Sharing Early Literacy Learning Journeys

Children write about items of interest – holidays or not

Written by Dr Coral Swan and published in Practically Primary in February 2010

After attending the ALEA conference in Hobart in July 2009 and hearing the words ‘Please don’t ask me to write or draw about what I did in the holidays’, I decided to look closely at what the children did write about on the first day back at school in third term.

My Year One students write about anything of interest in their journals on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings as an essential part of our literacy block (see schedule below).

Our morning

1. Roll
2. Calendar
3. Shared reading: big books/charts
4. Shared writing: class news
5. Co-operative show and tell
6. Journals
7. Home-reading books
8. Sharing time
9. Lunch
10. Outside play

Table 1: Morning schedule on board

The pre-writing talking time of co-operative show and tell (Swan, 2009) is central to journal writing because it enables the children to talk in small groups about topics of interest before moving to writing. It’s as if: ‘I have something to talk about – I have something to write about’.

Sometimes the children visualise what they will draw and write. This helps them focus on personal or class interests and the immediate task of writing and/or drawing.

In journals, children demonstrate what they can do with writing: construct sentences, form letters, spell words, leave spaces, label pictures, use capital letters, add punctuation and connect text and images. Children also read as they write, and after completing their writing, they read it aloud to me and/or peers.

Some children use classroom resources to help them write: Velcro words from word walls, sentence starters from fish-netting and word cards from labelled boxes. Children may also copy words from lists, charts and books. A spirit of help and co-operation pervades the room as children respond to classmates’ requests about letters, words and writing.

What did the children write about on day one, term three?

• events in their holidays
• objects they brought to school (just as they do any school day)
• friend’s objects
• going to the local agricultural show after school, that day
• an upcoming birthday
• family events from the previous day
• words from class word walls

What does the children’s writing show?

Children write about meaningful experiences and objects:

• 2 mentioned an event as ‘over the holidays’ (visiting town X with cousins)
• 3 mentioned an event without reference to ‘the holidays’
• 9 wrote about objects of interest brought from home
• 3 wrote about objects brought by friends
• 3 wrote about future events of interest to them as individuals – 2 to the local show and 1 an upcoming birthday
• 2 wrote about meaningful events on the previous day (parent’s work and cousin’s place) without reference to ‘the holidays’
• 1 copied words from the word wall (family and walked) but indicated this was not a family event

Samples of children’s journal writing:

An event mentioning the holidays
On the holidays my cousins came up to see us. We went to the reef with them. We stayed in a hotel with them. They left on Tuesday.”

“I went on the big boat that came into town.”

An event – but not mentioning holidays
I went swimming at the caravan park at Nana and Granddad’s.”

Personal objects of interest
Yesterday I got NRL cards. I have mascots. They have legs. They look cool except the Eels. The Kangaroos are AFL. The Titans look like they have armour. It looks cool.”

“I like my tiger. It is cute and very soft. It has a pink bow. It has lots of stripes. The stripes are black. It has purple and black eyes. I like my flower. It is cute with a smiley face.”

A future event of personal interest
I am going to the YYY show at 2 o’clock today. My Nana maybe will get me a show bag. “I will go on the rides maybe,” said X. I will have fun today. I like the big slide.”

What does the children’s writing tell me?

Children write about:

• what they are interested in, and
• what is meaningful to them

Significantly, that tenet doesn’t change whether it’s after holidays or not.

Why do I include journal writing in our literacy mornings?

Journals work in my classroom because children demonstrate what they know about language as they write/draw about interests and meaningful experiences (Swan, 2009). Subsequent child-teacher conversations develop and extend children’s learning through sharing, revising and explicit teaching.

Journal writing on paper or computers enables children to:

• choose what to write about
• decide how to write about it
• demonstrate understanding of written language
• develop independence as they write for various purposes
• learn more about using language (by calling on knowledge and experiences to integrate new understandings)
• gain confidence as they write (and read) about interests
• enjoy writing/drawing
• share their writing/drawing with others

What is my role in supporting, developing and extending this writing?

Writing practices and explicit teaching

In everyday classroom life we interact and use meaningful spoken, written and visual language in:

• modelled writing
• shared writing or joint construction
• independent writing
• free writing
• sharing time and
• celebrating writing accomplishments

Oceans of print

Children use meaningful print and images in the classroom to assist their writing and reading. The room contains:

• functional print
• word walls, lists, charts and banks
• word families
• sentence starters
• alphabet and word placemats
• labels, directions and instructions
• questions and reflections
• class books
• children’s books and topic books
• a range of boards, papers and pens for writing

Teacher-child conversations

During writing time, teacher-child conversations encourage, support and scaffold children’s attempts at writing. The conversations develop and extend learning because the conversation is immediately relevant to that child.

Written responses

In hearing children read their writing I often respond with a written comment, query or question to:

• participate as an interested reader
• demonstrate handwriting
• model correct spelling
• encourage more writing
• revise written conventions
• extend specific learning

Group sharing time

In sharing time I use children’s writing to model or explain language features and written conventions, e.g. a possessive apostrophe. Sharing time also enables us to provide constructive feedback to the writer by:

• acknowledging effort
• encouraging clarification
• seeking reasons for writing decisions
• making links between writing/ drawing
• celebrating accomplishments

Conclusion

Using children’s lives and experiences as vehicles for their early literacy learning fits with my deeply held belief that children learn best from their interests and  experiences—which are at the core of their talking, writing (and reading). Co-operative show and tell, prior to writing, affords children opportunities to talk in small groups about personal and class interests and experiences. Writing follows – and rarely do I hear, “I don’t know what to write” because children actively participate in the talking-sharing time and then, choose what to draw and write about.

Assigning a topic like ‘What I did in the holidays’ is not necessary when children are familiar with making choices in their writing. Children may well write about something they did in the holidays – but it does not have to be prefaced with ‘In the holidays….’ Children write about meaningful experiences and items of interest – holidays or not.

References

Swan, C. (2009). Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years. Norwood, SA. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association Ltd.

Copyright © C. Swan 2010 PP article: Children write about items of interest – holidays or not. (with some revsions and no photos)

Comments on: "Please don’t ask me…" (3)

  1. This post usefully details your everyday literacy teaching practice, the thinking behind your teaching choices, and your values as an educator. Thank you for so clearly covering so many things at once!

    I am interested to know more about what prompted this article. Was it a student in your class who said “Please don’t ask me to write or draw about what I did in the holidays”? Do you have a sense of which element of that activity was unappealing to the child? Can you elaborate a bit more about why is important to you that the children are not directed towards the holidays as a writing topic?

    I have planned for my students (gr 3/4) to write a recount of an event from the holidays on the first day back, but I’m open to changing that! I always offer the choice for it to be either something that actually happened or something fantastical that they wish had happened because I am mindful that some kids have a bad or boring time and probably don’t want to write about it.

    But I think the activity has some useful things to offer: as a chance for students to bring their home lives into the classroom, an authentic springboard for investigating past tense spelling patterns, to extend/practise new vocabulary, adding descriptive details…

    I’m very interested in your reservations about this activity and if you can warn me about potential problems with it, that’d be fantastic.

    Thank you Coral,
    ecks

    • Hi Ms ecks,
      Thanks for your comments and queries.

      ‘Please don’t ask me to write about what I did in the holidays’ was a topic posed by the editors of Practically Primary – partly in response to an awareness that some teachers routinely asked this of their students regardless of students’ feelings about their holidays – as you mentioned.

      Certainly on our first day back yesterday my Yr Ones talked excitedly and at length about things they brought to school and experiences over the holidays. However, the children did not have to start their writing with, ‘On the holidays I….’ The children were free to write about any item of interest or experience – ‘holidays’ did not have to be mentioned.

      I am not suggesting you alter your plans – a recount may work well for slightly older students Ms ecks and certainly giving them the option of writing from a ‘real’ event or a ‘wishful’ event gives gives them a choice. My feeling is that often children do not need a topic – why not let them choose to write freely on anything of interest? Why restrict them to a recount of the holidays?

      In my experience, when children choose their own things to write about, families, homes and communities come into their writing. Yes, we need to discuss tenses, vocabulary, descriptions and ‘quality’ writing with students – and I especially like shared writing for this.
      Thanks for your interest,

      Coral

      • Ms ecks said:

        I don’t have a really slick answer about the amazing educational benefits of writing a recount. At least nothing that would offset the crime of restricting children in their writing. I’ll see how this group responds. Hopefully they’ll feel challenged and enabled and eager to share their stories but if some feel restricted I’ll adapt my approach… Thanks very much for your thoughts. ecks

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