As with learning to read, learning to write is not intuitive for students. Where reading is decoding the English language, writing is encoding the English language. Both communication forms involve mastering our very tricky English alphabet’s letter sounds, spelling patterns, and writing conventions. To do so, students require guidance from adults through a sequence of skills over years of practise.
The Writing Revolution
Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler have coauthored a book called The Writing Revolution. It is an excellent resource for teaching writing skills for all grades. Their consistent message is that writing instruction is most effective when it is explicit, systematic, sequential, and scheduled daily. Some key paragraphs are highlighted below.
The Six Principles from The Writing Revolution (pg. 8)
1. Students need explicit instruction in writing beginning in the early elementary grades.
2. Sentences are the building blocks of all writing.
3. When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.
4. The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities.
5. Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.
6. The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.
Explicit writing instruction helps students to: (pg. 4)
— identify comprehension gaps by asking students to use writing to summarize what they have learned in other subjects
— boost reading comprehension by learning to write, and also read, with more complicated sentence forms
— improve speaking abilities by learning to write, and also speak, with more complicated sentence forms
— improve organizational and study skills through learning the skills of note taking, making outlines, summarizing, etc.
— develop analytical abilities by learning to organize details and ideas into a logical and sequenced progression
Writing is one of our forms of communication, the others being reading, speaking, listening, and viewing. The challenge of ensuring that the written word is connecting to an audience is monumental. How to convey emotion or emphasis without body language, facial expressions, or tone and volume of voice? All of these are tools used naturally to reach an audience when speaking. “But when we write, we don’t have visual cues to draw on, and we often don’t know exactly who the audience is. We need to express ourselves with far more precision and clarity, anticipating the facts and details a reader will require to grasp our meaning. We also need to rely on words and punctuation rather than intonation and pauses [while speaking] to indicate nuances in meaning or breaks in the narrative. We have to abide by conventions of spelling and grammar to ensure that mistakes don’t distract a reader from the content.” (pg. 9)
Another writing challenge is accepting the permanence of the written word. Spoken words ebb and flow between a speaker and their audience. After a short time the words fade from memory and all we are left with is a general sense of the intention of the speaker. However, “…when we write, our words are preserved on paper – or perhaps on a screen – making not just grammatical and syntactical errors but also flaws far more glaring than in spoken language. And we rarely sustain spoken language for the equivalent length of a paragraph, let alone an essay, unless we’re delivering a speech or participating in a formal debate. Shaping a logical, unbroken narrative or argument in writing requires far more thought and planning than having a conversation or making a contribution to class discussion.” (pg. 9)
All this can make writing feel intimidating or even overwhelming. The good news is that there is a framework for learning to write that provides logical guidance through the maze of skills needed to write competently. Also, while students need a certain beginning level of language knowledge to start writing, writing helps to teach that same language knowledge. Practising writing is an increasingly positive language experience: the more you write the better you become at it, which makes writing easier, encouraging you to write more…and so on. Hochman & Wexler say it well when they note “And far from feeling that practicing the mechanics of writing is drudgery, students often gain a sense of pride and mastery from learning to craft well-constructed sentences and logically sequenced paragraphs.” (pg. 10)
Grade One Writing Instruction
Printing instruction in Grade One lasts all year. Students master letter sounds and letter names while learning correct letter formation and pencil grip.
Spelling instruction is practise with letter order within words. It does not begin until students show they can recognize letter sounds and letter names consistently. Often, this is not until Term Two. When students have proficient alphabet knowledge they can begin to better understand how the sounds they say can be written as a specific letter sequence.
Sentence Writing is introduced through talking about and analyzing sentence examples. The concept of sentences is usually brand new to our young students, so we build their schema (knowledge web) by learning to recognize a complete sentence and knowing the parts of a sentence. By the end of the school year students will be able to independently print three or more original sentences correctly.
Story Writing, like sentence writing, begins with discussion and teacher modelling. Even though students cannot write stories at the start of Grade One we spend a great deal of time talking about and analyzing the parts of a story. Students who have automatic knowledge of story elements can then use their working memory for what they want to write instead of how to write it.
The Simple View of Writing
This visual from Berninger and Amtmann (2003) shows the many elements that are part of learning to write. Self-regulation (executive functions) is necessary in order to plan, start, and finish writing projects. Transcription refers to the act of writing words, sentences and paragraphs, whether it be by hand or by keyboard. Text Generation involves knowledge of the English language and all of its complex rules and idiosyncrasies. Writing is a complex activity. However, with explicit instruction and regular practise it can become achievable and perhaps even enjoyable!
A Very Short Summary
1. Writing is a way to communicate a message using the letters of the alphabet and the writing conventions of the English language.
2. Writing instruction needs to be explicit, systematic, sequential, and performed daily.
3. Skillful writing is needed to convey the intended message of the author.
4. Because written material can be lengthy and long-lasting, it needs to be organized in order to clearly and logically convey the message intended.
5. Grade One Instruction focuses on printing skills, spelling instruction, sentence writing, and story writing.
6. The Simple View of Writing shows writing to be a truly complex process.
Berninger, V.W. & Amtmann, D. “Preventing written expression disabilities through early and continuing assessment and intervention for handwriting and/or spelling problems: Research into practise” Handbook of Learning Disabilities, 2003