Quick Tip Tuesday: Drawing strategies in primary writing classrooms

November 10th, 2009

“Many primary teachers understand the important link between drawing and writing,” writes Liz Hale in her book, Crafting Writers, K-6. Drawing is a preparation for writing and instruction of drawing should be taken just as seriously in the primary grades as instruction around writing skills.

In this week’s Quick Tip, Liz takes a look at the skills that make up “good” drawing and eventually, good writing.

Drawing Strategies

It is sometimes useful to teach general drawing strategies before getting into a lot of specific ways to draw. Many of the craft techniques in Table 6.1 reflect more detailed drawing, and some drawings are not as conducive as others to adding smaller details. I’ve seen many primary drawings that have four main ingredients: a house, one big flower, grass, and a sun. Sometimes the sun is in the corner and sometimes it’s in the middle of the picture. There are variations of this (sometimes there’s a bird too), but the important point is that these drawings indicate that students think they always have to show “the whole scene” in a drawing. But when the whole scene is shown, then there is less room for details. This is somewhat similar to upper elementary students telling the “whole story.” They are so busy explaining everything that happened that there is very little time to mention any details.

One day this past year, I was planning to model a lesson on drawing small objects in a first-grade classroom, something the teacher and I had discussed in a previous inquiry meeting. But when I went around the classroom that morning to see the most current entries, I saw all these house-sun-flower pictures. I visualized the lesson in my head and suddenly it didn’t seem to fit with what these first graders were doing. How could I ask them to add in details when there wasn’t really any room on the page to squeeze in anything? I decided to transfer the zoom-in technique that students were doing with writing in the elementary grades to drawing. During the lesson, I modeled my own “zoomin” drawings. First I showed them a drawing of my sister and me at the beach. There was an ocean, a few small stick figures, a huge sky, and a sun in the corner.

I then showed them my zoom-in picture, which depicted the same beach but without a lot of white space. I had zoomed in on just the red buckets and our hands making a sand castle. I pointed out that because I didn’t try to draw the whole scene, I could draw the sand castle and the shells, even the buckets with their white, plastic braided handle, with much more detail.

Zooming in, whether in drawing or writing, works best after an original version has been created that attempts to tell the whole story or show the whole scene. After students get the whole story or the whole picture on paper, it’s easier to then choose and zoom in on one part. This is true even when adults write. One of the first personal narrative entries I wrote in graduate school was about the day my twin sister burned her knee at the beach when we were eight years old. I first wrote an entry that started with arriving at the beach for dinner and ended with rushing to the car to get ice and bandages after she burned her knee. It wasn’t until I went back and wrote about isolated events—feeding bread to seagulls, the moment my sister actually burned her knee—that I was able to write with much more detail and dig underneath to the significance of this memory. Even now when I write about a memory, it is almost as if I have to get the whole story down before I can figure out which parts might have more significance. Any time I write, of course, I might naturally zoom in on certain parts, which is what we want students eventually to do. Zooming in, whether it’s with writing or drawing, ideally is not left only for official revision times. In the beginning, however, it’s important to validate that there has to be some scaffolding before this happens naturally.

Another craft strategy to consider in the primary grades, particularly second grade, is to have students draw pictures in the margin of their notebook entries, rather than complete scenes. This idea came from conversations with several second-grade teachers at the Tobin School in Boston who felt that many of their students were ready to spend writing workshop just writing rather than writing and drawing. They wanted students to build up the writing stamina they would need in third grade, but they also knew how important drawing was for writing. They also weren’t sure it would be wise to make a cold-turkey switch in the middle of the year from drawing to no drawing.

So, rather than decide between “all or nothing,” we showed students how to draw smaller pictures in the margin. Students could still draw pictures and details to support their writing, but there wouldn’t be a lot of time taken up with drawing the whole scene. Figure 6.5 is an example of this technique.

Rosa Verdu, a teacher of a combined class of first- and second-grade English language learners, found the margin drawing technique particularly helpful because of the large range of abilities in her classroom. Her first graders continued drawing larger pictures while she taught the new drawing strategy in several group conferences to her second graders. The students loved it! So did we. Students were writing more, but we had not asked them to let go of drawing either. Drawing in the margin also allowed students to highlight objects and people at different parts of their memoir stories. They did not have to choose just one moment from their stories to capture in their drawings. Because there was no scale in terms of size, it was easy for them to draw objects with more detail. These small drawings in the margins also gave a colorful, inviting tone to the writing and the notebook in general. I’ve since thought about teaching this to some of the older grades as well. If I were a fourth or fifth grader, I would feel even more attached to my writer’s notebook if there were a few colorful pictures in the margins reflecting the content of my stories and memories.

Entry Filed under: Literacy,Quick Tip Tuesday

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Gresham  |  November 11th, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    As a 4th grade teacher, I am constantly teaching kids how to “zoom in” on small moments for our writer’s workshop. I love how Liz validates the need for students to see (or draw) a whole scene and then move to a more focused moment in that scene. This strategy would certainly provide a lot of support for my visual learners. I also like how Liz described the second graders who drew in the margins. Last year I had a student who drew small pictures in the margins of her writer’s notebook – she loved what it added to her writing (I just found it interesting to view!). I can see how this strategy could help kids become more aware of their writing’s focus and detail.

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