Instruction: Current Practices in the Classroom
Dr. Carl B Smith
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
the past forty years, the emphasis in writing instruction has shifted
from product to process. A companion ERIC Digest entitled Writing
Instruction: Changing Views over the Years gives an overview of this
development during the period from 1960 to the present. The present
digest focuses on the experiences of a few teachers as they searched
for ways to put the principles of process writing into practice in
found that writer's workshops are effective in helping students master
the principles of process writing in particular. "The term 'writer's
workshop' refers to an environment conceived to encourage written
expression." Because writing is difficult and risky, "children
need to know that their environment is a predictable, safe place for
them to take risks" (Bunce-Crim, 1991; cited in Bayer, 1999,
Students can gain
benefit from writer's workshop even as early as first grade. Fisher
(1995) says that "writing workshop is an essential part of the
curriculum in my first grade classroom, and almost every morning the
children are involved in self-selected writing endeavors" (p.
1). The day often begins with some children talking about projects
they are planning to write, completing work begun earlier, or starting
a project that will take some time to complete.
In order for the
workshop to be meaningful and productive, Fisher relies on these guidelines:
"a positive attitude of trust and commitment; an understanding
of the process of writing; an orderly arrangement of materials; a
predictable daily routine; and a clearly defined role for me as teacher"
(1995, p. 1). Because writing is essential for literacy development,
Fisher provides time for writing every day. Thus, children come to
know that they will have "daily opportunities to pursue their
own topics, work by themselves or with friends, and begin a new piece
every day or work on a story or book over time" (p. 1)
The workshop begins
with rehearsal, which allows time for children to plan their writing
and to think, talk, and read. As students work through the drafting,
revising, and editing stages, they are encouraged to think and talk
and to work with the teacher or other students. Finally, they share
their work with others.
With young children,
a systematic organization of materials is essential. Furthermore,
a predictable routine helps children get organized first thing in
the morning. In fact, "Many of the children have already begun
writing even before we formally start the day as a group at the rug
area" (p. 2). Following this shared time, children continue to
read while waiting to share their work with others. Fisher reads aloud
to the class during the day so that children can hear different models
of written language. Also, frequent mini-lessons are used to focus
on specific areas of writing such as procedures (using a folder),
strategies (such as using books to inspire topics), qualities of good
writing, and skills (p. 2).
Bayer (1999) evaluated
a first-grade class to find out whether or not students actually became
more confident, proficient writers after participating in a writer's
workshop. Children actively participated in the workshop two or three
times a week, and each session began with a mini-lesson of five to
ten minutes in which children were introduced to specific topics such
as sentence structure, correct capitalization, punctuation, and grammar.
After the mini-lesson the actual writing began, with the teacher modeling
her own writing along with the children. The teacher worked with individuals
as needed, helping each child focus on the appropriate step in the
writer's workshop, each child was asked to answer the following questions:
- How do you
feel when your teacher says that it is writing time?
- Do you like
to write? Why or why not?
- Do you like
the teacher to give you a topic or do you like to decide on a topic
- How would you
describe yourself as a writer?
The same questions
were asked during the final weeks of the workshop. "The results
of the pretest and posttest attitude questionnaire proved by a large
margin that writing workshops improve the feelings and attitudes that
first graders have about writing, as well as how they feel about themselves"
(Bayer, 1999, p. 6). For example, the percentage of children who looked
forward to writing time almost doubled; those who said they liked
to write jumped from 25% to 71%.
Although the preceding
comments suggest that children benefit greatly from writer's workshops,
there are potential problems that need to be considered. Sudol and
Sudol (1991) discuss some of the questions that arose during the adoption
of the process approach and of writer's workshop in a fifth-grade
classroom taught by Peg Sudol.
In the first place,
there is the question of time. Although some advocate as much as an
hour of writing each day, it is difficult to devote this much time
when other subjects must be taught as well. Also, it is desirable
for students to choose their own topics, but teachers may be bound
by curriculum requirements and may have to teach specific kinds of
writing (Sudol & Sudol, 1991, p. 294). Another problem relates
to pacing and deadlines. It is true that writers don't all work at
the same pace, so students should not be expected to do so either.
However, a few students had difficulty ever completing any project.
In addition, students were often put off by workshops devoted to assigned
writing types. Finally, even when the workshop is well organized,
there may still be problems with children who can't generate their
own topics or who disrupt the process because of other problems outside
In general, the
experience of Peg Sudol was positive in spite of the problems encountered
early on. "In the main, her children enjoyed the writing. (Now
they moaned and groaned whenever the workshop was canceled.) They
wrote more than any of her previous students, and the quality of their
writing was better" (1991, p. 299). Among the most productive
parts of the writer's workshop were the mini-lessons, in which students
could address problems such as run-on sentences within the context
of their own writing, not in abstract textbook lessons.
also addresses this question about writer's workshops. In an interview,
Regie Routman (1995) asked what should be said to teachers who can't
find time for writing because of other curricular demands. Graves's
reply was that "we need to look realistically at the ways we
waste time." This happens when "we don't listen to kids"
and when "we're not observing kids and adapting our teaching
accordingly." Furthermore, "we waste enormous amounts of
time by expecting kids to do things that are impossible" and
by "doing too much for children" (Routman, 1995, p. 524).
If these time-wasters are eliminated, more time will remain for writing.
points out that journal writing is a good way to begin implementing
a writing workshop because journals can "promote fluency in reading
and writing, encourage risk taking, provide opportunities for reflection,
and promote the development of written language conventions"
(p. 233). However, in spite of these obviously desirable features
of journal writing, the advantages can be lost if teachers fail to
monitor students' work and don't let them know what is expected of
All too often,
children's journals are flawed by sloppy, careless writing and frequent
misspellings of easy words. Furthermore, they seldom show clear improvement
over time. Routman believes this is because journal writing is too
often used as a time filler, not as something the children feel is
really worthwhile. In many cases, teachers do not provide any guidance
for journal writing. They also tend to assign topics rather than letting
students choose their own. Unfortunately, students come to accept
sloppy writing and bad spelling as the norm for journals since they
don't seem to matter. Finally, teachers too often assign journal writing
as an activity separate from writing workshop, which makes it appear
that journal writing is not as important as "real writing."
that journal writing can become more worthwhile if teachers encourage
students to write for several days on a topic they care very much
about and if they teach students how to write with detail and voice.
Furthermore, students should realize that journal writing is only
one type of writing they are expected to do, and they should maintain
high standards for legibility and neatness (2000, p. 235).
also found that "teachers who have the strongest reading-writing
classrooms turn out the best spellers" (p. 403). That is, students
best learn to spell when teachers concentrate on spelling not only
as a component in the process of reading and writing but also as a
separate activity that takes into account students' needs, abilities,
and interests (p. 403).
One class of fourth-graders
attributed their success in spelling to reading a lot, taking the
time to proofread, and caring about spelling. Some said they wanted
their work to look good, while others credited "their habit of
'having-a-go' (having a try at a word) and then checking their spelling
against the correct spelling of the word" (p. 403). Other factors
that positively affected spelling include having mini-lessons to study
words and patterns, having dictionaries available, and not being forced
to use boring workbooks and inappropriate tests (p. 403).
Based on research
and practice, good spellers:
- Read a lot
and enjoy reading
- Use what
they already know about words to figure out new words
- View spelling
as a mostly logical system that makes sense
sound, visual, and meaning knowledge
- Care about
correct spelling and look out for errors
- Assume responsibility
for proofreading and editing
- Take pride
in doing their best work (adapted from Routman, 2000, p. 406)
Writing Instruction in the Upper Grades
Earlier we saw
that process writing and writer's workshops can be used most effectively
with children as early as kindergarten and first grade. In a paper
presented in 1999, Wartchow and Gustavson analyzed writing instruction
in the upper grades. They did this by interviewing some high-school
students from a large urban school and others from a private suburban
First, the authors
"were struck by the modernist picture that the students painted
of their schools" (p. 3). The modernist view is based on the
belief that "there is a 'natural order' or 'best way' on which
all methodology is based. Once discovered, this best way should be,
indeed must be, followed" (Doll, 1993, p. 45; cited in Wartchow
& Gustavson, 1999, p. 3).
Both schools were
divided by grades, with subjects allotted specific amounts of time
throughout the day. Analytical writing was stressed above all else,
with emphasis on the customary pattern: introductory paragraph, three
body paragraphs, and conclusion. To most teachers, the five-paragraph
essay offers an efficient way to deal with writing. This writing structure
provides a tidy format for the essential elements of writing as well
as a measurable outcome. "Once the students write their five
paragraph essays, often choosing theses created by the teacher, the
teacher can easily grade them because there is an identifiable structure"
(Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 5).
In such a situation,
students are forced to accept the fact that, in order to get a good
grade, they must agree with the format and procedure prescribed by
the teacher. Furthermore, students come to rely on the teacher for
topics and motivation; they are not shown how to develop and explore
ideas on their own. Students are also put off by the "simplicity
and pettiness of their writing assignments" and the knowledge
that teachers "only expect a sentence or two" when students
respond to various readings (1999, p. 7).
As for personal
or creative writing, many students question its worth because it is
given no value in school. They also believe that creative writing
must necessarily lack coherence because it does not follow the five-paragraph
pattern. Finally, some students realize that teachers don't value
creative writing because it represents a loss of control; creative
writing must be chaotic and therefore worthless because it does not
fit into a "required body of quantifiable, systematically constructed
knowledge" (Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 11).
wrongly assume that chaos must result when safe, prescribed procedures
are abandoned. In fact, "creativity occurs by the interaction
of chaos and order, between unfettered imagination and disciplined
skill" (Doll, 1993, p. 12; cited in Wartchow & Gustavson,
1999, p. 12). It is important for "teachers to embrace the unknown
associated with knowledge and discuss it openly with students"
(1999, p. 13).
When asked what
kinds of creative assignments they would prefer, students provided
some valuable insights. One told of rewriting the end of a Shakespeare
play and then performing it for the class. Another was challenged
by reading Wuthering Heights and then exploring what might happen
if the story were set in the present day.
told how they would like to adapt assigned topics or forms to suit
their own interests. For example, topics assigned by the teacher
could be turned into thesis statements, thus encouraging students
to argue their points and take a more active approach to writing.
Students also find it difficult to reconcile the conflict between
what they are required to write in school and what they want to
write for themselves. Time constraints often cause students to "go
through the motions" to complete a school project according
to a prescribed procedure. Also, students realize that they can
be intellectually lazy as they churn out school writing according
to the required format; on their own, their writing leads them to
probe below the surface and try to think things through.
As a result of
the findings summarized above, the authors have been led "to
argue for an aesthetic, post-modern orientation in the teaching of
writing. Within the students' frustrations and desires lies the question:
Why do many English teachers not engage their students in a discourse
on the aesthetics of writing?" (p. 20). A modernist writing curriculum
fails to encourage proficient writers because it does not allow students
the change to experiment with various approaches beyond the five-sentence
paragraph structure. "We would like to not only connect the process
with the product, we also strongly believe that the power for understanding
writing lies in the actual doing of the art, not in the exclusive
observation of it" (Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p. 20).
The authors go
on to say that "too often in English classrooms, teachers expect
students to critique the writing they read with little or no understanding
of the craft, the historical context, or the personal nature of that
writing. Essentially, students must write about an art of which they
have no experience" (1999, p. 20).
students to move beyond convenient structures and to enter into
the intricate process of creating what goes into those structures,
teachers can help them discover that what they have to say is important
and that there are many ways to organize their thoughts to form
convincing, coherent arguments.
A Final Look
at Writing Instruction
In an interview
with Regie Routman (1995), Donald Graves puts the whole concept
of process writing into perspective. He begins by saying that, in
the early stages of development of process writing, an undue emphasis
was placed on revision simply because it was possible to do so.
The fact that children could revise did not mean that they should
revise in every instance. Furthermore, writing can too easily be
turned into a mechanical process: prewrite on Monday, first draft
on Tuesday, and so on. "Orthodoxies have sprung up: Grammar
and spelling aren't important; don't ever tell the child to do anything;
never give assignments. The list could go on and on. Obviously,
all of the above are important in their place" (Routman, 1995,
In the same interview,
Graves gives his view of the writing process as it existed in 1995.
RR: What are your
thoughts about the writing process movement today?
DG: I don't think
of it as a movement. In fact, I rarely use the term writing process.
I simply say writing. The term writing process is all worn out.
It has had so many bizarre interpretations (a good many due to my
own mistakes) that it is best to say writing. Still, we do have
a philosophy of teaching children that is revealed in the way we
teach writing. I'm still very concerned about how little writing
is taught, how little time is provided for children to write. And
when time is provided, I don't see children challenged by teachers
who have been prepared to teach it through the teacher's own high
level of literacy. (Routman, 1995, p. 524)
Bayer, R. A.
(1999). The effects of a first grader's participation in a writer's
workshop on their ability to become more confident and more descriptive
writers. Kean University: Master's Research Project. 41 pages.
M. (1991). What is a writing classroom? Instructor, 17(1), 36-38.
Doll, W. (1993).
A post-modern perspective on curriculum. New York: Teacher's College
Fisher, B. (1995).
Writing workshop in a first grade classroom. Teaching PreK-8, 26,
(1995). Donald Graves: Outstanding educator in the language arts.
Language Arts, 72, 518-525.
(2000). Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and evaluating.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sudol, D., &
Sudol, P. (1991). Another story: Putting Graves, Calkins, and Atwell
into practice and perspective.
& Gustavson, L. (1999). The art of the writer: An aesthetic
look at the teaching of writing. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting
of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.
was prepared (Digest #156 EDO-CS-00-07, November 2000) with funding
from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0028,
and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial
products, or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.