Teaching the writing process to emergent writers is one of my favorite activities to do each school year. The growth that is seen from learning how to form letters of the alphabet to writing complete sentences and stories is amazing. But how do we get there? How do we take these young writers and scaffold our instruction to help them become authors of their own stories? We use strategies for teaching emergent writers!
Let’s chat about how we use the writing process to teach our emergent writers. And how we embed strategies into that process to help bridge the gap from letter strings to actual sentences. I also have included some quick tips you can use to help strengthen your emergent writers’ skills along the way.
⭐️ Quick Tip: Always Have a Highlighter
When the school year begins, I always have numerous students who struggle to write certain letters of the alphabet. For the first month or so of school, I always carry a yellow marker or highlighter (aff) in my pocket.
I use this to write a student’s name or letters of the alphabet while they work on their activities. The students can then trace over the yellow letters and after a while, they have formed the letters so many times that they are able to write them independently.
Emergent Writer Strategy 1 – Personal Narratives are the Place to Start
We’ve all been there… you ask “Does anyone have a question?”. Your students raise their hands and respond with… “So, this one time…”. Definitely NOT a question!!
Our young learners love to tell us stories, especially about themselves and what is going on in their lives. Use their enthusiasm with storytelling to your advantage. It’s the best place to start with their writing, by taking their oral expression to paper.
2 – Books Build Up the Background Knowledge
I always like to start a writing prompt with a book on the topic or a story that aligns with the personal narrative idea to help my students start thinking about what they could include in their writing.
This also helps to paint a picture for those students who may not have a personal experience related to the prompt. By creating a visual image for them, they will still be able to write about it.
Once the book is finished, have a discussion with your class. Students hear more ideas and can practice talking in complete sentences. Later on, they may be able to transfer some of these ideas to their paper. While we are having that discussion, I create a Brainstorm Chart of their ideas on poster paper (aff), and the kids create their own along with me.
If you are looking for a great place to start, we have a list of books specifically for writing prompts.
Emergent Writer Strategy 3 – Start with a Picture
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This quote couldn’t be truer for an emergent writer. Their messages are definitely carried in the illustration before adding text.
As for writing teachers of young learners, we have to participate in many “Think Alouds”, where we talk about our thinking as we draw our pictures, or write our words.
For example, if I am drawing a picture of myself at the park, my “Think Aloud” may sound like this… “First, I need to draw the setting of my story, or where I am in my story. I am writing about the park, so I need to draw the grass, a playground with swings and a slide, and some trees. (am drawing these things as I talk) It was a nice sunny day, so I will also draw a few clouds and the sun in the sky.”
“Next I need to add myself to the picture, as I am the character in my story. I really enjoy being on the swings, so I will draw myself sitting on the swing. I need to make sure that I include details about myself, such as my eyes, nose, mouth, hair, fingers, and clothing.”
Details in the illustrations are of utmost importance when first starting out. These little things are what carry the message of an emergent writer’s story.
4 – Adding Labels Brings the First Pieces of Text
The next step after your students are able to draw illustrations with a distinguishable character, setting, and event or action is to begin to add labels to their picture.
Using my park example from above, I may draw the picture and then start to label a few of the items. Such as writing my name next to me, writing the word “park” somewhere in the setting (depending on the skill level of your students, it is okay for them just to write the beginning sound “p” or the beginning and ending sounds “pk”), and lastly writing the word “swing” next to me swinging.
Really encourage your students to at least write their names to label themselves, as well as the beginning sounds of the other important items in their picture. As they gain a better understanding of letter/sound correspondence and phoneme segmentation, they will be able to write labels that are more likely spelled correctly. Sound Trail Printables help your students to practice those skills.
Emergent Writer Strategy 5 – Add a Sentence or Two
When your emergent writers have begun to understand phoneme segmentation, you can begin to work with them on creating sentences for their stories.
I always start out with everyone writing the same sentence with maybe one word changed depending on what they want to include in their picture. We predominantly use sight words to make up the sentences, such as “I like to go to the ___.” or “At ___, we can ___.”
While I’m writing my sentences, I also use a “Think Aloud”. For the park example, it may sound like this… “First we write I because we are talking about ourselves. Between words, we use two-finger spaces, so I am laying down my two fingers and then writing go. How do we spell that word? Two fingers and the next word is to. Please spell it for me. Two fingers again and now the word is the. Let’s spell that together also. The last word is park. Let’s sound that out as we spell it /p/ /ar/ /k/.” (Most will write the word as “prk” and that is completely OK!)
If you want your students to have varied sentences, you can have them add one more detailed sentence to their writing. I would most likely have them write “I can ___.”, by using one of our brainstorm charts to fill in the blank. As explained above, I would continue my Think Aloud to write this sentence as well.
If you are finding that your students struggle with remembering how to identify and spell sight words, I recommend using Sight Word Menus in your small group literacy centers to help support your writing instruction. Your students can work on any given sight word in 8 different ways. Build the word with Legos, roll play-doh out to spell the word, or create the word using pattern blocks. Extend these fine motor sight word activities by asking your students to write a simple sentence using the target sight word.
⭐️ Quick Tip: Engagement is Key
Keeping young learners engaged in writing instruction can be a struggle at times. It is hard for young children to sit and listen to instructions and write. There isn’t a lot of movement during writing time, so how do we keep them engaged and not have behavior issues?
Use an engagement strategy!! My students come to our classroom rug with a whiteboard, pencil, and piece of writing paper. They sit in a U-shape around the rug with the open mouth being where my large whiteboard easel is. This way I can “walk the U” and look at everyone’s papers while teaching and they can all see me.
My students are also writing their sentences while I am writing. We are sounding out and spelling words together. They are using finger spacing and punctuation at the same time I am. This helps to keep them on task and engaged in the writing lesson.
6 – Tell Me Your Story Please
Throughout all of these stages (drawing, labeling, and writing), emergent writers should be sharing their stories. This can happen in a variety of ways…
You can conference with each individual student. So that this doesn’t take up a lot of instructional time, I meet with certain students each day of the week. (Example: Jose, Shugri, Ben, and Mykayla may conference with me on Monday, then a different group of students on Tuesday, and so forth.) By the end of the week, you will have met with every student in your class.
Students can partner share their stories. While they are meeting with each other, walk around and listen to their conversations. Ask probing questions of those students who are not giving much information to their partner about their writing.
Hold an “Author’s Chair” each day and ask a few students to “share” their writing. At the end of each author’s reading, I will allow the audience to ask a question or two of the author. The students really enjoy this way of sharing their writing.
Emergent Writer Strategy 7 – Publishing with Pride
Once a piece of writing is done, it is ready to be published. You can do this one of two ways… either conferencing with each student and having them carefully write their work again without any spelling errors or keep their writing as is and write below it in pen with the phonetically spelled words written correctly.
Example – Student work = “I go to the prk. I can slid.”
Teacher work = “I go to the park. I can slide.”
It is important for emergent writers to feel this sense of accomplishment. I also like to keep examples of their writing along the way in a portfolio. Students and their parents are then able to see the growth made over time. And I don’t have to tell you how incredible that growth is!
⭐️ Quick Tip: Take Your Time
As a mental note, do not try and rush the writing process. You may not get through all of these steps in one day. It usually takes me a week to complete the process based on one prompt. A typical week of writing in your classroom may look like this…
1st Day – Read a book to build background/Complete Brainstorm chart
2nd Day – Review Brainstorm chart/Draw illustration
3rd Day – Write sentences/Complete illustration/Conferences or Author’s Chair
4th Day – Finish sentences if needed/Student partner sharing, Conferences, Author’s Chair
5th Day – Conferences, Author’s Chair/Publish/Journal Free Write
Remember… The best place to start is by having them create pictures and then tell what is happening in the illustration.
Transformation station writing activities help your students tap into that creativity of storytelling. Starting with just a simple shape, they create the picture. For emergent writers, you can leave it at the illustration and have them orally share their story. And for more skilled writers, have them expand on the illustration with written text.
8 – Build on These Basics
Plan to stay in this realm of writing a couple of sentences (2-3) based on one idea/topic for the first semester of the year. During this time, emergent writers should be learning how to spell and write more high-frequency words, as well as gain a better understanding of phonetic spellings of words. This is also a time when they will begin to explore their individuality by adding unique details in their illustrations and text that sets their writing apart from their classmates.
When the second half of the year begins, you are ready to begin writing “short stories” with transitional words. Staying in the genre of personal narrative, take their experiences and sequence them into a story.
Using the same brainstorm chart on a topic, draw the pictures from your discussion, but this time have your students go back and number 3 of the components (1/2/3) in the order in which they happen in their personal narrative.
Emergent Writer Strategy 9 – Use Story Boards to “Tell” the Story
When drawing their illustrations, now use what I call a “Story Board”. This paper looks different from before because there are 3 boxes for the illustrations and then the lines below for the written story.
After the illustrations are completed, you can begin writing your story. As before, try to stick with basic sentences built upon sight words, only changing a word or two depending on the items each student numbered on their brainstorm chart. Besides the 3 sequenced activities, also include an opening and closing sentence. For the given zoo example, the sentences may look like this…
Opening – I like to go to the zoo.
#1 – First I looked at the monkeys.
#2 – Next I walked by the lions.
#3 – Last I ate some ice cream.
Closing- I had fun at the zoo.
* This may take more than one day of instruction to complete!!
The use of sequencing cards, such as our Interactive Story Sequencing Center, is a great way for students to practice writing with transitional words to tell a story. Use these as one of your small group centers during reading block throughout the second half of the year. Your students can practice reading stories that they have put in the correct sequence, as well as cutting and pasting images into the correct order. Extend the center by asking them to practice writing 3-5 sentences using the pictures as a guide.
10 – Change Up the Genre
It’s important to teach emergent writers different types of writing, such as opinion, research, and explanatory pieces..
Opinion papers are another easy one to do with young students. They love to tell you what their favorite things are and whether they like something or not. I usually try to stick to one sentence with these, such as “My favorite ___ is ___, because (one solid reason).” If I want to add another sentence, I usually use the frame “Also, it is ___.” (another solid reason)
Are you teaching a unit on weather in science? First, study all of the different types of weather and then combine opinion with research. Students write about their favorite weather and why by giving facts about their chosen weather.
“My favorite type of weather is___. I like the ___, because ___. Also, I can ___ in the ___.”
Research papers are fun, especially when you want to link science or social studies with writing. We have to teach a unit on life cycles, so we read books on different animals and each week choose one to write a short paper about. The layout of that paper may look like…
Opening sentence – A ___ grows and changes.
Maybe … Fact #3
Explanatory pieces are otherwise known as “How To” papers. An easy “how-to” coming up is to write out the steps of “How to Grow a Plant”. Students will identify all of the steps needed in growing a plant and then number them in order on their brainstorm chart. We would start with an introduction sentence… “This is how to grow a plant. First ___. Next ___. Then ___. Last ___. Enjoy your flower or plant.”
If you want to take your students’ writing instruction further and really start honing in on certain conventions or parts of their writing, such as details, sticking to the topic, writing stronger opening and closing sentences, then I highly recommend grabbing these Writing Mini-Lessons for Primary Students. Each focused topic comes with lesson plans, student activities, anchor charts, read-aloud suggestions, and rubrics. It is a game-changer for any teacher working on increasing the rigor of their students’ writing.
I hope that this information helps you to continue strengthening your writing instruction. Teaching writing to emergent writers is an astounding feat, but one I know we are all capable of. By incorporating daily routines and strategies for teaching emergent writers, you will no longer have to fear the time when writing block rolls around.
Written by – Janessa Fletcher
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