Teacher to teacher

Creating workshops for young writers

It’s never too soon to teach students how to become writers. In fact, I begin setting up the rituals and routines for a writer’s workshop on the first full day of kindergarten. Depending on your class situation and available time, the activities involved in such a workshop can work their way into almost every unit of study.

For kindergarten students, whose skills can vary greatly, the goal is to move pre-emergent and emergent readers into a writing process that begins with them creating stories through drawings. I then use these to generate a sentence that will serve as the basis for a writer’s workshop that can continue throughout the school year.

In September I find that my students are usually eager to share stories about their summer vacation. In my writing center I cut out paper letters to spell “Look what I found at the beach,” and I have a few common items on the shelf that can be found there such as seashells. I also put writing utensils such as golf pencils and blank paper there. I tape the sentence on a wall at my students’ eye level and read it aloud frequently throughout the day so they eventually memorize it.

The cut-out words and beach items start conversations that foster really great storytelling and ultimately good writing. After a time the basic sentence is replaced by other high-frequency phrases such as “I love you,” “I can,” “I like” and commonly used words like “mom” and “dad.”

The setup of the writing center is just as crucial and affects students’ work as much as your lessons do. Offering students too many choices in the beginning can be overwhelming and ultimately limiting. Consider paper choice, for example. Try putting out only two sizes of blank paper, one 8.5 by 11 inches and another about half that size. When children use the center try asking them, “Are you going to write a little or a lot?” This prompts them to think about the writing process and what their subjects will be. It also reinforces the “Think, Tell, Write” mantra that many early childhood educators use.

Proper writing tools also make a huge difference. Small, thin golf pencils and broken crayons are best. Pencils should be kept sharp or their writing will be too light. Broken crayons are just the right size and support hand muscle strengthening, which will improve handwriting. If you prefer markers, then consider fine tips because broad ones do not allow for detail and may cover children’s work.

It is essential that teachers use appropriate terminology. For example, I stress very early on the differences between the drawings they do during free time and art class and their writings and drawings I call “story pictures” created during the workshop. While the drawing is being done I like to ask, “Do your pictures match your words?” This will make the writers stop and think and bring them back if they have strayed off topic.

After the story picture is complete, the authors can add “labels” in the form of a letter or word that describes it. Then it is time for another round of conferring where we add details and make sure the pictures and words match. After reviewing the work several times, we are ready to publish. This is when the markers or crayons are used to add color.

As students improve I allow them to tackle new and exciting tasks. In December or January I give each child a black and white marbled notebook that serves as a journal they get to decorate and make unique. Each Monday after their morning routines the children get their journals from the writing center and write about their weekend.

Another workshop element is book making. Children learn through the reading of emergent storybooks the elements of a story and that they all have a beginning, middle and end. With their skill level increasing and their confidence growing, they become very interested in making books. I keep on hand paper with one, two and three lines for writing and paper in bright, bold colors or colored card stock for book covers that make their finished products vivid and exciting.

These basics can work throughout the year because students always need to be mindful about the writing process. The most important thing for educators is setting up the proper circumstances for them to succeed.

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