As teachers, we all know that writing is an important skill that requires training as well as practice. Developing an ability to express our thoughts clearly in writing can be difficult and takes time. I think it’s important to begin working on this skill at a young age and for this reason I include process writing in my classes starting with students around age eight. In this post I’m going to lay out the steps we take in completing these projects as well as discuss why each step is important.
Developing a skill in writing at any age has its challenges but with young learners it requires careful planning, lots of encouragement and patience. Pre-writing tasks and scaffolding are crucial because young learners have very little experience with writing (at least compared to an adult). It’s also essential that we make the tasks personal and meaningful to them in order to keep them motivated. In addition, having clear steps that they are familiar with will help them stay focused.
The course books we use include a project in each unit so I use these to help model the process as well as the end product but I’ve tweaked it to include more scaffolding as well as more proofreading. The advantage to using the projects in the course books is that they correspond to the vocabulary, grammar and topic we are working on, giving students an opportunity to put their working knowledge into action. However, if your course books don’t include a project, it’s fairly easy to come up with writing tasks that achieve this goal.
The first step in writing involves getting the students interested in a topic as well as giving them the vocabulary and lexical chunks they need to express themselves. The lessons in the unit that involve introducing and practicing vocabulary and grammar related to the topic are a large part of this pre-writing step. Students use the information and structures we’ve been studying when they sit down to write their project, making the task meaningful and giving their learning a concrete purpose.
Another pre-writing task that is extremely important is allowing students to see models of what they’re going to write. As I mentioned before, young learners have limited experience when it comes to writing so this step helps them form a clear idea in their heads of what the finished product should look like. I find that when students know what is expected of them the process is less stressful and the reasoning behind each step is easier to understand.
Before we begin the writing process, we look at and discuss the models found in our course books. I also make my own model so that students can see how we can use the same structures with different information to create our own projects. I think that they also just enjoy having a model they can handle and touch because it seems more real to them somehow.
In our discussions, I usually begin by reading out loud the model in the book but making mistakes. Students listen closely, stop me when I make a mistake and say what it really says in the model. It’s a simple technique but it keeps the class as a whole focused on what we’re reading. At the same time they’re predicting and correcting the same structures they’ll be using in their own writing.
After we read the model together, I like to point out certain things to keep in mind in order to help avoid errors or to make sure that meaning is clear. It depends on the text but these things range from a reminder of the spelling of difficult words to how to use the apostrophe correctly. It’s really just a last minute revision of grammar or spelling before they begin their projects.
The next step involves a notes-and-writing-skeleton worksheet that I’ve come up with for each project. I like to put the document on the overhead and we look at it together before I hand it out to students. I think this step is important because once you give them the worksheets, their heads are down and they’re no longer following what you’re showing them on the overhead. An alternative is to give them the worksheets but tell them to keep all pencils down.
There are two parts to the worksheet for each project. The top part is for notes and it serves to stimulate students as well as help them gather together information they’ll use in their writing. The bottom part is a skeleton of the paragraph or paragraphs they’ll be writing. They use the ideas they’ve come up with in the notes section to fill in the sentences in the skeleton. Writing a full paragraph using connectors, correct punctuation and the appropriate lexical chunks can be daunting for an eight year-old. Using the worksheet to write notes and fill in the skeleton students magically come up with a complete paragraph with their own ideas and personal information.
While students are filling in the notes section I am monitoring, answering questions, giving feedback, reminding students about spelling and generally just encouraging them to write to the best of their ability. Before they begin completing the skeleton, I check their notes for spelling, grammatical errors or meaning that isn’t clear. I do the same when they finish the skeleton. Constant revision and feedback help to assure students that they’re on the right track and avoids errors in their final product.
We finish the worksheet in class and for homework students write a clean copy of the skeleton on a piece of paper to hand in. I collect those in the next class and correct them. I think this step is important for two reasons. First, it gives students a chance to write the sentences in the paragraph on their own and get a feel for the form of the task. And secondly, it encourages them to proofread their work. Their objective is to write a clean copy of their project as a sort of practice run before creating their poster. They tend to take it quite seriously because they want the end product to turn out well.
Once I’ve corrected their drafts I return them to the students and for homework they finish their projects. In order to make the projects more appealing to young learners, I ask them to take their writing tasks and make posters with pictures they’ve drawn, photos cut out of magazines or pictures printed off the internet. It adds an element of fun to the assignment and at the same time gives their writing context.
I collect their posters and mark them using a rubric that they’ve seen before so they know exactly what the expectations are. I look at things like effort, whether it’s on time, creativity and appearance, handwriting, capital letters/punctuation, spelling and grammar. Instead of a number grade, I use comments to point out what they need to improve next time and what they’ve done well this time.
The final step in our writing process is the one they probably enjoy the most. Each student puts their poster on their desk and everyone mingles around, reading each other’s projects. This is really the moment when everything comes together and all their hard work becomes worth it because they can show it off to their peers.
This is what process writing looks like in our classroom. It’s a very structured, carefully planned procedure that does allow for some creative wriggle room but its purpose is mostly to give students exposure to using certain grammatical structures and lexical chunks in a controlled way. A freer approach to writing can and should also be used in the young learner classroom but that’s a whole other post.
Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve found this post useful or at least interesting. Please share any techniques or ideas related to developing writing with young learners in the comments section.