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Mastering the Basics of Writing

Second graders compose with greater ease as words click into place.

  • Grades: 1–2

Young children need time to absorb — and master — all that they've previously learned about putting letters and words to paper. Like many of her peers, Maria Graziano, a 2nd grade teacher at F.N. Brown Elementary School in Verona, New Jersey, spends a good amount of classroom time building on skills introduced in the 1st grade. "Second grade is full of 'aha' moments as reading becomes fluid and writing gets easier," Graziano says. Kevin Jennings, a 26-year veteran of the grade at Forest Avenue Elementary School, also in Verona, agrees: "Second grade can be a time when things really start to click. For many kids it's a breakthrough year."
 
Printing and Grammar
The Power of the Paragraph
Building Confidence
Creative Kids


Printing and Grammar

In September, handwriting takes center stage. Being able to write legibly is important, so children review and practice printing the alphabet in upper and lower case during the initial weeks of the school year. Reversing certain letters — lower case b and d, or p and q — is common and nothing to worry about at the beginning of the year. If backwards writing continues, however, testing to detect dyslexia or a fine motor disability may be recommended. Working with an occupational therapist is often all that's necessary to improve letter formation.
 
Writing more detailed sentences — using correct end punctuation and capitalization — is another essential skill to be mastered. It is during the 2nd grade that your child will be introduced to the parts of a sentence. For example, she will learn that complete sentences have a subject (noun) and predicate (verb). Other grammatical conventions such as synonyms, homonyms, contractions, adjectives, and possessive words are introduced, as are conjunctions and transitions.
 
In order to practice using these parts of speech, 2nd graders are encouraged to write more complex sentences. In one activity developed by Judith Hochman, Ed.D., the author of Basic Writing Skills, a widely used manual for teachers, children are asked to expand a short sentence by using question words — who, what, when, where, why and how. For example, with help from the teacher the sentence, "She ran" becomes: "Yesterday Ann ran to the store to get some milk." If a sentence doesn't tell the reader everything she needs to know, more work needs to be done.
 
In a related exercise, students learn that rearranging the words in a sentence and changing the punctuation can give the same words a different meaning. The statement, "Sam likes sitting with Katie" can be turned into a question, "Does Sam like sitting with Katie?" as well as a command: "Sam, sit with Katie!"
 
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The Power of the Paragraph

The real work of 2nd grade is the paragraph. (For young children, a paragraph consists of three to five related sentences.) Many educators use graphic organizers (in the old days they were called outlines) or diagrams to help children put paragraphs together. Kevin Jennings shows his students how to build a paragraph like a hamburger: "The top bun is the beginning; the meat is the middle and the bottom bun is the closing sentence. The condiments are the details sprinkled throughout."
 
In California and Texas, children are taught how to write in paragraphs with the Step Up to Writing curriculum, developed by former teacher Maureen Auman. With this methodology, the colors in a traffic light provide direction. Green means ‘go,' as in write a topic sentence. Yellow says slow down and give a reason, detail, or fact. Red means stop, offer more explanation, and remind your reader of the topic. "Writing is complicated," notes Auman. "Graphic organizers provide the specific instruction beginning writers need to master the task."
 
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Building Confidence

Your child initially may feel frustrated at his attempts to write in paragraph form, putting more complex thoughts on paper. "Children this age have a much better oral vocabulary than a written one, so they're generally better story tellers than authors," says Annette Lauber, an educational specialist in Fairfax County, Virginia. You may find that early in the school year your child's teacher will allow him to dictate an assignment as a way of building confidence. "Once a child sees his story written down for him a couple of times, he usually wants to try it himself," adds Jennings.
 
The mechanics of writing — forming the letters, spacing the words, spelling them correctly — still requires considerable effort at this age. For some children, repeated stopping interrupts their train of thought, causing their stories to vanish from their minds. To combat the problem, Jennings urges his students to write through the tough parts. "They learn to circle words that are difficult and go back and fix the mistakes later."
 
Fixing those errors can bring on a new set of challenges for beginning writers, since children may have trouble recognizing their mistakes. Jennings puts a paragraph on the board with a conglomeration of common mistakes from his students' stories. "A high percentage can pick out almost all of the mistakes on the board, but they can't see the same ones in their own work," he says. At the school my children attend, 2nd graders use the C.O.P.S. method to edit their work or the work of a classmate. They check for capitals (C); overall appearance of the words (O); punctuation (P); and spelling (S).
 
As every teacher knows, practice and more practice is the key to improvement. Keeping a journal, completing book reports and writing in the other subject areas, including science and social studies, will offer your 2nd grader lots of opportunity to gain writing proficiency.

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Creative Kids

In classrooms across the country, the focus today is on the steps writers take to produce a story . The process — prewriting (talking and research), drafting (using a story map to figure out the beginning, middle, and end), writing, editing, and revising — is emphasized as much as the final product. It's a tall order, and often the most challenging step for kids is just getting started.
 
Teachers have a variety of methods for sparking creativity and helping children find something interesting to write about. Obviously the life experience of a 2nd grader is limited; many kids' completed assignments fall into the "what I did today" category. "We call them 'sun up, sun down' tales," says Annette Lauber, who uses popular children's books to get her students thinking in other directions. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst is one of her favorites. "Everyone can relate to Alexander and after we read the book, most children can't wait to write about their own lousy experience. For some students, changing the tale around and writing about a great day can be just as effective."
 
Maria Graziano incorporates folk tales into her creative writing unit. For example, the class works with The Gingerbread Man to see how a new story can be created that is loosely based on an old one. "We talk about new characters and changes to the plot, and then they write alternative endings," says the teacher, who treats the children to a gingerbread party once the project is completed. "Writing is hard work. I try to fit in some fun when I can."
 
Your child's teacher may also use a brainstorming technique in which the class shares story ideas in a circle. Most 2nd graders enjoy talking about themselves, and their enthusiasm can be contagious. For example, Billy's interest in baseball may inspire Tommy to write about his favorite sport. Katie's description of her visit to grandma's house makes Elizabeth eager to share a story about sewing with her aunt.
 
Annette Lauber sets up recipe boxes containing story starters around her classroom. She uses top 10 lists to jump start the creative process, with ideas such as "the top 10 games I like to play," "the top 10 movies I like to watch," and "the top 10 things I like to think about." Lauber also fills a Wonder Bread bag full of — what else? — wonders: "I wonder why the grass is green," or "I wonder why toothpaste always gets on my shirt." Teachers like Lauber clearly put a great deal of effort into helping kids learn to express themselves on paper. Indeed, you will likely be amazed at the progress your child makes and the wonderful stories she composes by year's end.

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