If I am being honest, there are WAY more than 7 things you need to know about teaching emergent writers, but I hope this will get you started!
Tip #1 Student Choice is EVERYTHING!
I will start right off by saying writing prompts for writers workshop are not considered best practices. Don't take my word for it... let's hear from the experts.
Matt Glover writes in his book, Engaging Young Writers.
“Topic choice is perhaps the most important source of energy for writing... If we want children to become passionate about their writing, then allowing (and encouraging) them to choose topics that matter becomes crucial.” p 42-43
Lucy Calkins writes in the Art of Teaching Writing.” Writing allows us to hold our life in our hands and make something of it."
She goes on to say:
“This is how I write. I take a moment, and image, a memory, a phrase, an idea - and hold it in my hands and declare it a treasure.”
And finally, Jennifer Jacobson, in her book, No More "I'm Done!" discusses practices that foster student independence.
“Prompts = Dependence If you have been providing your students with prompts each day, then they are likely to have difficulty at first. This is because choosing a topic takes practice (and all the more reason for offering choice).”
So yes, I do not give my students prompts to write about during writers' workshop. Yes, I do think it is important for a student to think about a prompt and respond to it. THIS is done as a reflection of reading, not writers' workshop. "WAIT," you may say, "I have all of these PROMPTS!" Fantastic! Put them in your student writing center. Your class can work on them during center time. Naturally, student choice requires many mini-lessons on how writers get ideas. Cue tip #2
Tip #2 You Need Great Mentor Texts
There are many types of mentor texts. There are those that spark writing ideas such asThe Best Story Ever by Eileen Spinneli. This book reinforces the idea that writers should write about things they are interested in.
Books like Good Dog Carl by Alexandria Day and Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie DePaola remind us that we can tell a fantastic story... even without words!
Another great book that illustrates that perfectly is Dude, by Aaron Reynolds. There is just one word in this book (I’m sure you can guess what it is.) But look at all of the teachings you can do with just these pages!
If you’d like some additional mentor text suggestions you can find a list on my blog:
Tip #3 The Writer Should Determine When They are Done
I spend my time training teachers on emergent writing instruction. Without fail, questions about the length of the student writing are on the top of the list! I get asked, "Do they do one page a day?" "Do you all finish at one time?"
My students write in books. This means that after we have completed the first 20 days of writers workshop, we move into writing books. Students are given a book that has a cover and 3-4 pages attached to it. Students can also add or remove pages as they decide the length of their book.
This process of writing in books is part of intentional ongoing mini-lessons that I teach throughout the year. When they are finished with one book, they simply start another.
Again... mini-lessons surround knowing when you are done with a piece... but students are able to manage this on their own. Some students might finish a book in 3 days, some need longer.
Tip #4 Let. Them. Draw.
If we only define writing as transcription, the authors like are Aaron Reynolds, Tomie DePaola, and Tomie DePaola not writers?
You see, your students have been writers long before they entered kindergarten. That circle (that looks like a tick) is their mom making cookies.
We don’t want to wait. Continue to nurture the writer they are. Celebrate their ability to tell a story. Transcription skills will come in time. When they are ready to add letters and words, they will already see themselves as a writer.
Remember to do a lot of model drawing and directed drawing to help students strengthen their muscle memory and gain confidence.
Tip #5 Do. Not. Spell. For. Them.
Seriously, don’t do it. We need to reflect on the purpose of writers workshop. Is it to improve the writing or is it to improve the writer? HINT: It is to improve the writer. Here is what spelling for a student says to them, “You still need me.” We all want writers that are independent. We want writers who consider word choice over the words they know how to spell.
Trust me when I tell you that your students will initially fuss at you for not spelling for them. There may even be tears. These tears come from wanting to be right! Here is what you should do instead.
Create lots of mini-lessons where you model stretching out words.
Create lots of mini-lessons where you assure them that approximation is embraced.
Model how you are conflicted between using words that you know how to spell vs words that are more descriptive and interesting.
Create mini-lessons where you use school tools like your word wall or sound wall to help you discover the sounds in words.
When you confer with students, reinforce or reteach these lessons.
Know your students. There is no point in asking a student to encode a word or phonics chunk if they are incapable of decoding that same sound. Meaning, if a student knows 12 letters, there is no point in trying to explain digraphs.
Tip #6 Do Not Correct Their Writing
This tip loops back to tip #4 and #5. Correcting student’s writing (or writing on their paper) tells the student, “not good enough.” Remember, our goal is to improve the writer, not the writing. We use their past writing efforts to know what we need to teach them next.
When you confer with a student, do this instead:
Notice and name something they are doing well. “I am noticing that you are really making smart color choices. That is amazing because writers and illustrators do this too. They want to be sure their meaning is clear. You have done that beautifully.”
Teach them something new. “Can I show you something else writers do? Writers also use letters to help make their meaning clear. [Points to the page with their dog, Scooby]. I’m wondering if you could do what other writers do and put some sounds down?”
Invite them to try it out. If the student puts down the correct letter… WOOT! If they put down the wrong letter, that is okay too. Students will only be able to put down the sounds they hear IF they have letter/sound knowledge.
You can learn more about how I run my writing conferences by clicking:
Tip #7 Investigate, Not Interrogate.
My school was probably no different than most. I had students who had zero kindergarten experience. Didn’t know their colors… didn’t know English. I get it! BUT they can tell a story! They tell their story with pictures. Let’s look at this piece of writing from early in the year.
I start every student writing conference this way, “Tell me what you are working on.” At first, they will look at you and say, “Um… writing?” In time, they will quickly shift and you will hear your language repeated back to them. “I am working on spaces in my writing.”
But sometimes when you sit down to confer with a student, you might be thinking that their writing looks like scribbles!
Check this out!
You might say… “Hey… that is not what it says!” Katie Wood Ray tells us in her book, In Pictures and in Words, that we want to help students tell their stories. At first, they tell their stories in pictures. Over time, when their transcription skills develop, they will add words to their stories.
As you can tell, I love to teach writing. If you’d like more information, here is a great place to start: