________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 26. . . . March 9, 2018


How Do I Get Them to Write? Explore the Reading-Writing Connection Using Freewriting and Mentor Texts to Motivate and Empower Students.

Karen Filewych.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2017.
160 pp., trade pbk. & PDF, $24.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (PDF).
ISBN 978-1-55138-322-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55138-923-3 (PDF).

Subject Headings:
English language-Writing-Study and teaching (Elementary).
Language arts (Elementary).


Review by Barbara McNeil.

*** /4



Just as we were about to move on with the lesson, John asked to read his writing out loud. The students sat in silence as his words leapt from his page and resonated within our classroom. “I need to feel wanted. I need a friend.” The silence deepened, and I noticed some nervous, awkward glances around the classroom. Though the words were simple, his topic was much more personal, poignant, and more immediately significant than the others had been, including my own. He was tentative at first and then with more conviction, he shared his feelings of isolation and despair.

As I listened, I felt the tears welling up and as I looked around the class, I knew I was not alone (p. 13)


Driven by concern for learners and passion for the core content of teaching, professional teachers are frequently motivated to share their evolving understandings with others. How Do I Get Them to Write? exemplifies such ambitions.

     The “Introduction” states that the book is a “tool for teaching writing” as an “essential life skill, as a craft that can be taught, and as a gift of empowerment.”

     Chapter One, “Developing a Community of Learners”, is founded on the idea that writing, reading, and other literacy practices are community-based, social practices that thrive through the use of “[o]ngoing modelling and [d]ialogue” to engender support, acceptance, motivation, mutual respect, and environments safe enough for contribution and risk-taking by all members (pp. 11-13). To build communities of learners, the author enjoins teachers to create inviting physical environments through “Inspiration stations”, spaces for positive graffiti, and to hold regular morning meetings (pp. 15-18). The chapter emphasizes valuing and appreciating learners and their writing efforts.

     The focus of Chapter Two is “Setting Up the Year: Planning and Preparation”. Filewych discusses the school supplies needed by writers, time management (e.g., the importance of routines for maximum production), and samples of weekly as well as monthly year plans by grade level (1-6). A weekly mentor text is proposed, and to illustrate, mentor texts with a “cultural component” and those representing the Indigenous population are featured on p. 24. The mentor texts are intended to encourage use of diverse literature and cultural responsiveness. However, Filewych does not provide much information about the featured texts.

     Chapter Three concerns “Creating a Healthy Attitude Towards Assessment”. The author draws on her early lived experiences to remind us that assessment of learning provides a snapshot and is best treated with the attitude of “Its Only One Test.” For Filewych, the best assessment is one that promotes learning.

     In addition, teachers are urged to “engage in conversations about strengths, challenges, and learning styles to help our students develop a healthy perspective towards assessment.” Promotion of this type of respectful, dialogic engagement about assessment with learners is much needed and so, too, is the exhortation to “encourage … students to view assessment as a tool for self-improvement." Admirable for its wisdom, heart-felt compassion for, and ambition to grow writers, this chapter makes the strong point that writing conferences are powerful examples of assessment for learning.

     “Freewriting” is the focus of Chapter Four where Filewych offers compelling testimonial as to its ability to “uncover” students’ voices (p. 37). Freewrites—“short, timed periods where our pens or pencils or fingers on the keyboard do not stop. No rereading, stopping, crossing out or fixing up at this stage” (p. 37). Readers are reminded that the “trick” is to have writers “rewrite the prompt any time the hand stops moving” (p. 37) and to adjust the length of time provided based on writers’ engagement and evolving experience with this approach. Furthermore, there is a sincere and strong recommendation for teachers to write with their students. Stressing that it is often “through the process of freewriting that we begin to hear the voice of our student writers coming through”, freewriting is heralded as the backbone of writing programs.

     Short and spicy, Chapter Five is about “Journal Writing”—its purposes (e.g., a tool for sharing experiences, feelings, and opinions, reflection and coping) for students in Kindergarten (first through pictures) through Grades 7). There are multiple ideas for generating topics and a discussion of math and visual journals and their assessment.

     “Narrative Writing” is featured in Chapter Six. Informative but dense, the chapter is best consumed in small portions. Literature is the pivot around which an extensive variety of ideas for narrative writing are presented. They include teaching learners to write the following: plot patterns, and Transformational, Stuck, Circle, and Competition stories. To support their teaching, each narrative text is featured with a list of “effective mentor texts”. Along with the preceding, there are writing tips relevant to teaching: narrative structure, dialogue using wordless and picture books, character development (using character webs), setting and graphic organizers/templates etc. to enable such textual productions.

     Chapter Seven addresses “Transactional Writing”—the production of functional texts in response to “authentic scenarios” for real audiences (p. 82). Highlighted are letters, cards, opinion pieces, persuasive writing, expository texts, and newspaper articles. The author enacts the promise of the title by providing mentor texts that allow for immersion in the sub-genres while serving as “effective” examples that are models for students’ writing. Moreover, there is a rubric for each of the transactional texts explored and pointers for guiding students to success in such “real writing experiences” useful for classrooms and beyond. Solid!

     The work of Chapter Eight is “The Playfulness of Poetry”. Brief yet bountiful. The preamble, like all others in the book, whets the appetite and is evident in the following: “Poetry can enhance an individual’s memory, stir the imagination, evoke emotion, and help conjure up imagery…” (p. 97). Agreed.

     Two refreshing recommendations are that teachers self-check to assess their attitudes to poetry prior to teaching it so that they can teach it more “productively” and that they lean into discovering “the pleasure it holds” (p. 98). To that end, Filewych offers a Poetry Resource List for Grades 1-6 and provides a practical three-week framework for teaching poetry. As well, assessment for writing and presentation are addressed and accompanied with rubrics for each.

     Chapter Nine is about “Reader Response and Author Studies”. Filewych shares gems from her practice, such as extensive lists of questions, alternative forms of writing prompts as well as prompts for nonfiction reader response (pp. 109-110). As for author studies, the topic is well-contextualized, and lists of authors relevant to learners from K-3 and 4-6 are presented. Filewych supplies specific strategies for promoting “response and skills” during author studies (e.g., compare and contrast, textual analysis, persuade and debate). Additionally, the authors suggested are worthy of such recognition but, yet again, those featured are predominantly mainstream.

     Entitled “Teaching Skills”, Chapter 10 contains tip-top information that stresses processes, products, and the meaning making of writing, not “mechanics and grammar”. Thus, the target of teachers’ gaze is convincing students “that what they have to say is important” through the use of “literary conversations” stemming from mini-lessons (p. 118). Bingo!

     Filewych emphasizes the use of mentor texts to learn from the writing of professionals and guided writing as indispensable to demonstrating the “different stages of the writing process” (p. 123). The specific skills she addresses are: Ideas and content (e.g., writing with detail, relevance, clarity, and the influence of genre); Organization (e.g., discussing what disorganization looks like, the structures of different text-types, and use of effective transitions); Voice; Word Choice; Sentence fluency; Revision and Editing. The author is consistent in liking each of the foregoing skills to “effective mentor texts” where the skills are demonstrated by professionals. Since the mentor texts reflect Filewych’s identity and interests, users of her book may add to them to reflect theirs as well as that of their students and wider communities.

     Chapter 11 centers “Emergent Writers: Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Beyond”. Underlining that “a key goal in Kindergarten and Grade 1 … is exposure to literacy”, Filewych recommends surrounding students with “environmental print and quality literature” (p. 133) and reminds us that they are “developmentally ready to tackle …writing.” To illustrate, the author uses samples of student writing to explicitly show seven stages of emergent writing (random marks or scribbling, representational drawing, drawing with distinct attempts at writing, using mock letters, letters and letter strings, invented spelling, conventional and spelling etc.)

     “English Language Learners and Reluctant Writers” hold the floor in Chapter 12. For such learners, recognizing and understanding fears, caring, safe, welcoming, and low stress environments are advocated. The following are also proposed: use of freewriting for “reluctant writers”, morning meetings, prewriting discussions, differentiation, heightened modelling and scaffolding, building on background knowledge, overt teaching of word patterns and families, deliberate teaching of vocabulary and many of the fine ideas shared in earlier chapters. With reference to assessment, there is depth and soundness to the exhortation to “personalize it” with much that is positive.

     Chapter 13, “Daring to Begin…” is where readers are invited and challenged to take up the crusade of creating writers and, if hesitant, to begin today. Similar to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Filewych, convincingly champions that reading and writing actually pay off for self and others (p. 155).

     As the title suggests, How Do I Get Them to Write? is intended for teachers who want and need to woo students to write. Pedagogically sound for the most part, and filled with authentic stories, and strategies galore, this is a work motivated by conviction about the power of writing, compassion for students, and celebratory commitment to teaching. A mentor text indeed.


Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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