How a Shared Vocabulary Provides a Foundation for Primary Student Writers

It’s just flat-out confusing to students at any age when we use new terminology to describe something they have already learned. Imagine if we taught our primary students how to “add” and “subtract” one year, and then taught them how to “plus” and “minus” the following year. Wouldn’t most students think they were learning something completely new? Using new terminology from year to year doesn’t help students move toward deep understanding.

Using consistent terminology also gives teachers something we desperately crave: time. We save a great deal of time when we don’t have to reteach the same concepts over and over. Instead of starting at square one every year, we can review and quickly move to new work that is challenging and interesting to students.

In my book, 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Primary Grades, I outline a common vocabulary that captures the key characteristics of writing—specific traits that can be used as a foundation for writing instruction. Those traits include:

  • Ideas: the meaning and development of the message
  • Organization: the internal structure of the piece
  • Voice: the tone of the piece—the personal stamp that the writer brings to it
  • Word Choice: the specific vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning
  • Sentence Fluency: the way the words and phrases flow throughout the text
  • Conventions: the mechanical correctness of the piece
  • Presentation: the overall appearance of the work

We also must remember that the writing process is just that, a process. Its beginning, middle, and end flow like a river, always going somewhere but often taking its own sweet time to get there. As a result, we need to show primary students what it’s like to be a writer and how to think aloud on paper. We also need to open the door to possibilities in writing, giving students topic choices, teaching them skills, showing them how to work through problems, and allowing them time to arrive at solutions. We need to show them the steps that successful writers follow so they can follow those steps in their own work.

The writing process can be broken down into teachable and manageable steps, which, as I mentioned earlier, need not be followed in lockstep fashion, especially by primary writers.

  • Prewriting: The writer comes up with ideas for the work.
  • Drafting: The writer gets the ideas down in rough form.
  • Sharing: The writer gets feedback on the draft from a reader or listener.
  • Revising: The writer makes reflective choices based on the first five traits.
  • Editing: The writer “cleans up” the piece, checking for correct capitalization, punctuation, spelling, paragraphing, grammar, and usage.
  • Publishing: The writer goes public!

Every time our primary writers put pencil to paper, we want them to realize that they have choices—that the writing process is a series of flexible steps for them to use to help them write well.

To learn more about 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Primary Grades, you can purchase the book here.

About the author:

Ruth Culham, Ed.D., has published more than 40 best-selling professional books and resources with Scholastic and the International Literacy Association on the traits of writing and teaching writing using reading as a springboard to success. Her steadfast belief that every student is a writer is the hallmark of her work. As the author of Traits Writing: The Complete Writing Program for Grades K–8 (2012), she has launched a writing revolution. Traits Writing is the culmination of 40 years of educational experience, research, practice, and passion.


6 Ways to Set the Stage for Teaching Conventions to Primary Writers

As teachers, we must set the stage for teaching conventions by first remembering 2 rules of thumb:

  • Teach skills one at a time and in the context of their own work.
  • Let them do the editing, no matter how simple.

Sadly, teachers work many hours editing student papers, only to find that students do less and less editing on their own over time, not more. Moreover, if we edit for them, they don’t internalize skills or apply them consistently every time they write. The only way to help students gain skill in conventions is to show them how to edit, one skill at a time, and hold them accountable for using that knowledge when they make final copies.

Additionally, a child may actually be able to put capitals on the first word of ten sentences on the worksheet, but the more important question is, Can this same child actually write a sentence? And if she can, does she put a capital at the beginning? Does she know how to use space between words in the phrase or sentence? This is where our time should go when teaching conventions—not in the isolated skill-and-drill exercises but making sure students can create text that shows what they know about editing.

In my book, 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Primary Grades, I offer a few more ideas to help set the stage for teaching conventions to primary writers. These 6 strategies will help you create your own conventions-ready classroom:

1.     Post easy-to-read conventions rules with examples so that students can refer to them as they write.

2.     Create a poster of editing symbols for use by students as they edit.

3.     Create an editing center with highlighter markers, paper, pens, pencils, tape, scissors, and copies of the student-friendly guide to assessing conventions.

4.     Use word-processing software that allows students to highlight problems in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation as they draft.

5.     Make personal word lists and dictionaries to assist students with spelling.

6.     Keep simple style guides handy for reference.

Teaching conventions is important. When students are not using conventions to help readers understand the writing, they fall at the bottom of the Primary Scoring Guide for conventions. When they can spell simple words correctly, use basic punctuation marks such as periods, and differentiate between upper- and lowercase letters, they fall in the middle range. When their spelling is accurate even on a few challenging words and their basic capitalization and punctuation usage are correct, they are at the top of their game. You may even see paragraph-indenting and standard grammar in the writing.

Find more tips and ideas for teaching writing to primary students with 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Primary Grades. You can purchase the book here.