Learning to Write, Writing to Learn

As we emerge from the two-year hiatus that jolted us from our normal lives and peek out from our socially distanced spaces timidly asking, “Is it safe yet?”, some are finding a lot has changed in the world of elementary education. Parents have learned they can either teach their kids at home quite effectively and continue to do so, or they realize they should never attempt to teach their progeny any critical skills needed for success in later grades. These parents, perhaps, might have a newfound appreciation for the classroom teacher.

A New STAAR on the Horizon

With the advent of online learning, more states are moving to online high stakes testing and some are looking for improvements. Texas, for example, is redesigning their end-of-year STAAR assessment to not only take advantage of technology but, hopefully, better align the test to students’ classroom experiences and seasoned educators’ best practices. (This should mean teachers can stop “teaching the test” and return to simply teaching! I’m giddy with excitement for Texas.) Texas is also dropping the Writing portion of the STARR, which has historically only been tested at certain key grades, in favor of incorporating writing skills organically, having students respond to cross-curricular passages through writing analyses instead of picking multiple choice answers.

This frees teachers to teach writing skills as they provide students with opportunities to write across the curriculum. As wonderful as this news may be for educators, children could still benefit from knowing that writing is a skill that can open their world in more ways than simply analyzing narrative and informational passages.

Therapeutic Benefits of Journal Writing

Many studies have been done that show journal writing is good for adults and can help them heal emotionally, improve mental clarity, and ease stress. Researchers have found that anxious adult test-takers do better on tests if they briefly write about their thoughts and feelings before taking an exam.[1] While these studies focus only on adults, I wonder if the same could not hold true of very young writers?

In my own career as an elementary teacher, I noticed that when I gave my students the opportunity to “free write,” truth poured forth abundantly as they eagerly scribbled on their ruled notebook paper. I read the truth about who was really responsible for breaking that toy for which the young writer received blame. I learned which younger (or older) sibling was not as perfect as the family believed. No one had to tell the writers to support their claims with evidence. They named names and gave detailed descriptions. Younger students yearned to eat forbidden desserts with abandon or watch a certain PG movie or play with an older sibling’s particular toy. They would be careful. They promised. Hopes and dreams and plans began to materialize as they composed their innermost thoughts.

In those years, I didn’t have the anvil of a state test hanging over me. My principal was happy for me to teach skills in creative ways. He wanted his teachers and his students to enjoy being at school. If we read about explorers, we then wrote about explorers, then we became explorers drawing maps and writing imaginative stories about adventure. When the Texas test entered the arena, I watched helplessly as teachers were literally instructed in how to teach the test. So, I moved to private education where children could enjoy learning skills that were disguised in fun and meaningful activities and not multiple-choice worksheets. This is why it gladdens my heart to learn, after 20-plus years, that some education agencies are realizing there is more to education than choosing the right answer.

Meaningful Writing for Children

My grandson’s school day in fourth grade is packed with good learning and focused analytical writing, but not much time to free write. I tried to supplement by giving him a blank journal with lines to write about his important topics, like the day in second grade when he was reprimanded (unfairly to his thinking) for disturbing others. The lines were too skinny and the blank pages daunting; he didn’t know how to begin. So, I wrote a few prompts to help generate ideas. This helped, but he still had the problem of inadequate spacing for his handwriting.

I then realized that as an educator, curriculum writer, and author with publishing skills, I could solve this problem myself. So, I created a children’s writing journal with creative prompts that spark ideas and lines that are properly spaced to accommodate a young writer’s penmanship skills. My Writing Journal is available for Grades 1-2 and Grades 3-5. The journal for grades 1-2 has a handwriting guideline for little hands still learning how to form letters. Both versions have a blank left-facing page for plenty of drawing and lines on the right side to write about the illustration.

How to Write an Interesting Journal Entry

Responding to journal writing prompts for elementary students can be interesting and entertaining if your child follows this mantra:

What I can think, I can say; what I can say, I can write; what I can write, I can read; what I can read, I can understand.

Then, they simply begin writing, but they should tell the whole story. For example, my grandson was thrilled to write an entry in his new journal. In response to the prompt “What I like about my pet is . . .,” he wrote "she is cuddly and licks people." This is a good start but doesn’t tell the whole story. The whole story would go on to add this part he later told me: One morning my feet were sticking out from under the covers. She began licking them. I began dreaming I was walking on worms. That’s the whole story. (We’ll keep working on “what I can say, I can write.”)

On our car ride from here to there the other day, he announced, “I learned today that teachers like girls more than boys. I’ve always suspected it, Grandlady, but today it was proved. Let me tell you what happened.” From the events he related, I can neither confirm nor deny if his claim is true, but when he finished talking and I finished laughing, I suggested he write it in his journal exactly like he told it to me.

Journal writing doesn’t need to happen every day, but every few days when something wonderful or horrible has happened, when a big question pops up, or when a dream turns weird because the dog is licking your toes. Encourage your child to reread a journal entry and correct mistakes or rewrite parts that are unclear. By correcting their own journal entries, they will apply editing skills learned in school. All children learn the Writing Process; it’s in every state curriculum and begins in kindergarten. When children apply these skills to real-life writing, they may begin seeing the value in revising and editing.

When children “free write” in My Writing Journal to tell about things they like to do or a time they made a big mistake, they will be more inclined to write. Blank pages follow the many journal prompts so young writers can think of their own journal questions. They might write an analysis of a favorite show and how it relates to a personal experience. After finishing a book, they might write to tell why they liked it or why it fell short of their expectations or what they learned from the story. They could tell about a lesson learned from a friend. After journaling through a school year in My Writing Journal, children can face an end-of-the-year test confident in their abilities to write clearly on any topic because they have been writing about their favorite topics.

[1]Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma - Harvard Health