“What a child can do with help today, a child can do by himself one day.”
~Eileen Feldgus, Ed.D., Author of Kid Writing in the 21st Century
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Last week I attended a National Writing Project Institute sponsored by the National Writing Project and hosted by the Philadelphia Writing Project on the University of Penn Campus in Philadelphia. I was invited to participate in this institute as a Teacher Consultant for the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and as a long-time advocate for the content of the institute’s intent. The four day institute centered around a systematic approach to phonics, spelling, and writing workshop that is very near and dear to my teaching heart: Kid Writing.
I was first introduced to Kid Writing about fifteen years ago while working in a K-2 school just outside of Philadelphia. This unique primary center was home to thirteen kindergarten classrooms – all under just one roof! In case you weren’t doing the math, that’s well over three hundred, five-year-old bodies functioning in one space. A wonderful and exciting teaching and learning environment…but not for the faint of heart.
Nonetheless, it was within those very lively learning walls that I first discovered the joy of kids actually writing: choosing a topic, drawing and discussing the details of their story, and then actually getting their thoughts onto the page- phonetically! However, over the past several decades, varied perspectives to how kindergarten children should be taught in regards to early writing have often, in some classrooms, gotten in the way of the ultimate goal: helping kids write and grow as writers within their unique developmental stage. By not affording kids the opportunity to think through stories, stretch through words that they want to spell, and write the sounds they hear in the words they want to write, we rob them of the instructional independent writing time that is so vital to their development as a learner. Focusing on the sounds they hear in the words they speak is the very fiber of what they ought to be doing at these very early developmental stages in their learning process.
The question Eileen Feldgus, author of Kid Writing poses:
How do we bring children who come to kindergarten without even knowing the alphabet to high levels of writing (and reading) quickly and joyfully?
As teachers of young readers and writers, we are cognizant of the brain research and evidence that support the fact that we map speech to print…not the other way around (Speech to Print, Moats, 2000). Children first learn to read through speech and language, not print. With that said, the process known as orthographic mapping guides not simply the what, but also the how of early reading and writing instruction. As defined by Dr. David Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, orthographic mapping is the mental process used to store words for immediate retrieval. It is the mechanism for sight-word learning. It requires good phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and the alphabetic principle (2015). Understanding how we develop letter-sound knowledge and how we map phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (the letter(s) that represent the phoneme(s)/sound(s) we hear in words) is the instructional foundation in which we can help our young writers map their speech to print.
Kid Writing is a systematic approach to phonics, spelling, and writing workshop that does just that. Through the Kid Writing process known as “stretching through,” young writers are taught to develop strong letter-sound knowledge while becoming independent of their own learning for future success and transfer. That said, children are not just taught the skill of stretching through in the moment, for a one time use, but rather, taught the skill to transfer to independent writing time as well.
In Kid Writing, Eileen Feldgus introduces the process of stretching through by emphasizing only the sounds that the teacher thinks someone in the small group will be successful with, whether accurately or through phonetically logical reasoning. Early in the year, these may be only the easier consonant sounds and the pure short /a/ sound. (p. 31)
Eileen instructs that emphasizing sounds in this important process can include the following:
- Sometimes saying, “watch my mouth”
- Speaking the target sound louder
- Elongating or dragging the target sound: continuants and vowels like /s/, /m/, /f/, /h/, and /l/, not stops like /d/, /p/, /b/, or /t/
Eileen models that an example of stretching through with the word lightning within a child’s message may go like this:
Teacher emphasizes Child writes
light:ning lt (child adds t)
lightn:ing ltn (child adds n)
lightning: ltng (child adds g)
In contrast, if we were to stretch the sounds of the word lightning in isolation, we then would be telling the child what to hear, not teaching them how to hear it. In turn, this would create a baby bird effect where the child would “open wide” imploring the aid of the teacher or peer each time a phoneme/grapheme match was needed in a word he/she was trying to spell. In our absence, dependency would be the result and the writer would be stuck, with no tools or toolbox to draw from. In addition, through the stages of spelling development, the child would not be able to developmentally map his/her speech to the print associated with the long /i/ sound heard in the word lightning, i.e. the phoneme long /i/ with its grapheme –igh.
As Kid Writing is an approach, NOT a program, this systematic approach can be applied as the child writes across varied modes of writing and moves through the phases of spelling development: from pre-communicative in which spellings may often include “letter-like” forms or scribbles, i.e. T or ps = eagle, to everyday conventional spelling. (p. 142,143)
When I facilitate Kid Writing trainings for various schools and districts, I often get into the discussion of exactness and correctness, over agency and risk-taking. In saying that, Kid Writing affords young writers the opportunity to become independent of their own learning, what I’m really saying is that we as teachers should be promoting and fostering agency in our young writers, not obedience. Take for example, a student who wants to write about their dog which just happens to be a big, beautiful Doberman Pinscher. If we put that child in a class which focused on obedience and correctness, that child might write a sentence like this, “I have a big dog.” However, plant that same child in a classroom that promoted agency over obedience, that child might take a bigger risk and go for hearing as many sounds as he/she could by stretching though the sentence they really want to write, such as this, “I have a big, beautiful, Doberman Pinscher named Oscar!” The actual phonetic representation may look more like this, “I hav a big, beutefl dobrmn pnchr namd Oscr.” What would you rather see your writer attempt and produce? The process of stretching through gives kids the tools they need to not just stretch words and hear the sounds in the words they want to write with you sitting right next to them, but also gives them access to those same tools in the repertoire that you helped build for them to utilize in your absence as they see fit.
The components of Kid Writing:
- Draw and discuss your story (or information)
- Kid Writing
- Stretch sounds in words
- Kid Crowns
- Environmental print in classroom
- Adult Writing
- Praise successes
- Print at the bottom of the page
- Model correct spelling, capital letters, and punctuation
- Ask the child to read the sentence with you
Component 1. Draw and discuss your story (information)
When students draw and discuss their stories it gives them the opportunity to rehearse. As Eileen Feldgus so clearly puts it, “It anchors their thinking.” In Don Murray’s piece entitled, “Write Before Writing,” he speaks to the importance of the process of rehearsal. (College Composition and Communication, 1978) Don Murray references Dr. Donald Graves’ thinking on rehearsal, “Productive writers are in a state of rehearsal all the time. Rehearsal usually begins with an unwritten dialogue within the writer’s mind.”
Murray continues with highlighting first-hand observations of writing rehearsal,
“What the writer does under the pressure not to write and the four countervailing pressures to write is best described by the word rehearsal, which I first heard used by Dr. Donald Graves of the University of New Hampshire to describe what he saw young children doing as they began to write. He watched them draw what they would write and heard them, as we all have, speaking aloud what they might say on the page before they wrote. If you walk through editorial offices or a newspaper city room you will see lips moving and hear expert professional muttering and whispering to themselves as they write. Rehearsal is a normal part of the writing process, but it took a trained observer, such as Dr. Graves to identify its significance.”
We, as a teaching profession, often spend the least amount of time in the place that is most needed by all writers – rehearsal. Often, we can be found delivering solid teaching points and issuing wonderfully differentiated compliments to our students in our minilessons, but then we sometimes set them off to write too soon. However, by slowing down to allow students to linger in the moment of their thoughts, draw the details of their story, and tell their story across their hands or in the air prior to having them write it down, we can provide them with the much needed rehearsal of their story before we ask them to put it on the page in written articulation. Very few young writers I know can easily write what they can’t first speak. Drawing and discussion is key to written production and later attempts at matching phonemes to their graphemes.
Component 2. Kid Writing
“Stretching through is the guts of Kid Writing.” Eileen Feldgus
Working in a small group of writers to stretch through words, enables peers to help each other. Language offered such as,
“Watch my mouth. What sound do you hear in friend?” Emphasizing the continuant /f/ in friend first.
“I hear an f,” one child in the group replies.
“Great job, write it down,” the teacher praises.
“But I don’t know what an f looks like?” the writer admits.
Using the alphabet chart/line, the teacher responds, “Can you find the fish?” The child finds the fish and forms the letter f on the page for friend. The teacher then continues to help the child (and the group) to stretch through the word friend helping the child and the group identify the sounds in the word and match letter(s) to those sounds accordingly.
As teachers, it is best to be seated with the group, in very close proximity, preferably on the floor or at a small table. In this way, all students are able to intimately listen for sounds, watch the teacher for cues, help each other, learn from each other, use the alphabet chart to match phonemes to graphemes, and participate fully and actively in the writing process: 100% active engagement. Kid Writing is intended to be a social and collaborative process.
In addition to stretching through words with young writers, Kid Writing also utilizes Kid Crowns, a unique feature that sets Kid Writing apart from other approaches, to help students write frequently used words or word parts with irregular phonetic spellings. These high frequency words are introduced when kids need them in their writing. Initially these Kid Crown words may include: is, are, and was. Kid Crowns help with the frustration of using the stretching through process and then encountering irregularly spelled high frequency words when writing ideas and information on paper.
Environmental print in the classroom has writers up and moving around: walking to words! The entire room is set up for students to engage with and learn from. As students walk to words they find numbers, colors, days of the week, months of the year, and commonly used thematic words referenced throughout the school day, week, and month, all at their disposal. In teaching young writers to hear the sounds in the words they want to spell and match graphemes to those phonemes, use Kid Crowns to spell commonly used phonetically irregular words, and use their environment to walk to words they need, makes young writers independent of their own learning and successful with you at their side or in your absence: creating agency, not obedience.
Component 3. Adult Writing
The Kid Writing approach focuses on the process, rather than the product, however, modeling conventional spelling through Adult Writing is an integral part of the Kid Writing approach. It has long been a belief of the writing workshop teacher to honor student work by never putting a pen to a child’s writing. However, in early stages of spelling development, it is essential to model appropriate spelling and provide students with a conventional model. This model comes in the form of Adult Writing which praises logical approximations of the task and models accurate representation of the attempt. The reason workshop teachers have a strong belief in never putting a pen to a child’s paper is due to its ineffective nature and the negative self-concept it creates in the writer. Pen to paper feedback usually comes in the form of written comments to the writer, long after the writing has occurred. More recent research by John Hattie on feedback, informs us that this type of feedback is ineffective. Hattie’s meta-analysis of research in Visible Learning for Teachers teaches us three things about feedback. Feedback needs to:
- Be calibrated – given in tiny bits
- Given in the moment – as the learner is working on the task
- Provide opportunity for repeated practice
Adult Writing, in conjunction with Kid Writing Component 4, the minilesson/share, is designed to provide feedback just as Hattie describes as best for optimal student achievement and success. In Adult Writing, the adult praises what the child did correct, i.e. the sounds the child heard in the words he/she was trying to write represented by the letters that match those sounds. During Adult Writing the teacher may also praise spaces between words, appropriate capitalization, letter formation, punctuation, and content. Language that supports this praise in Adult Writing may sound like this:
“I love how you heard the ____ in ____. This is how adults write it.”
In this way, the teacher/adult is able to praise the success, while still modeling conventional spelling and concepts of print, i.e. left-to-right progression, spacing between words, appropriate use of upper/lowercase letters, and punctuation.
In the early stages of spelling development, kids need to see what they wrote in connected text with accurate writing. However, as students advance through the stages, writing underneath words is appropriate when only a few words require adult modeling of conventional spelling. In Adult Writing, the child is asked to read the sentence/thought/story back with you, not to you. As students may think and write at levels beyond their actual independent reading level, it is necessary for the child to read their writing back with you, rather than to you. Although reading and writing are reciprocal, encoding and mapping speech sounds to print is a different experience and skill than decoding. Encoding requires phonemic analysis and decoding requires phonemic synthesis. Both encoding and decoding require use of the phonological processor, but differ in purpose and use as subjective to the task.
Component 4. Minilesson/Share
How dare we not honor the writing before critiquing phonics elements?
The minilesson/share presents one more opportunity to honor the student writing while praising what’s important…the child’s message. The after minilesson share does many things, however a few things worth highlighting are:
- It gives audience to each child
- It provides an opportunity to identify and create a teaching point within each child’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been defined as:
“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.”
- It creates an invitation to “Question the Author.” For example, in the child’s story, “My brother is sad,” a way to foster elaboration through Questioning the Author might be, “I have a why question about your story. Why was your brother sad?” Over the course of the kindergarten school year, we want to achieve two types of stamina in our young writers: the first type of stamina is built slowly over time where students begin to write for longer and longer periods of time, and the second type of stamina is the stamina where we encourage and support our writers in digging their heels back into the learning process and making their piece sound exactly the way they’d hoped it would sound. The Questioning the Author strategy helps students revise in ways that are developmental to their unique phase along the continuum.
Training parent volunteers and instructional aides to support Kid Writing
It is important to solicit, recruit, and train parent volunteers who can and are willing to work with children during writing workshop to ensure its success. In my school, I train volunteers in a one hour training session where I help parents understand the Kid Writing philosophy, teach parents the stretching through process, show examples of student work, have-a-go with adult writing, and show a self-made video of our real Kid Writing classrooms in action! Once volunteers are trained, parents sign up to volunteer on either a Tuesday or Thursday from October to May. They can choose to volunteer once a week, twice a week, every other week, or once a month, whichever fits their schedule. We teach writing workshop utilizing the Kid Writing approach every single day, Monday through Friday, however, on Tuesdays and Thursdays we run our parent volunteer schedule. Parent volunteers come in on their designated day from 9:15-10:45. Kid Writing runs in two sessions from 9:15-10:00 and from 10:00-10:45 in our kindergarten classrooms. Our parent volunteers, volunteer once in their child’s classroom, and then cross the hall to volunteer in another kindergarten Kid Writing classroom. The schedule remains constant from October through May. Typically, our kindergarten Kid Writing classrooms run with one teacher, one instructional aide, and two to three parent volunteers. Each trained adult stretches through and Adult Writes with a group of approximately 4 to 5 students. It works!
Frequently asked questions (with answers) about Kid Writing
Q. How many kids should experience instructional independent writing and adult writing support each day? How do I get to everyone every day?
A. The goal is to get to every child every day. Since the stretching through is the guts of Kid Writing, every child should receive instructional independent writing and adult writing each day. This can be achieved with the help of trained instructional aides and an all hands on deck parent volunteer system in place. In this way, each group of four to five students are supported by one adult during Kid Writing. This is particularly helpful for the stretching through process and the adult writing. (See training parent volunteers and instructional aides to support Kid Writing)
Q. How many kids share each day in the minilesson/share?
A. During the group minilesson phase of writing workshop, approximately three children have the opportunity to share their pieces with the class. In this time, a teaching point is chosen for each student. Eileen Feldgus utilizes the following in her approach: two praises and a push. The teacher praises two things the student has done well, and identifies and teaches towards one push or element where the writer is almost achieving success and teaches in that sweet spot.
In addition to the three students involved in the minilesson/share, partners can also share their stories in a quick share or turn and share with each other. If partners are designated ahead of time, for example, Partner A and Partner B, then a quick share can be as easy as cuing, “Now, partners are going to share. Turn knee to knee and eye to eye. Partner A share your story/writing/information/picture with Partner B. Now Partner B share your story/writing/information/picture with Partner A.”
Q. Why is Adult Writing written underneath, rather than above student writing?
A. The space above student writing is reserved for revisions made with carets.
Q. How do I assess Kid Writing?
A. It is best to assess young student writing on a developmental scale with checklists rather than with rubrics. Rubrics are designed for teachers, not for students and often set students up to fail, i.e. with language such as, “approaching standards…” In addition, language used in a rubric can be very subjective and difficult to utilize when pinpointing next step instruction. In contrast, checklists set students up for success, directly pointing out what they have mastered, and affording students (and teachers) the opportunity to set (clear and attainable next step goals) and the vision to strive to meet those goals.
Kid Writing can be assessed through Kid Writing in the 21st Century’s Stages of Spelling Development checklists, the Monster Test, and The Conventions of Writing Developmental Scale.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to Eileen Feldgus for her research and contributions to our important work as teachers of young readers and writers, to the National Writing Project for its commitment to research and practice surrounding writing across our nation, to the Philadelphia Writing Project for its continued work with coaches in supporting Philadelphia schools in Kid Writing, to my administrator and colleague, Dr. Rob Buffone for his support and commitment to this worthy work, and to my home, the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, to whom I am eternally grateful. ~ Val Piccini
Visit and Explore
Feldgus, Eileen, Isabel Cardonick, and Richard Gentry. (2017). Kid Writing in the 21st Century. USA: Hameray Publishing Group, Inc.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. New York, NY: Routledge
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Moats, Louisa C. (2000). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Murray, Donald, M. (1978). Write Before Writing: College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. Vol. 29, No. 4. (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381.
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Resources on Phonemic Awareness and Phonics
Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning To Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: First MIT Press.
Adams, Marilyn J., Barbara R. Foorman, Ingvar Lundberg and Terri Beeler. (1998). Phonemic Awareness in Young Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Gillon, Gail, T. (2018). Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Grace, K. (2007). Phonics and Spelling Through Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping. Voyager Sopris Learning.
Kilpatrick, David, A. (2016). Equipped for Reading Success: A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition. Syracuse, NY: Casey & Kirsch Publishers
Val Piccini, M.Ed.
Teacher Consultant, Western Pennsylvania Writing Project
Founding Director, Writers of Westmoreland