bilingual · interactive writing · kindergarten · writing workshop

Possibilities for Interactive Writing in a Bilingual Classroom

Interactive writing is one of my favorite literacy activities to do with kindergarteners because it is so versatile. It can serve multiple purposes from labeling parts of the classroom to writing a letter, composing a story, making a list, or writing a class book. It can be used in a whole or small group. It gives children opportunities to demonstrate their level of understanding of previously taught skills. And, it allows the teacher to differentiate and scaffold instruction on the spot for individual students.

In a bilingual classroom (mine is English / Mandarin), it is so important to build community around speaking, listening, and writing together. Children need to see there is a connection between the languages, and that all their teachers are committed to the goal of helping them develop and deepen their skills as bilingual readers, speakers, and writers. When students partake in something collectively like cooking or a field trip, it makes everyone an expert with firsthand knowledge of how it went. This, in turn, helps build community and establish common ground. The interactive writing process can bring closure to and help students reflect upon a shared classroom experience.

Last year my co-teacher, Danna Zhang and I used interactive writing to align our work in writing workshop. It was the start of the Lunar New Year and we had just begun our How-To unit, so we thought it fitting to make dumplings with the class and then use that shared experience to write an instructional class book about it. We brainstormed a few different ways to do this, and ultimately decided to make a four-page book that alternated languages on each page. I led the English page creation while Danna led it in Mandarin. The entire process took place over multiple sessions per page, so this was also an exercise in patience and stamina!

Before Danna and I got to the physical writing with the kids, we wanted to make sure they could retell the steps that we followed and could say them in their own words–in both languages. Oral production before writing is important because it helps children plan and find the words to express their ideas before putting pen to paper. What did we do first, next, then, and last? We prompted them with photographs we had taken during the dumpling-making activity, and in partners, had them orally retell the process to one another.

Something else we did to front load the writing process was to have every student illustrate each step of the book on a sticky note. They then arranged their steps sequentially on a giant piece of butcher paper that had been sectioned off into four columns: first, next, then, and last. These sticky notes were repurposed and rearranged like a vast sea of yellow squares as the illustrations for each page.

The rest of the process followed along the lines that much interactive writing does. The children helped compose the text, the pen was shared between individual students and the teacher, care was taken to correctly spell high frequency and other phonetically predictable words (in English), and we worked on basic writing conventions such as using appropriate capitalization, spacing, and end punctuation.

For the pages written in Mandarin, the children composed the sentences orally and wrote the characters using a combination of key vocabulary and high frequency word flashcards. In some cases, drawings were used in place of particular characters as a strategy to help children write words that they were not yet familiar with or could not yet identify.

Our bilingual How To Make Dumplings book was a grand experiment of sorts, and in the end it was a truly worthwhile experience. Not only did the kids take so much pride in writing it, but it became a class book we could read and reread all year long. If you have the chance to do interactive writing in a bilingual setting, use it as an opportunity to think outside the box and celebrate the many ways bilingual literacy can serve to bring people–and the curriculum–together.

“First, dip your finger in the water and put it on the circumference of the wrapper.”
“Second, put corn, carrots, and peas on the wrapper.”
“Then, fold the wrapper over and pinch it along the circumference.”
“Last, cook and eat dumplings.”

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