early childhood · emergent writers

Adventures in First Grade Writing

When you love writing, and love teaching writing, and when you blog often about the teaching of writing, it’s a wee bit awkward when your own first grade son refuses to write in school. Alex’s wonderful and caring teacher let me know that he was having a difficult time when it was time to write. For a little boy who hates to be wrong, writing when you don’t know how to spell the words can be paralyzing.

As a former kindergarten teacher (before moving up to third grade), I always felt I wore several hats when I taught my students to write. I had to teach them about purpose and desire for writing and writer’s craft, as I do now, but I also had to teach them about letter/sound correspondence, and letter formation, and left to right on the page, and representational drawings, etc. Teachers of emergent writers need to teach the why, what and the HOW of writing in ways that upper grade teachers usually don’t. Building confidence and encouraging young writers to take risks is another aspect of teaching emergent writers and some children are not as okay with approximations. Like my son.

After talking to Alex about writing and how it is better to put something on the page than nothing, I tried to show him that his approximations would be understandable and readable by many. That it was okay if the word was not spelled exactly right but he wrote it as he heard it. He was skeptical, so we made a bet. I told Alex to write the word “turkey” as best he could and I would post it on my Facebook page. If people could read the word, without any picture clue, I would win the bet (but more importantly, show Alex that others can read his writing.) He was sure no one could read his writing, but 70 comments later, he saw that EVERYONE knew he wrote turkey!

This little bet seems to have given Alex a shot of confidence when it comes to writing. His teacher told me he approached writing with more enthusiasm after this experience. I was excited to see him grab a notebook this weekend to record the first day’s adventure of our new seasonal visitor, The Elf on the Shelf. (I resisted this guy for quite some time, but decided to try it this holiday season.) Here’s what Alex recorded, and here’s the inspiration:


Recording the whereabouts of our elf, Smiling Max, was completely Alex’s idea. He didn’t ask me how to spell any words and his growing sight word knowledge is helping him as a writer. Seeing Alex grow as a writer, and acknowledging the struggles and difficulty that writers might face, is illuminating for me as a mom and a teacher. My third graders are just two years away from where Alex is now and they are crafting personal essays this month. Just two short years ago, they were maybe struggling to sound out words, too. How much we expect of young children and how amazing it is to see them develop in all areas of writing, including confidence, which is quite key, in my opinion. Believing you have something to say, believing you are capable of expressing it, and knowing that others will want to read your writing.. and be able to read it are essential beliefs for writers to develop.

What are your experiences with emergent writers who lacked confidence or were reluctant to spell unfamiliar words?

10 thoughts on “Adventures in First Grade Writing

  1. Thank you for this post! It is so true, sometimes writers just get stuck and won’t take a risk with spelling. This is a strategy that I will try in the future. I know your son will continue to blossom as a writer with your support and guidance!


  2. I teach first grade. What we do: Writing Journals are ready–#1 through #8 (last year). I have some students this year already in #4, so I may be making more! Kids write Mon-Thurs during center time. We have Writer’s Workshops sprinkled through the week. One center is “free write” where they write in journals. Once they have finished a piece–they put a sticky note on the page so I know where to read and it goes into the tray. While students are at special I read every journal. I jot a note on the sticky note–a question I have, what I liked best, a reminder to check capitals or periods (differentiated!) or say “read to me!” if there are words I need help with. If the piece has enough content (this changes from Sept to Dec to May and for each individual) I type it up. The first typed piece is more than double spaced for editing. I fix all spellings, but keep caps and punctuation the same as the student wrote it. The student makes any changes he/she wishes and put it back in the tray. That day I make the changes on the computer, space the lines closer and return to student for illustrating.

    Here’s the best news. In the beginning of the year I order centers so student move every 15-20 minutes. It didn’t allow them time to write for more than 15 minutes. I asked how many would like the option to write longer. The majority raised their hands. I was dancing inside. I reordered centers so read-to-self is after writing, so now whenever a student wants to keep writing, he/she can. Beautiful. So far there are about 60 pieces in the hallway. Last year there were 110–so we are on track to beat that number. They don’t know this. 😉 Amazing.


  3. Kathleen, thank you for sharing this wonderful post! I have a first grader, as well, and just last night I had the conversation with her about spelling. She was writing a story (on her own, not homework), and she was asking me how to spell several words. I never told her the correct spelling right away, but rather said things like, “I bet you can figure that one out.” And 90% of the time, she did. But it was still bothering me that she was asking how to spell a word so frequently. Finally, I said to her, “You know honey, when writers are doing their first drafts, they don’t worry about spelling. They just try to get their ideas down as fast as they can. Then they edit later.” Luckily, my third grader chimed in and said that is what she does! Not sure if it will make the last difference that your little bet did? What a great idea, though! I think I’ll try that one next… thanks, again!


  4. I can totally to relate to this. My son is in first grade this year, and reading has been a struggle for him. I am a 4th grade teacher, but I have taught 1st and 3rd, so I felt embarrassed and discouraged at the beginning of the year when my son was struggling. I feared he would become a reluctant reader, but his experience just goes to show that not every student learns at the same pace, nor is every student ready to read or write at the same time. Loved this post as a mom and as a reading teacher.


  5. As a 42-year first grade teacher (now instructing teachers), I LOVE this post. Every single word about the reluctance to be “wrong” rang a distant bell in my mind. But the real gem? Your “trke” exercise. That was brilliant and one I will be passing on this summer at my “Building a Literacy Foundation in K-2” workshops. Many thanks. Alex has one smart mama.


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