Blogstitute 2016: The Powerful Role of Talk in Interactive Writing

On the last full week of our Summer Blogstitute we welcome Joan Dabrowski, who, along with Kate Roth, is the coauthor of Interactive Writing Across Grades. In this excellent post and accompanying video (see below), she talks about the crucial role of classroom talk in the practice of interactive writing. Be sure to leave a comment or Tweet about this post using #blogstitute16 for a chance to win a bundle of Stenhouse books — including Interactive Writing Across Grades!

Let’s Talk About It! The Powerful Role of Talk in Interactive Writing

By Joan Dabrowski

This spring, as I rode the train up and down the Eastern Seaboard, I did a bit of estimation work. I tallied up the number of classrooms I have visited in recent years. I discovered that I have spent time in well over 300 classrooms. Wow! As I reflected on these visits I thought about the teacher and student voices I heard (or didn’t hear).

I am fascinated by the role of talk in schools! I listen for the language of instruction—the words chosen and how the sentences flow. I notice the dialects, the tones, and the volume. I pay attention to the body language of those who are speaking and of those who are listening. I think about the purpose, content, and quality of the talk.

I spend a lot of time with teachers, principals, and district leaders. When I do, I pay attention to my talk: my tone, speed, word choice, and cadence. I consider when to slow down, ask a question, clarify a point, or repeat myself. I also think about when I should shift from talking to listening or when the talk should be captured in writing. These processes—thinking, talking, listening, and writing—are inextricably linked.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that as Kate and I wrote Interactive Writing Across Grades we found ourselves frequently landing on classroom discourse as an essential feature worth highlighting. At every step of the interactive writing teaching sequence, there are opportunities to deepen student understanding about writing through speaking, listening, and discussion. Here’s how it happens.

Experience: Priming Our Students for Writing

The first step in an interactive writing lesson is Experience. By this we mean that an interactive writing piece is informed by a shared classroom experience. These experiences include things such as “field trips, science investigations, author studies, science and social studies topics of study, math projects, books read aloud in class, class assemblies, classroom routines and procedures, and special school events” (30). We note that the shared experience need not be a “big project” or “grand event.” Rather, it is about, “selecting, capturing, and recording the meaningful events that students experience each day at school” (30).

Because teachers often know ahead of time that an experience will be used for interactive writing, they prime student thinking for writing by engaging in intentional conversations throughout the experience. For example, as first-grade students conduct a science investigation seeking to understand the difference between solids and liquids, the teacher talks with them using precise vocabulary such as shape, harder, pour, float, and sink. Later, when students compose their interactive writing piece, the teacher will prompt students so that these important words can be used in their pieces (see Figure 1). Similarly, a fifth-grade teacher who plans to use a class novel for an opinion piece based on its theme will hold strategic discussions at key moments during the reading of the book. Then, when she and her class compose their essay together during interactive writing, she refers to these important conversations.

Figure 1: Interactive Writing in Grade 1

Figure 1: Interactive Writing in Grade 1

The conversations and discussions that occur during Experience hold important value as students acquire and develop a shared expertise: they will all have something to say about the topic when it comes time to write about it. This is particularly empowering for students learning English. For these students, the well-sequenced steps of experience, talk, and writing lead to deeper comprehension, expanded language, and strengthened writing skills (Gibbons 2015).

PreWrite: Making a Plan for Writing

During Prewrite, teachers talk with students about the purpose of the interactive writing piece, consider the audience who will read it, and generate ideas to include. Embedded in the Prewrite discussion are the essential issues writers consider before they begin to write: purpose, genre, and audience.

The Prewrite talk holds both exploratory and organizing qualities. You wonder aloud about the best way to convey the ideas in the piece as you consider the audience who will read it. You determine the best way to organize ideas so that the writing is clear and easy to follow. This is the work that real writers do every day—but frequently it is done in solitary fashion within one’s own mind. The Prewrite conversation, however, “turns up the volume” on this internal process for emerging and developing writers. The process becomes transparent. Talk becomes a scaffold for students. The Prewrite thinking is shared and heard by all.

For older and more fluent writers, the Prewrite discussion is complex and robust. Ideas are growing and expanding while language becomes more sophisticated. Often, the planning addresses organization and word choice. Thus it follows that teachers sometimes jot notes or organize the points that occur during Prewrite discussions. This skillful teaching decision models for students that what one says can transform into what one writes.

The following video is a snapshot of the talk that occurs during Prewrite. In this clip you see me working with a group of third-grade writers. We are in the midst of planning a persuasive essay where we hope to convince people to adopt a cat from a local animal shelter.

To begin, you hear the students discuss at tables what they know about pets. Then I talk with them about the essay we will work on together. I name the structure (genre) we’ll use and the real-world audience who will read it. Finally, I facilitate a discussion about organization. I jot down their reasons, evidence, and elaboration so that we can remember them for Compose (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Turning Talk into Words by Jotting Down Ideas During Prewrite in Grade 3

Figure 2: Turning Talk into Words by Jotting Down Ideas During Prewrite in Grade 3

Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3

Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3


Figure 3: Persuasive Writing in Grade 3

Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard: From Spoken to Written Word

In Chapters 5 and 6 of our book, we unpack the core of interactive writing: Compose and Share the Pen/Keyboard. In broad terms, Compose is a collaborative classroom conversation facilitated by the teacher about the craft of writing. By craft we mean the qualities of writing that make a book or text original, meaningful, and memorable. For us this includes ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.

During Compose, teachers work with students to build the precise language for the interactive writing piece by building and refining the sentence(s). This phase of the lesson relies heavily on talk as teachers initiate sentence-building conversations, negotiate the ideas presented by the class, seek out multiple suggestions, and push for students to consider the quality of their words. Teachers may also have students listen to how the words and sentences flow well together (or not). Compose is the perfect spot to capture student voices and model for them how spoken word is connected to written word.

This notion is fully realized when the sentence has been composed and is ready to be written down through the innovative technique known as Share the Pen/Keyboard. As students write or type part of the sentence, teachers are talking with them about the important conventions of writing. In-the-moment technical discussions take place about spelling, letter formation, grammar, punctuation, or keyboarding skills (e.g., using the Tab or Shift key, selecting font size/styles, or using spell-check). These timely discussions provide “just right” instruction for students who benefit from the quick, direct guidance.

Review and Extend

Once the sentence(s) have been written, the lesson moves into Review. During this step, the teacher and students once again read the interactive writing piece aloud. This repetitive choral reading allows students to practice fluency and deepen their understanding of their written work.

Next, the teacher talks with students about the craft and convention work they practiced. Questions such as Who can find a place in our piece where we included an interesting word? Who notices a sentence that combines two simple ideas? Why did we make that decision? What word(s) were tricky for us to spell? guide students to talk about their learning. The talk is inquisitive and is anchored in metacognition. The discussion unpacks the “what” and “why” of the interactive writing lesson for students, helping them to better understand how to do this work independently.

The second part of Review takes this idea further as the teacher directs students to link what they practiced during interactive writing with their own writing. The talk is clear, concise, and direct. For example, a teacher might say, “Remember how we started each sentence in a new way? We all agreed it makes our writing so much more interesting to read. You need to try this when you write on your own today. Be sure that your sentences begin in different ways.” Or, “When you work on your essay today, check to see if you state your opinion clearly like we did on our piece.” This type of teacher talk is explicit and sets clear expectations for students’ independent writing.

Finally, during Extend, classroom conversations center on the qualities of the piece itself, the real-world value it holds, and the ways it might be enhanced with visuals. Worth noting is that a powerful way to Extend a piece is to reread it with students. Hearing the ideas, the flow, and the cadence of a piece is a helpful reminder for students. It solidifies their understanding of what writing work they did.

The Last Word(s)

It takes courage for students to say ideas out loud—especially if they may be revised or rejected. It also can be embarrassing to misspell a word in front of one’s peers. For a student learning English, fear of mispronouncing a word can be too much to bear; it’s safer to stay quiet. Thus, the collaborative spirit of the talk during interactive writing cannot be understated.

The most effective teachers we’ve seen using the method teach with joy, enthusiasm, and encouragement. They foster a community in which all students can safely talk and listen to one another. In these classrooms, the energy is palpable as young writers are empowered to discuss and debate with their peers. They know that if and when a mistake occurs, it is taken in stride; corrections are quickly made in real-time while the lesson moves forward. Perhaps most striking are the understood norms in these classrooms:

  1. We are a community of writers—we can and do write for real-world purposes.
  2. Writing is hard work—we need one another’s support.
  3. All writers make errors as they work to improve and grow.
  4. We celebrate and share our writing experiences through collaborative conversations.

Interactive writing is a small practice that offers BIG results for students and teachers in PreK–5. One result is the inevitable connections you will find among thinking, talking, listening, and writing. Harnessing the power of talk will propel your students’ writing. So, perhaps this summer you will have a chance to reflect on the talk in your classroom. How’s it going for you? For your students? How might it improve? My suggestion: start talking about it!

6 comments July 12th, 2016

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