Modeling the Craft of Writing
“Young writers learn by imitating. Take advantage of this by modeling all the writing techniques you can.”
Marcia Freeman, Teaching the Youngest Writers: A Practical Guide
Through my own experience as a first grade teacher, I know that explicit directions are essential for students to understand and master objectives. Writing is no different. During writing workshop, I conduct mini-lessons and model target skills that augment what my students are currently writing. I have found that my students are more focused, creative, and willing to write once they know exactly what the expectations are for their writing and how they should proceed. Modeling allows students to see the teacher as a writer, which validates the struggles and endless revisions that all writers – teachers and students – must endure.
Children learn through imitation – from babies who mimic the words of their parents to toddlers who copy the actions of older siblings to our students who absorb their teacher’s words and mannerisms. Marcia Freeman writes, “Teachers of active writing communities take the time to model and periodically re-model everything: workshop procedures, writing-process components, writing mechanics, composing and literary skills, organization schemes, genre characteristics, self-evaluation.”(Teaching the Youngest Writers, p. 5)
Stream of Curriculum
Struggling readers especially benefit from teacher modeling. These students are often reluctant to write, inhibited by their own struggle with literacy. Patricia Cunningham says in Classrooms That Work, “Children who watch the teacher think aloud about what topics to write on and about what to say are much less apt to complain, ‘I ain’t got nothing to write about.’ Children who watch the teacher invent-spell some words and leave out some words, punctuation, capitalization, and so on have more than just our word for the fact that first drafts are never perfect.” (p. 105) It’s vitally important that teachers help struggling readers develop confidence in their abilities, and careful modeling can provide that.
Modeling needs to be carefully placed into the overall context of writing workshop. Mini-lessons and skills should be aligned with areas of weakness among students, but in a way that complements student progress. Lucy Calkins writes this about effective mini-lessons: “In mini-lessons, we teach into our students’ intentions.” Calkins is referring to selecting topics that fit into what students are presently working on, not presenting random skills in isolation. “The time to introduce dialogue is when students start to use dialogue in their stories,” (Freeman, Building a Writing Community, p. 7).
Many acclaimed writing teachers, such as Marcia Freeman and Lucy Calkins, emphasize the importance of modeling skills and strategies for young writers, especially emerging writers in kindergarten and first grade. Older writers benefit from seeing the work and techniques used by professional writers and teachers. As educators, we need to ensure that our students have all the tools and models necessary for them to develop as creative writers and literate beings.
Students will write predictions and construct engaging descriptions using graphic organizers.
Students will write using specific and engaging describing words.
1. Participants complete a prediction frame based solely on the title and cover of the book Owl Moon.
2. Teacher reads story aloud to group – listen for author’s use of specific and engaging describing words.
3. Participants complete prediction frame
1. Teacher refers to author’s use of describing words in the story and asks volunteers to list powerful descriptions
2. Model using the attribute chart to write engaging, specific descriptions
3. Participants go outside and complete the chart (15 min.) (Attribute Field Trip)
4. Teacher models using powerful attributes in writing
5. Participants use their charts to write independently
6. Pair-share, if time allows
7. Revisions, if necessary/time allows
1. Author’s Chair
2. Questions, discussions, extensions.
Materials for modeling (overhead projector, chalkboard, chart paper, easel, etc.)
1. Before you begin to use descriptive attributes as target skills, play I Spy with the class. Model as many different attributes as you can: I spy something red, I spy a circle, I spy something made of wood.
(Freeman, Teaching the Youngest Writers, p. 88)
2. Ask students to bring in a colorful item. Make a set of attribute cards appropriate for the children’s experience and background. Conduct a Show and Tell. Children tell about their objects, using as many attributes cards as they can. Or, play it as a game, with classmates holding up an attribute card and the player making up a sentence about the object using the attribute. For example, the color card is held up and the child with the object says, My toy car is blue.
(Freeman, Teaching the Youngest Writers, p. 89)
3. Divide the class into an even number of small groups. Pass out one artist postcard per small group. Ask students to describe their picture in exact physical detail, so that a blind person could imagine it. (Don’t let any group see the other groups’ cards). After each group writes a description of their picture, take away all the postcards and ask the groups to exchange descriptions. Then ask each member of the group to draw the picture of the postcard based on the description. When the drawings are done, pass out the postcards and compare them to the drawings. Re-read the descriptions and talk about what language was effective and what led them astray.
(Lane, After the End, p. 30)
Calkins, Lucy McCormick. 1994. The Art of Teaching Writing: New Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Cunningham, Patricia and Richard L. Allington. 2003. Classrooms That Work: They Can ALL Read and Write. (3rd Edition). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Freeman, Marcia. 2003. Building a Writing Community: A Practical Guide. (revised). Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Publishing, Inc.
Freeman, Marcia. 1998. Teaching the Youngest Writers: A Practical Guide. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Publishing, Inc.
Lane, Barry. 1993. After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Yolen, Jane. 1987. Owl Moon. New York: Scholastic, Inc.