Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing is like talking

I've been trying to infuse my science, social studies, and math instruction with more writing.  At my school, we aren't that great yet at teaching children to write, and the result of our instruction in that domain leaves much to be desired.  (I am fully implicated in this problem along with my colleagues -- for years, I've been saying I don't really know how to teach writing.)

Yesterday I decided that, as the culmination of a week of testing minerals to determine their properties, each student would write a short description of one "mystery mineral."  Other students would have to use their description, and the clues gleaned from the mineral tests, to figure out which mineral they were describing.

Using our new ELMO, I modeled how to take the results of your mineral tests and turn them into sentences which, when put together, would produce a short paragraph about your mineral.  I carefully scaffolded the lesson with 3 different versions of a fun flip-up paper (with a space for the answer inside): one version that only required filling in blanks, another that provided "hints" of what details to include, and a final sheet with only a title.

They wrote things like this:


I stopped the class at least 3 times to remind them that good writers explain things so that others can understand, and I gave examples of ways to turn these single words into sentences.  My mineral is clear.  Its streak color is white.  It is dull and opaque.  I can scratch it with my fingernail, so it is not very hard.

At the end of the lesson, at least 7 students still had fragments on their papers.  Three of these had collapsed in frustration, one in tears.  Definitely not my strongest teaching moment -- but one to learn from.

One student, Willy, kept asking me (in a high-pitched whine, I might add), "Why do I have to write it like that?  Everyone knows what I mean!"

I came back today prepared for a do-over.

First, I read to them from an adult field guide to rocks and minerals that uses some of the same language they have been learning: luster, transparency, opaque, streak, hardness.  I pointed out that the geologists who wrote the book had to write with complete sentences so that other people could understand.

We talked about tests they would take. About being in fifth grade, in high school, in college, and doing science and writing about it.  We talked about what if a stranger came in our room, someone who wasn't learning about geology. "What if Ms. Seaborne walked in here right now and you read this to her: 'White, clear, opaque, fingernail. Fingernail!?'"  I exclaimed dramatically.  "Would she have any idea what you were talking about?"

(Later, I heard two girls talking as one helped the other complete the assignment.  Their heads bent closely over the paper, Maia said earnestly, "But Shanaya, if Ms. Seaborne walked in here to read this right now, she wouldn't understand that!")

Then I told them I had a secret to share.  The thing is, I said conspiratorially, writing is like talking.  If you say what you would say to a friend, and then write it down, you've got it!

I had realized, in my thinking about yesterday's lesson, that trying to figure out what to write on their papers, how to put these ideas into sentences, seemed like a secret code they had no access to.  They thought I knew the answers, and they couldn't figure out how I got them.  They needed to understand that they had the words they needed themselves, and could access them without my help.

I suspect that this is what usually happens to them while they are writing: A teacher asks them something.  They answer with a one-word response, or a fragment of some kind or another.  The teacher knows what they are trying to say (we teachers are always automatically translating in our heads, without even noticing that we are doing it), so she restates their sentence: "Oh, you mean...?"  They nod, and we say, "Write that down!"

The actual sentence comes from US, not them.  So they don't make the connection that the words can and do originate in their own minds.

Some students, of course, make the connection, and start to turn their thoughts into sentences on their own.  Some do it automatically; others do it once you've modeled it a number of times; but for others, it seems like magic, not something they can produce themselves.

I had Willy come up to demonstrate.  He brought his table of results from the mineral tests.  With much drama, channeling a talk-show host, I asked him, "Wiiiiilllllly, what is the observable color of your mystery mineral?"

Predictably, he answered, "White."

"Oh yes," I said.  "It is white.  But if Ms. Seaborne walked in and you looked at her and said 'White,' would she know what you were talking about? She'd say, 'What is white? Your cat? Your pet elephant? Your house?'  How will you say it so Ms. Seaborne would know what you were talking about?"

It took a few tries, but finally he had it.  "My mystery mineral's observable color is white."

As he said it, I wrote it.  "See?!" I exclaimed, practically dancing around in my effort to keep them engaged.  (This is why I'm so tired when I get home from teaching.)  "Willy thought it.  Then he said it.  And then I wrote it.  Writing is like talking!"

As we went on, Willy kept answering my questions with just one word.  "Wiiiiiillllly," I would trill.  "What is the streak color of your mineral?"  "White," he would answer.

But if I made him start with my name, he would use a complete sentence.  "Ms. Swamp," he would begin.  "My mineral's streak color is white."

Each time, I pointed out to the class how Willy thought, then spoke, and then wrote.  Because writing is like talking.

At the end, we had a list of sentences like this.

My mystery mineral is clear. 
My mineral's streak color is white.
My mineral is glassy and translucent.

I showed them how to cross out "my mineral" and replace it with "it" after the first sentence.   I wrote "mystery mineral = it," throwing in a little math for good measure.

In the afternoon, I walked them through it step by step.  Each student had a partner, and I made them ask each other (with much drama, of course) the question.  Then their partner had to answer, addressing them by name.  We did two sentences together, then I asked those who thought they could continue alone to do so.  Four students were still stuck, so I pulled them to a side table to work with me.

I ended up with 20 mineral descriptions that sounded halfway decent.  The hardest part was when they wrote about the hardness of the minerals.  To test hardness, we tried to scratch each mineral with our fingernails, a penny, and then a nail.  This gave them an idea about how hard the mineral was.  But most wrote sentences like this: "Its hardness is nail."  Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but they were following the pattern.  So next week, we'll tackle that sentence.  What happened when you tested the hardness?  How can you explain that in writing?

The trick to teaching young children is figuring out all the steps we take to do something, and then breaking those steps down even more, into their smallest parts.  Which, for grown-ups who do these things (like counting, reading, and writing) automatically, is very hard to do.  But it's also what makes it fun.


  1. This post made me smile. What seems like a magical mystery to me is that any of us can learn how to read or write. I am fascinated that I can do it, and I have no idea how that happened! I bet your kids will feel the same way someday...

  2. This is similar, if not just like, teaching college freshman to write.

  3. Dear Miss Swamp,

    This blog is fabulous. I love reading it. Keep it up!


  4. Great post!
    As you get more into writing in science, you might want to look at Betsy Rupp Fulwiler's book: or

    I haven't read the whole book yet, but I did some workshops with her science notebooks materials from Seattle, and it was some of the best PD I've ever done. My kids became much better scientists AND writers because of her scaffolding, which is very much in the spirit of what you just wrote about.

  5. Thanks, Tracy. That looks like a great book. I am excited to read it!