Friday, September 3, 2010

10 Pointers for Developing Writers

How Early Do Children Learn to Write?

Children begin to 'write' from a very early age. As soon as your child can dip a finger in butter, paint, or sugar spilled on the table they begin trying to make their own marks on the world. Their first efforts may only be a single line or two or perhaps a vigorous scribble, but if there is intent and purpose then they are beginning to 'write'. I wrote a previous post 'When do children start writing?' in which I discussed children's earliest efforts to scribble and draw and the gradual transition to more conventional writing.

I concluded that for the very young child (0-5 years) we need to:
  • Take their early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and tell them to "write"!
  • Let them see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing' - put it on the wall, date it and keep it, make up a folder etc.
But what can we do to help older children (6-12 years)? 

Key Pointer 1 - Creating the right environment for writing

Writing is a 'craft' and so it requires an appropriate environment in which the writer can explore how it is done. So, create a writing space or corner. If you are doing this at home and space is limited, try finding room for a small desk. Provide a variety of paper (different sizes, varied colours, lined and unlined), a writing book (e.g. journals for rough drafting), a writing scrapbook (to stick in favourite words, poems, word play, drafts), writing implements (including pens, biros, pencils and even crayons for younger writers) and access to a computer.

Writers also need access to (and the ability to use) key resources like a dictionary and thesaurus, spelling books, spell checkers if using computers and word banks. For teachers it also includes access to an extensive class library of children’s literature (a major source of inspiration for narrative writing) and a well-stocked school library.

Key Pointer 2 – Give children authentic audiences for their writing

It is important that writers have the opportunity to share their work or test their ideas out as close to the point at which they wrote them as possible. Even within classrooms, children need opportunities to move as freely as possible to share their latest sentence, clever word, funny line and so on. Children need people to read their writing simply to enjoy it. Later, they will also critical ‘friendly’ readers. Find ‘real’ audiences – don’t just write letters send them to people, email others, create links with other classrooms, do a group submission to a local radio or television station about an issue of concern etc.

Key Pointer 3 – Give them support

While the teacher (at school) and parents (at home) have an important support role to play, children also need the support and feedback of other child writers. While the adult might help with ideas, vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling etc, often fellow writers will respond (particularly) at the idea level, giving help with writing clarity (does it make sense?) and in terms of audience impact.

One of the advantages of the Internet is that often children can find virtual readers (see my post on ‘Children as bloggers’ for one application that offers authentic audiences and response).

Key Pointer 4 – Provide writers with time

Writing like any craft cannot be easily accomplished in neat time slots. It’s important to allow writers the time necessary to explore ideas, talk to other writers, and revise their work. While in classrooms there will always be some restrictions on use of time (e.g. the need to finish a topic in science, the need to learn to write under exam conditions etc) and movement, our aim should be to minimize these restrictions wherever possible and not expect all students to be at exactly the same point in the writing process all the time.

Key Pointer 5 – Allow young writers (as much as possible) to choose their own topics

While in school it is important that students learn to respond to imposed topics and writing tasks, teachers and parents should encourage young writers to choose their writing topics whenever possible. When topics and particularly writing forms are imposed, try to offer some internal choice.

Key Pointer 6 – Give young writers help to learn the writer's essential craft knowledge

Just as a potter, pianist or painter needs to learn the essential craft knowledge of his/her discipline, so too the writer needs to learn the essentials of writing. The writer needs help to build knowledge of writing in three main areas:

a) Surface features – They need to know about the mechanics of writing that enable them to be able to write in conventional forms, including spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar and word usage.

b) Text knowledge – They need help to understand written register and genre. Register refers to the use of language appropriate to the situation in which the language is meant to be used. Children need to know that you use different language to write a letter (or an email) to an aunt who sent $50 as a birthday present than an SMS message sent to a mate asking them to meet you after school. Genre is a style of text that reflects its purpose and intended audience (who it was written for). Children need to understand that texts have distinctive forms that are generally accepted as having specific features such as their structure that influence the use of language. For example, writers need to know how a narrative is different from a piece of expository writing.

c) Ideas, information & tools - This includes the use of tools like dictionaries and reference material (mentioned in pointer 1), but it also includes help knowing how to research their writing, where to find key information, how to retrieve information from libraries, how to conduct web searches, using databases, finding images and so on. It also means knowing how to use spelling and grammar checkers, using an online thesaurus, using layout templates, and specific software programs as simple as Word, but also as complex as Powerpoint.

Key Pointer 7 – Give young writers the opportunity to observe more experienced writers

This might be achieved simply by children seeing teachers and parents writing, sharing their writing with others, and using writing for varied purposes. In the home this will probably occur spontaneously while in the classroom it might be done more systematically and deliberately. For example, a teacher might demonstrate their writing processes on a Smart Board for the whole class to see. But children also need to observe other children – the ideas they use, the things they write about, the way they present their writing etc.

Key Pointer 8 – Help young writers to keep a record of their writing

All writers store their writing, save drafts, date writing samples and build up a record of their writing achievements. Having a portfolio of work is the way writers can see that they have made progress. It is never too early to encourage young writers to keep their work, record writing ideas and look back over their work to see progress and learn from their past writing.

Key Pointer 9 – Raise interest in writing

Writers need to ‘feed’ their writing. The most common way we feed creative writing is by reading the literature of others. Teachers and parents should read quality literature to children and encourage them to read. Read quality writing of all kinds every day – this might be a story, but it could also be a well-written extract from a newspaper article, a letter to the editor, a poem, or a factual text.

Learning from books, film, the Internet, and life experience fuels good non-fiction writing. Encourage your children to learn, to be inquisitive and to explore things in their world.

Key Pointer 10 – Maintain the pursuit of writing

Children need help to persevere as writers, because it can be hard. This can be achieved in four ways.

a) Simplifying the task of writing by - helping them to choose topics and the right genre for writing; and providing help as part of the writing process in content, clarity, and mechanics.

b) Monitoring progress in writing by noting inconsistencies, flaws, strengths and new things.

c) Providing supportive feedback and constructive criticism of their work

Always try to be as positive as possible at first. For example:
"I like the use of the word muddle."
"That's a good opening line."
"That was great. You've taught me a lot about frogs."
"I like the way you started that sentence."
"You've paragraphed well. It's good to see that you start a new one for each new idea."
But constructive criticism is also necessary. This might take the following forms:
"Read that to me again; I'm not sure what you meant. Could you tell me more?"
"The opening sentence is very important in any story. Your story might have been even better with a different lead-in sentence."
"Read that the way it's written. Isn't something missing?"
"What word could have been used instead of 'rain'?"
"It's hard for me to read and understand this first part; it's a very long sentence. Read it again and show me where you pause."
"You've started these sentences the same way. How could you change some of them?"
"Do you need that sentence? Haven't you said that before?"
 d) Help children to self-assess their writing – teach them to re-read their work and revise to improve it. Here’s a simple personal revision checklist. You can develop a checklist that reflects the needs of your children. However, such a checklist might include the following.
Does each sentence start with a capital and end with a full stop?
Are the sentences clear?
Have I left any words out or included unnecessary words?
Have I used words correctly, e.g., was/were; is/are?
Are there any words that should be checked for spelling?
Is a new paragraph started for each new idea?
Are the ideas in the correct sequence?
Do the sentences start in a variety of ways?
Are some words used too often?
Does the story have a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Is it clear exactly what the writer means?
Is more information needed to make the meaning clearer?
Are the first and last sentences effective?
Have words been used in unusual ways?
 Other Resources

I have written about this topic at length in other publications such as "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.

All posts on writing (HERE)

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