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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Write from the Start

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Interactive writing empowers the youngest writers to express ideas.

Instructional Strategies
When Nancy began school a long time ago, children were discouraged from reading and writing "too soon." It was thought that introducing literacies before 1st grade could harm a child's academic development. Nancy remembers her mother being scolded by a kindergarten teacher who had discovered that Nancy could write. Times certainly have changed! Preschool and primary classrooms are now literacy-rich environments, and instruction focuses on developing reading and writing skills from the time children enter school.
Emergent and early writing skills are crucial for student success. We should introduce young children to the idea that print contains a message, one that remains constant over time. Children learn to read sounds and words and write with those tools, so reading and writing each foster the development of the other. And as students enter the world of literacy, they learn that the heart of all writing is the expression of ideas—and that it's often helpful to formulate ideas in the company of others. Print-based literacy is built on the interactions students have with others. One instructional practice that accomplishes these goals is interactive writing.
Interactive writing is a teacher-facilitated instructional routine that moves students from idea generation to composition. Its most distinguishable feature is the practice of "sharing the pen"—having young children take turns using a pen (or more often a marker) to together write letters and spell words that create an agreed-upon message on chart paper. Lessons are typically 10–15 minutes long and involve a small group or the entire class.
Given the constraints of young children in terms of the physical act of writing, the messages themselves are short—one or two sentences. But much is accomplished in the rich discussion and decision making that occurs. Lesson elements include (1) choosing a shared experience to write about, (2) planning and composing the message, (3) constructing the message, and (4) rereading the message aloud.

Enjoying a Shared Experience

An interactive writing lesson actually begins hours or days before the students sit down with their teacher to write, with a shared experience that provides the fodder for composing a message. A field trip to a fire station might prompt the need for a thank you note from the class, or a grade-level event might necessitate sending an invitation to the classroom across the hall. But most shared experiences begin with a text the students have read. In the video accompanying this column, Hilda Martinez—a coach who provides demonstration lessons—leads an interactive writing lesson with a group of kindergartners who have read a book on frogs earlier in the week. The purpose of their interactive writing is to create a message conveying what they learned from this book.

Composing the Message

The next step is to compose the message. Teachers often ask thought-provoking questions to spur students' thinking. Ms. Martinez and the students generate ideas for their message by discussing things they learned about where frogs live. The teacher assists the group in organizing their ideas and honing the sentence(s). He or she continually restates and refines the message. This repetition is essential in writing, as the act of composition requires continuous mental rehearsal of the sentence. Writing is an iterative practice; the writer must monitor what has been written and what will be written next.

Constructing the Message

Once the group reaches consensus on the message, the teacher shifts attention to getting ready to write. Note how Ms. Martinez thinks aloud for her students, counting the number of words their sentence contains. The act of writing a message requires planning how much room the words will take up on the paper or smartboard, and counting the number of words needed helps young writers consider this. Ms. Martinez also reviews some rules of construction, such as print conventions, letter formations, and spacing. Because students will write each letter and word, these reminders help them consolidate the many skills and knowledge needed to be successful.
Each word is approached individually, with students being encouraged to sound out some words and use lists of sight words or the class word wall for others. After each word is written, the group restates the entire sentence to recall what word will be needed next.
Note how Ms. Martinez coaches and scaffolds each child's contributions and shares prompts and questions with the other children to keep them engaged. Because individual children need varying levels of support depending on their current abilities, this stage of the interactive lesson is marked by differentiated instruction. Errors occur, of course, and these are handled by applying white paper tape for students to write over (crossing out errors can leave the finished message looking scrambled). This practice subtly conveys the message that when writers make errors, they fix them and keep going.

Rereading

In the last stage of the lesson, all the writers reread what they have written to ensure it's accurate and comprehensible. Mrs. Martinez uses this time as an opportunity to revisit the purpose of the message and its intended audience, ensuring that her students consider these elements. At this point in a lesson, students might decide that something—such as additional details—needs to be added to the message in the next session.

Interactive Writing for Older Students

Teachers can use interactive writing to support older elementary writers, but should make four key shifts:
  • Make the lesson flow more fluid and dynamic. Older students are capable of producing more text in a setting, often a paragraph or more. Therefore, the teacher cycles through the planning, composing, and constructing portions of the lesson more than once, so writers can revisit and reshape their message as it develops.
  • Modify the pace, discussion, and medium. The pace is accelerated because older writers are able to write entire words and complete sentences. Discussing difficult words and reminding about conventions may occur only at the beginning of the lesson.
  • Modify lesson frequency and duration. While primary students benefit from having interactive writing lessons several times a week, older writers don't require the same frequency. The lessons themselves may be a bit longer because older students have longer attention spans, but teachers need to maintain the same high levels of engagement so students don't drift into a passive role.
  • Expand and extend genres. Older students benefit from interactive writing lessons that explore new genres, such as informational or opinion writing. Specific formats, like science lab reports, letters, and poetry, can be explored through joint composition. Students can use their interactive text as a model for independent writing.

Empowering the Youngest

Interactive writing gives the youngest writers the ability to put their thoughts in writing, even as they're learning formative skills of composition. Writing should begin right from the start, and interactive writing is the right place to begin.
Instructional Strategies

EL Magazine Show & Tell / April 2018

6 years ago
End Notes

1 McCarrier, A., Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2000). Interactive writing: How language and literacy come together, K–2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

2 Roth, K., & Dabrowski, J. (2014). Extending interactive writing into grades 2–5. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 33–44.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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