Writing Instruction

I am working in a first grade classroom at a very diverse Title I school in Annapolis with my mentor teacher, Elizabeth. We have pretty diverse demographics with many English Language Learners, various cultural backgrounds and ethnic origins, and a wide range of socioeconomic statuses represented. Of this school’s six first grade classes, our class has an overall higher level class. Almost all of our students are on or above current grade level expectations in most subject areas. This is very beneficial when it comes to teaching writing, because we do not have to focus on more basic, time-consuming concepts such as writing letters. All of our students have experience in writing and write sentences on a daily basis, often multiple times a day.

Elizabeth’s approach to teaching writing closely follows Lucy Calkin’s first grade writing curriculum. Currently, writing is mostly being taught and assessed through personal narratives. These are designed as 3-page packets that include a space for an illustration and a space with lines for about two sentences. When Elizabeth introduced narrative writing at first, she modeled it for the students with her own “small moment story,” before having them brainstorm ideas for their small moment narratives. Elizabeth models the writing process regularly when giving instruction. The writing process that we are focusing on write now is 1. Think (of a small moment or something that happened), 2. Plan (touch, tell, and sketch), 3. Write, 4. Revise. During the planning step in the process, the students touch a page and say what will be written on that page (this is sometimes done with partners, and sometimes involves acting out the small moment), then, they draw a super quick sketch on each page to help them remember what they plan to write about. Usually, the next day students begin step 3, writing. During whole and small group instruction time, Elizabeth reviews how to write a sentence (end punctuation, capital letters, sequence words, adding adjectives and other describing words) regularly.

Elizabeth works with other first grade teachers and staff in the school to plan writing instruction for all students. She plans with ESOL teachers and refers to students’ oral language skill levels. The ESOL teachers are a valuable resource when differentiating for ELL students. Elizabeth also refers to Lucy Calkin’s curriculum that has an “If-Then…” book that helps with differentiating for specific needs and in specific areas. During writing instruction Elizabeth and I have both differentiated writing assignments that are related to a text that was read. We do main idea/detail lessons that involve finding the main idea of a text and identifying key details to support it. The students then create foldables with a different detail on each side. We differentiate foldable expectations based on student needs, so some students will only draw illustrations, some will draw and label, and some will be expected to draw, label, and include a sentence about the detail.

Students write a personal narrative about once a week, in which many elements of writing are incorporated, including the process of writing. Narratives are assessed or evaluated based on the students ability to write a story containing at least two sequential details or parts, use capital letters at the beginning of sentences, use end punctuation marks, write at least one sentence per page, and include describing words. The class is currently struggling with punctuation, capital letters, and adding describing words, so Elizabeth taught lessons that covered those three elements last week. Because so much of student learning as they progress to higher grade levels, is dependent on student ability to read and write, we put a lot of emphasis on language arts in first grade. Our morning (9:15am-11am) is devoted to language arts. During this time, the mentor usually teaches a quick lesson, students then transition to literacy centers while Elizabeth and I work with guided reading groups, and she then teaches a more lengthy lesson. Two to three times a week, our schedule allows for an extra 30 minutes of language arts (usually literacy centers or writing instruction) in the afternoon, also.

Elizabeth gives the students various kinds of writing assignments. Three-page personal narratives (or “small moment stories”) are effective in monitoring student progress in writing and give the teacher a good idea of what areas she needs to focus instruction on. We have a literacy center called “Work on Writing” where students have a prompt on the wall, such as “One day…” and spend time writing in their journals using that specific prompt. Another center, titled “Word Work,” focuses on high frequency words and gives students the opportunity to use various manipulatives to practice building and writing the words. As I mentioned before, students create foldables with two-three details from a text (including beginning, middle, end foldables) that involve drawing, labeling, and writing sentences. We have also introduced comparison of two texts, and students created and filled out a double bubble map after reading the text.

As mentioned previously, the students engage in multiple facets of the writing process, including topic choice, planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Students usually spend a day planning what they will write about before they even write. They touch each page and “tell” what they will write (sometimes this is done with a partner, and partners ask each other questions about their writing ideas to build more descriptive ideas and elaborate). Part of the planning process is to quickly sketch on each page to help students remember what they plan to write there. After the planning piece, students write (usually the next day), which would be considered their draft. Next, students reread and revise their work. The goal during revision is to focus on adding detail such as describing words, improving sentences (punctuation, capital letters), using sequencing words and phrases, etc. Sometimes students use revision strips, but we are teaching them other editing strategies for adding words. (We also do not put a lot of critical emphasis on spelling during writing assignments, yet.) Not all writing assignments are displayed when completed, but currently we have two assignments that are displayed in and outside of the classroom. A butterfly comparison graphic organizer is being displayed in the hallway, and a sun collage that has labeled pictures is being displayed on the unit board in the classroom. Students are very excited to see their work in the classroom.

When I consider the writing instruction in my field placement, I am very impressed by the planning process that the first grade team of teachers and other specialized teachers work through. They are very collaborative and I believe it results in effective instruction for ALL students. I think it is so great that the students have so much choice in what they write about when they create personal narratives. Almost always, they are encouraged to think of an idea all on their own (that has to do with their life or something that they did) for each narrative writing piece. I believe that giving more free choice to the students in writing helps them enjoy and become more interested in their writing. However, I do know that sometimes the students get stumped and have trouble coming up with ideas. Having a few sample prompts or sample topics that may spark ideas would be beneficial for students, and they may get more excited when they finally decide what they want to write about. Overall, I think that Elizabeth’s writing instruction promotes effective use of the writing process, free choice, and supports all learning.

I think Elizabeth sees everything that she has to make time for during instruction throughout the day, and does her best to make writing a priority. If lunch, recess, specials, and transitions did not take up so many hours of the day, she would probably give an hour specifically to writing (even if broken into parts) and be able to allow students to get through more than one step of the writing process each day. I think she tries to make up for it by incorporating writing into daily literacy centers, and other reading/writing lessons. With the majority of students on or above grade level, I believe she is beginning to expect more from the students and will be taking instruction and writing procedures to a new level.

One instructional strategy that I have seen being used very little, is shared writing. I think this idea of creating a piece of writing (whether it be a relevant topic to the curriculum or just a free choice/random topic) together that includes something from everyone in the classroom has great potential to increase student motivation and spark more interest in writing. By seeing their idea, something that they came up with, and their name, on the board in a writing piece gives them identity and builds a sense of community and collaboration in writing, along with being equitable. In our class, we are starting to give instruction to the students about adding describing words. We have created a circle map of feeling adjectives in which student ideas were used, and refer to the chart during the third process (writing) of our writing process. However, I think it would be beneficial to create a new circle map each week of different types of describing words. One that the text mentions, is sensory adjectives or writing to appeal to the senses. I think that this would be a good topic to touch on and that the students would be interested in coming up with words about how things smell, look, feel, sound, and taste. We could create a circle map of word ideas and display both that, and the other circle map during their narrative writing time. The downside to doing this may be that it takes up time that may not be set aside for writing.

If I were taking over the class tomorrow, I think that the change I would make would be to implement more shared writing experiences. We have a more than a few students that lack confidence and motivation in independent writing, and I believe that implementing writing as whole group, involving ideas of all students will greatly influence their enjoyment level and interest in writing.

This reflective process informs my perspective on the elements of writing instruction because it required me to look for and examine parts of my mentor’s writing instruction that I hadn’t given much attention to before. It has been a beneficial experience and I am excited about what I have learned and how this knowledge of planning and implementing writing instruction will make me a more effective learner in my field placement.

Oral Language Opportunities

Every morning, each one of my first grade students is welcomed by my mentor or myself with a smile and an enthusiastic “good morning.” The students enter the classroom to breakfast (provided by the school) and a morning work paper found by the breakfast bin. Depending on how soon they arrive, students have up to 20 minutes to do a number of things. They may eat their breakfast, talk with their neighbors, and work on their morning worksheet while they ease into the classroom setting. This is the main part of the day that gives them an oral language opportunity of talking with peers and teachers. The teacher then has students come to the rug for “Calendar Time” and whole group instruction begins for the morning. Every day the teacher meets with reading groups while the rest of the students are at various literacy centers. At many of these literacy centers, the students are able to make conversation quietly. This may consist of talking about their hobbies, interests, families, what they are doing that day, what they’re currently working on, and more. The teacher also meets with math groups every day, while the rest of the students are at various math centers. Some of these centers involve partner work, in which students should be on-task, however, it is expected that they may chat some. In the middle of the day, lunch and recess provide oral language opportunities in which all of the students in first grade can spend time with any of their peers. Finally, at the end of the day when students are packing up (which, at this point in the year, still takes at least 10 minutes) they have opportunities to socialize as they go to their locker and back to the carpet. During this time, two students that I notice in particular are Reign and Genessis, when at their lockers. Almost every afternoon I have to interrupt their talking while at their lockers because they get so distracted and take a long time.

The oral language opportunities that I have noted so far, have been ones that involve spontaneous, informal conversations. Many of these spontaneous, informal conversations could lead to topics for writing. For instance, during morning work one day, Genessis (who speaks Spanish at home, and receives only some ELL services) told me all about her fun trip to Disney World over the summer. Not only does she talk to me about that trip, but she shared something from it in her “me bag” and has written about it a number of times. Another student, Jeffrey (an ELL student who hears Spanish at home), ties, unties, and reties his shoes often. During recess, as I tied his shoes for him, I asked him if he has just learned to tie his shoes. He told me (speaking so quickly, I could hardly understand his cute Latino accent) all about how his mom and dad have been teaching him and they want him to practice a lot so he can get really good. He was so excited about it, and I think that a conversation such as that can spark the idea to write about learning to tie his shoes. A lot seems to happen at recess–many students introduce me to their cousins, siblings, and neighbors that they get so excited to see during recess. In the morning and during these specific times of the day, I believe that there is a lot of potential for providing oral language opportunities to spark ideas for writing.

If there is nothing else that my students have in common, they definitely all love books! They enjoy being read to, reading, talking about their favorite books, and talking about the different parts of a story, etc. My mentor teacher incorporates a lot of “turn and talks” (when students talk to a neighbor or partner) in to her whole group instruction in order to get the students talking. I think this is an absolutely wonderful tool for allowing more than one student to share their ideas on a topic. It also keeps more of the students engaged and participating. When my mentor or I read a book to the class, we always stop to ask questions that spark critical thinking. We often have the students respond to each other through turn and talks so that everyone has a chance to share their ideas. One book that I read to my students recently was Little Pea. The students were making predictions about what would happen next, they were sharing inferences based on text evidence and picture evidence, and were discussing the main idea. Giving the students opportunities to talk to each other about reading (and questions related to text) allows them to learn from each other and build off of each others’ ideas. In addition to developing their language and communication skills, it helps increase their confidence and self-disposition because they will feel like their ideas are important. Still pertaining to books, when the students shared their “me bags” the first weeks of school, many of them brought and shared their favorite books with the class which sparked connections in the classroom and conversation about other book interests among the students. This even sparked conversation about which students have lots of books at home and which students may be lacking in that area (which is important information for the teachers to know).

If there are oral language opportunities in the classroom, then they should be reflected in some of the students writing. As I mentioned, Genessis, who has shared details about her summer trip to Disney World with the class and me at different times, wrote a small moment story about her trip. Another student, Arianna (an ELL student who speaks Spanish at home), wrote her small moment story about how she spilled her juice and had to get more juice. This reflected some oral language in the classroom because the teacher’s personal example that she shared with the class was about how she spilled her coffee and had to make more. While this example mainly highlights the power of modeling, it was still something were there was language going on as the teacher talked with the students and as the students talked with each other about their small moment ideas.

In my classroom, I have observed a lot of room for oral language opportunities, as noted by the turn and talks and recess. At this point in the year, while students are still learning the classroom routines and getting to know the teacher and each other, I think the teacher is doing a good job of providing oral language opportunities. Could there be more opportunities? I think so. I think the students could have more direction to provide those opportunities, such as a question on the board every morning that the students can talk to each other about and spark conversation. For instance, that question could be “What did you eat for dinner last night?” or “What funny joke have you heard recently?” or “What color are your socks today, and do you like them?” This can help increase student confidence, motivate them early in the morning, and can get them excited about talking to each other, with topics that this case, I would infer that her priorities right now are to get the students mastering classroom routines, center rotations, and center procedures while still putting as much emphasis on content (reading, writing, and math, in particular) as the students can successfully handle. She probably thinks that they have a lot of time to talk in comparison to how little instruction there is time for, and if she gave them more time to talk that they would engage in more off-task behaviors. While I think that there is more that my mentor could do to incorporate oral language opportunities, I strongly believe, that, over the next month or so, as the students master routines, she will find it easier to provide more, and I will bring some ideas to her attention that may also help incorporate more opportunities.

Assuming the perspective of a non-dominant student in my class (of which there are many), they may struggle to communicate sometimes and may get frustrated when they do not know how to communicate well in English, for instance. In my class, all of my students speak English well, however, many receive ELL services to help their reading in particular. Through observation, the ELL students do not seem to have a problem communicating with each other, however, I think that when there is more teacher-talking during instruction, they more easily get lost and confused. Having more partner talks is effective in keeping these students engaged and comprehending. The partner talks are also so important in giving the ELL students opportunities to practice their English and continually progress in the language. As for how they may feel about informal oral language opportunities, such as the kind that happen in the morning and during recess, I think some of the quieter ones with less dominant personalities do not get much talk time. I am thinking of my students Jeffrey, Gerson, and Kevin who tend to be much quieter, and unless they have something to spark conversation (such as a question idea on the board) they may feel like they don’t know their classmates well, or that their classmates and teacher do not know them well.

As I look deeper at the issues regarding oral language opportunities, on one side, I have to agree that many teachers do not allow children to talk because they are worried about getting through the curriculum. During transitions my mentor does not want the students talking because it may take longer for them to transition and may cause off-task behavior or distractions, thus taking away from engaged learning time. However, on another side, I agree that many teachers encourage children to talk because they know that talking helps children develop their language skills. My mentor tries very hard to get students talking to her and to each other during whole group instruction, group work, and partner work because she knows that many of the students need more experience talking to peers and adults. She incorporates the turn and talks and group work so that students can develop skills in language, communication, and collaboration. The teacher also has students partner-read each day, which means two students take turns reading a book to each other. Their language skills are very related to their reading skills. As their language skills develop, especially for English language learners, the words in a sentence will start to flow together better as they read. Reading out loud can also help develop those language skills.

This assignment has helped me identify, examine, and reflect on the different aspects of oral language opportunities in the classroom. I understand the benefits of the different forms of oral language opportunities (whether it is spontaneous, informal conversation or instruction-lead discussion) and the ways in which they help students develop language skills. I have been able to look at this through different student perspectives to help determine why it is important to incorporate them and why it may also be difficult. I have also been able to reflect about what I see in my class and how I might be able to help incorporate more oral language opportunities for my students. Some of my values as a teacher have been shaped as I finish this assignment.