A Very Frustrating Assignment
One day during writing time I asked my first grade students to write a sentence as a response to a story. After reading the story "Me Gusta Jugar" (I Like to Play), I put a writing prompt on the board for the students to respond to.
The writing prompt was "Con mi amigo ___________________ jugamos con el ." (With my friend _________________ we play with the __________________.) I thought that this was a very simple assignment. The students had to copy the writing prompt and complete the sentence. As the students began the assignment I heard a variety of comments and noticed the reactions of my students. "No puedo escribir" (I can't write), said Brenda. "Just try, copy the sentence and fill in the blanks," I replied. Another student, Gloria, quickly copied the sentence from the board and filled in the blanks. Then I noticed Jose's reaction. He put his head down and was very quiet. I walked towards him and asked, "What's the matter?" A tear ran down his cheek as he answered, "I'm dumb because I can't write." I felt overwhelmed as I observed the reactions of my students. The assignment that I had thought would be easy and quick for my students had turned out to be difficult and frustrating for most of them. I realized that I had many levels of writing ability in my classroom (Appendix A). Additionally, it seemed that many of my students were intimidated by a writing assignment.
José's frustrated face stayed in my mind that entire night. I was especially sensitive to his reaction because I saw myself in his teary eyes. For that single moment I knew exactly how José was feeling... frustrated. As a child, I also lacked confidence in my ability to write. I could easily relate to José's feeling of failure. As an adult, I still struggle with my confidence as a writer and I still find it difficult to express my thoughts through writing.
This experience with my class as well as my own reflection on my experiences as a writer encouraged me to focus my teacher research inquiry on the topic of writing. I wanted to take some sort of immediate action in order to encourage my students as writers. I realized that one of the greatest gifts I could give my students was to help them learn to enjoy the art of writing.
My Classroom and My Students
The school where I teach is located in an urban area. The largest percentage of students in our school are Latino. Many of the students move back and forth between Puerto Rico and the United States. This is an ongoing cycle. I am a Bilingual teacher in a first grade class of twenty students. My students come from varied home backgrounds. Most of the students live below the poverty level. The majority of my students are Puerto Rican, some are Dominican and a few are Cuban. My students' first language is Spanish. Instruction is mainly done in Spanish. Therefore when I refer to the students writing, I am referring to their writing in Spanish.
For this classroom inquiry I decided to focus my attention on three students. I collected writing samples from all my students but report on three students who displayed varied levels of writing proficiency. The first student, Gloria, was at the early phonemic stage of writing. She was beginning to use inventive spelling when writing. Brenda, the second student, was at the random, letter making stage of writing. When Brenda did not know a word she wrote random letters on her paper. José, the final student, was at the pre- letter stage of writing. He mainly drew and often wrote a letter or two on his paper. I only chose three students because of the complexity of the process of analyzing written work and because of time constraints on the study.
My Classroom Inquiry
The topic of writing is broad I realized that I needed to narrow my research inquiry. I began to read articles about writing in the classroom to try and focus my inquiry on something more specific. Cummings (1994) wrote that "... if you help your students realize that writing is a process that results in a final product, they will find writing easier and more exciting." This statement really summarized what I wanted my students to understand. In order for students to enjoy writing they had to see writing as something that they could do. The idea of focusing on the process and not the results excited me. Cummings also suggested strategies for teachers to use to facilitate the writing process. My guiding question for the classroom inquiry became: What happens when my students use the writing process as a strategy to develop their writing skills?
The Writing Process in my Classroom
The five steps of the writing process are: Rehearsing (organizing ideas), Drafting (getting ideas on paper), Revising (reworking content), Editing (checking and correcting grammar) and Publishing (sharing writing with an audience) (Hennings, 1994). The Rehearsing Stage is when students think and organize their ideas. Every week we read a different story and then we brainstormed ideas and made a topic map. For example, we read the book "Mi Abuela" (My Grandmother). This book is about a grandmother that imagines an exciting trip around the city with her granddaughter. We brainstormed the phrase "Mi viaje con abuela" (My trip with my grandmother). Students were asked to think about where they would like to go with their grandmothers. In the Rehearsing stage, the students told me their ideas and I wrote them on chart paper. The outcome was a web full of creative ideas. After developing the topic map, I instructed my students to select one idea and sketch a picture of it. By drawing a picture students expanded their ideas and illustrated them.
Once students finished their drawings they proceeded to the Drafting stage. I provided them with a writing prompt to facilitate their writing. It was up to the students to decide if they preferred to use the writing prompt. In the Drafting stage students were encouraged to use inventive spelling. They were also advised to ask their peers for help in writing a word. The focus during drafting was on the flow of writing, not on grammar. "Children need to feel free to guess at spelling while composing, so that concern with correct spelling does not diminish their enthusiasm for writing itself. Teachers can at the same time encourage inventive spelling and lead the child to the conventional forms..." (Lytle, Botel, 1990). Some of the comments I made to the students were; "Good start, now what happened next?"; "Beautiful picture. What is happening here?"; "Can you tell me what happened in a sentence?" I wrote the comments on the drafts of all my students.
After writing comments on the students' writing, I attempted to have conferences with as many students as possible. In the writing conferences, I read the comments back to the children. I also asked the students to tell me what they were going to write about next. Since part of my writing philosophy is to give writers a purpose for writing, the publishing state is essential: Students need to share their work with an audience. In our classroom we have "La silla del autor" (Author's chair). A student volunteer sits in the chair and shares his/her writing. Classmates actively participate by listening and asking questions. Sometimes students compile their writing pieces and make class books.
Learning From My Student's Writing
I used several methods of collecting information to learn as much as possible about the development of my students' writing abilities. One method was to use journal writing in varied ways. The student journal allowed me to obtain an initial assessment of students' writing and it also helped me understand my students' personal feelings about writing. For the initial assessment, the students were asked to complete a journal entry about their favorite part of a story "La Bella Hortelana" (The Beautiful Gardener) that I read to them. The purpose of this activity was to establish a baseline for my students' writing ability. Additionally, students were asked to write journal entries on their feelings about writing on three different occasions. The question for these journal entries was, "How do you feel when you write?" Students were asked to draw a happy or sad face depending on their feelings. Then students had to draw themselves writing and finally they had to write about how they felt. Another method of data collection was observation.
Lytle and Botel (1990) assert that by keeping anecdotal records of students, or a journal of classroom events, teachers can remember and reflect on particular students. I kept my observations in a journal. When I made relevant observations during the day, I would write the notes on Post-its, attach them to my journal, and later on that same day transfer my comments to the journal. One observation I recorded was the reactions of my students to writing assignments. I also used observation in an attempt to determine how well they seemed to understand the writing process. I was interested in identifying possible reasons for why students became frustrated while writing.
Throughout the classroom inquiry, I collected many writing samples in order to judge how the students were progressing with their writing. I chose three samples to analyze in depth for each of the three students that were the focus of this inquiry and used the following questions to guide my analysis of the writing: Was there any sign of improvement? Did the writing remain the same? I determined improvement by the quality of the writing itself as well as the quality of the drawings. Did students take risks when writing? Were they using inventive spelling? Did they write in sentence form? Overall, I was looking to see if writing improved after applying the strategies to facilitate the writing process.
The first writing sample that I analyzed was the final draft from the assignment based on the story "Cu-Cu, Cu-Cu, Cantaba La Rana." (Cu-Cu, CuCu, Sang the Frog). The question that the students responded to was, "What was the frog doing?" The second writing sample was the first draft from the writing assignment "Mi Abuela" (My Grandmother). The third writing sample was the final draft from "Mi Abuela." I also used a personal journal as part of my inquiry which was different than the observation journal. In the observation journal I recorded the students' reactions and interactions. In the personal journal, I expressed my personal feelings about how the inquiry was affecting me as a teacher, which I summarize in an upcoming section of this paper.
Gloria Gloria is a very enthusiastic girl who loves to draw and write. As I looked through her journal entries I noticed some patterns. Gloria always expressed that she enjoyed the books we read in class and she always finished the writing assignments that followed the stories. Gloria's drawings were appropriate and were related to the stories. As the activities progressed, Gloria began to use inventive spelling.
It appeared that Gloria found writing to be a pleasant experience; she was always excited about writing. Her journal responses to the question, "How do you feel when you write?" indicated that she was happy. On one occasion she even wrote, "Me gusta escribir" (I like to write). Her drawings always displayed a girl writing with a big pencil in her hand. She clearly saw herself as a writer. Many times students asked Gloria for help in writing a word and she was always willing to help her classmates. In the initial journal assignment, Gloria did very well. She copied the sentence starter and finished the sentence in a way that made sense. Because she was beginning to use inventive spelling in her writing, Gloria was at the early phonetic stage of writing Gloria's writing skills continued to develop as she progressed in the various steps of the writing process. In comparing the writing sample from "La Bella Hortelana" to the sample from "Cu-Cu, Cu-Cu, Cantaba la Rana" (Appendix B). Gloria copied the sentence starter and finished the sentence in the first sample. However, in the second sample, she completed the sentence and wrote another sentence using inventive spelling. Additionally, in the second sample she spent less time drawing the picture and more time writing her sentences.
Gloria enjoyed the assignment following the reading of "Mi Abuela." In her journal she wrote that it was her favorite book. This was reflected in her writing. In the drafting stage she wrote three sentences. I wrote comments on her first draft about sentence structure, reminding her that when writing her final draft she should begin her sentences with a capital letter. Her revision was much better (Appendix B).
Although Brenda enjoyed drawing, she appeared to have a negative view towards writing. In her literature-response journal, she had responded with a sad face to all of the assignments. Her drawings showing her sad feelings were elaborate and beautiful. Brenda's writing was characterized by the use of random letters that have no apparent connection to each other. My initial assessment of Brenda was that she was in the random letter stage of writing. Brenda copied the sentence starter and then copied words from the topic map for her initial assignment. She did not add any additional words beyond the words from the topic map and she put periods after each word. As time progressed Brenda began to display a more complex understanding of sentence structure. She demonstrated this understanding by writing a complete sentence in the assignment following the story, "Cu-Cu, Cu-Cu, Cantaba La Rana." In the first draft of this writing assignment she had written one word. However, after she read the comments that I made on her draft, she revised it and wrote a complete sentence.
Brenda produced a picture full of details as a response to the story, "Mi Abuela." The drawing clearly showed Brenda and her grandmother playing in the park. I commented on how beautiful her drawing was and spoke with her about it. I asked Brenda about where she was playing and about what was going on in the picture. Suddenly, Brenda told me a great story. I was surprised because she was usually very quiet. I encouraged her to write the story that she had told me. Brenda looked at me, smiled and began to write her draft. In her draft she wrote many recognizable words. She also began using inventive spelling. In her final draft she summarized her ideas into one sentence. I was pleased with the progress that was reflected in Brenda's writing. Her writing had clearly improved as she implemented the writing process (Appendix C).
José Although José is in the first grade, he did not recognize the letters of the alphabet at the beginning of this inquiry; he was at the pre-letter stage of writing. His handwriting was also very difficult to understand. I found only some scribbling and many empty pages in his journal and felt that he would be my greatest teaching challenge for the year.
For the initial assignment José made a drawing but did not write any letters or words. When I asked him about the picture his answer did not relate to the story and he did not seem to remember what the story had been about. This was not surprising to me because on occasions I had noticed that José did not pay attention on a consistent basis. Sometimes he would put his head down and would refuse to do his work. He seemed to be easily frustrated by schoolwork.
In the journal responses about feelings related to writing, he answered the question, "How do you feel when you write?" only one time. The first two times he did not answer the question. Instead, he simply wrote his name on the page. The last time I asked the students to respond to the question, José drew a happy face. Although José was at an early stage of writing and was clearly not on grade level, I was encouraged by his growth as a writer. After giving the assignment "Cu-cu, Cu-cu, Cantaba La Rana" I noticed that José copied the word, "ratón" (mouse) from the topic map (Appendix D). When I asked him about his writing José explained that his story was about the mouse that the frog met on the road. This answer was appropriate because it related to the story. I was pleased because he was also beginning to make a relationship between the drawing and the text.
When comparing the first and second draft from the assignment based on the story, "Mi Abuela" I saw improvement in José's writing. In the first draft José copied all of the letters of the alphabet. He clearly wanted to communicate a message but he did not know how. I had a conference with him about his first draft. On his first draft I wrote, "José, I'm happy that you are able to write the alphabet, but I would like to know about your trip with your grandmother." I read my response to him and asked him to tell me about his trip and his drawing. He described a trip on a boat but told me that he could not write his story. I told him to go to his table and to ask his peer for help. José was very happy about this. He asked his neighbor how to spell "bote" (boat). When he finished his work, José eagerly showed it to me. I had never seen José so proud of his work; I also felt very proud of him. José went through the entire writing process and had a final product that reflected his intended meaning.
My Overall Impressions of the Students
The three students on which I focused my inquiry were different in their writing abilities and had varied attitudes about writing. For instance, Gloria always enjoyed writing and her attitude remained the same throughout my inquiry. On the other hand, Brenda and José did not express enjoyment for writing at the beginning of the study. As the lessons progressed, José participated more and seemed to enjoy some of the writing activities. Brenda, however, did not seem to change her feelings about writing. Every time I assigned a writing assignment Brenda shrugged her shoulders and frowned. Nevertheless, her writing skills showed much progress. As the year continues, I will try to determine if Brenda's attitude towards writing changes when she chooses the topic for the writing assignments. For this initial inquiry, I had provided the students with a writing prompt, and my guess is that this has hindered Brenda's enjoyment of writing.
The positive changes that I noticed in my students' attitudes towards writing made my inquiry a rewarding experience. Additionally, I was pleased by the improvement that was evident in the students' writing skills. Gloria, the writer with the most advanced skills, showed a slight improvement. She used inventive spelling in all her samples and her writing was always meaningful and relevant. Brenda's writing also improved after using the writing process. Specifically, she began showing a more complex understanding of sentence structure and grammar.
José, the student who I thought would be the greatest challenge, showed the most dramatic improvement. At the beginning of the study José could barely write his name and he did not seem to have an understanding of the purpose of writing. However, as the weeks progressed, José went from handing in a blank paper to drawing a picture and finally to writing a word. I learned that José's attention span increased when I broke tasks down into simpler steps. This lead to more effort and concentration on José's part as he sought to finish the writing assignments. During the various assignments the students employed different strategies. All of the strategies seemed helpful to the students, but some were used more than others. For example, the topic map was frequently used by all students. Once students realized that they could use the topic map as a source of reference they referred to it constantly. The topic map is a great way to rehearse ideas before drafting. Through this study I realized how important it is for students to brainstorm before writing.
Another strategy employed by the students was drawing before writing. Once the strategy was introduced to the students, their drawings improved. Since I stressed the importance of using details in drawings, students were more careful when drawing. As a result drawings were more detailed and descriptive. Students who took their time drawing wrote better and longer. I also noticed that after students began to understand the steps of the writing process they began to use the terms of the stages. It was surprising to hear José say the word "Lluvia de ideas" (Brainstorming). Furthermore, I knew that he understood the meaning of this stage. The other students also began to use the terms with much ease. This lead me to conclude that they were beginning to understand the stages of the writing process.
What I learned About My Teaching and Myself
I had many doubts about teaching writing and about my students' writing skills at the beginning of this inquiry. Initially, my focus was on the students' inability to write. However, as the study progressed I began to see positive results and became really interested in the growth that my students were making as writers. In response to my research question, I found that after introducing my students to various strategies of the writing process, their writing improved. Students were drawing more elaborate pictures and they were writing full and meaningful sentences. Overall, students seemed to begin taking risks when writing.
I found that one way of facilitating the skill and art of writing is to provide students with strategies that will guide them through the writing process. It is important for students to see writing as a process and not a product; students appeared more relaxed when writing was presented as a process. I believe this was because students understood that they were following a process that eventually resulted in a finished piece of writing.
The findings of this study will definitely affect my instructional techniques. I know that as part of my writing curriculum I will always include the writing process. Reading about the writing process in educational journals is very different from implementing the process in your classroom. The writing process becomes a powerful tool for instruction when you have seen the results in your own classroom. However, I understand that there is still much for me to learn about this topic. This study mainly focused on the rehearsing stage of the writing process. In furthering this study I would like to focus on the other stages. During this study, other concerns and questions emerged that related to my topic of interest. For instance, what happens to the students writing when they select their topic? What happens when students are allowed to help each other with their writing? What other variables affect students' writing? Does journal writing improve when teachers respond to the entries of students using a dialogue journal?
Although I struggled in getting this study started, I feel very rewarded with the results. I am proud of having conducted research in my classroom. I understand that I have much to learn about research, but this initial inquiry has opened the door for me. This opportunity was a great learning experience. It is not easy to be a teacher-researcher, but it is definitively worthwhile.
Botel, M. & Lytle, S. (1990) Reading, Writing and Talking Across the Curriculum. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Cummings, A. (1994) A Writing Process Primer. Learning '94 22 (21).
Cumpiano, I. (1993) Cu-cu, cu-cu, Cantaba La Rana. New York: Macmillan/McGraw Hill Publishing company
Dorros, A. (1991) Mi Abuela. New York: Dutton Children's Book.
Flor, A. A. (1993) Me Gusta Jugar!. New York: McMillan/McGraw Hill Publishing Company.
Gomez, I. (1993) La Bella Hortelana. New York: McMillan/McGraw Hill Publishing Company.
Hennings, D. (1994) Communication in Action. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.