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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

When Kids Make Books

When we encourage young children to think of themselves as writers, their achievement soars.

When Kids Make Books- thumbnail
“This is Meredith Glover's first literary nonfiction,” a kindergartner writes in the author's note for her book, The Rabbit and the Snake. So much is captured in this confident statement. At the ripe old age of 6, Meredith has a sense of her own history as a writer. She has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the features of a particular genre, and she knows that incorporating these features into her latest book sets it apart from others she has written. And perhaps most important, Meredith is beginning to understand writing as a way to get things done. “She made this book to teach her friends,” she writes.
Writers like Meredith offer an important lesson for us as teachers of young children. When we invite students to make something with writing instead of just asking them to write, they go about their work differently. Especially when students have seen examples of the kinds of things they could make, they are more likely to craft a piece of literature—as Meredith has done in her first work of literary nonfiction—than to just string words together.

Joining the Club

We know that young students profit from using approximation to invent spellings for words that they have in their spoken vocabulary but don't yet recognize in print (Wilde, 1992). If we expand this understanding of approximation to include every aspect of writing, young students can do more than we ever thought possible. They can craft such literary nonfiction as The Rabbit and the Snake (see p. 17), complete with two levels of running text (facts at the top and narrative at the bottom); illustrations that support and enhance the meaning; “clues” that foreshadow what will happen on coming pages; a “Did You Know?” section with more facts; and an author's note. Meredith may not quite be ready to write feature articles for National Geographic or to publish her picture books with HarperCollins, but she certainly has approximated this kind of writing in smart 6-year-old ways.
When young students see themselves as people who make books, they develop beginning understandings about genre, craft, style, voice, organization, audience, process, and purpose. This sense of identity is key to much of their development as writers.
Meredith writes with such intention because she has a strong sense of what she is doing: She is making a book. As adults we may call it approximating the making of a book, but Meredith doesn't see it this way. She clearly sees herself as a “member of the club” of people who make books (Smith, 1988). What's more, she is making a particular kind of book: a piece of literary nonfiction, a book like One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 2001) or Gentle Giant Octopus by Karen Wallace (Candlewick Press, 1998). Meredith cannot yet read these books on her own; supportive adults have done the reading for her. But she can write books like these, if the adults supporting her accept the fact that she will write her books as a 6-year-old does.
Many teachers are discovering the value of inviting young students to join the club of people who make books. These teachers staple paper together so that it looks like a book and ask students to try their hands at it (Ray, 2004). Why make picture books? Developmentally, most children need to draw along with their writing to make meaning. But perhaps even more important, picture books are the mainstay of most young children's reading diet. In creating picture books, they are approximating the kind of writing that they know best.
Meredith's clear vision for her book has come from seeing other writers do these same things in their books. She is reading like a writer (Ray, 1999; Smith, 1981), even before she's actually reading for herself. Writers read differently than other people do. Writers notice and think about how texts are written, in addition to what texts are about. They can't help but notice; it's a habit of mind they adopt when they come to think of themselves as writers.
Everything Meredith notices about how books are written becomes an idea she might try when she makes her own books. When adults read more sophisticated books to children than they can read independently, the children's writing development can actually outpace their independent reading development for some time.

Rethinking Challenging but Achievable

The joint position statement of the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children defines developmentally appropriate practice as “challenging but achievable, with sufficient adult support” (1998, p. 8). I'd like to consider the idea of challenging but achievable, and then the related matter of sufficient adult support.
Adults commonly make judgments about what is challenging but achievable on the basis of our assumptions about typical child development. Often, schools design curriculum, instruction, and assessment with these judgments in mind. But what happens when students show us kinds of achievement that we never imagined they were capable of?
For example, look at what Meredith knows in addition to the genre features I mentioned before. Her level of achievement would not appear on any developmental continuum that I have ever encountered for writers her age. She understands the sequencing of a narrative, the consistency of verb tense, and the interactive nature of narrating a story in present tense. She understands that punctuation is a tool used to communicate in specific ways with a reader, that print can be embedded in illustrations, and that words can be laid out on a page in different configurations. She knows that writers reread and self-correct, as we can see by the words she's marked through and revised. She understands that texts of this kind don't just stop—they end with some sort of closure. She even knows that writers often use third-person pronouns to talk about themselves in author's notes. And besides reflecting all these understandings, The Rabbit and the Snake also shows us that Meredith is developing sophisticated spelling insights.
Clearly, Meredith's accomplishment exceeds the achievement that we have typically expected from writers in kindergarten. How can we make sense of it? How can we understand its implications for our practice?
Recently, literacy specialists from the Lakota Early Childhood Center in West Chester, Ohio, met with me to look closely at books written by kindergartners at the Center. As we discussed these books, we realized that students at all levels of development were defining “achievable” on their own terms, not on ours. The more advanced writers often stunned us with the decisive, intentional crafting of their writing, but the beginning writers also demonstrated understandings that neither these reading specialists nor I had thought possible. Their achievement was especially impressive when we listened to them telling us what they were trying to do, instead of just looking at the pages of their books. Often, understanding their intentions was the key to understanding their remarkable achievement.
Ryan is a good example. During a guided reading lesson, Ryan and his teacher encountered a book about gorillas. The writer of this text moved back and forth between telling about a gorilla in the wild and a gorilla in a zoo. As Ryan and his teacher talked about the book and its predictable structure, they batted around several ideas about how Ryan might use a similar structure in his writing. Ryan's teacher casually offered, “You could try that sometime if you'd like.” It was up to Ryan to decide whether he could rise to that challenge. A few days later he decided to try, and produced the following text:
Ryan set out with the specific intention of writing a classic comparison/contrast text about two kinds of baseball he knows well. Was this an achievable challenge for him? He obviously thought so! As a teacher, I have learned to value the whole breadth of approximations that young students make when they set out to try things with writing, making anything they want to try achievable.

Implications for Instructional Tasks

Operating with the new understanding that young students can decide for themselves what is achievable, many teachers have stopped asking students to perform inherently limiting exercises in the name of writing. Such tasks as drawing a picture and writing a sentence underneath or filling out a predetermined story frame don't help students build identities as writers. And perhaps more significantly, these tasks have a predetermined level of achievement in mind. They force students “to operate within the teacher's assumptive bounds” (Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984, p. 14) and may or may not match what the students can actually do.
When we replace these limiting tasks with a more open-ended and ongoing invitation to young students to make books, the students build identities as writers around their daily work of composing texts. The making of books becomes a fundamental part of the students' routine at school, and out of that routine we create a context for their writing in which they can define their own achievement. Because such a context was in place, Ryan's teacher could offer him a writing challenge and then step away and see whether he could achieve that challenge.
As the Lakota teachers and I reflected, we realized that we had likely been shortchanging our young writers in the past by failing to create a context for writing in which students could set their own goals for achievement. This was true for all writers, but perhaps especially true for our more developmentally advanced writers. How much, we wondered, had students been held back by adults who defined what is “challenging but achievable” for students on their own adult terms instead of letting the children define it for themselves?
Figure 1. Meredith's Book (Selected Pages)
el 200410 ray fig1
Published with permission.

Implications for Assessment

Understanding that we need to create contexts for writing in which young students can show us what is achievable has also led us to think differently about assessment. So much of the assessment of students' writing has focused on the question, “What does this piece of writing show me that the student needs to know?” Although writing teachers need to ask this question in our assessments, we also need to ask, “What does this piece of writing show me that this student already knows?” and, “What is this writer trying to do here?” To find out the answer to this second question, we often have to ask the student about his or her intentions.
Finally, in our continual process of assessment, we must also ask, “If this writer can do all this, then what else might he or she be capable of achieving?” Our assessment needs to help us not only define deficits but also imagine possibilities. Our assessment should lead us to wonder what would happen if Meredith, who writes literary nonfiction of such high quality, were immersed in poetry. What if we read her books rich with dialogue? What if we showed her series books? As long as teachers let students define what is achievable on the students' own terms, almost anything is possible.

Providing Sufficient Adult Support

  • Create supportive contexts for student writing—environments that value and recognize approximation and that encourage students to define for themselves what their achievement will be.
  • Help students develop vision for their writing by inviting them to make things with writing: mostly books, but also poems, letters, and songs—any kind of compositional writing with which they have had experience as readers or listeners (remembering that adults will have to do much of the reading for them until they can read independently).
  • Read to students often from richly crafted literature from a wide variety of genres. These readings need to be carefully rendered so that students can tune their ears to what good writing sounds like (Fox, 1993). Repeated readings are also important.
  • Talk with students about what they notice writers doing in books (the craft of the writing) and help them imagine how they could write like that in their own books.
  • Ask students often about the decisions they made and the thinking they engaged in as they were writing. Often, much more is going on than we realize.
  • Be a good audience for students' writing, responding in ways that show them you value their work. In addition, find them other audiences that will appreciate their work.

Still Learning . . .

More than 10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Research in Written Composition (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963), Julie Jensen asked 24 leading scholars to name “the single most important thing we as a profession know now that we didn't know 30 years ago about the teaching and learning of writing in the elementary school.” Peter Elbow responded, Writing is the realm where children can attain literacy first and best feel on top of it—feel ownership and control over the written word. (Jensen, 1993, p. 291)
This statement is as true today as it was then. With each passing year, teachers are learning more about the profound implications of helping young students gain a sense of ownership and control over literacy. When students see themselves as writers, they can achieve more than we have ever imagined.

Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). Research in written composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Fox, M. (1993). Radical reflections: Passionate opinions on teaching, learning and living. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Harste, J. C., Woodward, V. A., & Burke, C. L. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

International Reading Association & National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children (Joint position statement). Young Children, 53(4), 30–46.

Jensen, J. M. (1993). What do we know about the writing of elementary school children? Language Arts, 70, 290–294.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous words: Writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Ray, K. W., with Cleaveland, L. (2004). About the authors: Writing workshop with our youngest writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Smith, F. (1981). Demonstrations, engagement, and sensitivity. Language Arts, 58, 103–112.

Smith, F. (1988). Joining the literacy club: Further essays into education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wilde, S. (1992). You kan red this! Spelling and punctuation for whole language classrooms, K-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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