CM . . . . Volume XX Number 23 . . . . February 14, 2014
The teaching of writing in elementary schools leaves me breathless. It is an act of belief, faith, hope, commitment to hard-work, and of course, continuous improvement for continuous empowerment-a splendid blend of practice and possibility that we cannot do without. Janine Reid, Betty Schultze and Ulla Petersen know this and share their collective knowledge and passion for writing in a revised version of What's Next for This Beginning Writer?
The original publication, What's Next for This Beginning Writer? Mini-lessons That Take Writing from Scribbles to Script, was written in a format that posed, explored, and responded to 10 of the most frequent questions that teachers asked the authors about teaching beginning writers. The question and answer format of the first version was complemented by well-developed mini lessons. This format is maintained in the revised version where the authors expand on the most important feature of the book-the section where they establish "A Foundation for Writing Instruction". Here, the authors add two new questions to the original 10: What is the role of oral language in the Writing Workshop? and, How do I continue to grow as a writing teacher? These are important additions-especially the discussion about the role of oral language. I share the authors perspective that the "speaking-listening conversation that is oral language is the precursor to the reader-writer conversation that is written language" (p. 13) and often invite my students to "speak it" before they "write it."
However, the emphasis placed on oral language in the book is inattentive to the needs of deaf, hard of hearing, and other students who may require an array of alternative strategies to support their writing development. Therefore, for deaf, hard of hearing and other children with special needs, this book is best used in conjunction with human and other resources attuned to their needs. With regard to the second question added in this new version of the book (continuous growth for writing teachers), the posing of the question, itself, sends a vibrant and valid message to teachers about the need for repurposing and the necessity for continuous learning and pedagogical growth for writing teachers.
Along with an introductory discussion about writing, the revised version maintains the inclusion of "craft mini lessons for Writing Workshop." These are practical, easy-to-follow, and substantive mini lessons useful for propelling the development of beginning writers and is a gift for beginning teachers-Kindergarten and Grade 1.
As the opening quote indicates, Reid, Schultze and Petersen take a social constructivist, socio-linguistic approach to the teaching of writing. Their work is anchored in the social learning theories of Vygostsky (1978) and use Vygotskian inspired concepts such as the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which they refer to as the "Learning Zone" to illustrate the developmentalist approach they use and advocate. The authors merit credit for making it clear that the writing pedagogy used in classrooms is driven by beliefs (stated or implied) and that these beliefs should be, as theirs are, explicitly stated. The overt statement of the theories, values, and assumptions underlying teachers' writing pedagogy is desirable practice because it allows administrators, parents and others to understand what teachers do and to comment on and critique the theories in the interest of cultivating responsiveness and effectiveness in meeting learners' needs.
The book rests on the foundational belief that writing is a learned social practice aided and abetted by a knowledgeable and supportive teacher who believes that children can and will learn how to write in print-rich social contexts that are conducive for doing so. As a result, the book correctly pays significant attention to instruction-what teachers can do and how they can intervene to support beginning writers. Also, the book exudes confidence in suggesting that children will move along a continuum of writing with guidance and mentoring from a supportive teacher who knows what to "notice about a child's writing and how to meet each child at an appropriate developmental level and provide the nudge towards the next level" (p. 8).
To illustrate, in item eight of "A Foundation for Writing Instruction", the authors include an easy to follow table showing a sequence of a writing development continuum: "From Scribbles to Competency: A Developmental Continuum". The table names five stages: (picture development, oral language that precedes writing, hearing and recording sounds, spelling, printing and punctuation, and writing development). Each stage consists of 13 levels that show the progression of skills as beginning writers move along the continuum. Users are encouraged to use the table with writing samples included in the book (e.g., p. 24). The table is instrumental for analyzing children's writing development and advantageous for gleaning the language to describe and represent it. I offer kudos for the inclusion of this table.
Along with the above, the "Foundation for Writing Instruction" section of the book contains much useful information. Namely, it provides forthright answers to practitioner questions such as these: When should I start teaching writing? (... [D]uring the first days that students attend Kindergarten). Is scribing for students a good idea (No, even in the early stages, teachers do not need to scribe for children. Children, themselves, must do the hard work and have control over their writing)? Doesn't reading come first? (No, they are done in tandem). How do I encourage students to write? (Celebrate success ..., Let students draw before they write). How should I deal with writing conventions? (Accept invented spelling, accept kidwriting). And, this question, How do I continue to grow as a writing teacher? (Find a friend! Build a community!).
Typically, the preceding and other questions posed in the book are answered clearly and in a manner that floodlights the authors' extensive classroom experience and history in listening to, learning from, and mentoring classroom teachers. The information provided comes from the living laboratory of lived classroom experiences and is a laudable offering for frontline educators. As for the writing, itself, it is cogent and direct; and the advice given is clear and precise. Consider the following for example: Keep students safe [when they take risks in writing]; Give students support in topic choice; Warm up with good stories read aloud; Let students draw before they write, and Have students share orally with a partner. Though this is not new information for experienced teachers, the style the authors use to present it succeeds in attracting readers' attention. Moreover, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of such information for beginning teachers and those unfamiliar with these offerings. It is what they want and need-dependable advice from seasoned professional practitioners. The ideas presented satisfy teachers' hunger for strategies whose potential have been tested with, and by, teachers and students in authentic learning environments. As a for instance, I found the "key questions for regular writing debriefings" irresistible. The questions include:
The above examples illustrate the strong emphasis Reid, Schultze and Petersen place on the teacher-student dialogue, the friendly, supportive, and nurturing conversation that are vital to writing development in Writing Workshop. Such jewels of instructional advice are generously strewn throughout the book.
Following the segment that lays the foundation for writing development are 23 "not to be missed" mini lessons. This is where the book shines, and my experience with beginning teachers tells me that they will benefit from the plenitude of credible writing samples that are included. An added bonus is the rich discussion provided with the samples. These examples of children's writing are precious gems from which beginning, as well as more experienced, teachers can learn about the production of early writers.
Because the generous provision of authentic writing samples found in book are the production of beginning writers, they are written as children wrote them-phonetically, showing youngster's valiant attempts to represent the sounds and syntax of their language in print. Kidwriting (e.g., invented spelling) as the authors call it, is the centrepiece of the book, and users are given ample evidence of the invented spellings of beginning writers. Through the provision of excellent samples and related analysis, readers see some typical features present at various stages of children's early writing developmental.
To facilitate reader's understanding of the meaning of children's words found in each writing sample, the authors rewrite the words in conventional English-the English of wider communication, and place them adjacent to the writing samples. These translated, decoded, and analyzed kidwriting samples populate the book and are among its greatest assets. By way of the samples, the authors underline the importance of noticing and learning from children's drawings and words-the fruits of youngsters' writing labour. Not only is the importance of noticing children's writing made clear, the authors succeed in teaching readers how to read and validate this writing. Furthermore, the writing samples are generally accompanied by beneficial explanations, insights, and tips that buttress users' understanding of the messages embedded in children's writing and how teachers can propel its growth.
Throughout each of the generally short chapters where craft lessons are offered, the authors use a commendable framework comprised of the following: Celebrating success, Extending the language, Extending the writing, and Setting a goal. From these, teachers can garner the affirming language needed to deploy the strategies with confidence and for success. Available as well are excellent tips for integrating the "Interactive White board" in the teaching of writing.
In addition, each craft/mini lesson chapter (I use the word loosely here) explains how teachers can identify an instructional focus, get ready, teach the lesson of focus, prompt student review, and monitor student progress.. The clear and explicit teaching that I found in this book makes it a prized item for teacher candidates, in-service teachers--particularly those in locations where they might not necessarily have access to experienced mentors to whom they can turn for help and advice about the teaching of writing to beginning or striving writers. Added to this richness are ideas for prompting student review (e.g., "Can you tell me your story?") and ideas for monitoring student progress (e.g., Are students able to make some letter shapes to represent writing; are some students able to use copied words in their story in a meaningful way? (p. 51). I applaud the high valency Reid, Schultze and Petersen place on the writing conversations, the writing talk that teachers need to have with students in Writing Workshop.
As I draw this review to a close, I am mindful that much that recommends this very good book has to go unmarked. To make up for this, I invite teachers to go on their own journey through Reid, Schultze and Petersen's versatile compendium--one laden with bountiful ideas for provoking development in writing. I know more now than when I began reading it. However, there are things to quibble about. The important construct of Writing Workshop needs to be defined, laid out, and more explicitly explained in one place early in the book so that it is easy for readers to refer back to it with ease. Another item that gives discomfort in this revised version of the book is the limited racial diversity among the authors' favourite books-especially the absence of indigenous content (p. 139). Such books surround us and are vital if we are to validate all the identities of beginning writers and "know them as writers and people" as the authors suggest. However, readers can supplement the list provided by the authors with works by diverse Canadian and other writers. An aspect of the book that should be re-worked in the next iteration is related to its organization. There appears to be a deliberate decision to omit the word chapter. The organization of the book is problematic and some users (like me) may find it confounding. The atypical organization detracts from an otherwise, worthwhile book.
All considered, the revised version of What's Next for This Beginning Writer? is a valuable teaching resource-a sterling collection of mini lessons. The appendices have much to offer and include welcomed items such as "Tips for Teaching ESL Learners about Writing" and "Criteria for Stretching a Personal Moment". The book is a reminder of the human capacity to create, (re)create and revise-ideas that beginning writers will be guided to understand and practice through use of this important contribution about writing.
Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.