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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

My first-graders aren’t producing much writing? Help!

July 5, 2018

Teacher question:

I’ve collected some data on first-grade writing. I developed a plan for getting 6-year-olds to write arguments and I have a rubric designed to allow me to figure out how well my supports help them to write effective arguments (evaluating whether they took a clear position on the topic, and how much evidence they used). I tried it out and gave the kids plenty of time but was surprised to find that they didn’t write much; I’m having trouble evaluating the quality of this writing given how few words they produced. Any ideas on how to better evaluate the impact of what I did?

 Shanahan’s response:

The specifics of your question are unique — most educators aren’t doing research — but the issue you raise comes up often.

For instance, I frequently hear from kindergarten, first-, and even second-grade teachers who are required to teach the Common Core State writing standards. Those standards require that first-graders be able to:

  • “Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure."
  • “Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure."
  • “Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

They write plaintively to me that their students’ writing doesn’t resemble those descriptions and for the same reason that you give. Most young kids struggle to write enough words to satisfy any of those goals. For those kids, writing might be no more than a sentence, and a hard-won sentence at that.

One of the problems here has to do with expectations. Teachers read those standards and assume those outcomes can routinely be accomplished by average kids. However, no such normative data exist on first-grade writing, so being perfectly honest, no one (including me) really knows what the average 6-year-old can write or the conditions that need to exist for that to happen.

Many of us “grew up” on Lucy Calkins and Donald Graves’s accounts of first-grade writing, and though enlightening, those results were not obtained from “average children,” something that Carol Vukelich and others have written about when they have collected first-grade writing data from larger and more representative samples of 6-year-olds.

As a former first-grade teacher who worked with kids a bit below average, I know we can stimulate writing fluency among first-graders, but that takes a lot of teaching. Just having a good, supportive pre-writing plan alone will not be sufficient in most cases.

We don’t provide teachers with much support for writing instruction. Back in the 1970s I did a study that showed that there weren’t elementary writing programs, writing wasn’t on the report cards, parents didn’t ask about writing, and teachers didn’t receive training in writing. Things have improved since then, and yet not much of what is now provided acknowledges the fact that most first-graders aren’t particularly fluent writers. Thy simply don't tend to elaborate.

I guess I should be happy that there is current interest in improving the “quality” of first-grade writing. But, in my experience, writing quality is something you worry about once kids can actually produce a bunch of words about ideas—not before.

Your writing preparation plan explained clearly what you wanted and provided students with evidence that they could use in their compositions. Those are real pluses. However, they didn’t reach your goal, because those things aren’t what are preventing young kids from wrting fluently.

As a first-grade teacher, my boys and girls wrote every single day. My goal? To get them to produce a bunch of writing. What about focus — the ability to stay on a topic? Not an issue until they can write a bunch of sentences. What about argument structure? Ten words rarely has much structure.

What — for the writing process proponents in my audience — about revision? Revising among young children tends to be adding, not true revising (look at Lucy Calkin’s doctoral dissertation).

Initially my priority is for children to get ideas on paper — lots of ideas. My first-graders engaged in revision a few times a year; not enough to make them good revisers, but sufficient for informing them about what was coming in the future.  

There will be plenty of time in Grades 2 and 3 to making sure that students make logical arguments, that their narratives are appropriately sequenced, and that their expositions include related details. But first let’s get words on paper.

What can teachers do to develop writing fluency with young children?

1.  Encourage talk

Writing is a secondary form of language. When it comes to expressing themselves, kids think of talking, not writing. Consequently, one of the best prewriting activities is talking. Get kids to tell a story and then see if they can write it (the second version will be abbreviated, but not as abbreviated as if that student had started with writing). The exercise used to support argument writing that led to the query above didn’t include student talk. Next time — after you’ve read a text to the students and explained evidence — have them do a “Turn and Talk” with their neighbor—stating their opinions and ideas that support that opinion. Do something like that and you'll see better writing.

2. Encourage drawing

Another good way to stimulate writing is to begin with drawing. Expressing oneself in writing is easier once the ideas are on paper pictorially. By second-grade, drawing becomes a way to illustrate the written words, but with younger kids drawing gives them something to write about. For writing arguments, what if you’d given the kids a piece of drawing paper divided into thirds — a place for a picture illustrating each piece of supporting evidence? I bet the writing would get richer.

3. Support drawing and talking

One of my favorite prewriting activities—because it worked so well—with first-graders is to have them draw pictures. And, then each child presents his or her picture to the group and the other kids ask questions about it. The picture presenter answers the questions and I let this go on until the presenter has enough ideas for a good piece of writing.

4. Accept free spelling

One of the biggest threats to early writing fluency is children’s concerns about doing it “right.” It is really important to stress that spelling doesn’t matter during this kind of writing (spelling matters in lots of situations, but not when you are getting your ideas onto paper). Any child who knows letters and letter sounds should be able to write reasonably legible text. Some teachers like to provide word lists to help the kids or to run around the class writing words for them, and that’s okay, but those approaches         don’t provide as much phonological awareness or phonics practice as just letting them write the words the way they think they are spelled. No matter how you do it in your classroom, kids shouldn’t be slowed down by concerns about spelling.

5. Hold talkathons and writing marathons

One of the hardest things about beginning writing (at any age) is that it requires the writer to sustain an extended monologue. I can have wonderful conversations with my three-year-old grandchildren, but a conversation is a like a game of catch. You react to me; I react to you. I don’t sustain the expression, and you don’t sustain it; we do that together. But with writing, the writer has to think up one sentence after another without any support from a conversational partner. Try involving your students in monologue practice. My first-graders started the year trying to give 5-second talks; when they could sustain that, we moved to 10-second talks — and so on, through the year. By year’s end each of them could talk on a single topic for a full 60-seconds without any support. Similarly, we did writing marathons where they learned to write non-stop for 2- or 3-minutes (if they ran out of ideas, they were to copy the last sentence they had written until they got another idea). The point is to get them to think while writing (rather than think-write-think-write), and not to stop just because their hands get tired.                          

If you engage in those kinds of instructional practices, your kindergartners and first-graders will eventually produce a lot more writing. Once they do, you can guide them to improve their texts; but until they can generate much writing, accomplishing sophisticated argument will be tough sledding. 

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