We do not learn to write by writing; we learn to write by reading (Krashen 2; Smith 558). Writing can (1) assess and celebrate growth and (2) give students a voice and engage them with text so they will want to read more.
Writing serves its purpose best when we allow children to write on their own timetable with limited correction or prompting. No comprehension questions, only good stories and blank paper (and maybe a candy cane or other such silliness around Christmas).
Today was this little boy’s first day in US schools. He understood nothing all morning, so when he sat down to listen during Story Listening time, he was petrified. We told a fable about a weary traveler who found a magical tree. The tree gave him a magic apple to re-energize him. It gave him a magic walking stick to empower him on his journey. As the story unfolded, I saw the transformation physically overtake this little boy much like the character.
Afterwards, he copied the caption/label from a model. This simple, early writing was not scary and gave him something to walk out the door with that proved that he came, saw, and conquered on his first day in US schools.
Later, the science teacher confiscated this and gave it to me, complaining that he was doodling in class. (I wonder why?) His character grew muscles and flexed! Sitting for hours in incomprehensible mainstream classes, this little boy revisited that moment when he understood a compelling story and could show it on paper.
Another student, who’s been here since August, added a playful and unique voice.
This student chose to write his own text, although I gave children the option of copying or adapting a model if needed. The word “jealous” is misspelled because I had erased it. Though it was only on the board for a few minutes, that was all it took for him to feel comfortable trying out this new word. The dialogue and “ha ha!” were flourishes based on his understanding of the character. Self-directed response to text and stories celebrates children’s creative expression, even with very limited language.
Note that for early learners, I did not have children retell the whole story. I gave them a concrete moment from the story to retell. Alternately, Dr. Beniko Mason allows students to choose their favorite scene or character to retell.
The candy walking stick was a visual prompt and adds a little whimsy. Allowing students to dictate ideas to you or write in L1 is perfectly acceptable for beginners as well. I did not correct errors or spend more than a five minutes on this activity. This time was used simply to remind children that we can share our reactions to stories we love.
Krashen, S. (2014) The Composing Process. Research Journal: Ecolint Institute of Teaching and Learning. International School of Geneva. 2: 20-30.
Smith, F. (1983). Reading Like a Writer. Language Arts, (60)5: 558-567