Writing

Writing Basics

From the early formation of letters to crafting an essay, writing involves perhaps more subskills than any other academic task. To write well requires combining multiple physical and mental processes in one concerted effort to communicate information and ideas. For instance, we must be able to move a pen, or press a key, precisely and fluidly to produce letters, remember rules of grammar and syntax, place our thoughts in an order that makes sense, and think ahead to what we want to write next.

> Try it yourself. Experience an essay assignment.

This combination of tasks makes writing the highest form and most complex use of language. As children progress through school, they are asked to do more with this skill than with any other except reading. Writing requirements increase across the curriculum – from homework assignments and classwork to journals, note taking, quizzes, tests, and papers. Even standardized tests are moving toward fewer multiple-choice questions and more answers in the form of short paragraphs and essays.

It is probably no accident that many adults choose jobs that limit the amount of writing they have to do. Children, on the other hand, have no such luxury. They write nearly every day they are in school, from first grade on. The accuracy, speed, and sophistication with which they write significantly impacts what they ultimately achieve academically. Because writing is so integral to a child's success or failure in school, identifying writing problems early is essential.


The Developing Writer

Learning to write, like learning to read or to play a musical instrument, is generally a sequential process. Children progress as writers from one phase to the next, with one set of skills building on the skills acquired earlier. Writing, however, combines many skills and relies on development in many areas not specific to writing. A child's vocabulary and graphomotor control, for example, must improve in order for her writing to progress normally.

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Stages of Writing

Imitation (preschool to first grade)
In this phase children:

  • pretend to write
  • become aware that letters can be arranged to form words
  • begin to organize letters and shapes in a line
  • begin to print letters and numbers
  • have relatively crude motor skills 

Graphic Representation (first and second grades)
In this phase children:

  • become adept at printing letters
  • are preoccupied with the visual appearance of their writing
  • become self-conscious if their penmanship is less attractive than their classmates'
  • become better at sequential ordering of letters and numbers
  • use invented spellings of words liberally 

Progressive Incorporation (late second to fourth grade)
In this phase children:

  • gradually incorporate standards of capitalization, punctuation, syntax, and grammar
  • seldom plan what they are going to write before they write it 
  • use writing to relate experiences rather than to solve problems or develop ideas
  • begin writing in cursive
  • begin revising their work 

Automatization (fourth to seventh grade)
In this phase children:

  • must apply rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation automatically
  • begin to regularly review their own work
  • begin to write at a level equivalent to their own speech
  • learn to write in stages by incorporating outlines and multiple drafts
  • begin to assess the effectiveness of their own writing 

Elaboration (seventh to ninth grade)
In this phase children:

  • become increasingly adept at using writing to express a viewpoint
  • begin to use writing for thinking, problem solving, and remembering
  • learn to synthesize ideas from a variety of sources
  • begin to write at a level that exceeds their own speech
  • use transitions like "finally" and "for example" extensively 

Personalization-Diversification (ninth grade and beyond)
In this phase children:

  • learn to use writing styles appropriate to their subjects
  • become more creative with their writing
  • learn to use sentences of varying length and complexity
  • write with increasingly sophisticated vocabulary
  • develop individual writing styles 

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Neurodevelopmental Functions and Writing

Writing skills develop hand in hand with neurodevelopmental functions. Five key functions - graphomotor, attention, language, memory, and higher-order thinking - are outlined below.

Graphomotor
Graphomotor function refers to the ability to use muscles in the fingers and hands to form letters easily and legibly and to maintain a comfortable grip on a writing instrument. This function plays an important role in maneuvering a pen or pencil and allowing the fingers to keep pace with the flow of ideas.

> Try it yourself. Experience a graphomotor difficulty.

Attention
Attention plays an important role in all stages of writing. This task often demands considerable mental energy and focus over long periods of time. Writers must not only preview what they want to convey as they put their ideas on paper but also continually self-monitor to stay on track.

Language
Language is an essential ingredient of writing. The ability to recognize letter sounds, comprehend words and their meanings, understand word order and grammar to construct sentences, and describe or explain ideas all contribute to a child's ability to write clearly.

Memory
Memory ability has a significant impact on writing. The rate at which children generate ideas must coincide with their retrieval of necessary vocabulary, spelling, and prior knowledge. When organizing essays, writers must be able to think about a topic, draw upon facts and concepts, and sequence ideas and facts in the right order.

Higher-Order Thinking
In the upper grades, writing relies on higher-order thinking functions. Assignments often require students to generate original and creative ideas while integrating spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. By early adolescence, many writing assignments demand critical thinking skills and conceptual ability such as evaluating opposing arguments and drawing conclusions.

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