Teaching Writing: The Elementary Years

by Dr. Wayne D. Lance1

Dear Santa,
I’ve been good this year.
I want sum big John deer equipment.
And sum legos. And sum toys.
your friend, Brian
2nd grade

This simple letter was written by a boy in one of our schools in Kansas and published in the local newspaper. Many of the second-grade children wrote much longer letters, with perfect spelling and punctuation and good sentence structure.

I selected this one as a reminder that children progress at different rates, yet even in their beginning attempts at writing, they can communicate their thoughts when they have a clear purpose and are encouraged to express themselves through this channel.

In the last two articles of this series, I shared introductory thoughts about teaching writing to children and provided suggestions for preschool, kindergarten, and first graders. In this issue I will focus on what parents can do with children in grades two through six; next article I will take a look at junior and senior high.

Progress, Grade by Grade

It helps to gain perspective on the progress children make in writing by generalizing on how children write at the various grade levels, bearing in mind the wide range of individual differences. Lucy McCormick Calkins, with her wealth of experience in teaching children to write, provides the following descriptions in her book, The Art of Teaching Writing.

“During first and second grade, most children seem to move in these directions:

  • From writing for oneself toward writing also for an internalized audience
  • From writing for the sake of the activity itself (all process) toward writing also to create a final product
  • From less to more fluency
  • From writing episodes that do not begin before or last beyond the actual penning of a text, toward broader writing episodes that encompass looking ahead and looking back, anticipating and critiquing” (pp. 67-68).

Third graders become more deliberate in their writing and use concrete processes.

Calkins describes eight-year-olds as follows: “They did everything in a concrete, systematic way and wrote out everything in full. The children rarely considered sentences in their mind’s eye. Instead, they wrote out every option. When they deliberated over topic choice, they usually listed their options, and often they even went through the list, starring the three best, then crossing out two, and then circling the chosen topic” (p. 91).

Calkins says new flexibility characterizes fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.

“In the upper elementary grades, the children I know best seem to become a little more capable of thinking through their options. Strategies that are first concrete, physical operations begin to be internalized as abstract mental operations” (p. 94). Whereas third graders tend to see things in absolutes, with only one right way to do things, these older children begin to realize that there are different ways to express themselves.

Establishing Right Conditions

As you prepare to teach your children to write, think of what tools they will need. Nothing fancy, mind you, but the basics: paper of various sizes and shapes, a variety of pens and pencils, markers, correction fluid, scissors, tape, paper clips, staples and perhaps some cardboard or construction paper for a cover.

Space in your house may be limited, but find a corner, inside or out, where children can have relatively quiet and comfortable writing stations. Trying to write a creative piece on the dining room table stacked with dishes, other kids’ books, and Dad’s papers all over the place is difficult even for an adult. The dining room table may be fine if distractions can be limited and conditions controlled, but look for alternatives. I know some children who do their best writing in a tree house.

Setting the Stage

“Students become more interested in writing and the quality of their writing improves when there are significant learning goals for writing assignments and a clear sense of purpose for writing.”2 Children are motivated when they realize they are writing for an audience, that they are producing something other people will want to read.

The atmosphere you establish for writing should encourage a desire to share what is written, both during the writing process and when the writing is complete. The letter from Brian at the beginning of this article was written for a particular purpose and to a particular audience, and he even anticipated a response (in this case, a toy tractor or set of Legos).

The stage can be set by talking about a topic, looking at pictures, reading from a book, or taking a walk to observe types of buildings or the beauty of a sunrise. Picture books are good models for writing because they contain all the elements of a story in a small space and help children visualize what they will write.

Tell stories about yourself. Your kids will pick up on some of the themes you establish in this way. Help them talk through a topic, discussing the meaning of words they might want to use and helping them verbalize their thoughts.

The Process

It is a generally accepted practice to teach writing as a process of brainstorming (rehearsal), followed by composing (drafting), revising, and editing. In “Setting the Stage,” you have already begun the process.

It is important to help your children sort through their ideas before actually beginning to write. Composing or drafting is often hard work and takes time, but it need not be drudgery. Our goal should be to help children gain fulfillment from this process. One of the nice things about teaching your own children in the home is that you can give immediate feedback and encouragement.

Revision is a time for the writer to get feedback from you, and if at all possible, from other children as well. Have your children read aloud what they have written to various family members or to friends and neighbors. Ask for clarification, using your comments to encourage creative expression and to work toward more mature forms of written expression, but always accepting genuine efforts on the part of the author. Discuss alternatives when improvements are needed.

Editing is the time to check the final version for correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, legibility, excess words, and other conventions. As you work with your children on this phase of the process, be sensitive to their level of maturity and ability. How a parent teacher approaches editing can be either a positive growth experience, or can stifle future attempts at writing. Your goal should be for the individual to become his own best editor and not have to rely on you to make corrections.

By the end of the sixth grade, most children are capable of writing with increased sophistication, aware of the steps involved from rehearsal to editing. They are able to control a sequence of events, use dialogue, and construct good endings. By this time they should have discovered how to integrate writing as a meaningful aspect of their lives. Writing should not be just something that is accomplished as a school assignment. Rather, it should be an essential and fulfilling daily experience.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Dr. Wayne D. Lance has a B.A. in Elementary Education and an M.A. in Educational Administration from the University of Redlands. He received his Ed.D. in Special Education from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. He has taught upper elementary grades and special education. Wayne was the Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton, and a professor at University of Oregon. He served with WBT for ten years.
  2. What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning, second edition. U.S. Dept. of Education, p. 43