Creative Writing or Creative Mess – 7 steps to support children with emergent writing skills

There was a knock on my door one morning – a struggling  Grade 1 student had been sent over to  show me her  morning journal entry.   Her ‘story’ read something like this (my spelling, punctuation, etc):

I like my Mom.  I like my Dad.  I like my brother.  I like my dog.  I like my teacher.  . . . . .

As I flipped back through other pages, I saw the same story over and over, without proper letter sizing, spacing, capitalization, punctuation and spelling.  What was this child learning?

I understand the rationale behind, ‘just let them write’ and, yes, a daily journal is a way to do that.  Certainly children need to learn how to express themselves in print.  But the whole idea behind the term ‘practice’ is to get better at something.  By practicing improper skills, children simply get much better at doing things incorrectly.   Setting expectations for proper presentation will not hamper creativity!

Here are some steps that will get your students producing great pieces of creative writing:

  1. Model story writing. Write stories together (on the board, chart paper, etc.) modeling  proper letter formations with correct size and spacing, proper use of capitals and punctuation, proper spelling of sight words and use of descriptive language.  Verbalize as you go – “I’d better remember my capital letter at the beginning of the sentence.”  “that ‘y’ has to hang down.”   “Help me spell ‘what’.”  “Can we think of a word to describe the cat?”  Sometimes it is fun to make a mistake or model messy printing and see if the pick it up.    
  2. Use patterned sentences. Instead of the ‘I like’ story above, start with “I like _____because ______.  Again, model these first, encouraging them to expand on their ideas –  eg.  I like my Mom because she is nice.  Can you tell me 3 things your Mom does that makes her nice?  I like my Mom because she cooks good dinners, helps me with reading and plays with me.   Introduce terms such as ‘first’, ‘then’, ‘next’, ‘after’ to develop story sequencing.
  3. Set expectations. Through the modeling process, let children know that you expect them to form their letters properly (I recommend interlined paper to help with this initially), put spaces between words,  spell basic sight words correctly (provide them with a dictionary, word ring, list, word wall, etc),  and use capitals and punctuation.  You can also discuss staying on topic and using descriptive language.
  4. Provide them with story starters. I can remember struggling to think of something to write about – not all children can just come up with an idea and write.  There are many lists of story starters available.  To start with, I recommend having children write about familiar things or experiences.  (Yesterday, on the field trip, we . . .  On the weekend, my friend and I  . . .   Last night, . . .  My pet . . . At Grandma’s . . . )
  5. Monitor and support as they are writing. This is a great time to watch for lesson ideas.  If you see a number of students doing the same thing (eg.  printing upper case K in the middle of a word, forgetting capitals), review those things in your next modeling session or develop a review lesson.     If you can catch and correct errors  as they are working, there is a better chance they will use the correct strategy as they continue.
  6. Share examples of writing. While you are circulating, read their work aloud, sharing examples of interesting words and sentences.   Just another form of modeling!
  7. Keep it fun! Try to give students a purpose for writing – share with each other,  big buddies, the Principal, the Librarian, the Learning Assistant,  Educational Assistant, parents, etc.  or  compile into a class book or video of them reading.  Give them an opportunity to illustrate their  stories.    Put their stories up on display in the classroom or hallway.   Use unique formats:  foldable books, audio recordings, pages in a shape, a rainbow book with colored paper, to name just a few.   Instead of just pulling out a journal every day, we  want them to look forward to creative writing sessions.

My Kindergarten teacher used these ideas with a Grade 1 classroom one year.     She set her expectations and then went about supporting the students to ensure they met those expectations.    After teaching and modeling the necessary skills,  those students were producing incredible creative writing projects, with proper presentation,  by late winter.     These students practiced the skills they needed to learn to become writers and, as a result, they became good writers.

We all know the adage “Practice makes perfect.”   That has been adapted to say “Practice makes permanent.”   If we are going to have children practicing something, we may as well have them practice doing it correctly  or the incorrect skills will become permanent.