Sunday, September 12, 2010

Framing Young Children's Writings

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Teaching young children to write never attracted me as a teacher. For some reason, my preference for facilitating writing workshop lay with third grade and up. I knew this immediately when I read books like Lucy Calkins' The Art of Teaching Writing and saw the invented spelling and more. For me, older kids--grades 3-12--are just more intriguing writers. They notice things we miss as adults. Even so, I found Judith Newman's book on The Craft of Children's Writing to be an easy, well-structured read. In fact, her book struck me as so well-organized, so planned out that summarizing it was easy. I can only hope that my perception of the job does the text justice.

An Imperfect Summary of Judith Newman's The Craft of Children’s Writing:

Judith Newman suggests that young children know that writing has meaning and introduces four concepts as being present in their writing. Those 4 concepts include intention, organization, experimentation and orchestration. The concepts, taken as a whole, provide a framework for looking at children’s writing. Young children expect written language to be meaningful, and they are able to “connect content with form from the outset.” Analysis of student texts reveals that “while children may use unconventional surface representations, their texts reveal definite semantic intentions, a focus on meaning, and an understanding of the relationship between language and language structure and whatever marks they choose to represent or ‘place-hold’ meaning.”

The intent to communicate must be present in student’s writing. Intention leads to the form that the writing will take the shape of. A young writer’s intention is demonstrated through the marks students make on paper, the choice of paper size, the amount of writing and the way in which it is placed on a page. Word choice, ink (font) color and paper, how a piece of writing is used (e.g. a poster taped to the front door of a classroom for the intended audience), and an understanding that it is possible to influence others actions directly through writing also signal the writer’s intent--communication. Children are able to coordinate the meaning they choose to express with the appropriate form or shape. Newman points out that student scribblings are more than random marks on the paper, but instead, intentional, sometimes experimental, efforts to communicate.

Placing certain words and/or sentences on a page (e.g. “Der” for Dear at the top of a page) implies a salutation reminiscent of a letter. This means that young writers are familiar with how to organize meaning into a form that accomplishes a specific purpose, even if they are unsure of the parameters of that form. Organization can be defined by a student writer’s use of spatial features (e.g. writing from left to right, top to bottom), awareness of the alphabetic principle of our writing system, segmenting of text into words, the connected nature of speech (e.g. using hyphens), functional rules (e.g. writing from the edge of the paper). The use of techniques to organize writing shows that children are able to make decisions about what they want to write, including selection of the appropriate form for their meaning, how they format that meaning on a page, and their burgeoning awareness of writing conventions.

Knowing how to write some words, as well as take risks with words the young writer does not know indicate risk-taking or experimentation. Through experimentation, young writers learn to use the tools (“words”) at hand to control the writing process. Like in spoken language where students make sounds to command attention, so do they experiment with written language to attract others to what they mean to communicate. Student experiments with writing can take the form of any or all of the following: a) awareness of the linearity of writing; b) identifying letter/sound relationship; and, c) increased awareness of vulnerability and level of willingness to take risks. Experimentation enables children to take risks in what they will write, to whom they will write to, and how they will write it. A child unwilling to experiment with form, format, spelling, punctuation has learned the cost of making mistakes.

Rather than achieving master of each part of the writing process, young writers are able to create a piece of writing as they make decisions, albeit imperfect, about meaning, spelling, grammar and punctuation. Orchestration refers to “the complex decision-making that must go on in the process of creating any language, in particular, a piece of writing.” Orchestration is exemplified when young writers choose and organize what they want to say, making decisions about how to represent the meaning they want to communicate. This includes grappling with letter sound relationships, controlling sentence structure, making decisions about what words (including new ones) to use, knowledge of how to use language persuasively, spelling, word length, and punctuation while maintaining a focus on meaning.

Newman shows various examples of student writing to make the points that undergird the framework of she posits, namely, that intention, organization, experimentation and orchestration are interconnected and occur simultaneously in concert.

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