Teaching Writing

Teaching Writing in Elementary School


Children enter kindergarten loving school. They eagerly begin learning their alphabet and look forward to writing their name. By the time they reach sixth grade, they groan when the teacher says, “Take out your pencil and three pieces of binder paper.” Somewhere along the line, writing has become a dreaded chore. Something has killed the joy. My goal is to make my students’ eyes light up when I assign a new piece of writing. I want them to be eager for the challenge.

When learning to write, children are expected to go from learning to write their name to sentences, paragraphs, then multi-paragraph essays fairly quickly. By sixth grade they are expected to be able to organize their ideas and express them coherently with correct grammar. Along the way, there are many possibilities for a student to experience failure. As anyone knows, the more you fail at something, the less you like it.

ORGANIZATION OF IDEAS…..When a student first learns to write multiple paragraphs, they are usually handed a format to use. By sixth grade, they have different formats for narrative, persuasive, response to literature, summary, and expository. Some of them are so busy worrying about what format to use that they lose sight of the goal: to communicate their ideas on the assigned topic. Maybe instead of teaching format we should teach them to think. Discuss the topic, get them riled up, then let them write. If they are truly trying to get across an idea, it will be organized enough to understand their point.

EXPRESS THEM COHERENTLY…..After a child learns the basics of writing, they are told to ‘make it better,’ often with no specific instruction how to do that. Teachers teach a variety of strategies (transitions, choosing better words, specific sentence structure). Students get frustrated when they use a thesaurus and pick the wrong part of speech. Their sentences become convoluted when they try to twist them into a certain format. They add extra words and bigger words in order to ‘make it better.’ Often, their ideas are lost.

GRAMMAR…..My own students will tell you that I am a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Teachers have a habit of marking up an essay in red and handing it back. Students look at the grade and are happy or disappointed. They don’t look at the markups, especially if there are a lot. No one holds them accountable for improving. When they have some program of Daily Oral Language (DOL), instruction targets certain grammar rules. Very rarely, though, do students translate that to their own writing.

So what’s the solution? Practice. Just like any sport or musical instrument, the more they practice the easier the task becomes. When students master the first steps of writing, they can move on to learn new skills. Frequent practice keeps old and new skills sharp. Positive feedback is a must, even if it means letting go of marking some errors this time around. Work on clarity for one assignment and when that’s achieved move on to run-on sentences.

I strongly believe that all students can enjoy writing and do it well. It is a form of communication that must be learned. It drives me crazy when I get a promotional flyer with misspellings or see a sign with a missing comma. (Check out my DOL page) I’m frustrated myself when a student gives up and turns in junk (or doesn’t turn it in at all) because they fear failure. Maybe not everything you put down on paper is perfect, but something is good. Rejoice in that and do better next time!






Elaboration, Evidence, Explanation

Usually when you communicate you do not want to make a statement and let it sit there without further explanation.  If someone were talking, for example, and they said, “I saw a cool movie,” you would want more information.  If the speaker doesn’t provide it, you get annoyed.  Writing is the same way.  You wouldn’t want to read a news story like this: Sam was arrested for murder last night. That’s incomplete.  You want to know more!  Even one sentence can add a great deal of clarifying information: Sam was arrested for murder last night.  When police arrived, he was standing over the body with a gun in his hand saying, “I didn’t mean to kill her.”

Student writing generally suffers from those explaining details.  While it is flattering that students seem to think teachers can read their minds, we can’t.  It’s true.  (Shhhhh, don’t tell anybody)  Like all your readers, teachers must have the details spelled out for them.  While there is no specific format for details, it may help to think of them as elaboration, evidence, or explanation.

ELABORATION is a fancy word that means I like it, tell me more! Be careful when elaborating to make sure you are indeed giving more information and not just restating the same information in the first sentence.  Here’s an example of restating: The Labrador retriever loves to play and go for walks.  There’s nothing a Lab likes better than walking and playing. Do you see that the second sentence says exactly the same thing as the first sentence, just using different words?  That is restating, not elaboration.  Here’s an example of elaboration:  The Labrador retriever loves to play and go for walks. A perfect activity for you and your Lab would be a walk to the park where you can play fetch with a tennis ball. See?  MORE information on the same subject.

EVIDENCE is used to prove a point you are making to your reader.  This is especially useful when you are writing book reports (or Response to Literature).  When you make a statement about a character’s motives, you state an opinion.  Now you need to use evidence from the book in order to show your reader why you formed that opinion.  Here’s an example:  At the beginning of the book, Susie was afraid to swim.  At the pool party, she claimed she didn’t have a swimsuit when she did, pretended she was too interested in her book to get in the water, and lied about her ability.

EXPLANATION is used when you write a statement that will cause readers to sit up and say, “What now?”  Don’t leave statements like this hanging (see example above about Sam and the murder).  Explain them.

It is not important whether you use elaboration, evidence, or explanation to give more depth to your writing.  What’s important is that your paragraphs are well-developed, and that means you have a lot of details!

You try it!  Here are some sentences.  Pick one, copy and paste it into your comment, and add a sentence that elaborates, adds evidence, or gives an explanation.

1.  Dogs are great pets.

2.  Writing is awesome!

3.  Summer is the most fabulous season of the year.

4.  Sleeping in wastes good vacation time.

5.  My parents love me.

In paperback: Cable Hornman, the Bard Begins by C. Lee Brown