“First-grade writing.”

[We moved! Oh my gosh. We're never doing that again. Hopefully this blog will soon be returning to regular levels of Tinderboxy goodness.]

I had a little crisis of confidence after I made my last post about Alex’s hilarious notes. I mean, clearly the notes are adorable. I have to fight the urge to post pictures of every one she writes – how could I possibly deny you guys a peek at the voting chart she made to elect herself “presadint and comandr,” for example? Or the request for a field trip to the zoo, written in code and urgently presented to me while I was frantically calling around for an emergency plumber? (Yeah.)

On the other hand, yeesh, the handwriting and spelling. Coming from a kid who’s reading 101 Dalmatians in her free time, for fun, is this writing even approaching first-grade level?

It’s hard for me to get a grip on what constitutes “grade level” for writing, anyway. In other subject areas, it seems so much more clear-cut. You can check Scholastic Book Wizard or graded book lists to get an idea of what constitutes grade-level reading. Math books typically have a grade level printed on the cover. But with writing? I’m just guessing.

A public school parent at a meeting I attended said that kids in her neighborhood public school were writing paragraphs by the end of kindergarten. It seems to be widespread that third graders are writing five-paragraph essays – a format I was taught in seventh grade. …And then I think about the essays I graded when I was a TA in grad school. Surely most of those kids weren’t writing good paragraphs in kindergarten, if their writing ability after 13 more years of instruction was any indication.

Browsing education websites for commentary on how to evaluate early elementary writing just left me more confused. Apparently there are “six traits” of writing, and beginning in kindergarten children should be guided to work on things like developing an authentic voice. Check out this scoring rubric for grades K-2. “Charts, tables, graphs match, clarify, and enrich text and are placed properly.” “Strong attempts at figurative language create clear mental imagery.” “Pacing is purposeful.” “Risk-taking reveals person behind words.” Grades K-2. That rubric doesn’t seem to exist on the same planet as the K-2 kids I know – not just Alex, but my school-attending RE students as well. Or am I kidding myself?

Googling for scored examples brought me back to earth.

Commentary: Style: The student uses specific descriptive words to tell about the spider’s size [...] The writer repeats “bigger than” for emphasis. The reader is able to tell that the writer is fascinated by the gigantic size of this spider named Henry. Score: 23/30.

The student uses “because” effectively to sequence and connect why the spider does what it does: “always stays in its web because it is shy,” “eats bugs because it is nasty.” [...] The use of words like “scary” and “nasty” give evidence of the writer’s personality. Score: 26/30.

More scored first-grade samples with commentary are visible at the above link, and a different set of “proficient” samples are here. Examples from 1st-3rd grade, scored according to that terrifying “six traits” rubric and accompanied by snarky rater commentary, can be found here.

Honestly, reading through the various professional analyses and evaluations of first graders’ writing leaves me with more questions than answers. I wonder about the educational value of analyzing eti buse be kcsye its is nasd in terms of “voice” and “sequencing of ideas.” Do kids of this age benefit from instruction in these kinds of abstract concepts, when they’re still struggling to figure out how to put words on a page?

These are honest questions, not insinuating ones. I really want to know. This would be a great time for the teachers (and the rhetoric and composition professor! *waves*) who read this to weigh in. And public school parents! What are your kids writing? Fill me in.

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16 Responses to “First-grade writing.”

  1. Kim says:

    I don’t know the answers, but I struggle with this as well. L is a wee bit older than A, and he STRUGGLES with writing. I require very little independent writing, and what he does write is hard to decipher sometimes. :( I’ll be checking out some of these links myself.

  2. Bill G. says:

    When Rhiannon was in 1st grade, just a couple of years ago, her writing exercises seemed mostly to consist of writing simple sentences. If she could put together nouns and verbs, with reasonably correct punctuation, and keep her tenses straight, she got A’s.

  3. Jamie says:

    Sixth graders also use 6+1 Traits and the rubric is similar. The idea I’ve always come away with is that the traits are like a guide for the students to shoot for, making a great guide for REVISION. Kids “should” mostly be writing to get their OWN words on the page (which for some kids really helps them read, not that Alex needs any help with that!). Then we teach them to revise — for different things. Maybe today the focus is on grammar and such, and next week is about voice.

    Voice is about getting rid of that tendency to turn writing into dry, textbook-speak. It’s about getting kids to write WITHOUT worrying about the spelling and punctuation and stuff until they think on paper.

    Another common writing thing, at least in Missouri, is having kids do text to self connections, text to world, and text to text. Linking reading and writing is a big deal. :)

  4. Charlotte says:

    Henry’s writing work seems mostly focused on writing complete sentences, and short paragraphs, but that’s definitely a first grade thing and not kindergarten. He has explained to me what a paragraph is, so they must be learning about it.

    I helped out with writers’ workshop in kindergarten, so I’m a little more familiar with it. At the beginning of the year it was focused on letter forms. We just got a note home that we’re supposed to encourage them to use capitals at the beginning of a sentence, lower case elsewhere, and finger spacing between words. I recall that by the end of the year in K they were focusing on every sentence having punctuation at the end.

    This year, Henry is working on additional punctuation, and this week is learning about possessive with “‘s”.

    I wish I’d saved the sheet they sent home last year demonstrating the stages of writing. It was very illuminating, and much less confusing than what you linked to. I’ll be in the classroom tomorrow helping, and I’ll see if the first grade teacher has a copy.

    I can take some pictures of what Henry is doing. I was actually trying to encourage him to write Alex a letter, pen pal style, but he wrote letters to my mom and another friend and ran out of steam before he got to Alex. :-)

    Clearly, she’s full of complex ideas and once she’s more comfortable with writing will just explode into it. I think (obviously only from very limited experience) from where she’s at right now, encouraging her to use casing (at least in a basic sense) and punctuation at the end of every sentence would be the next step.

  5. Charlotte says:

    I just dug up the first grade curriculum that was sent home with Henry at the beginning of the year (which is *way* more straightforward than the state standards at http://mdk12.org/assessments/vsc/reading/bygrade/grade1.html).

    -Hold pencil properly
    -Write all letters of the alphabet
    -Write from left to right, top to bottom
    -Use proper size and slant of manuscript letters (FYI – they just switched from doing a slant alphabet in K to a straight alphabet – this just depends which you started with)
    -Correctly form upper and lower case letters
    -Put spaces between words
    -Create written text to share with others
    -Produce stories and journals
    -Write in complete sentences
    -Use appropriate capitalization:
    * First letter in first, middle, and last names
    * First word in a sentence
    * The pronoun “I”
    * Days of the week
    -Use a period, question mark, or exclamation point correctly at the end of a sentence
    -Become aware of the basic differences between writing to inform and writing to express personal ideas
    -Use the correct form of “be” with a noun or pronoun: I am here.
    -Use correct form of personal pronouns: I went with him.

    But remember, the kids who are doing all of this in first grade spent kindergarten writing every single day, and getting a *lot* of practice at it. And I recall that you specifically decided not to do that for various reasons, so it makes complete sense if she’s in a different place with writing. She’ll benefit from the good base that you’ve given her.

  6. Kirsten says:

    E’s homework from her teacher emphasizes using a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end. They also learned about “naming words” and “action words” (I think that’s what they called them). So they are now encouraged to write complete sentences using all those elements.

  7. Farrar says:

    Thank you. Yes. You saw it was a bit on my mind too for my boys. I don’t mind insinuating that there’s no value in doing those evaluations of voice and I’ll insinuate as well that those guidelines are misleading at best.

  8. iamjw says:

    It’s been a good 20 years since I taught kids Alex’s age, but from what I remember the two samples you’ve shown above are about right, one obviously of a higher level than the other. When I was working with kids that age we were not grading journal type writing, but were grading responses to specific questions. In the former, we were hoping for evidence of linear thought (cause and effect, telling a story in a defined order), and some attempt to use spelling words correctly. Proper sentence structure (punctuation etc.) was a big plus but by no means uniformly understood. In the latter we were looking for all those as well as evidence of reading comprehension. It was standard practice at that time to write the correct spelling of words under the attempted spelling so the kids could build their own dictionary of words. I don’t know if that is any longer the case. Basically, the idea was to separate the thinking, and the gevaluation of such, from the mechanics, which are much harder to do. Kids arrive in this world thinking – it’s the communicating in an accepted format that’s the kicker.

    The whole my 8 year old can write an essay thing I put down to the increasing trend to upsell the curriculum. Put the harder things at lower grade levels and you can brag about what the kids are doing, never mind that most kids that age are just getting their heads around proper paragraphing. At my school (for gifted kids), they begin learning how to structure an essay in Grade 5, spend Grade 6 writing five paragraph formal persuasive essays, and then build on those skills in Grades 7 and 8. It is my understanding that while it may be introduced in Grade 5 in public schools here it isn’t really stressed until much later.

  9. Enders says:

    As a parent of a 6th grader (in PS until switched to Catholic school in 5th grade) and a first grader in public school (and a 3 year old, but let’s not go there), I’m so glad I don’t have to evaluate those writing samples using the rubric above. I like Charlotte’s bullet points, more along the lines of correct pencil holding, some punctuation, etc. Can I hope that with a rich reading background and vocabulary development, the descriptive writing part will follow?
    Our PS uses Reader’s Workshop and Writer’s Workshop, which I don’t completely understand and I think a lot depends on how the teacher is using it. My oldest had a 3rd grade teacher who did a great job of prodding her students to “show, don’t tell” in their writing and to write a “snapshot” description. Those catchphrases seemed to prompt some quite descriptive writing. I’m all for the grammar work she’s doing now in school, but I worry that her creative writing side isn’t being nurtured.
    At this point in the year, my first grade son writes sentences using ONE of the week’s spelling words, and does some prompts where he finishes the sentence. By comparison, my now 6th grade daughter had to write sentences using ALL of the week’s spelling words and getting that homework done was worse than pulling teeth. Hope this adds something to the discussion. Others’ comments are very interesting.

  10. tinderbox says:

    Thank you so much for your input, everybody. (I am late replying to comments not because I didn’t read them eagerly when they came in, but because we don’t have internet at home yet.) It’s really helpful to have examples from so many kids in so many different settings. I think that it’s easy for homeschoolers to wind up just talking to homeschoolers, so I appreciate that we have representation of home/private/public schooling here.

    Charlotte, interesting list – thanks for taking the time to type all that in. There’s actually more agreement there than I might have expected. Alex has been working on complete sentences, appropriate capitalization, appropriate spacing, and end-of-sentence punctuation in her copywork, and when she gives narrations and answers comprehension questions she has learned to present them in complete sentences. She does still reverse some letters and numbers, so we’re working on that.

    I know she can write in the appropriate case, because she does it when required. I’ve warned her that the time is coming when she’ll be expected to use mixed case and punctuation in all her school writing. (Which at this point, besides the copywork that she’s already doing in mixed case, would just mean spelling dictation.) She prefers to use block capitals, but in dictation she’s capable of writing sentences like NINE FLAGS WAVE ON THE POLE and LAST TIME SHE ATE MY SNACK with correct spelling and spacing.

    I do notice that there aren’t any spelling goals on Henry’s list. Is that considered a separate subject?

    JW: The whole my 8 year old can write an essay thing I put down to the increasing trend to upsell the curriculum. Put the harder things at lower grade levels and you can brag about what the kids are doing, never mind that most kids that age are just getting their heads around proper paragraphing.

    Yeah, I was thinking that myself. It’s kind of like how they list “geometry standards” for kindergarten, and they just mean that kids are learning their shapes. I would rather lay a firm foundation in the basics (composing well-formed thoughts orally, writing single sentences with the conventions correct) and wait to have her writing essays until, you know, she can actually put together a good one.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I just read somewhere that there’s no evidence that kids who do spelling lessons do any better than kids without spelling lesson. I recall that pretty much I knew how to spell from reading and didn’t ever learn spelling from any of our spelling lessons, which I aced. Similarly the bad spellers didn’t ever learn how to spell, and I think many of them still can’t (hence the spellcheck function)… Nevertheless correcting spelling mistakes seemed useful to me. I believe I read this on a Charlotte Mason site advocating the use of copywork as a method of improving children’s understanding of what writing a properly formed sentence looks like. Do you use copywork at all? I am not advocating as I have no experience (my daughter is not yet 4), just wondering.

  12. tinderbox says:

    Elizabeth, yes, Alex does copywork three times a week. We focus on having her produce her best handwriting, proper capitalization, and accurate spelling and punctuation.

    I’d be interested in seeing that spelling research. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the standard “get a list of 20 words on Monday and memorize them by Friday” is not effective – that’s about 4300 words over grades 1-6, out of the million or so English words. We’re using a spelling program based on phonics rules, which I hope will be more effective in that it will give general strategies for approaching the spelling of an unfamiliar word. I guess we’ll see.

  13. Charlotte says:

    No prob – writing it meant that I read it again. Always good. :)

    I don’t think that Henry has formal spelling in class, certainly not in the “here’s your list of words, test on Thursday” sense. They’re doing phonics, and it seems to be approached from both a reading and writing focus. She told me during our conference that he’s doing well at spelling, but it’s more about the spelling during his writing than a formalized, separate subject. Frequently, the sentences he writes on his other writing worksheets and in his creative writing have the correct spellings written underneath the incorrect ones. But he can still score a “check+” on a sheet with a dozen spelling errors. It’s more “encouraged as he goes along” than formal, it seems.

    Neither boy is doing regular school journaling anymore, BTW. Kindergarten switched to a program called Handwriting Without Tears (http://www.hwtears.com/hwt/online-tools/digital-teaching-tools), and Henry’s class seems to be doing journaling only infrequently. On a weekly basis, they will have a worksheet with a short story, and then have to answer questions about the story in complete sentences. That’s better than the full-on book reports that I was supposed to do in first grade that scared me off of writing entirely until I hit college! They also have to compose sentences with their sight words of the week.

    Ironically, though, now that Edward doesn’t *have* to journal, he *wants* to. He doesn’t have homework, but I try to set him to one little writing or small-motor assignment a day, and lately he just wants to color a picture and write about it (it’s *really* rough…). Probably neither here nor there in terms of what schools are doing, but I think he’s picked up the habit from Henry. :-)

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Hi, I found the thing I was reading, an article from Ruth Beechick.


    Unfortunately the original citations of the research aren’t given.

  15. applestars says:

    Should I feel guilty that none of my children went through these painstaking processes you all are outlining and turned out to be great writers? Nah . . . haha! What were my children doing at 5, 6, and 7 to “develop” their writing skills? Listening to read alouds, and telling each other stories for fun. Three have taken college writing courses up to this point and all of them have received As on all their papers. Formal writing naturally developed for two of them between 11-13 years old. The other one had to work on it more and did so starting at that same age. Another perspective.

  16. Anne S. says:

    This was a very interesting post! I realized that I had no idea how to teach my first grade son how to write. He has difficulty organizing his thoughts, as most first graders do. I looked at various graphic organizers, but they just didn’t click with him. I took a chance on Evan Moor’s Daily 6 Traits Writing for Grade 1:

    It has 5 exercises a week, with teaching tips. It has taught him how to write descriptive sentences and then organize them into a coherent paragraph. We’ve only used this program for a month and I’m honestly amazed with his progress. The first 4 days introduce and pratice the idea. The 5th day is when the child puts it together into a paragraph. We’ve condensed it into a 3 day program because days 1-4 are pretty simple.

    I don’t grade him on the “Traits.” We use the program as a starting point. It gives him the order that he needs to write.


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