As I’ve worked with teachers over the last month–from Southern Illinois to Southern California–I’ve felt a growing anxiety over teaching students about the writing process. My mantra: “Just do it!” Sound familiar? Yes, but true. Anything teachers do to help students become writers is better than doing nothing!
How to start?
First, be honest. If writing intimidates you, let them know that. They, too, are probably intimidated by the act. You see, writing is different from speech because it is not natural: writing is a humanly constructed convention. Children are born communicating with their voice–talking. But the written word has a much shorter history and one that began with pictures, the very place the Common Core has teachers beginning to guide students into writing as kindergartners and first graders.
What to write?
Well, if you feel comfortable with the narrative, go ahead and start there, but don’t get stuck in the format. Narrative is usually written in some form of a chronological pattern, but there are other patterns on which to structure writing instruction: comparison and contrast, spatial order, classification, problem to solution, and cause to effect or effect to cause. For instructional purposes, teaching one of these organizational patterns as a paragraph pattern in the intermediate grades works effectively to provide a writing foundation for more sophisticated writing that incorporates multiple patterns as the writer matures.
One writing pattern introduced to readers (though typically not by that name) is classification. Classification is actually what a dictionary definition achieves in the process of explaining what a word means. Definitions by their nature have three parts: the naming of the term; the categorization of the term within the lexicon; the distinctions of the particular term from other terms that belong to the same or similar category. Take a look at the definition of classification as found in Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
According to Merriam-Webster, classification is a term that belongs to the group of “act[s]” or “methods” distinguished by “distributing” or “assigning” or “sorting” things into groups. The definition goes on to describe this sorting as “systematic” and then provides examples of such sorting. The first part of the Merriam-Webster’s entry is the 3-part definition; the ongoing description is the extended definition.
The use of dictionaries appears for the first time within the Common Core State ELA and Literacy Standards at grade 2: “Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spellings” (2010, p. 27). Dictionaries is thereafter mentioned within the language standards at each and every grade.” By the end of sixth grade, students are expected to show proficiency with using definition and classification as part of a larger piece of writing: “Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect…” (p. 42). Introducing the experience of writing their own 3-part definitions and later, writing extended definitions as paragraphs makes logical sense in preparation for grade 6.
If we are expecting students to be proficient with beginning dictionaries by the end of second grade, seems to me we should start having them write and even illustrate definitions as early as first grade. Read this first grade writing standard: “Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure” (p. 19). Sounds to me like naming a term is the topic. Identifying the class to which the term belongs is a fact. Providing a distinctive detail becomes the closure. And then…ask them to draw a picture (or begin with the picture and then allow them to write their definition!). My grandson Harry’s example: A bat is an animal with wings and teeth. Sure…we could pick that apart but this first grade!
I would suggest second grade build on this starter by improving accuracy and detail. Note the second grade writing standard: “Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section” (p. 19). Begin with concrete terms and three-part definitions, but in the third grade move to the extended definition and by fourth grade, include comparison and contrast as part of the extended definition. What better way to convey what something is or is like than by explaining what it is not or is not like? And the standards firmly supports teaching comparison and contrast, both in reading and writing standards. Reading Standard #9 asks students as early as Kindergarten to compare and comparison is explicitly stated in the fifth grade writing standards (though implied in fourth grade).
By fifth grade, maybe…just maybe you could ask student writers to begin thinking about abstract terms and defining those: love, loyalty, perseverance. It will only be by introducing patterns for paragraph writing as introductions to the longer paper that students will eventually be able to embed multiple means of organization to express their own thinking in sophisticated and meaningful ways.