Article #18
Getting the Most Out of Young Writers In the Writing Block
Cheryl M. Sigmon

For many teachers implementing 4-Blocks, the Writing Block is a totally new part of their instructional program. For many others, it means continuing with a Writers' Workshop approach that they have employed for quite some time. Whatever the level of comfort a teacher might feel in delivering this block, several issues should be explored and considered.

First, let's remind ourselves of the two major purposes of the Writing Block. First and foremost, the block provides a much needed opportunity for kids to apply their knowledge of phonics. Someone once said that writing is "reading from the inside out" which is certainly true. Whereas many do not fully understand why it is even included as one of the four approaches to teaching kids to read, a child's own attempts at writing are their best attempts at what they understand the sounds of letters/symbols to be, to make sense of the squiggly lines they see on paper, and to make a connection between the more familiar verbal and the less familiar written language. This is one reason why the 4-Blocks teacher does not spell for children during this block--not because the teacher doesn't have the time (which also may be true!) or the sensitivity, but because "stretching out" the sounds and translating to the paper is the valuable skill being encouraged here. It is through this approach-teaching and providing opportunities for children to write-that many students will actually learn to read.

The second major purpose is to teach children the power of the written word as a part of the writing process. Writing definitely must be an integral part of a comprehensive language arts model, one of the cornerstones of literacy and communication. In this block daily, the teacher models good writing as an introduction and includes a focused mini-lesson that will support growth of the students as writers. This process will also develop the confidence of young writers, which in turn will impact upon their growth.

With the major purposes being clarified, let's tackle the questions and concerns heard from many teachers:

"What do I do about students who just won't write during this time?"

Give them time! Take a close look at the tone you have set for this block. Be sure that you have conveyed to children that you will accept them at their own developmental stage of writing. In the beginning of the year (or even now if you haven't prepared them), spend considerable time modeling for children the various ways that they can "write" during this sustained time. You will need to do some model lessons where you show them how to tell a story through drawing pictures and labeling them (driting) if most of the kids are able to write a word or copy them from the pictionary wall. If some are not advanced enough for writing words to label their "telling" pictures, you will need to model scribble and writing some letters that represent the sounds they might hear in the words they want to use. You will need to continue to look at kids' individual work to know when to encourage them to move to the next stage of writing.

Be sure that with emergent writers you refer to the daily activity of writing as "telling" which simplifies the concept for them. Begin your model lesson with, "What can I tell you today?" and begin their writing with, "Now what will you tell me today in your writing?" Some just need to understand that what can be spoken can also be written and that writing doesn't necessitate creating a masterpiece-it's just telling someone something!

If you feel that you have established a risk-free environment, you or an assistant or volunteer might need to offer more support for a student or two who just can't seem to get started. Some children aren't convinced that they have anything worthy of telling in their writing. Someone may need to brainstorm with the child about what he might write and then encourage him to get started.

"My students won't write if I don't give them a topic."

Usually this is a learned behavior. Either you have started your year by giving the assignments or last year's teacher has conditioned the students to think that all writing must be "on demand" rather than self-generated. When you model your writing daily, include in your model lesson how you come up with your topics. "Let's see. What do I want to tell you about today? I could tell you about the ball game I went to last weekend that was so much fun. Or, I could tell you about what my cat did last night that made me laugh. Or, ..." Let them know that writing about everyday kinds of things is what you expect. If they know they will be writing daily, they'll soon be on the lookout for topics as they go through their day. Usually within a couple of weeks, kids--even those who have always been given the topic--will easily come up with their own topics. For the days when they have "writer's block," which we all get occasionally, you might have a jar or block of topics and story starters that they can draw from. You might tell them that they can draw from this only once every 2-3 weeks so that they won't rely on it. Remember, too, to remind them of things they share with you that would make good writing topics. If in the morning, they come in telling you what they found on the way to school, or what their sister did, etc., reply, "Oh, I hope you'll decide to write about that in our Writing Block today. I would love for you to share that!"

"My students just don't know enough about grammar, mechanics, and usage for writing to be productive for them. Shouldn't I wait a while to start my writers' workshop?"

Writing is HOW students learn why they need to know more about grammar, mechanics and usage. Teaching those skills separate from writing is meaningless for most students. When they see how the use of a comma changes meaning, how quotation marks help them understand who is talking, and how certain verbs agree with certain subjects, then they will see that this knowledge is important and useful. Exercises of underlining subjects and verbs in meaningless sentences that are disconnected from each other are not likely to make the impact on students that we once had hoped they would.

"I can never find time for my kids to share daily, so aren't I okay in having them share once a week?"

Sharing among students is extremely important even if only a couple of students a day get to share. The sharing serves a number of purposes. First, when writing is shared many students get good ideas for their own writing topics. Second, both getting to share and hearing others share motivates students to write and to improve their writing. Third, students develop their listening skills during these sharing activities. Fourth, this sharing is a method of publishing and is extremely motivational for students. Fifth, devoting time towards students' sharing shows that student writing is valued. That is not always apparent to students.

These five reasons along should justify the five or so minutes that it takes to bring closure to the Writing Block.

"Doesn't it just make good sense to have the kids write about the same thing I write about every day? If we're all starting new pieces at the same time, they can do a better job of supporting each other, and I can do a better job of monitoring what they're doing."

Many teachers feel that they don't have "control" of the class when the students are all "doing their own thing." However, kids will write best and most about what they know best and most about. In fact, we adults share the same sentiment. Teachers can model writing daily and can teach a mini-lesson. The majority of the time, however, after that introductory segment, the students should begin to write on topics of their own interests and choosing. Some will be starting a first draft, some will be continuing with a piece they previously started, some will be working on revisions and editing with the teacher, and some will be working on publishing their work. It takes some practice and skill on the part of the teacher for the workshop approach to work, but before long it runs like clockwork. The greatest reward is seeing the students take responsibility for their own work and pacing.

"Is publishing students' work a necessary part of the Writing Block? I just can't seem to get it all done!"

Publishing will motivate students like nothing else you can possibly do! Once the first student in the class publishes, all students want to get their work published. Most teachers allow students to publish in a book format, which seems to be the favorite format of most students. Maybe you're making the publishing process more difficult than it needs to be. Keep it simple and let students be creative. Just put materials of all sorts in the publishing center--a variety of colored paper, cardstock or construction paper for book covers, crayons and markers, shapes of paper, pencils and pens---whatever will help spark kids' imagination. (An upcoming article will go in-depth into the process of publishing.)

"Are commercial daily oral language activities a part of the model during the Writing Block?"

No! If these exercises are required in your school, they may be used as introduction into the block; however, the purpose of those types of exercises can more effectively be achieved in the context of your model writing. Usually these exercises have 2-4 uninteresting sentences that are not connected in thought to each other which have a number of errors in them to be corrected by the students. The teacher has the same opportunity to sharpen students' editing skills by making a few mistakes in the model lesson. This is in the context of real writing which is most effective and most appropriate.

These are only a few of the questions teachers have in making their Writing Block more successful both as an approach to reading and as a way to help students become better readers and writers. In the coming weeks, we'll discuss some of the specific aspects of this block, especially in the area of publishing.

4 Blocks Goodies