As part of the graduate school course I took this summer in Fairfield University’s Reading and Language Development Program, I had the distinct pleasure of spending two full days with Ruth Culham, author of The Writing Thief and many other books and materials to support the teaching of writing. Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and she immediately hooked us in with…
“Did you know, writing is the new black? It’s the “hot new thing…”
We all know it’s not a new thing… but we need to make it “hot” again. Ruth promised to share strategies, common language, activities and materials to help all the educators in the room do this. She did not disappoint!
Here are my top 10 highlights from the day:
- “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts and rework raw information… and communicate it to someone else.” “If students are to learn, THEY MUST WRITE.”
- Can a 6-year-old write a complete story? YES! “Temporary spelling” is OK!
- 6 + 1 Writing Traits give us a language to communicate with students about their writing. They make revision and editing tangible for teachers. Spiral each trait, don’t go through them in order.
- IDEAS: Content of the piece- the central message and details that support that message. Bring in any examples that are good for kids
- ORGANIZATION: Internal structure of the piece – the thread of logic, the pattern of meaning.
- VOICE: Tone and tenor of the piece — the personal stamp of the writer, which is achieved through a strong understanding of purpose and audience. Use a highlighter to show students where their voice is starting to come through.
- WORD CHOICE: vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning and enlighten the reader. This happens during read alouds…stop and point it out.
- SENTENCE FLUENCY: The way words and phrases flow through the piece. It is the auditory trait because its “read” with the ear as much as the eye. LISTEN to the piece. Read above their reading level. Things that are cool and different.
- CONVENTIONS: Mechanical correctness of the piece. Correct use of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and grammar and usage) guides the reader through the text easily.
(+1) PRESENTATION: Physical appearance of the piece. A visually appealing text provides a welcome mat. It invites the reader in.
4. BEST ADVICE TO TEACHERS: “Squeeze it once and let it go!”
Kids cannot handle too many things… can’t take it in. Set ONE goal. Let them practice a specific skill. Hard for teachers to let it go… Less is more. Keep it simple. Don’t feel frustrated about how much there is to teach. Learning how to take one element and work it over is one of the new secrets…makes you less stressed and the kids get it.
5. When you get students involved in the writing process, writing improves. When students give effective feedback to peers in the process, writing improves. Teachers tend to take papers home because traditional peer feedback didn’t work. Give students a specific task to give feedback on. Example: “Sentence beginnings…” “Go back and find the sentences that start with I and revise a few of them.” Don’t make the kids re-write their piece over and over again.
Here are scoring guides for K, Grades 1 – 2, and Grades 3 – 12, as well as “light” versions for students to assess themselves. Click here to view.
6. Conferring takes time. Harder to schedule. Do the over the shoulder little conferences to give feedback with a highlighter. Goal should be that they can move on without you. Teach them to be self-reliant. Use phrases like:
- “Consider adding a few more details….”
- Suggest ONE thing — that makes them feel doable.
- Refer specifically to the “trait” during feedback. Every time you are using it, it is teaching the student about it.
- Resist using the word BUT. “Next, now, lets try… ” words that encourage
7. The purposes for writing.
- Tell a story.
- Provide information.
- Construct an argument.
Descriptive has been removed as a mode. It should be taught within these others. It needs to be taught, but it doesn’t stand alone with these big “dudes.”
8. Be wary of “Curriculum by Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers.” Use those sites for resources with a narrow lens. Active learning. Something MEATY. Here are some additional resources from Culham Writing.
9. What happens when you teach conventions using worksheets? Students get all the questions right. There is a disconnect between worksheets and independent work. Does not transpose into independent work.
Why grammar worksheets don’t work:
- They make the lessons task oriented rather learning oriented.
- Emphasize quantity over quality.
- Teacher directed activity.
- Create dependents, not independence.
- Invite conformity
- Prevent students from devising their own ways of documenting understanding.
- Create more work for teachers
- Waste paper money and precious instructional time.
** There was a time when worksheets were effective. (Late 60’s early 70s).
Use Writing Wallet (instead of a worksheet).
You need: a file folder, two pieces of writing paper, a pen.
- Decorate folder.
- Have students create 2 – 4 raw writing pieces.
- Choose one trait after a mini-lesson (model using a mentor text) and have the students find and correct that feature within their own writing. (for examples, transition words…. Word choice.)
- One trait at a time!
Use different colors, highlighters, let it be messy! After a while, have students choose a piece and clean it up… show it as BEFORE and AFTER.
10. We need to agree upon common language in teaching writing. We understand and accept that people don’t like change but it’s not working the way it is. REALLY IMPORTANT. It’s not about us, it’s about our students. We need to build the bridge from the language from grade to grade!
Loved these two days! I left with a deeper knowledge of writing instruction and some great activities and resources to bring back to my school. The Trait Crates are awesome and well worth a look! Incredibly teacher-friendly — fantastic mentor texts with lessons aligned with each writing trait. Also worth a look is Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture.
I’ll leave you with this powerful quote from Pam Allyn that Ruth shared. It underscores the importance of the relationship between reading and writing. We need both to live!
“Reading is like breathing in, writing is like breathing out.” – Pam Allyn
Thank you @WritingThief and Fairfield University!