Last night, I attended a workshop at my daughters’ elementary school to find out more about what makes a good writer. Ironically, I write quite prolifically on some other blogs and yet would be hard pressed to define what makes a good piece of writing – since I write for fun for myself and it’s not being graded by anyone (judged perhaps, but not graded). I haven’t really thought much about what goes into my own writing and instead, improvise as I go along. I write by feel more than by anything else. Which might mean that some of my pieces might be great, while others might be pretty lackluster. And I’ve mostly forgot the proper rules of punctuation. Of the writing samples that do come home from the girls, I usually have no idea what kind of feedback would be helpful to provide. I hate the vague, “Oh wow, honey, this is a really interesting story. You did a great job.” That doesn’t really give them any kind of idea WHY their writing might be good, except maybe if they used an interesting new vocabulary word, or the story was emotionally compelling (which it usually isn’t :), but sometimes they are quite funny ).
The school hired a reading/writing expert on the matter for the parents to learn how to support their children at home, and following the parent presentation, there was a teacher presentation to help teachers implement a uniform system of teaching good writing skills to children starting in kindergarten. As a parent AND and as a writer, I was really encouraged to see that the school is making an effort to go beyond the mechanics of sentences. I stayed for both sessions (the parent and the teacher portion). my oldest daughter was interested in going and so she was able to get an early introduction to the concepts.
The concepts shared by the presenter are found everywhere on the internet, so I don’t think I’m infringing on copyright by sharing my notes here. What I found particularly interesting was that even kindergartners could be introduced to the concepts and can be utilized when they write. No, they won’t be writing words but they WILL be writing stories through pictures.
Good Writing has 6 Traits – Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, and Conventions. Each section has some examples of books for K-4 students.
- Topics they KNOW about – if they haven’t visited, learned about, or experienced – they will not have enough details to write about.
- Details – the more details they include, the better. A Kindergarten student can be encouraged to include more details on their pictures; older writers can add number details (age, date, time, elapsed time, distance), description (senses – what they saw, heard, tasted, smelled, touched); names (of person, places and things)
- Staying on topic
- Narrow Topic – better to use more details on a narrow topic than fewer details on a broader topic
- For kindergartners, pictures match words
- Books to Illustrate Ideas – (any of them, really) (K-1) This is My Hair, Todd Parr, (2-4) Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Mem Fox
2) Organization –
- Beginning, Middle and End – for a kindergartners – to encourage a beginning, middle and end, you can tape extra sheets of paper to any particular drawing of theirs and ask them to draw what happened before the picture they drew and what happened after the picture (think a 3-frame cartoon).
- Logical order/sequence
- Pre-writing – nothing fancy needs to be done here…writing a simple list of ideas is fine – in fact, graphic organizers are discouraged because they aren’t used in the adult world and really complicate the process.
- Connect the ideas with transitions.
- It all begins with a good title – Hook your reader.
- Don’t end with “The End” or other simplified endings.
- Books to illustrate organization – (K-1) (any books with number sequences) One Duck Stuck, Phyllis Root, (2-4) When Sophie Gets Angry, Molly Bang (also great book to illustrate Voice), Click-Clack Moo: Cows that Type, Doreen Cronin.
3) Voice –
- It has feeling – emotional content. It is funny, or mad, or sad. It’s persuasive.
- Voice-filled conventions (young writers will use extra exclamation points!!!!!!!, bold print, ALL CAPS to convey voice and do NOT discourage young writers who use them)
- Audience – someone to write to. Students should be told that there is a real person reading the writing portion of the standardized tests, and even spend some time talking about what this person might be like, looked like, etc. Letter-writing to relatives and pen-pals is a good habit to encouraged because they know up front who their audience will be.
- Change the points of view. For example, writing about digestion from the point of view of food…or read The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, Jon Sciezka (The 3 Little Pigs story as told by A. Wolf).
- Books to illustrate Voice – (K-1) Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Keven Henkes, Monster at the End of This Book, Jon Stone, Today I Feel Silly, Jamie Lee Curtis, (2-4) How are You Peeling? Saxton Freymann Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Williams, Diary of a Worm, Doreen Cronin.
4) Word choice – vocabulary.
- Big words
- Specific nouns
- Awesome action verbs
- Sensory words/descriptions
- In order to help students use better words in their writing, help them to notice them in their reading, compliment them when they use them in their speaking.
- Do not criticize misspelled words. It’s better to use bigger misspelled words than it is to use smaller perfectly spelled words. We were told they still get credit for misspelled words on the writing portion of the I-STEP. And a child who is criticized for misspelled bigger words will more than likely stop using bigger words.
- Books to illustrate word choice – (K-1) Max’s Words, Kate Banks, Fancy Nancy, Jane O’Conner, (2-4) I’m Dirty, Kate and Jim McMullen, Mrs. McBloom, Clean up your Classroom, Kelly DiPucchio. (as an aside, I love reading classic chapter books meant for older children to my daughters…like Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Alice in Wonderland for the exposure to new vocabulary words).
5) Sentence fluency
- Complete sentences.
- Sentence variety- different beginnings, variety in length, and variety in type (declaratory, exclamatory and interrogatory).
- Easy to read aloud – the BEST check for sentence fluency is to read it aloud
- Other literary devices – alliteration, similes, onomatopaeia.
- Books that illustrate sentence fluency- (K-1) The Magic Hat, Mem Fox, (2-4) Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp, Carol Diggory Shields, Soft House, Jane Yolen.
6) Conventions – Writer’s don’t need conventions – READERS do.
- Books that illustrate conventions – (K-1) CDB, William Steig, Yo! Yes? Christopher Raschka, (2-4) Punctuation Takes a Vacation, Robin Pulver, Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, Doreen Cronin, Eats Shoots and Leaves (commas) Lynne Truss.
I’m very impressed that the school is taking the initiative to help the students learn better writing skills. I’m very glad as a parent to have been provided the opportunity to learn what they will be learning so that I can help encourage them at home. Sadly, of all the 700+ students in the school, only about 30 parents showed up for the workshop.