Most children enter school with a natural interest in writing, an inherent need to express themselves in words (Graves, 1983). Couple this with a child’s love of stories and nursery rhymes – who has not seen a goggle-eyed group of kindergartners lost in the world of imagination as their teacher reads them a favorite story or nursery rhyme? – and you have the basis for building an emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating creative writing program for your students. This article should help teachers with that task.
The necessity of creative writing
Tompkins (1982) suggests seven reasons why children should write stories (these reasons, of course, also apply to writing poetry):
- to entertain
- to foster artistic expression
- to explore the functions and values of writing
- to stimulate imagination
- to clarify thinking
- to search for identity
- to learn to read and write
With these compelling reasons in mind, it is hard to justify not making creative writing an important part of the elementary school classroom day. It is important that the reasons for writing be made clear to administrators and parents, who may automatically categorize creative writing as merely frivolous play, something akin to recess.
While writing certainly should be enjoyable, and children should have opportunities to choose their own subjects and methods of writing, the importance of creative writing in developing children’s cognitive and communication skills cannot be underestimated (Tompkins, 1982).
Suggestions for teaching story writing
One of the most difficult questions for creative writing instructors to answer is, “What is a story?” Most children, by the time they reach elementary school, have been exposed, through first being read to, and then by reading on their own, to hundreds of stories, and they may at this point have an intuitive feel for what “seems like a story” and what doesn’t.
But this “story-sense” will vary in degree for each student, and it is not something that can be relied upon to occur automatically. A sense of what a story is can be reinforced during classroom reading of stories, and also, importantly, in post-story discussion.
If students are led in a helpful way in these discussions, they may begin to see similarities and differences between books of different writing styles and content and will begin to form an idea of the forms and structures that stories generally follow.
Giving feedback on children’s writing
Many teachers, particularly those who did not get to take extensive college coursework in English or creative writing, feel unsure of themselves when confronted with giving feedback on students’ creative writing. They do not wish to stifle students’ creativity or expression of themselves, and may even feel that appreciation of writing is so subjective that comments that are at all critical may be unfair.
The writing workshop, long a standby of college creative writing programs, can also be adapted to teaching elementary students.
Having students read each other’s work and comment upon it can help both reader and writer. Writers are provided an audience for their work, and, for many children, comments by their peers will be attended to in ways that a teacher’s comments would not. The reader may pick up on techniques of fiction that might not be apparent from reading a professionally published book, and will have an emotional investment in reading and understanding the work that other kinds of reading do not offer. The writing workshop can further the kind of critical thinking skills that students are already being encouraged to use in other aspects of their learning.
Many teachers report on being surprised at the insightfulness and quality of the peer feedback that is a product of the writing workshop. Of course, as with much student interaction, this feedback needs to be modeled and monitored.
Assessing student writing
As mentioned above, many teachers view creative writing as “impossible to grade,” and think that any form of evaluation is necessarily subjective and therefore often unfair. Related to this belief, they think that if students’ work cannot be judged fairly, then there is no way of accurately monitoring their growth and progress.
Glazer (1994), acknowledges these worries, but argues that assessment can be practical, useful, and fair, provided that the teacher clearly communicates consistent criteria for the work that will be evaluated – criteria focused on writing skills such as description, organization, and punctuation – rather than relying on the teacher’s general “impression” of the quality of the work or on comparison with other students’ work.
These criteria can be tailored to specific student strengths and weaknesses, and can be modified as the child’s abilities develop. Glazer provides an example of a “framework,” a collection of several of these criteria that she uses to assess students’ writing.
Publishing student writing
Many teachers look at publication, in some form, as being a useful and satisfying conclusion to a unit of writing fiction. Having a finished version of the student’s work can often be a source of pride to the student, and a way to share the specialness of creative writing with his or her family. Publication also provides motivation for a student to do the extra work of revision and proofreading, which they might otherwise be lacking.