I read a post on a Facebook Page this week where a teacher was asking for advice about how to get her students writing. She was lamenting the fact that despite a whole bunch of work at text level, many of her year 1 learners still could not write a sentence. Many of us are left scratching out heads when our students are not able to produce the kind of writing we are looking for. Our writing programs focus on one text type or another. We go through the same gradual release of responsibility process – modeled, shared, guided and independent writing opportunities where we teach children about the structure of narratives, recounts and information reports. We provide examples and templates of the text type in the hope that our students will take our examples and write their own versions.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The gradual release of release of responsibility model is a fine one and I am a big fan of the Northern Territory’s version of the explicit teaching model. The matter that I wish to address is that, far too often, our writing programs do not match the needs of the students in front of us.
The simple view of reading tells us that effective reading requires a combination of strong language comprehension and strong word recognition processes. This is a very sensible explanation. It stands to reason that there is also a simple view of writing that we can use to guide our teaching. Berninger & Amtmann outline the ‘not so simple view of writing’ which describes two areas necessary for successfully producing written texts. There are several available graphics online to represent this model. The graphic below links the fundamentals of Berninger and Amtmann’s ideas with a progression of language learning.
This graphic outlines that the combination of transcription (handwriting and spelling) and self regulation (goal setting, planning and revising) results in the production of text. The success of these processes is constrained by the memory skills of the individual. I would argue that there is also a 4th element to the process, as outlined in the above graphic; that of expressive language skills. I have heard it said, “If you can’t say it, you can’t read it or write it”. That is, if a child cannot orally produce the fundamental language to deliver a message or tell a story, they certainly will not be able to write for these purposes. In addition, if a child is operating at word level or can only produce a simple written sentence, they are not ready to move onto whole written texts.
Children need to be explicitly taught to:
- Encode single words
- Orally construct sentences and write them down with the standard conventions of capital letters, full stops and spaces.
- Orally produce sentences connected by a theme or idea to produce a paragraph (and then write them down).
- Understand the structure of texts. Plan, draft and edit to produce a full piece of writing.
All of this might seem obvious, but how many teachers plan writing lessons based on the language and technical skills of their students?
If you are a classroom teacher, I encourage you to complete a class writing profile.
Next, reflect on the following continuum of writing development. Where does the majority of your teaching fall?
Finally, ask yourself the question, “Does my teaching match the needs of my students?” All too often, we ask students to ‘have a go’ at writing when they do not yes possess the fundamental technical or language skills to do so.
It’s like handing someone hammers, saws and drills, not teaching them how to use them and then asking them to build a house. We wouldn’t do it on the building site and we shouldn’t do it in the classroom either.
This sentence level work begins orally. In our early years classrooms we have taken the advice of The Writing Revolution and provide daily opportunities for our teachers to model and our students to innovate on particular sentence structures. We have started simply. Structures such as “This is a ___. It is ___” help to enable student success. Speaking and listening is timetabled and scaffolded. In addition, our curriculum organisers outline the language functions and possible sentence structures across the curriculum and teachers are developing their skills to include this work in all aspects of teaching.
The complex nature of writing should not be underestimated. Your students need explicit instruction in all areas to be successful. Does your teaching program include differentiated teaching in the following areas:
- Explicit handwriting with the intention that children learn automatic and correct letter formation
- Encoding (sounding out words to identify the sounds and teaching the alphabetic code to represent them) using a systematic and explicit approach.
- Explicit teaching of oral sentences and grammar plus opportunities for students to practice using this language daily and across the curriculum.
- Scaffolded opportunities to learn sentence writing (including a variety of sentence types).
- Exposure to a wide variety of texts, read and ‘unpacked’ by the teacher.
- An ‘I do’, ‘We do’, ‘You do’ approach to all areas of writing development.
In addition to these teaching areas, reflect on how you support your ‘strugglers’. How do you encourage full participation when a student either cannot write or can only write at word level? What additional teaching or Tier 2/3 intervention does your school provide? If none, how do you as a teacher support the development and learning of these students? What alternative assessment strategies do you provide to enable all students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills?
Teaching writing can certainly be a challenge, but if we begin the process as the same place as our students and then provide explicit and targeted teaching, you will be on the way to supporting all students to achieve and grow.