Writing for Your Students

In my first- and second- year classes, we do a lot of reading. Starting in November in first-year and in September of second-year, we read in free choice texts for ten minutes at the beginning of class each day. But we also do a lot of whole-class reading too. Even in first-year classes, we are pretty much reading from the first week of school.

We are reading texts based on our class experiences, so the texts are highly-comprehensible. In early months, I tend to use only language that we have used in class. For later months, and in higher-level classes, I shoot for making the language in the texts about 90% words that are recycled from the oral input which has already been comprehended by the students during the activity. For non- beginners, I tend to add about 10% new words and language in the text, to expose the students to new language in context.

I either get these texts by writing them up myself prior to class or through writing with the students using a process called Write and Discuss.

If I write up the text myself, I sit down in front of the artists’ work – either the one word image or the story – and write the language we have used. As I write, I add in a few new words here and there. These words tend to be transition words, dialogue tags (“responded” or “asked” or “yelled” or maybe “sadly” or “with surprise” etc.) or descriptive words. I tend to use cognates and I also tend to embed the new words within a string of already-known words. I rarely introduce a string of unknown words such as an entire sentence or phrase comprised of all new words, so as not to overwhelm the students.

If you’re teaching a language with few cognates, I’d caution against embedding too many new words. Maybe one or two, but since the goal is for students to easily understand the text, I would encourage you – and all teachers – to err on the side of caution and introduce fewer new elements. Also, in any language at the beginning stages, I would remind teachers to embed very few new words in the class text.

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing the text yourself. The main disadvantage is that it takes your out-of-class time to produce the texts. Another factor to consider is that during Write and Discuss (creating the text together in class), students are interacting with the writing and seeing the written form of words take shape – words they’ve heard several times already. They are matching the sound to the visual form of the word and thus doing some metacognition that is not present when reading a prepared, finished, teacher-created text. Advantages of preparing the text in advance are that the teacher has more time to reflect on the writing, resulting in more “literary-sounding” writing. You also have more time to planfully insert the new language. You can even keep a list of any required or desired vocabulary near you as you write, and look for opportunities to embed those words in the text.

If we are writing the text together, it will be a shorter text, due to the time it takes to discuss and actually produce the writing. Students tend to be able to focus for about fifteen to seventeen minutes, about long enough to write ten sentences. I’ve been using Mike Peto’s comic book templates to write on, which can be downloaded here from his blog. The advantage to this is that the students visually see how much we have left to write, so it’s motivating. There’s an end in sight! Also, I can copy them hand them out for students to illustrate. Just like that, we have highly-comprehensible, engaging texts written just for our class. I’m amassing these in our class book boxes, to be used for free choice reading later in the year. In January, I’ll probably begin mixing the classes’ stories so they can read each others’ comics, once they have the reading ability to do so.

As I write with the kids, I’ll often embed new words by giving the students a choice between a previously-used term and a new, similar word. For example, I’ll ask “Was it small or minuscule?” Often, they will want the new term since it makes them feel smart and they sense the richness it brings to the text.

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