In less than a month, my 9 year olds must take a district writing assessment in which they write informative essays about habitats. You go ahead and do that. Right now. Write me an informative essay about habitats.
Why? What does this prove? If you want to measure how well someone can write, let them write what they know. What they feel deeply about.
At nine years old, this skill is inappropriate and unnecessary. Charlotte Mason thought so. Children should write what they know. Their daily lives. Narrations of books. Narratives and summaries. Not persuasive arguments and not essays. Not at nine.
Today, I gave my 4th graders a short writing assignment to ease them back into school after our three week vacation. I told them to think about their vacations, the absolute best thing that happened, or the most memorable. I explained that sometimes the most memorable moment isn't the best; it's the worst. And they could write about that if they wanted. I've found that students - elementary through adult - need permission to deviate from a prompt. I've also found that students are often asked to write about pleasant things, and seldom invited to write about moments they were sad, worst moments. (One girl today wrote about her sister having a seizure; thankfully, her sister is okay.)
I told them I would answer no questions, and that if they didn't know how to spell a word, they should spell it the way it sounded and then circle or underline. (Some teachers prefer that all students do something one way, all students circle, or all students underline. But I don't like being told what to do, so I assume others don't either, so I give students the option to do what works for them. Maybe it's highlighting? Maybe they want to draw triangles around their words?)
I set the timer for 15 minutes. Most students wrote the entire time. Some wrote a lot and fast and felt like they were finished saying what needed to be said, and I told them to read silently, but the truth is, as long as they had produced and weren't preventing the other writers from writing, I didn't care if they stared at the ceiling.
Students will produce more if it's low stakes, if they know that their teacher will help them spell words they don't know, as opposed to expecting them to correctly spell all the words they choose. If you expect students to spell every word correctly, you'll get really poor content. Students will limit themselves to words they know how to spell, and if you have low readers, you'll really be in trouble. However, if you let students know that they can write what they want, and that you'll help them, not tell them to look up words in a dictionary, their voices will come through in their writing.
After 15 minutes, the fun began. "Go," I said. Hands flew into the air.
"How do you spell Ferris wheel?"
I wrote the words on the board. "But make sure you capitalize Ferris, because it was the name of the inventor. Oh! Cool story, you guys: so this Mr. Ferris got the idea for his ride after looking at a carousel and imaging it on its side."
"How do you spell nauseous?"
"What's the sentence?"
"I felt nauseous."
"You felt n-a-u-s-e-a-t-e-d. Felt nauseated. Smelled nauseous. Something that's nauseous makes you nauseated. The smell of rotten egg was nauseous."
"Sour milk smells nauseous!" "Stinky feet smell nauseous!"
"Okay, silly way that I used to remember it: girls, you know the necklaces that say BEST FRIENDS? One side of the heart says BE FRI," I drew a picture on the board, "and the other says ST (street) ENDS? Well, I always visualized the two pieces of the heart and remembered FRI-END."
We did this for a while, talked about phonics rules and Latin roots and Spanish cognates, and fixed their misspellings.
But spelling is just part of it.
There is such a lot to learn about writing from writing what they know.