem in composition? Knowing what a child struggles with, will allow you to tailor your conferences, whole group and small group instruction to meet a child’s needs.

Just like plants need water to survive, writers need readers to survive. You will be amazed at how your students’ engagement and interest in writing will improve when they know they have an authentic audience reading their writing, ready to give them feedback. Good assessment is the heart of good teaching! If you’d like to learn more about assessment and/or conferencing in writing I would highly recommend Crafting Writers by Elizabeth Hale. Her writing style is focused, easy to follow and full of practical suggestions.

Let ’em Write!

15 Mar

We generally recognize that the only way to enhance or develop a skill is to practice it, but somehow that idea seems to get lost on the way to writing instruction. In the same way that we have to let kids read to grow as readers, we have to let kids write to become writers. Now, let me clarify what I mean by “let them write”. When I say, “Let them write.” I don’t mean let them write a DOL sentence, or let them write a worksheet, or let them write an extended answer or even let them write in response to a prompt, although all of those things might have some instructional value in other contexts. No, what I’m talking about when I say, “Let them write” is to let them write in a manner where they are choosing their own ways to respond, choosing their own topics, choosing their own audiences, tones, and purposes. In other words, let them write authentically in all of the ways that real writers write, Now, I recognize that every child doesn’t have a hidden novelist buried deep in their psyche longing to escape, but every child does have something of value to say in their own unique voice and deserves to have a welcoming place in which to say it. I’m not saying that grammar instruction isn’t important. It is. Structure is important, punctuation is important, syntax is important- but truthfully all of those things are only of value if one actually has something to say!! Becoming an excellent grammarian without being a writer is somewhat akin to becoming an expert in phonics, but never actually reading or comprehending anything. There is no point in developing expertise in grammar without putting it to work in some type of writing.

So here is what I’m suggesting. By  all means, do teach grammar, but do it in the context of writing. Show students how incorrect grammar muddles our messages and gets in the way of communication. Grammar instruction should be an important component, but not the main goal. When students understand the purpose of grammar instruction and how incorrect usage interferes with what they want to say, they’ll be much more likely to internalize and “own” the knowledge. Next, let them choose their own topics. Will they still need guidance and suggestions? Absolutely, but they don’t need someone else to do the thinking for them. They will need to see a lot of different models and mentors of writing techniques and watch how writers carefully select words to craft their message. They will need help in organizing their thoughts and building bridges between the strategies they see in reading and techniques in writing.They will need feedback from the mentor in the room (you!) and from each other.  BUT – they can and should be allowed to develop their own voice and write about things that are important to them, and they need to do this every day.

Writing is more than just a communication tool. Writing is also a thinking tool. We  write to think through a subject, concept, idea or feeling as well as to communicate those ideas, concepts and feelings.  A large part of being a literate person is the ability to think and communicate deeply. The ability to write and do it well is a legacy we must give our children. How? Let ’em write!!!