It’s the start of a new school year. You’re just beginning to learn about your new first grade family – their likes, dislikes, abilities, and struggles. All too often one of those struggles is writing.
Give a classroom of first graders a writing prompt toward the beginning of the year and you’ll likely hear these things.
- I don’t know what to write about.
- I don’t know how to spell.
- My picture is ugly, can I get a new paper?
Many of the papers your students write look like this.
- One endless sentence with no spaces between words.
- Incomplete sentences or sentences that make absolutely no sense.
- Capital letters everywhere except at the beginning of the sentence.
Time goes by and many of these problems do not go away.
And before you know it, writing becomes something both you and your students dread.
This used to be me. I tried to implement writers workshop into my first grade classroom and, as powerful as I know it is for some, it was not the case for me. I struggled to keep up with my sweet firsties and their needs as writers. Needless to say, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and at times…defeated.
One fabulous year my teaching bestie and I sat down and recorded all the struggles we were seeing in our first grade classrooms. Then we looked at our standards and did some backward planning. We looked at our ideal end product that we expected all students to achieve, and baby stepped backwards…recording all the skills the students would need to ultimately produce high-quality writing pieces.
We realized that before we dove into narrative, opinion, and informational writing we had to teach prerequisite skills in order for all students to be successful. Once these skills were taught and mastered, we knew the quality of our students’ writing would be right up there with Roald Dahl. (Okay…maybe not yet….but they’d be on their way.)
This is what we came up with:
1. DRAWING PICTURES USING BASIC SHAPES AND LINES:
A child’s first form of permanent communication is through drawing. Just like play (which is the work of childhood) has become less valued, so has drawing. But this should not be the case. Drawing and writing support each other. Research shows that students who draw pictures before writing produce better writing. Their writing is clearer and more interesting, more sophisticated, and contains richer vocabulary. Drawing is a rich prewriting activity where students get the opportunity to think through their ideas before they write. Let them draw and you will no longer hear the words – I don’t know what to write about – because they have thoroughly thought their ideas through and will have more than enough to say.
However, some first graders also begin to see their pictures as good or bad. This breaks my heart. What’s a teacher to do when the richest prewriting activity becomes inaccessible for all students? I’ll tell you. Take the time to teach your students to draw. Teach them that drawing is using basic shapes and lines. Help them to see pictures in terms of shapes and lines. Practice drawing pictures of common things they will be drawing: people, animals, buildings, nature. Remove the worry of I can’t draw from their minds so that they have access to this rich and often undervalued prewriting activity.
2. LABELING PICTURES USING BEST GUESS SPELLING (also know as Invented Spelling and Phonetic Spelling):
Children have wonderful ideas to share using wonderful and delicious words, but the thought of spelling those words correctly can leave them feeling defeated. Spelling is a complex developmental process. Focusing on the mechanics of spelling actually hinders students’ developmental growth in writing. As you delve deeper into phonics and sight word instruction throughout the year, your students’ spelling will improve.
Teach your students to use best guess spelling (also called invented spelling and phonetic spelling). Teach them to stretch out words and write all the sounds they know how to spell. Begin by just asking them to label pictures. Practicing this skill on an entire writing piece can be so overwhelming for many.
Ensure them that you will be able to read their writing. Free their brains from the stress of spelling perfectly, since, you know, they’ve only been out of diapers for about 4 years. Their first grade writing will become richer and more interesting – guaranteed. Instead of seeing words like good, bad, and scared….you might see words like fabulous, horrendous, and terrified. Teach best guess spelling and watch in wonder as your students’ writing transforms from sounding like a simple phonics reader to C.S. Lewis (okay…not really…but they are on their way!)
3. WRITE COMPLETE SENTENCES:
You can’t build a house without a solid foundation. Developmentally, children learn to speak in fragments before they speak in complete sentences. The same is true for writing. You will want to spend some time exploring complete and incomplete sentences. Many children need to be explicitly taught what a complete sentence is.
In the beginning focus on writing one complete sentence – just one. (If they’re ready to write more, let them go for it.) Don’t worry, at this point, how interesting the sentence is (that’s for a later lesson). Trust us…teach this early on and save yourselves a lot of anxiety later in the year – oh…and a lot of time conferencing with students who are writing fragment after fragment.
4. PROPER USE OF CAPITALS, SPACES BETWEEN WORDS, AND PUNCTUATION:
If you teach little humans, you know all too well that they can write an entire story with absolutely zero spaces between words, capital letters randomly throughout, and either no punctuation whatsoever or a random period at the end of every. single. line. on their paper. Not unusual at all folks. You know we’ve all seen this. Nip these things in the bud, you’ll be so glad you did. First grade writing can be fabulous, we promise!
5. WRITING STRONGER SENTENCES:
When young children speak, they are far from boring to listen to. In fact, they oftentimes bring smiles to our faces and we find ourselves sharing what they say to our families when we get home. Early in the year, teach your students to write interesting sentences. The example above was written by an English Language Learner after 3 weeks of writing instruction. Instead of writing something like “The bear eats fish.” or “The bear is cute.” She writes, “The bear is cute and fuzzy and eats fish.” Love it!
There you have it! Five tips to teach your firsties at the beginning of the school year that will make the rest of the year go much smoother!
We’d love to hear from you. What are some struggles you have with teaching writing? What are some of your first grade writing wins?
Cindy and Becky
P.S. If you are curious about our DONE-FOR-YOU / NO PREP Writing Resources, Click on the link below to learn more.