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by Leonie Shelley-  Limetree Literacy 

Writing is such an incredibly complex task.  How do we improve English  writing skills for ourselves and our students?  How do we move students along a writing continuum to become effective communicators?  Where do we start and most importantly, how do we motivate and inspire students to want to write?  In this post I’ll be sharing some of the answers to these questions with writing and grammar games, assessment ideas and structures.

1. Moving from speaking to writing

Learning to write (and to read) is not a natural process and for many students, specific instruction is needed. The first few years of life is spent immersed in oral language. Young children learn so much about language in those years – how to listen, understand, respond, how to structure words to make meaning, how to alter the voice and volume to show emotions, how to use language to get what is needed or wanted. Stephen Pinker, a Canadian cognitive scientist, says that we become ‘grammar geniuses’ by the age of three. Try mixing up the order of adjectives next time you speak to a preschooler and you’ll likely be met with a look of bewilderment or even corrected! Young children know implicitly that it’s “the little red engine”, not “the red little engine”. The key word here is ‘implicitly’. Spoken language does not need conscious thought, yet written language does. So, how do we capture this wealth of understanding in the talking/listening phase and shift it into the reading/writing phase? Research is increasingly pointing to oral language as the key. Which made me wonder, how do we embrace oral language to support writing skills?

2. A Writing Continuum

Good oral language skills allow students to progress from informal forms of writing to more formal (technical) forms. Informal writing includes text that mimics speech, whilst formal writing is more technical, like an abstract or science report. Understanding the purpose and audience helps us, as effective writers, know where on the writing continuum we need to be. For instance, we wouldn’t write a highly abbreviated text message to the school principal, we would instead chose more formal language and perhaps email it!

Informal writing includes text that mimics speech, whilst formal writing is more technical, like an abstract or science report.  Understanding the purpose and audience helps us, as effective writers, know where on the writing continuum we need to be. For instance, we wouldn’t write a highly abbreviated text message to the school principal, we would instead chose more formal language and perhaps email it!

3. Cracking the Code

First, students need to know the alphabetic code.  That is, how to put the spoken into the written form.  Being aware of the individual sounds (phonemes) in words, and knowing how to represent them using letters (graphemes).  It is imperative that this process begins, and is drenched in, oral language activities.  Engaging activities that have students segmenting (sounding out) words into the individual sounds, then moving to writing a letter to represent each sound.  Sounding out the key word in an instruction (‘you will need your h/a/t’ or ‘J/a/ck can get his lunch’) supports students to tune in to the sounds in words.  Games like ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’, where, instead of the time, Mr Wolf says a word and the players step out the sounds in that word, bring fun into the learning.  Students need to practice segmenting over and over and over again before they are ready to associate letters with the sounds.

4. Writing for a purpose

Once students know the grapheme representations (what letter/s to write for each sound), we want them to write for a purpose – creatively, to express an opinion, etc.  Oral language skills are imperative here because, basically, you can’t write about it if you can’t talk about it.  Yet, here is the bonus for teachers.  Students generally love to have a chat!  Combine this with a writing topic/prompt that motivates them and we should have a double whammy!  Here are some ideas to get you started:

5. Make up a group story

I’d try this with any age group, just change the topic to suit the age group.  One student (or the teacher can start) says a sentence that has a positive connotation – “It’s my birthday party tomorrow”.  The next student responds with a sentence, yet this sentence has a negative connotation “My best friend can’t come”.  This continues – one sentence for each student, alternating between good and bad.  To support students to see (ie hear) the pattern, the teacher can interject at the end of each contribution with “That’s good”, “That’s bad”.  The group story will then be something like:

It’s my birthday party tomorrow. (That’s good!)

My best friend can’t come. (That’s bad)

There’s going to be a jumping castle! (That’s good!)

A thunderstorm is predicted. (That’s bad)

Grandma is making my favourite cake. (That’s good!)

Laura can’t eat it because she is gluten free. (That’s bad)

My cousin is sleeping over after the party. (That’s good!)

He snores really loudly. (That’s bad)

This activity could also double as way to retell a class novel or movie.  For older students, they could show their understanding of a particular topic, say the Gold Rush, using this structure.  It’s fabulous for building topic-specific vocabulary.

6. Use a visual prompt that elicits awe

Most students love animals (or the ridiculous) and there are a wide range of high quality photographs available online.  Find ones that prompt these questions (which the students can then talk about) – What happened before?  What will happen next? Where is this happening?  How did…? Why is…? Or my favourite, “I wonder where/how/why… “.  Some great online resources can be found by simply goggling photographer awards, writing prompts for kids or from humorous websites such as Bored Panda.  Take it a step further by including short films – www.kidsloveshortfilms.com has a plethora of engaging films.  Try showing only a part of the film to students, then get them to talk about what has happened, what will happen next?  Talk about inference ‘why was…’ and connect the film to prior learning or student’s own experiences.  Only demand short written responses to get them started. Encourage them to write in pairs or a small group to share and condense their ideas.  Give them a specific way to start their writing (begin with a word that ends with ‘ed’ or ‘ing’ or start with a simile).

Of course, the skill of writing is a lot more complex than this.  One aspect needed is the drawing out of student’s implicit knowledge of our language into explicit understanding.  This occurs with specific instruction, not just immersion into a language rich environment.  As teachers, we need to draw out our own implicit knowledge as well, so we don’t fall into what Dr Pamela Snow describes as the Peter Effect – ‘can’t give what you don’t have’.   I found myself able to give my implicit knowledge of grammar ‘words’ so I could then explicitly teach students when I began following a structured grammar program, in particular Jolly Grammar.

What strategies have you found that work well? Share them in the comments below.

Leonie Shelley, is an experienced teacher who has achieved outstanding results with young students in reading and writing, using the Jolly Phonics program. If you’re lucky enough to be in Adelaide you can access her expertise by visiting Limetree Literacy and booking yourself in for some PD.  

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