Articulating some thoughts on Literacy and Writing

I’ve been asked by my school principal to join in a conversation on Monday about literacy and Language Arts in our school district. Our district focus next year will be to revamp our Language Arts curriculum, or at least move in that direction, and the administration is trying to bring together some teachers to discuss what literacy should look like in our schools.We’re planning a two-day Literacy Event for our district in the fall, too, and they want to get ideas from us.

I am trying to articulate what my own ideas are about Language Arts before that meeting and so, true to my nature, I am using this writing as a way to process some of my thoughts. Bare with me and please feel free to add your own ideas.

  • We write to learn. This is a central tenet in my thinking. We use writing to understand the world, to make sense of information and to reflect upon our own experiences. Writing gives us private inroads into making sense of things. When we write, we organize, articulate and explore the things we know, the things we want to know, and the things we don’t quite yet know.
  • Language Arts is all four spheres. Yes, we focus a lot on writing and reading, but listening and talking are also important elements of literacy. I wish we did more in the areas of listening (I try to work that in to as many lessons as possible) and speaking (beyond just oral reports).
  • A “Stakes Approach” to writing provides multiple opportunities for expression. I stole this one from my friend, Bruce Penniman. The Stakes Approach is built on the concept of tiered writing opportunities, moving from low stakes (journal writing, writing for the self, etc) that is not necessarily shared with anyone to mid stakes (collaborative writing in the classroom, informal projects, etc.) that is for a comfortable audience to high stakes (published work, performances, etc.) that moves into the bigger world. This spectrum of writing allows students to try on different hats and use different voices and concentrate on different skills. (See this Google Doc for my own organization of Stakes Writing).
  • Writing across the Curriculum is a key to learning. We need to integrate Language Arts more into all curricular areas so that writing is not just stories composed on paper, but thinking put into words. Math, in particular, gets short-changed with our fairly rote district-wide curriculum. It’s mostly drill and kill, and not the reasoning. For me, this has meant writing prompts connected to social studies, and digital projects connected with Science and Math. I’m not doing enough, but I am aware how important it is. (Note: my colleagues in the other disciplines do a lot of writing with the students, too, so it is not a vacuum.)
  • Technology and multi-media should be components of Language Arts. Students are highly engaged and very aware of audience when they start using technology for showcasing their knowledge and understanding. They rise to the occaision when they realize that they are in the high stakes field of writing — the web is the world.  The Web 2.0 opportunities opens up many doors for collaboration, integration of resources and multiple angles for students of all diverse learning backgrounds. Even the NCTE has come out strongly in favor of this kind of literacy. Given the world today and the world unfolding for tomorrow, to ignore this possibility to help show students how to “create” and “compose” (a better term) with technology would have terrible consequences.

What do you think? Am I on the right path? What am I missing?

Peace (in articulation),

  1. I think you’re absolutely on the right track, particularly about Web 2.0 opportunities. I think the one big thing I’ve learned about writing and Web 2.0 is that we used to think of publishing as the final step. Now, in a sense, publishing is the first step that opens up to door to communication and collaboration. We need to provide more of those “low stakes” writing opportunities and we need to think about what really makes a good piece of writing. Too often I find that teachers over-emphasize conventions, probably because it’s easy to mark, when no one ever put down a book and said “Man, that Margaret Atwood sure does rock the semi-colon!”

    • As a writer, sometimes I DO admire an author’s use of the semi-colon, but I admit it doesn’t happen that frequently. 🙂

      One way I add in some of those discussions about what makes good writing is to use Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments which is all about persuasive writing.

  2. Kevin
    As you know I teach kindergarten and you and I have had conversations in the past on how important listening and speaking are to literacy and language arts. I want to create a short video for you so you can see how early childhood brings the four elements together to build on each other. It is my feeling that good speaking and listening skills are critical skills to work on in the early years. Next comes writing. From that we can reveal the reader within because the world makes more sense and decoding is a heck of a lot easier when we have used letters and sounds in creating text. Stay tuned for our Writer’s Workshop sharing time.

    • Hello again Kevin
      It’s been a long couple of days as I tried to upload a video to and after a full day it hasn’t finished processing. I then uploaded the same video to and got quick results.


      html option My Montage 6/14/09

      This video is the one I promised you which shows the sharing part of kindergarten Writers Workshop. The audience has to do some careful listening and speaking. By showing such attention, the writer feels successful and can safely share his or her work.

      (I am also checking to see if my name link is working now as Sue Waters and Dr. Mike have been helping me to fix that.)

      • I ran across this video and although I don’t teach Kinder anymore, I just wanted to say that by the children’s work, and all the class’s comments, it is evident that you have done a lot of speaking, writing and art instruction with the students all year long. Plus, you are teaching them to analyze on a Kinder level. This would be a great teaching video for teachers (especially those who don’t know anything about Kinder) to see!

        • Mary,
          Thanks you for your kind words of experience. We build toward writing with all the work we do from day one. That means we must learn to speak our thoughts clearly and with enough information that the others get the real picture. We must also learn to listen with a good ear for the message. Since K teachers understand the importance of illustration (and the fact that it is the earliest form of writing) we encourage detail.
          I have also learned that children want to be taught the language that frames a good comment. I understand that…, I notice that…., and I suggest that… help the speaker to frame their comment. We also get to practice this quite a bit. In one recent VoiceThread we did, a very bright student explained how she has become a better artist and that being an artist means practicing a lot. The same applies to writing.
          And to think that I get to begin the process again every September with a new group of five year olds.

  3. These are great. Perhaps it’s redundant but you might add something about writing for an authentic audience and/or that writing/reading are not just school assignments but things we do for pleasure and/or real communication.

  4. Aloha Kevin,
    I think you’ve got a powerful list of ideas on literacy. I really like the tiering “stakes approach” to writing. It allows students to connect to the readings in a different way with this approach to writing. So in addition to writing to learn, they are reading as writers and writing as readers with all the opportunities to identify writer’s craft, analyze writer’s intent through craft and try it on their own pieces. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. I really like the ideas you’ve put forth here. As several others have pointed out already, the stakes approach is very cool. It’s a great way to make writing relevant and engaging for students. I also really liked that you highlighted listening and speaking as integral parts of the Language Arts curriculum. I saw an interesting quote the other day about how any job that doesn’t require face to face interaction can be outsourced. This certainly reflects the importance of listening and speaking. One other skill, along these same lines, that I think is important is peer review of written and spoken works. This probably fits under the category of collaborative writing, but could be taken as another “sphere.”

  6. I am grateful for all of your thoughts here. There’s so much to think about and I am trying to find some focus to bring to the table next week.

  7. As usual Kevin,
    Deep thinking, well written and then published here for web conversation in our web world. I just finished a big PD project as you know, It was very successful. 76 digital stories, presented with public publishing to the community and to the School Board, nut I watched as the pieces were created and realized that there’s this a confusion about revision and editing and more need to allow writers to write for themselves in journals that are not collected with entries graded and then moving to the public should be honored for all just for public respect.

    I think it boils down to teachers of writing should be writers as well, getting messy with their own writing and learning if they really want to know what it feels like to be a writer and a learner.


  8. Pingback: Monday Morning Roundup (6/15/2009) | Tips by Tony

  9. Pingback: Langwitches » links for 2009-06-15

  10. I really liked the completeness of your literacy plan. I would also include art – not just visual media, but magazine and book pictures. Our kids have a hard time interpreting illustration and text and how they compliment each other. Also being able to illustrate one’s own work allows the writer to be more aware of how their language “paints a picture.” Just a thought.

  11. Kia ora Kevin!

    I got here from Mathew Needleman’s post. I confess I am a bit behind this month.

    You and I both on this – I’ve studied this aspect of writing for a long time now. I even wrote a post, now over a year ago, on why I write.

    But more recently I’m given to considering the impediments that language (words/writing/symbolism included) can present to thinking.

    Having said that, ‘writing across curriculum’ is a splendid way to broaden thinking. How to encourage others to do that is another matter.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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