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A Close Observation

Don Graves said, “If you want to understand how children write, then observe them closely. Write down everything they do and say. Then make a copy of their writing.” This statement was shared at NCTE and it is one that is sticking with me.

Since then, I’ve closely observed 7 primary students. I’ve studied each writer for 10 – 15 minutes, writing down everything they do or say. I’ve asked them a few questions, but for the most part, I’ve tried to stay quiet. Here are my notes from a second grade student. I wrote them first in my notebook, then made a copy of his writing and transferred my notes to the copy. This helped me spend some time reflecting on the experience.

I’ve gone into these observations with this question: What are these young writers teaching me about writing? I’ve observed a variety of writers, from those with little experience to those with a lot of experience. And now I’m looking for the answer to this question.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Most students are working through the entire writing process. They revise by returning to the picture and then to the words. Many young writers are adding to the end of a part/page, therefore, I often miss this as a revision because I assume it was part of the first draft. (I consider something a revision when a student has moved on, then comes back to a previous part, rereads, and makes a change.)
  2. Some of the students who struggle the most are editing the most. I was surprised by the number of edits the least experience writers do. They used different strategies for spelling, stretched the same word a number of times, and added or eliminated punctuation and capitalization. In the end their writing still wasn’t standard, and if I met with them at that point in time, I would be tempted to have an editing conference. Little would I know they had already spent a lot of energy editing their work.
  3. Primary writers work through the process quickly. Although I knew this, I’m beginning to have a deeper understanding of how fast their process is. This makes me realize the importance of helping them s l o w   d o w n  and be more intentional about their writing work. Still, there is a fine balance between slowing writers down and taking away their natural process of creating books.
  4. I would encourage all writing teachers to spend some time in close observation of their students. Instead of conferring with four students during work time, spend time in close observation of one student, then confer with two more. Over the course of a week, you would  be able to observe five different writers and have a deeper understanding of their work as writers.

I’m still reflecting and trying to answer the question: What are these young writers teaching me about writing? I’d love to hear from you if you take the time for a close observation — what are YOUR students teaching you about writing?

Ruth Ayres View All

Unhurried. Finding the magic in the middle of living. Capturing a life of ridiculous grace + raw stories.

2 thoughts on “A Close Observation Leave a comment

  1. Ruth,
    This post really has me thinking. I’ve learned to value the time I step away from conferring and teaching to just watch as I learn so much about the children in my classroom. The statement, “Some of the students who struggle the most are editing the most.”, really caught my attention. How can we support these writers to make the process easier and more fluid?

    Looking at the child’s sample above, I couldn’t help but wonder about all of the other work this child was probably doing in his/her head to compose this meaningful message. Our young writers work very hard to balance a lot of demands. I’m always so impressed by their work.

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of stepping back and watching our learners.



  2. I’ve been mulling over your question, Ruth, and I’ve zoomed in on two points:
    1. Voice: my students want to find their own distinctive way of putting things – I’ve had to really watch myself during conferences to try and identify this voice and help them find a way to express it using writing conventions.
    2. Revision: some of my students have to speed through their first draft just to get their thoughts down and use revision to extend and refine their writing. Others labor through the first draft, making sure they get those details in – and use revision to tweak those efforts. In other words, each writer works their way – and part of my job is to understand their methodology, and work within that framework.
    Teaching writing is getting used to an ever changing landscape – each student is so very particular!


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