Writing is a subject that often gets pushed by the wayside in public elementary schools. I can’t blame anybody who doesn’t love teaching writing. It’s not prioritized in our state standards, it doesn’t show up on the high-stakes end of the year standardized tests, and it’s not something that can be taught quickly. However, I’m a firm believer that teaching writing is worthwhile and in this post, I’m sharing why I think that.
Why some people don’t like teaching writing
Writing takes up time and students need a lot of guidance, especially if writing hasn’t been a focus in previous years. This means that you can’t necessarily just have them write something on their own and reap the benefits of writing. Instead, you have to walk them through the writing process. You have to teach them how to form a complete sentence. You have to teach them how to structure different kinds of writing pieces. All of this takes time and it isn’t black and white. Writing also takes time to grade. You can’t just run it through a computer system and have it spit out a grade. You can’t have someone else grade it for you. You have to spend the time reading each piece and giving each student individualized feedback. Unfortunately, time is something that’s severely lacking in our school day, especially now that we’re teaching virtually.
For many years now, public schools have been evaluated by high-stakes standardized tests. In Virginia, they’re called the Standards of Learning or SOL tests. While these don’t really mean anything for elementary school students, they are important for school accreditation, teacher evaluations, and even school funding. This means that students and teachers often feel a lot of pressure to focus on passing these end-of-year tests. Because these tests are largely multiple choice and don’t require students to write (except in 8th and 11th grades, I believe), a focus on testing means that the focus is moved away from other subjects, like writing. While personally I think this is misguided, it’s hard to blame teachers for prioritizing the thing they’re getting pressure to focus on.
Lastly, writing involves giving students a wide freedom to express themselves. Some teachers are uncomfortable with this. For a long time, school was about learning how to be a part of society, which meant conforming and repeating back the answers you were told were correct. While this is slowly but surely changing, many people are still wary about giving students too much freedom. This leads to restricting students’ writing to be very specific in topic and format, which in turn leads to students feeling stifled. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle wherein students end up hating writing and it once again gets pushed aside in favor of topics the teacher and students both enjoy.
Why teaching writing is important
I think it’s probably pretty clear to you by now that I believe teaching writing is objectively important and the research agrees with me as well. Writers are readers and readers are writers. Literacy skills are completely intertwined and research has shown that students who learn writing skills early are better readers and better communicators. Writing helps students reflect, empathize, and understand the world. Writing gives students the perspective of an author, which helps them better apply their reading and analysis skills. If students have had practice crafting characters and using figurative language and creating conflict in a story, they have a better idea of why and how an author does these things and how they affect the story. Good writers are not only more effective communicators, but they are also more successful adults who are able to write emails, craft proposals, submit cover letters to employers, and more. Working through the writing process helps students develop their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Developing your classroom as a community of writers helps students feel a sense of ownership over their own work, teaches them important life skills such as giving and receiving feedback from peers, and strengthens the classroom community as a whole.
Essentially, writing is so much more than just putting pencil to paper to respond to a prompt. When you take a global view, it’s clear how neglecting writing in the classroom does the students a disservice.
Why I personally love to teach writing
Now that we’ve established a whole bunch of experts are on my side of this topic, I wanted to share why I personally enjoy teaching writing to my fourth graders. First of all, I love to write. Obviously. I have a blog. It’s always special to share something you love with your students and it’s even better to watch them learn to love it themselves.
Second, there are so many times in school when students aren’t able to use their creative minds to their fullest extent. I see writing time as the time when I can let the kids go wild with their imaginations. I try to give as little structure as I think they can handle and let them get as creative as possible.
Writing also provides a unique opportunity for feedback and discussion. Feedback is one of the most powerful instructional strategies when used effectively, but it can be difficult to implement giving specific individualized feedback all the time. Writing gives the perfect opportunity for this and, even better, opens up opportunities for students to practice giving and receiving feedback from one another.
Lastly, writing gives such a good indicator of growth. It’s so easy to compare beginning of the year writing to end of the year writing and let the student see how far they’ve actually come. Writing gives students a sense of accomplishment because after hard work, they have a finished product they can show off. After a whole-group writing activity we did in class last week, one of my students said, “Wow that felt good. I’m proud of myself.” That statement really affirmed to me why teaching writing is so worthwhile.
Ways I’ve had success teaching writing
I think one of the things holding teachers back from teaching writing is a lack of ideas on where to start. As we’ve previously discussed, writing is neglected across all grade levels, which sometimes means students who are on grade level in other subjects are far below grade level in writing. So to close out today’s post, I wanted to share five ideas I’ve had success with in my classroom (both virtually and in-person).
1. Nearpod lessons for writing conventions
Conventions and rules are the most boring part of writing in my opinion. But, they’re still important to learn. If your students have no idea what a “complete sentence” is, telling them “Make sure you use complete sentences” isn’t going to be very effective. There are some great lessons in Nearpod that feature Flocabulary videos that I’ve used for some of these writing basics. The Flocabulary rap songs and fun Nearpod activities make these boring topics more exciting, enjoyable, and memorable for my students.
2. Guided whole-class writing activities
I had a huge success with a guided activity on Zoom with my whole class last Friday. This was a lesson adapted from an idea given by the county and modified by one of my teammates. I modified it further so that we could really go in depth and focus on the skill. We’ve been talking about character traits in the books we’ve been reading, so on Friday we spent the class developing character traits in our own writing. We all started with the same statement: “The boy was scared.” Then, we drew a scared boy, focusing on how his body would look if he was scared. Next, we drew a thought bubble or speech bubble and filled it in with something the boy would be thinking or saying if he was scared. I didn’t allow students to use the word scared in their bubble because I wanted them to focus on how they could show the boy was scared rather than just tell. Next, we each made a list of verbs we could use if we were going to write a story about our scared boy. After creating our list of verbs, we each wrote a three sentence (ish) story using the information we’d already created while developing our scared boy. We ended the lesson by each person sharing their writing with the class. Some of my shy students typed their writing into the chat, but almost everyone read theirs aloud. After the activity, we debriefed by connecting our own writing back to what we’ve been reading and the different ways authors can show a character’s traits without simply telling the reader. We also talked about how we all started with the same simple sentence, but everyone ended up with a wildly different story, featuring everything from a surprise party to a zombie attack.
This activity went so well that I’m definitely planning on doing similar things in the future. My students are not very independent writers yet so doing a guided activity that ends with sharing and connection was very effective. I’m hoping that after a few more guided writings like this, they will feel more confident writing on their own.
3. Poetry/figurative language unit
We were in the middle of our poetry unit in March when schools shut down, so unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to see this idea all the way through, but my class was having so much fun with this last year. We had studied poetry for a while and then we spent a couple weeks being poets ourselves. (Can you tell I like connecting our writing to our reading?) Each day we learned a new type of figurative language (like similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, idioms, etc.) and examined poems that featured that type of language. We also learned about a different format of poem and tried writing them. (I used parts of this poetry unit from TPT to help reduce some of the workload on my end.) Writing a new type of poem each day was really fun because not only did students end up with a ton of poems, but we also didn’t spend too long on any one type so students didn’t get discouraged if they didn’t particularly enjoy writing one kind of poem. My plan for the end of the unit was to have a day where we snacked and listened to everyone’s favorite poem. Unfortunately, that piece of my plan didn’t happen because we shut down for Covid, but I’m excited to do it one day!
4. Using mentor texts as inspiration
I’m sure you’ve all heard of mentor texts and you’ve been using them as models for your reading and writing already. But, I just wanted to emphasize how effective this strategy can be when teaching writing. Pick out a book you love and read it to the class. Then, choose one thing the author does to focus on. It might be a language choice (like the onomatopoeia in The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything). It might be character development (like Humpty Dumpty in After the Fall). It might be how to end the story (like using a sad ending in Each Kindness). Whatever you choose to focus on, point that out to the students. Emphasize. Reread it. Then, have students focus on that element in their own writing. Depending on your class, you can give as much or as little guidance as they need. But connecting their writing choices to the choices of a published author helps students understand the effects of their writing choices in an overall story.
5. Encouraging use of home language
Lastly, I wanted to mention one of the most important parts of my educational philosophy. Alongside my master’s degree in elementary education, I got a dual endorsement in English as a second language education and I teach a high number of English learners. Because of this, language is always at the forefront of my mind. Coming from this mindset, I want to implore you to not only allow, but encourage the use of a student’s home language in their writing. When students hear stories at home, they hear it in their home language, so it makes sense that when they want to tell their own story, they might want to use that same language. Using a blend of two languages is actually incredibly linguistically sophisticated and should be encouraged rather than shut down. This goes for other “non-standard” dialects of English as well, like African American Vernacular English and Appalachian English. The majority of my students are bilingual in Spanish and English, so I try to expose them to mentor texts that use both languages in different ways to show them that both languages are valid and important for storytelling.
What do you remember about writing in elementary school? How do you feel about using valuable instructional time to work on writing? Leave a comment down below and let me know your thoughts!