Cultivating Independence in Writing

Reading Today just came to my mailbox. In it is an article on writing written by Christopher Lehman tackling the very thing I’ve been thinking on for quite a while.

How do I limit students’ use of sentence starters and formulas without taking away support they need?

In my intervention groups, the students are typically categorized as struggling readers and our intervention plans have usually focused on comprehension and left out writing as an integral component. When I started to incorporate writing, I found that the students generally struggled to write coherently. Their struggles with reading were bleeding into their struggles with writing.

With the help of colleagues (and extensive time on Pinterest!), I created some anchor charts for writing with my students. The students have grown comfortable using them on their own and writing sentences to incorporate evidence, explain their thinking, and present and refute counterclaims. Hooray!

Click the image above to go to My Teachers Pay Teachers Store to Purchase these Sentence Starters for 1.50!

Now I’m finding, though, that the students rely very heavily on the sentence starters and are not confident writing on their own. Lehman’s article discusses this idea. He says student writing has devolved from an exploration of new knowledge into more about “pecking for the one line that proves a claim.” Writing is a chance to challenge our own thinking, read deeply, and draw conclusions.

When I give the students sentence starters, formulas, and topics, they aren’t thinking or writing independently. It’s a thin line from supporting to smothering.

In a recent unit on explorers, I read three articles with my students: one on the discovery of the Santa Maria in Haiti, the discovery of a canoe sailed by seafarers from Polynesia all over the South Pacific, and the rover Curiosity finding signs of life on Mars. We read each article and discussed connections in topics and vocabulary. They chose an article and wrote an argument for which explorer made the greatest impact. I found they were excellent at supplying answers to the topic, but struggling to create sentences that flowed properly. We used a graphic organizer to focus their thinking and guide them as they wrote, but they needed something else – feedback.

Click the image above to go to My Teachers Pay Teachers Store to Purchase this Graphic Organizer for $1.00!

Using Google Docs, students typed their essays, and I was able to comment and discuss their writing as a craft as opposed to navigating poor handwriting, limited space, and eraser marks and they were able to edit and revise their writing easily.

The best part about this project was that it started conversations about writing. Students shared their writing with one another and gave advice at the same time I was checking all their work and leaving comments. Even though each student had chosen to write on the same topic (Curiosity), they each had different ideas and plans. It was a chance for them to see what I see and make changes to their own writing in response. This experience has given me a push to use Google Docs as a bigger part of my writing plans.

I’m sure I’ll continue to struggle with how much to give the students, when to take it away, and when to let them plan and write completely independently. Each kid and group is different and it’s a tricky thing to manage. I am excited, however, about the struggle and working with students on becoming confident and capable writers.

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