Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate

3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment

What range of learning opportunities does the teacher provide so that all students are able to achieve optimum success and recognition for their performance in language and literacy?

What knowledge about patterns of development in language and literacy inform curriculum and teaching decisions?

  Knitting the grand design with beginning writers
Bette Triglone

A friend once used the analogy of life being like knitting a Fair Isle patterned jumper: on one side it looks chaotic and messy with loose ends and wool going in all directions, but if one perseveres, eventually on the other side, a beautiful pattern begins to emerge and reveal itself.

This analogy is reflected in my kindergarten writing program - at times seemingly chaotic with the children at different stages going all directions... but when one looks more closely, or views it from a new direction, the learning, creativity and grand design become apparent!

A snapshot of my current kindergarten class (five and six year olds) could replicate any of my early childhood classes over the past decade, with its variety of personalities, learning styles and needs. In teaching these diverse learners, I constantly turn to mentors such as Brian Cambourne, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Lucy McCormick Calkins - all teachers who stood back, watching the grand design emerge and, through adjusting their teaching, enabled the children to create their own learning from their own experiences and lives.

So why am I surprised anew each year by the eagerness of the majority of my children to engage in reading and writing activities of their own choosing? I still find it hard to trust them to create their own 'designs'. At times, I fight against the 'organic design' (described by Ashton-Warner) of my classroom when I see wonderful examples of teaching by colleagues who organise a variety of rotational literacy groups, providing an orderly, balanced diet of oral, reading, writing and spelling activities - and it works for them. But I always seem to have a class where...

Lucy is edging out of the floor group, desperate to write another beautifully and whimsically illustrated fairytale; Andrew, always at the back, politely listening, but keen to continue his book on mazes which includes a checklist of his peers who have completed each maze successfully; Stacey, hanging on my every word, ready to produce a detailed family news report; Nico, the poet, prowling the classroom, wary, unsettled, but listening (and a magnificent spelling resource for others); Annie, newly arrived from the women's refuge, who uses her writing as therapy as she writes day after day of missing her beloved father; Tony, ready for third grade academically, often unwilling to write news or stories, but happy to produce wonderful tooth graphs or surveys of favourite book characters with his class; Ian and Nicholas who work so well as a team, problem solving spelling before checking with me; and Frances, my free spirit and princess expert, who quickly brings me back to my 'organic design' theory whenever I decide everyone should be writing the same thing in the same way at the same time!

And so it goes - exquisite authors and artists alongside those struggling to write a sentence about their cricket game or baby sister. First words with such personal meaning, just as their first spoken words, part of their lives and being, have intense meaning for them. Their first words are not always those of their readers, but words such as love, holiday, birthday party, soccer, Once upon a time, grandma, friend, house, dog cat, princess, maze and so on. In my literacy program, these first words, written and read back, are used as the bridge to other words.

Writing time begins with reading to the class from fiction or non-fiction texts, followed by a brief discussion of some aspects such as structure, characterisation or content. Then I model some aspects of the writing process, perhaps writing a story over several days, another verse for a class song or composing an excursion note to go home at a later date - all with the children's help - always natural, authentic writing.

To affirm their writing efforts, share ideas and expand their writing, I then read some of the children's previous day's writing to the whole class and negotiate with children what they will be working on in writing time. The children have news books, story books, song and poem books, small teacher-made blank books to make class readers and a good supply of cards, pens and pencils to cater for a range of individual, self-initiated tasks.

My students thus become authors of their first readers for the class and copies of their poems or songs are typed up for everyone's song and poem book. McCormick Calkins noted that "when children build their own texts, they break the child labour laws". So much for the supposed short attention spans of school beginners!

As they become more confident and adept writers, they also write in response to teacher-imposed activities in a range of curriculum areas and produce collaborative class books based on shared experiences such as wobbly teeth or growing daffodils, or variations on well-loved texts by authors such as Allison Lester, Mem Fox or Maurice Sendak. There is a sense of ownership and authenticity with the collaborative class books and child-written readers and they are in high demand for overnight loans and during quiet reading times.

Beginning to read one aloud is also the surest way to bring children to the floor quickly as they always take great delight in their own and others' writing, ideas and illustrations. Later in the year I comment on how much more they know now than 'way back then'.

To the casual observer, 'coping with chaos' (Brian Cambourne's term) would perhaps describe my literacy block, with its freedom of movement and talk. Such is the nature of five and six year olds - the 'organic behaviour' described by Ashton-Warner which constantly bubbles up and overflows. My role as teacher is to harness this behaviour and direct the creative energy on the run with each child.

In a recent writing session (fourth term), the range of writing included: news about a house fire the previous night with the writer fleeing the house with 'no clothes on and my hair all shampooed up'; a beautifully structured original fairytale; a poem on spring; a list of items in 'my cricket bag'; a party plan listing guests, games and food; a written conversation with an able, but reluctant, writer; a written survey of everyone's favourite colour (with the writer buzzing around interviewing her peers and using a word bank as a spelling support); a Christmas song chart for everyone to use; and one child simply copying the name and author of a favourite book and reading it back to me.

My writing period entails lots of one-to-one conferencing to encourage and sustain their efforts, help with 'invented' spelling and to direct misplaced energy! Through constant conferencing I am calling on or cultivating each child's resources, tuning in to their line of thought and learning where to take them, where to begin.

Ultimately, a child's writing is his or her own business. What they write is accepted. The more personal meaning it has to them, the more value it has. A brief conversation is often all that is necessary with a child who is 'stuck'. Soon their train of thought is off and running.

As the year proceeds the children will accept more teacher-imposed tasks, but always after they have already had their daily writing time and with the proviso that when they have completed that task, they may choose their own writing or reading activity. To the majority of my students, reading and writing is an addiction which must be fed! In our afternoon "choosing time" I always provide, alongside a range of construction and games activities, a reading/writing/drawing table which is always well patronised!

Thus, it is through the children's writing that the need to read and write is born and nurtured. McCormick Calkins, in her observations of children's writing, noted how often children read and re-read as they write: learning to read through their writing.

Children enter school with such wonderful ideas and confidence in their abilities. Through my writing program I aim to build on these strengths, giving them time, choice, encouragement, and help when needed. Each year I am awed by the creativity and intensity of their writing and this sustains my belief in beginning with, and building on, their first words.

Just as, row upon row, the Fair Isle knitting is built day after day, year after year, so one just needs to get the pattern right from the beginning.

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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia