By the time students reach fourth- and fifth-grades, certain writing “basics”–capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of a sentence, indenting paragraphs, using details to develop ideas–have been taught for years. However, many students are slow to “own” these basics, leaving teachers dismayed and wondering how to best use their already limited instructional time for writing. Do they reteach the basics or move on to teaching more sophisticated writing moves– how to merge ideas to create more complex sentences; how to include details that impact mood; or how to move from one idea to another using words besides first, then, and next? For many teachers, moving on without “the basics” in place feels remiss but the conundrum of time is too hard to ignore. Fortunately for intermediate and middle school teachers faced with this dilemma, there is a skinny solution to the problem: interactive writing.
In interactive writing, students work together with the teacher to compose a text. Decisions about how to introduce an idea, which words to use to describe something, or how to support an idea once it is committed to the page are made collaboratively. As the text is discussed, the teacher invites students to take the pen and publicly practice integrating the many aspects of the writing process. Doing this allows them opportunities to think aloud and ask questions about the parts of writing they find confusing. For example, in a recent interactive writing lesson with sixth graders, the students were working to include the title of a short story in a text. They weren’t sure whether to surround it with quotes or underline it. One student mentioned that, in the past, she had thought about using a title in her own writing, but decided not to because she wasn’t sure how to punctuate it. There were nods of agreement from other students and clearly, these students appreciated the clarification.
Oftentimes, students’ apparent lack of “basics” has more to do with feeling disconnected from their audience than it does with understanding when and how to use these things in their writing. Because interactive writing heightens students’ awareness of audience, remembering to capitalize, indent, and correctly punctuate sentences becomes easier as students recognize why these things matter to their readers.
In case you are wondering, we find upper elementary students just as excited about “sharing the pen” as the lower elementary students who are typically involved in interactive writing. The interactive writing format increases engagement and facilitates learning transfer to students’ independent practice.
In the process of building libraries from the 1200+ Lerner titles we are working among, we have stumbled yet again into the Common Core’s genre conundrum. We were organizing a collection of mentor texts for writer’s workshop. We contemplated possible categories.
Literary mentor texts and non-fiction mentor texts? Of course, this doesn’t work because books such as Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy is both literary and non-fiction.
What about dividing the collection into fiction and non-fiction? That works a little better, but what about books like It’s Back to School We Go, which has informational text and literary text on the same topic alternating pages. Each two page spread tells about school in a different country through informational text and realistic fiction.
We tried dividing the books into narrative (fiction and non-fiction) and informational categories, which seemed to work a little better (theoretically), even though this put both fiction and non-fiction in the same category. There is some merit to having truly informational books, such as From Flowers to Honey, in a category all their own, since such texts have a special place in the Common Core, are least represented among school and classroom libraries, and require a very different kind of reading.