Jenny McFerin is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.
I was cleaning out my office recently and discovered a tattered message from my daughter. It was her practice to leave notes around the house when she was younger. Today she just sends me texts, Snapchats, or Instagrams. Over time, the notes changed as her writing became more sophisticated. Early on, the notes were squiggly lines, then strings of letters. Eventually the notes evolved from her name into longer messages like I love you. To this day, I keep these messages hidden throughout my office, just as my daughter left them for me. When I find them, I am reminded of this sweet time of her childhood and also of the journey that writers take.
One message I saved was a card with hearts around the edges and two figures in the middle that resemble people with some letters. When I asked her the message she said, “Happy Birthday, Mommy, I love you!” She considered the audience, purpose, message (craft). She had to decide where to place the writing (conventions). Finally, she knew how the writing would be published…at the party (writing process).
When teachers think about supporting writers, they should consider craft (elements of the writing piece), conventions (punctuation, grammar, and spelling), and writing process (how the writer composes and constructs the text, including drafting, revising, and editing).
As I think about my daughter’s messages, even her earliest writing included craft, conventions and writing process. Of course, considering all of these elements at once can seem overwhelming because teachers must adapt each one to the needs of each individual learner. Just as one cannot expect an early walker to balance in high-heeled shoes, teachers must carefully support the writer with the level of craft, conventions, or writing process that meets her needs.
A good place for teachers to start is by gaining an understanding the author's audience, message, and purpose. I achieve this by listening to the writer and refraining from projecting my own agenda onto the piece. This helps me further develop the other facets of writing for the young author. For example, one time I was working with a writer and as she told me about her sleepover story, I drilled her with questions that I thought would motivate her to add more to her story: Did you play games? Did you have pizza? Did you watch a movie? Was it fun? Who was there? She replied with one-word responses, and when I checked back on her writing, she had made little progress. I realized I hadn’t taken the time to know this piece of writing nor her as a writer.
So, how is this possible? In order to get to know the writing and the writer, teachers can take three actions:
- Understand the writer's stage of development
- Learn about the piece of writing
- Decide what the writer needs next
Understand the writer's stage of development
Knowing where the writer falls along the developmental continuum provides insight for what the writer controls regarding craft, conventions, and writing process. Writers move along a developmental continuum: Emergent, Early, Transitional, Self-Extending. Within each stage of development, teachers need to offer different levels of instructional support. Emergent and Early writers, for example need lots of interactive writing so they are actively involved in the writing process. All writers benefit from writer’s workshop where they can exercise their writing lives with the support of a whole group mini-lesson, writing time with teacher conferencing, and whole-group sharing.
Learn about the piece of writing
Read the story and ask the writer about it; don't assume anything. As the reader, the teacher should be open to learning and engaging the writer in open dialogue about the piece. Remember my example with the one-word answers from the writer? A more effective approach would have been an open-ended conversation like: Tell me about your writing. What are you working on today? What are you trying? How can I help you with your writing today? The teacher shouldn't assume anything about the piece because she is not the author, the child is the author. The teacher is there to support and guide the writer.
Decide what the writer needs next
Now that the teacher knows where the writer is along the developmental continuum and what the writer needs, the teacher can determine how to support the writer with craft, conventions or writing process. The value in considering all facets that the teacher will develop the writer, not just improve writing skills.
The teacher can check in on progress by asking:
- Are there elements of writing craft where I can support the writer?
- Where does the writer need support related to conventions?
- How can I support the writer in the writing process?
Take joy in the journey with your writers. You will learn about their life experiences and passions. As you look beyond the symbols on the page, the real message will move you to guide the writer in the right direction.
Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I. (2017). The Continuum of Literacy Learning: Expanded Edition.
For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.
Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.