Planned Writing Instruction

For us, developing a literacy program that we are comfortable with has been challenging. We believe so completely in the benefits of play-based inquiry and want our students to learn in an authentic and developmentally appropriate way, however, there are definitely advantages to gathering the students together for small group work that explicitly targets their particular needs. The challenge for us was finding a balance between just-in-time teaching at play centres and pre-planned group work. What we found to be helpful was to keep the play or inquiry focus at the centre of our group lessons. This way we can still capitalize on the children’s interest and they are relaxed, engaged, and receptive to learning.

The Play Interest or Inquiry as Starting Point

When we begin an inquiry or see that the students have a particular play interest, we consider which text form or format for writing would be a good fit for what we are pursuing. For example, during the time of the Royal Wedding we had our own Royal Tea and learning about writing invitations was just natural. When we were sending Flat Stanley to Kenora, we had to write a letter of introduction to our new friends so learning about writing letters and addressing envelopes was important. Since Flat Stanley was going to be traveling to Kenora by plane, the students decided they wanted to create a plane in our Dramatic centre. This was a good opportunity to make our own passports and learn about writing postcards. Any play opportunities that involve travel plans are also occasions to make lists. During our inquiry into honey bees, we decided that a good way to inform people about the plight of the bees would be to create posters. Whatever the interest, there is always a valid or authentic reason to write. When the children see that there is a purpose to their writing and that they are writing like grown ups do they are very motivated to write.

Two Types of Writing Instruction

The main focus of our writing instruction at this age or stage is not so much to teach the text form or the format but to teach the very basics of how to write, to show a purpose for writing, and to reinforce a love of writing. In FDK, the students need to learn how to use their own sight-words, word walls or other environmental print, as well as use their knowledge of sounds in order to communicate so that is where we direct the bulk of our instruction. Learning about the form or format for writing becomes the vehicle for delivery and is what engages the children.

If for example, we think creating posters is the best format to express our writing and our learning, we will also teach the very bare bones of poster writing. This means we will have two types of writing lessons – the more functional entailing how to write the words, and the more expressive, how to create a poster. We try to keep it very, very simple and in the case of posters we may have the children draw out what is important to know about posters. During our bee inquiry, we looked at several posters and asked the students what stood out for them about these posters. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they knew a lot – posters don’t have many words, the words are usually big, and there are colourful pictures. Basic yet very important things to know about posters.

Creating posters to help save the honey bees.

Poster showing us we can save the bees by planting flowers.

Whole Group Instruction vs Small Group Instruction

Writing is a learned skill. It is best done through a gradual release of responsibility so we model the writing process that we want to teach, we do shared writing, interactive writing, guided writing, and then independent writing – but always supporting the writer at his or her stage of development with what is needed to move forward and making sure that the teaching is explicit for the child.

When we are learning how to create posters or make a list or whatever form it is we are learning to write, we can usually do much of the modelling, sharing, and interactive work in a whole group setting (depending on the time of year – early on the JK’s just aren’t ready) because everyone is being introduced to the form or function for writing. We can also have whole group lessons when we are modelling the sheer joy of writing or during some shared writing experiences. We just keep the lessons very short and explicit. However, when we are teaching the mechanics of writing it is important to use smaller group instruction. The students need to be in groups that can better address their proximinal zone of development. In our classes, we can have students that are just learning to hold a pencil as well as students that are able to write several sentences or more with mostly conventional spelling. It’s impossible to meet these learners’ diverse needs in a whole group setting. It’s also important for us to keep in mind that, particularly in this age group, the children’s abilities can change quickly so the groups must be dynamic.

Using sounds and sight words to describe observations during an experiment.

Some of our more independent writers kept a diary of observations during a plant experiment.

The Tricky Part

Small group instruction can comprise modelled, shared, interactive, and guided instruction. It more explicitly addresses the needs of groups of students and can be tricky to get just right in a play-based environment. The tricky part is making sure that the planned group instruction doesn’t become the main or only focus in the play-based environment. Or there won’t be a play-based environment. What we will have is an academic focussed classroom with some play going on. We need to honour the learning that presents itself naturally during play because that is where some of the really best learning takes place. The student is relaxed and highly engaged or as Dr. Stuart Shanker might say – calm, alert and (ready for) learning. However, the reason for using small group instruction is to be able to address all of the students where they are in their writing development. If we were to rely only on play opportunities to support writing in the classroom, we would have spectacular moments of learning but ensuring we reach everyone effectively would be logistically impossible.

The Balancing Act

We call it a balancing act because it really is. We are constantly monitoring the environment and making the instruction fit what is happening in the classroom. If the room is unsettled and one educator is already deeply engaged with a group of students, it may not be a good time for the other educator to pull a small group to work on some planned instruction. If the learning happening in the room is just too fabulous to interrupt, then this too may not be a good time for that planned instruction. However, if things are humming along well, inviting a selected group of students to participate in specific learning will seem right. Or sometimes, something happens when you are working with one or two students and it is the perfect time to extend their learning but also other students would benefit, so calling together a specific group of students for an explicit lesson makes sense even if it means delaying a group that you had intended to work with.

The only way we can make this work is by carefully tracking our students – recording where they are in their writing development and where they need to go next. We have one book where we record all of our observations and next steps and we try to communicate with each other daily. This September, we are going to try an electronic template and hopefully this will make assessment and grouping even easier. It’s really not as difficult as it may sound though because in writing the groups can be very flexible – a student who is just beginning to write a sentence and a more experienced writer may both need a lesson on proper spacing, on punctuation, on ‘ing’ endings, or on any other number of common needs. All those students that are just beginning to label their pictures by using sounds that they know can be mixed in different groupings on different days. It just means keeping accurate records of who was seen, what instruction was delivered, what was observed, and where the child needs to go next.

Using the Play/Inquiry Interest

We never want to lose sight of that authentic writing that comes through play so we try very hard to be cognizant of the play interest or inquiry that we are currently involved in. This also helps us bring our writing instruction to the students. As much as possible we try to use the student’s play interests to engage them in writing even when it’s a planned lesson. We always invite our students to join our group and we have only rarely had anyone refuse. Our students know that when they are invited to join a group that it is important, that it will be fun, and that they will be able to go right back to where they were when they left. If they happen to be building a structure or are on the computer, they can put their name on it and everyone will know that they can go right back. We also try as much as possible to ensure that we don’t interrupt anyone deep in learning. We believe that it is ok to miss a lesson if more important learning is going on.

Sharing Time

At the end of every play period we have a sharing time where we briefly share or highlight some of the learning that has happened during our play room. This is a wonderful means of exciting the children and engaging them in further learning. If we want to highlight writing for instance, we might share someone’s work that we have noticed, build up the excitement for it and invite the students to try writing like that too during our next play period. We have found that what we make important to us, becomes important to them. If we value writing, then our students value writing.