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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

The Balancing Act of Kindergarten Writing Instruction

Teachers must focus on both mechanics and meaning to develop young writers' identities as authors.

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Instructional StrategiesProfessional Learning
In an attempt to understand young writers' self-perceptions of authorship, I spent two winter months last year talking with 39 kindergartners in their classroom in Virginia. "Why are you a good writer?" I asked each of them, and most everyone gave me answers that sounded like these: "I'm neat," or "I can start a sentence with a capital letter," or "I put spaces between my words." Only one student, Janice, went beyond the observations of grammar and neatness. She said:
I'm thinking I'm a good writer because of it kinda like my thing. Writing's kinda like my thing because I like experiencing things and using my imagination.
Though Janice understood that writing had a power, that it gave flight to her imagination and voice, the other students defined good writing based on mechanics. When I shared these conversations with the students' teachers, they were genuinely shocked. "I don't understand," said one teacher. "We tell them they have something important to say, and it is important that everybody feels validated with what they are saying. … Everybody has that within them, and that's something you want to encourage. That every child has that voice, and your voice is important."
To identify the point of disconnect, we discussed the county's curriculum and pacing guide and the notes I took during my classroom observations. What we found was an imbalance. The teachers, following pacing guidelines, stressed the importance of spacing, handwriting, and neatness in three of the four nine-week periods of the academic year, but the traits of "ideas" and "voice" were only stressed during the first nine weeks. It is not surprising, then, that the overwhelming majority of students judged themselves and their peers on the way their writing looked, not what it expressed.
el201804_auguste_fig2.jpg
Kindergartner Janice writes a story for class.

Not Just about Punctuation

Though these were the experiences at only one school, these teachers' points of emphasis during writing instruction are not unique. In 2008, Cutler and Graham conducted a study on writing instruction in grades 1–3 and found that the majority of teachers focused on mechanics, grammar, and usage. More recently, research conducted on kindergarten writing in nine Florida schools demonstrated that across classrooms, the average time spent on all writing or writing-related activity in a 90-minute literacy block was 6.1 minutes in the fall and 10.5 minutes in the winter, with this limited instruction focused mostly on handwriting (Puranik et al., 2014).
Flower and Hayes (1981) conducted seminal research on emergent writing instruction and cautioned against focusing on transcription—punctuation, capitalization, spacing, spelling, handwriting, and the use of high-frequency words. They explained that the freedom to get ideas on paper using scribbles, invented spelling, and drawings is essential for students to develop an authentic self-identity of authorship. This advice is especially pertinent because compositional skills develop, and are mastered, long before transcription skills (Flower & Hayes, 1981; Ray & Glover, 2008; Roberts & Wibbens, 2010).
Ray and Glover (2008) observed that teachers emphasized transcription because it's easier to discern. It is obvious when a student spells a word correctly. "What writing development looks like beyond transcription, however, is much less clear, in large part because adults have difficulty imagining what the thinking process of writing looks like if it's not connected to actual words on a page" (p. 50). Similarly, Calkins (1994) warned, "When our students resist writing, it's usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to display—to expose—their command of spelling, penmanship, and grammar" (p. 13).
To be clear, writing teachers should focus on both composition and mechanics. Each is necessary to support the development of emergent writers, but the balance has to be appropriate. Students need to understand that the goal for writing is to make meaning.

Striking the Right Balance

Conversations about the appropriate balance when teaching writing are not new, but these conversations are currently eliciting more attention, especially as they apply to authentic and effective instructional practices in kindergarten classrooms (Puranik, et al., 2014; VanNess, Murnen, & Bertelsen, 2013; Watanabe & Hall-Kenyon, 2011). Recommendations under the Common Core State Standards for kindergarten and the Every Student Succeeds Act explicitly outline specific and robust expectations for writing instruction, and emphasize that instruction should focus on enhancing students' skills with writing for a variety of purposes.
Many elementary teachers across our nation, however, have admitted to experiencing low self-efficacy for teaching writing (Brindle, Graham, Harris, & Hebert, 2016; Korth et al., 2017). Consequently, teachers have typically spent less instructional time on writing instruction and, of that limited time, many have focused on the more tangible aspects of mechanics (Korth et al., 2017; Puranik et al., 2014).
Unfortunately, while national policies have acknowledged the critical nature of reading development in kindergarten (for example, the Reading First Initiative, implemented as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001), educational reform initiatives have largely ignored the link between early writing development and early reading development. Further, research on elementary writing has been scarce. A meta-analysis of writing research conducted from 1999 to 2004 showed that only five percent of studies on writing instruction targeted elementary students (Juzwik et al., 2006), a trend still evident more than a decade later (Korth et al., 2017). This gap becomes even more pronounced when looking at studies specifically focused on kindergarten writing instruction (Puranik et al, 2014; Roberts & Wibbens, 2010), and needs to be addressed in order to unpack developmentally appropriate ways to master this balancing act between story and spacing, voice and verbs.

Let's Talk about Feedback

One place teachers can strike a better balance between mechanics and meaning-making is during interactive feedback on young students' written work. I use the term interactive feedback to describe the combined impact of teacher and peer feedback on a student's developing identity as an author.
When I observed the feedback processes during students' independent and shared writing time at the school in Virginia, I noticed that the teachers' verbal praise of students' writing products and progress were focused on mechanics and not on the elements of story. This, in turn, affected the way that students gave feedback to each other during sharing circle.
For example, during one of my visits, a student sat in the classroom author's chair and shared her story while her classmates sat in a semi-circle on the carpet directly in front of her. She boldly and proudly read her story, then held up her paper and displayed her illustration and writing to her peers, eagerly awaiting their feedback. One student said, "I like your writing because you have big spaces and you're super neat and I don't see no smudges [eraser marks]."
This was a typical response during peer-to-peer feedback, possibly linking what students heard from their teachers to what they repeated to peers. The teachers and I discussed the great potential of interactive feedback to support a balanced understanding of authorship, and this prompted collegial discussions on ways they could model and reinforce this strategy during writing instruction. For example, they could be more purposeful in providing feedback on the story elements students incorporated into their writing, especially while conducting one-on-one conferencing or when walking around the room during a lesson.
The teachers also felt that they might change and adapt their feedback based on their students' developmental progress—focusing on the illustrations that the students drew in the beginning of the year (the characters, the setting, the addition of details) and highlighting more of the writing later in the year as students progressed in their letter-sound knowledge and started incorporating invented spelling and high-frequency words into their writing. This plan for modeling would not be difficult, as these teachers had already verbalized to students the importance of voice and the beauty of story. The issue of intentionally striking a balance is what became important.
By giving feedback that is both encouraging and also emphasizes the importance of story, educators can help young writers start to understand how their writing conveys meaning. One student, Andrew, struggled with writing and usually stopped trying after completing his illustration, so he seldom got to share his story. One day I asked Andrew to tell me his story and, after a moment of hesitation, he described his illustration at great length and in great detail (see Figure 1). He explained that his father was a pilot in the military, and he was flying a fighter-jet to slay the red dragon in order to save the soldiers on the ground. He described the instrumentation on the jet (the tiniest "marks" in his drawing) with an abundance of detail, a straightening of his posture, and mounting enthusiasm. When I commented that his dad had probably saved my husband, a soldier, Andrew's entire demeanor brightened. He puffed out his chest with pride and smiled brilliantly. This embodied reaction blossomed from an understanding that his page had captured a beautiful story.

Figure 1. Andrew's Story

el201804_auguste_fig1.jpg
Andrew's experience is not uncommon, as many students struggle with transferring ideas from an illustration to the written word. If stories like Andrew's, although not tied to words on a page, could be valued during classroom sharing circles by allowing their creators to orally articulate the story, the students' identities as authors would be nurtured. Their development as writers might not be halted.

Jaguars at the Party

Mem Fox (1993) advocated for teaching that creates powerful writers for forever instead of just indifferent writers for school. When I asked the kindergartners in Virginia which of their classmates was a good writer, I got a quick response from Susan. She picked Janice, explaining:
Like if Ms. Clark tells her to draw something she will actually do it and make it exciting. Like if she said, "Draw a jaguar," she would make it, "She went to a party, she got married" and stuff. So she would make it exciting because that's how she writes.
My tiny glimpse into kindergartners' conversations on how they come to think of themselves as writers reinforces the need for targeted, practice-embedded professional development for early grades teachers. We need writing instruction that supports and values students' stories, experiences, ideas, and voice. Wouldn't it be lovely to have kindergarten classrooms full of Janices? My wish is for more young writers to create their own versions of stories about jaguars, more writers who see writing as exciting and fun not because of the lack of erasure marks on the page, but instead because of the ideas and wonder it sparks.
References

Brindle, M., Graham, S., Harris, K., & Hebert, M. (2016). Third and fourth grade teacher's classroom practices in writing: A national survey. Reading & Writing, 29(5), 929–954.

Calkins, L. M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cutler, L., & Graham, S. (2008). Primary grade writing: A national survey. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 907–919.

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365–387.

Fox, M. (1993). Radical reflections: Passionate opinions on teaching, learning, and living. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Juzwik, M. M., Curcic, S., Wolbers, K., Moxley, K. D., Dimling, L. M., & Shankland, R. K. (2006). Writing into the 21st century: An overview of research on writing, 1999–2004. Written Communication, 23(4), 451–476.

Korth, B., Wimmer, J., Wilcox, B., Morrison, T., Harward, S., Peterson, N., & … Pierce, L. (2017). Practices and challenges of writing instruction in K–2 classrooms: A case study of five primary grade teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(2), 237–249.

Puranik, C. S., Al Otaiba, S., Sidler, J. F., & Greulich, L. (2014). Exploring the amount and type of writing instruction during language arts instruction in kindergarten classrooms. Reading and Writing, 27(2), 213–236.

Ray, K. W., & Glover, M. (2008). Already ready: Nurturing writers in preschool and kindergarten. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Roberts, K., & Wibbens, E. (2010). Writing first: Preparing the teachers of our youngest writers. In G. Trioia, R. Shankland, & A. Heintz (Eds.), Putting writing research into practice: Applications for teacher professional development (pp. 179–205). New York: Guilford Press.

VanNess, A. R., Murnen, T. J., & Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Let me tell you a secret: Kindergartners can write. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 574–584.

Watanabe, L. M., & Hall-Kenyon, K. M. (2011). Improving young children's writing: The influence of story structure on kindergartners' writing complexity. Literacy Research & Instruction, 50(4), 272–293.

End Notes

1 All participants' names are pseudonyms.

Author bio coming soon.

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