Stamina in Our Youngest Writers

Nearly three years ago, Betsy Hubbard wrote about stamina for primary writers. At the time, I found it hard to believe she could get her students to write for 45 minutes. (Remember, all of my classroom experience has been in fourth and fifth grades. While I’ve spent time in K-6 classrooms as a consultant, those classroom visits are often to rooms where writing workshop is new the teacher; the kids aren’t writing for long stretches of time in most of those rooms.)

You know how they say seeing is believing? Well, I saw it first-hand during the 2014-15 school year when I spent a lot of time in two different first-grade classrooms. The kids were regularly working on their books for 30 – 45 minutes/day!  I was impressed that the kids were able to sustain their writing for long stretches of time. However, they needed 30 – 45 minutes/day since they needed to rehearse their writing through talk, sketch, and then write.

But what about preschool writers?

Last year I volunteered in my daughter’s mixed-age preschool class on most Mondays this school year. (Click here to read an overview of that experience.) In September, the kids were barely able to sustain ten minutes in the writing center with me. By May, some kids were sitting for 30 – 45-minute stretches of time. It amazed me! In an effort to show you how the kids got to this point, I obtained permission to share the work of Grace, one of my daughter’s former classmates, with you.

OVERVIEW: Grace started the school year at 4.5 years old. In September she was drawing detailed pictures. By November, she began writing strings of letters on the page to represent her ideas. In the middle of the winter, Grace began writing sentences. Here’s a look at how she progressed across the school year.

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I started off the school year having the children write one page in their journal every time they came to the writing center.

Grace's first piece of writing from September.

Grace’s first piece of writing from September.

By November, I realized I needed to provide Grace with something other than white paper since she was writing strings of letters to accompany her drawings.

By November, I realized I needed to provide Grace with something other than white paper since she was writing strings of letters to accompany her drawings.

Grace started leaving spaces between words by the end of December.

Grace started leaving spaces between words by the end of December.

In early February, after reading Matt Glover’s Engaging Young Writers: Preschool – Grade 1, I encouraged all of the children to start making books since I thought they were capable of telling a story across pages. Here’s a look at what I think was Grace’s first book (I say think since this one is not dated.):

Click on the image to enlarge.

The only reason I think this may not be her first book is because of the Shamrock Shake she’s drinking on page three. Are those even out in February?

You'll notice the "word bank" I gave Grace on the bottom of her third page of text. Like many young children, she wanted to spell words correctly. We had a deal. I'd give her up to five words. The rest of the words she had to figure out on her own.

You’ll notice the “word bank” I gave Grace on the bottom of her third page of text. Like many young children, she wanted to spell words correctly. We had a deal. I’d give her up to five words. The rest of the words she had to figure out on her own.

In mid-April, I introduced the idea of branching out beyond stories. I encouraged kids to write about their experiences or interests. Grace did a few pieces like this, but I found her less invested in writing when I pushed her away from writing stories. Here’s an example of a piece she wrote about her family, which was a self-chosen topic:

The pictures and the writing is more sparse than her mid-winter writing.

The pictures and the writing are more sparse than her mid-winter writing.

During my final visit in mid-May, I encouraged the kids to write a story or about an experience. Grace was excited to sit down and write a five-page story about a recent trip to Hersheypark.

Grace worked diligently for 45 minutes on this story.

Grace worked diligently for 45 minutes on this story.

When Grace came to the writing center in September, she was only working for ten minutes at a time. By the middle of the year, Grace knew she needed to come to the writing center early on during choice time if she was going to have enough time to finish the books she was writing in one day. Most days she’d work for 45-minute stretches of time, though there was a day she sat in the writing center for an hour!

Were all of the kids in the preschool class writing for 45 minutes by May? No. Grace and one other girl were writing sentences by the end of the year. They were the kids who wanted to spend longer with me since they needed time to talk, draw, and write. The kids who were talking and drawing, however, were spending 20 – 30 minutes working in the writing center by May. I didn’t anticipate this level of concentration when I started out the school year, but over time, it happened. This means that they will be able to sustain longer periods of time writing now that they’re in Kindergarten this fall.

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Bottom line: All kids — no matter how old — can write for long stretches of time. Children need to build-up their writing stamina over time. I suggest increasing independent writing time in five-minute increments. Depending on the grade you teach, encourage your kids to write for five extra minutes every few days (or every couple of weeks if you teach preschool). If you increase kids’ stamina slowly, they will be capable of writing for long stretches of time. Not only will this help your writers build their writing muscles, but it will provide you with more time hold one-to-one conferences and small-group strategy lessons.