Around the age of 11 or 12 — about fourth or fifth grade — children develop a new ability to creatively describe events in writing. They have, for the most part, mastered handwriting; barring any learning/ developmental delays, forming letters is like tying shoes and stringing together words becomes slightly more natural. Attention can be turned to fleshing out the basic mechanics of writing. These young minds are ready to engage with literature on a deeper level and focus on more complex writing strategies.
Much of the language arts instruction at this age centers on literary analysis and development of the writing craft. Students tackle a variety of genres and literary devices. In California, for example, students are expected to “write narrative, expository, persuasive, and descriptive texts of at least 500 to 700 words in each genre” (English-Language Arts Content Standards, Grade 5, 2009.)
My favorite genre is the narrative. I join students on a journey as they move beyond simply telling a story. Think metaphors, imagery, and symbolism — all of the good stuff we find in books we enjoy and may even take for granted. Is the process of reading several drafts laborious? Yes. Ask any English or Language Arts Teacher. Teaching and guiding young writers can be a blend of hair-pulling craziness, strong coffee, and elated I -can’t-believe-a-12-year-old-wrote-that moments. But all of those scribblings of corrections and suggestions are not in vain. We are part of their journeys.
Give Them the “Good Stuff”
I love reading aloud and it’s not for the pleasure of hearing my own squeaky voice. A book or text can profoundly connect a parent and child or and even a classroom full of students. If you are reading this: keep reading aloud to your kids! I’m sure you know that choosing quality texts is key. When students are learning to write descriptively, they need examples to lean on. It’s not as automatic as 1) Let’s learn about metaphors 2) Here’s an example, 3) Now go write. Students need to eat, sleep, drink, and breathe what they’re learning. Call it overkill but the more opportunities they have to experience and practice, the more they will thrive.
If only I had a dime for all of the times I’ve written “show, don’t tell” in the margins of student drafts as well as my own work (!) Students write, “I was hungry” or “She felt tired” in a narrative draft. Clearly, they need to flesh these out. So many times, I’ve sought a reference/collection of model texts where authors describe a common feeling or experience. A student could then locate the topic in the index, read two or three examples, and edit his or her own writing accordingly. Is there any such reference out there? For now, I am beginning “Story Snippets,” a series of posts that highlight descriptive writing in children’s literature. Hopefully, this will be a go-to resource of quotes for teachers and parents to use with their budding writers.
Stay tuned for the first Story Snippet, brought to you by Madeleine L’Engle.