In Interactive Writing, students "share the pen" and write a piece of text as a group in a 10 or 15 minute exercise. The above image is from a first-grade Interactive Writing project on Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy Kate Roth.
While reading has been getting a lot of attention lately, the corollary skill of writing in the early grades is often overlooked. People often assume that writing for young children means “handwriting.” Or they may envision writing as “writing down words” and practicing spelling. But there’s more to it than that. Young children need to practice writing as the act of composing, organizing thoughts into sentences and conveying new ideas. Is it possible to fit writing instruction into an already demanding school day? If so, will it work?
Kate Roth, a former elementary school teacher who recently graduated from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, decided to investigate. In an article in a recent issue of Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Roth and co-writer Kathleen Guinee of Northeastern University measured the impact of an instructional approach called Interactive Writing. In a small study at several urban schools, they found that using Interactive Writing for an average of 10.5 minutes a day led to improvements in children’s writing skills in multiple areas, including their ability to generate ideas, organize their words, make smart choices of words, spell words correctly and use proper capitalization, punctuation and handwriting.
“We know that writing is a multi-faceted task so you need instruction that is multi-faceted and based on what kids need at a certain time,” Roth said.
Interactive Writing usually starts with children on the rug or at their desks facing a writing pad propped up on an easel. The teacher, by talking out loud, prods children to think about how they might start a particular piece of writing that matches a topic they are exploring that day, whether it is a thank you letter to a volunteer or a joint picture book about the weather. The teacher calls children up to the easel and hands them the pen. They do the writing themselves, one or two words – and even one space – at a time. For example, a teacher might call on one child to be the “spacer” (because the teacher recognizes that the child needs to work on putting spaces between words), a different child to be the day’s expert on capitalization, a third child to jump up and tackle the “the”s and “and”s, and so on. (Here’s a YouTube video from BER Staff Development, a professional development organization unrelated to Roth’s study, that demonstrates how this works.)
“It’s the shared pen that is really the unique piece of interactive writing,” Roth said.
In the study, Roth tracked the progress of 101 first-grade students in five public schools in Boston who were from predominantly low-income families. All students were assigned to teachers who used Writing Workshop, a method that has already gained currency in elementary schools as an effective way to help children learn to write independently.
About half of the students were in classes taught by teachers who also received training on Interactive Writing. Roth said she wanted to determine whether the combination of Writing Workshop and Interactive Writing might lead to better outcomes than just using Writing Workshop alone.
The researchers observed the teachers throughout the school year and assessed the students’ writing in the fall and spring, using two different writing assignments each time. Although Interactive Writing group scored lower than their peers at the beginning of the study, they caught up and surpassed the achievement of their peers by the spring. The Interactive Writing group made greater gains than their peers on nine out of ten aspects of writing. (The ability to use proper spacing was the one skill that didn’t show up as significantly different between the two groups.)
Note, however, that the study was conducted with a small sample size, and it included teachers who volunteered to learn how to teach using the Interactive Writing model instead of being randomly assigned. Schools that want to use this approach need to recognize the importance of training teachers to use it well, Roth said. “It’s not a scripted approach,” she added. “You have to know a lot about writing development and a lot about your students.”
Those investments may become more important as states start to implement the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and commended for their focus on deeper learning, including more attention to writing about and reflecting on a wide range of texts. According to the standards, by the end of first grade, students should be able to produce several different kinds of writing. Perfection in spelling or grammar is not the goal, and “inventive” writing is expected, but to meet the standards, students may be asked to write a paragraph that, for example, states an opinion (“my favorite book is…”), supplies a reason for their opinion, and provides a conclusion of some kind.
Roth is optimistic that Interactive Writing could reap dividends for students without requiring more than 10 to 15 minutes integrated into the regular literacy block during the school. “Interactive writing is a not-expensive way to get a lot of high quality writing in a short time amount of time,” she said.