How to Engage Developing Writers in the Upper Elementary Grades

Students may enjoy the process of developing their writing skills more when teachers offer fun activities that start with the basics.

January 16, 2024
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Every school year brings challenges and opportunities—and a chance for students to tell brand-new stories. In grade three, we start the year with a narrative-writing unit based on true stories from the students’ lives. As with many skills after a long break, there’s a predictable lapse in writing stamina and recall of writing conventions. However, what happens if that lapse is so significant that students are unable to complete a page of writing or punctuate sentences? The normal progress of the writing unit assumes that students have these skills, the only reasonable response is to scale everything back.

Get Back to Basics

I think it’s important to focus on re-presenting the core skills in sentence writing and parts of speech:

  • What is a sentence? 
  • What is a noun?
  • What is a verb?
  • What is an adjective?

I created games in which we generated random lists of nouns and verbs, and working with writing buddies, the students used them to write simple sentences. This made the foundational writing skill collaborative and enjoyable. The more random the list of words, the better. I could go from pair to pair, making sure that they used uppercase letters and periods. To reinforce this, I created a mnemonic:

  • C—Capital (uppercase) letters
  • O—Order of words (does it make sense?)
  • P—Punctuation
  • S—Spelling (high-frequency words)

If you don’t have the basics, the COPS will come calling.

Battle of the Spelling Groups

Another issue that quickly arose was that many high-frequency words were not spelled correctly, due to a combination of the students being the lock-down Covid-19 cohort and our new district-wide phonetic awareness program (based on the Science of Reading) not starting until this group was in grade two. Inspired by my class’s enthusiasm for the Oregon Battle of the Books, I created “Battle of the Spelling Groups.” Each week, students learn a list of high-frequency words, and we test them. The students work in groups, writing on whiteboards and checking each other’s work and gaining points.

Doing this activity in class supports those students who had challenges engaging with this as optional homework. I emphasize correctly formed letters as well, as handwriting has also been a class-wide issue.

Back to the Story

After three weeks, it was time to return to the narrative-writing unit. Using the curriculum’s rubric as my guide, I was keen to maintain a grade-level standard, which meant teaching skills such as using paragraphs, quotation marks, and transition phrases. However, it was clear that we had to do this on a much smaller scale. 

Writing shorter stories is often harder than writing longer ones, as the plot needs to be condensed. I decided to overcome this by going as small as possible. The problem with a unit like this is that students are often asked to write true stories from their lives, when in fact what they love to write about are monsters, superheroes, exploding volcanoes, and Bigfoot. By grade three, they are rightly bored by the whole idea. A new idea was required.

Tiny But True Stories

I presented a new idea to the class, something I hadn’t done before. I asked them to generate the smallest, most boring, most unlikely ideas possible. For example:

  • Child flicks pencil.
  • Child drinks from water bottle.
  • Child sits in a chair.
  • Child falls off a bike.
  • Leaf falls from a tree.
  • Child tries to catch grasshopper (it happens outside the classroom window every recess).

I wrote all of the ideas on the board so we could add to them. Then, I challenged my students to use engaging language to make any boring idea come to life. 

Having Fun Telling Stories

As readers of a previous article will know, I use storytelling in the classroom to help students engage with all literacy. For the first round of stories, students worked in small groups on the same idea. This allowed them to also act out their stories first to the class, which they loved. 

I then had them plan their story as a six-box comic: a beginning, three middle boxes, and one ending. Having three middle sections helps draw out the story, gives room for escalating problems, and allows for a proper resolution rather than a rushed ending. On the planning frame, I had the students record transition phrases that noted the passing of time: one hour later, suddenly, a few minutes later, etc.

Get Everyone and Everything Talking

The key element of making the stories interesting to write was giving the students permission to embellish with their imaginations. This meant allowing them to bring inanimate objects—water bottles, pencils, pencil sharpeners, chairs, grasshoppers, etc.—to life by allowing them to express themselves with speech. Giving these objects a personality allows them to become the antagonists or tricksters of the story, which in turn helps elevate the students’ awareness of character archetypes. 

Now the class was ready to write, and they did so with increased enthusiasm. The brevity of their stories allowed me to focus on sentence-level conventions. The students also wrote a second story independently as part of their assessment. Every student completed a story, and this time, some prolifically. One of the best stories I’ve ever read by a student was about a leaf falling from a tree. Another student wrote from the perspective of the much-harassed grasshoppers. Four students volunteered to read their stories aloud on our school’s weekly news film.

The Story Goes On

One of the best parts of any writing unit is at the end, when I have the students look at what they can produce now compared with what they did six weeks or more before. They were surprised, delighted, and proud of how much more they could write now and with greater skill. The most important thing was that the students rediscovered a love for creative writing, which reminded me how much I love teaching it.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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