Planning a writing unit of work can be quite overwhelming, particularly as a beginning teacher. I hope that the tips below will help you to create engaging, effective units of work for your early learners!
START WITH BACKWARD MAPPING
For example, in our Kindergarten Narratives unit, the end goal is for most students to be able to write a simple story. I also think about how I will differentiate that end goal- for some students who require additional support, their goal might be to write a sentence about an imaginary character or setting. For students who require extension, their goal may be to use more advanced descriptive language (e.g. adventurous adjectives or similes) or to write a more detailed story (e.g. include details about a character’s inside and outside traits, or more than one problem).
As with anything we teach, it is so important that students understand the WHY of what they’re learning. What is the point? Why are they learning it? If they understand this, they will be much more motivated and on board with learning it!
In writing lessons, we talk about the three purposes of writing- writing to inform, writing to entertain and writing to persuade. We use the PIE acronym to help us remember this (Persuade, Inform, Entertain).
For our Fairy Tales unit, we discuss how our writing purpose is to ENTERTAIN others with interesting and exciting stories!
WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO IN ORDER TO GET THERE?
Next, I think of all the skills and knowledge that my students will need to learn in order to be successful. I make a list and break down how I will cover all those skills across the unit of work, and build upon skills in an incremental way.
For example, in our Kindergarten Fairy Tales unit, I break down what the components of a story are that I will need to teach my students. This includes:
- Creating imaginary characters, and describing their traits
- Using our senses to describe a setting
- Thinking of interesting problems for a story
- Fixing that problem
Towards the end of the unit, I begin to teach students how to plan out a whole story and also how to adapt known fairy tales to create their own stories. All of these things will need to be EXPLICITLY taught through modelling and scaffolded practice.
Once you know what skills you need to teach, you can have some fun in thinking about what activities you are going to use to teach students all of these concepts. For example, I love finding fun ways to explore characters. We create our own monsters and write a character description, focusing on interesting adjectives. Or we re-imagine characters and discuss whether they might have just been misunderstood- perhaps the Big Bad Wolf was actually good?! Plan activities that are going to explicitly teach the skills, but will also be FUN for the students and get them excited about what they are learning!
HOW WILL I SCAFFOLD LEARNING ALONG THE WAY?
This part of the process is so often glossed over or skipped past, but it is SUCH a crucial step. Too often I think teachers jump straight from explicit teaching to independent work, without giving students enough scaffolding or opportunities for guided practice.
The research into cognitive load theory suggests that when we are teaching new knowledge, content or skills to our students, we will be far more effective and successful if we support our students with explicit guidance and scaffolding, along with practice and feedback.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility model is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind whenever you are planning any unit of work or lesson sequence.
Also, don't underestimate the power of modelling examples to your students. Whenever we write, I model writing my own version first on the interactive whiteboard. The quality of my students’ writing is always so much better when I’ve taken the time to model to them first what it is that I’m looking for.
Non-examples are also a really powerful teaching tool as well. I model what NOT to do or make mistakes in my writing, and get my students to help me to edit and correct my own work. Students love being the ‘experts’ who need to help their teachers, and this process allows students to develop much deeper understandings of the success criteria for a lesson.
Some examples of how I scaffold students when teaching fairy tales:
1. Break up story elements into manageable chunks and explicitly teach each of these components
We build up our skills for writing an entire story in incremental chunks, rather writing full stories at the very beginning of the unit. Some examples of what we work on throughout the unit include inside and outside character traits, replacing known characters in fairy tales, and identifying the problem in familiar stories.
2. Verbal before written
We do lots of verbal practice of concepts before we even begin writing. For example, we look at lots of character pictures and unpack ways to describe that character’s inside and outside traits. We also look at lots of setting pictures and use our senses to describe everything about that setting- what can we hear, what can we see, what could we feel, what could we hear and sometimes even what could we taste?
3. Provide students with a scaffold to base their stories around
In the earlier years I use a very simple structure of:
- Once upon a time... (interesting character)
- One day... (descriptive settings)
- Suddenly... (exciting problem)
- Luckily... (fix the problem).
This is obviously a very simplistic break down of a story, but it is a really useful tool for when you are first helping kids to get their heads around structuring a story! It helps to set them up for success.
Here is an example of how this simple scaffold can lead to a simple story:
As an extension, some students may use alternative sentence starters (e.g. One bright sunny morning... All of a sudden.... As quick as a flash...) or write longer paragraphs for each section.
4. Innovating on known stories
This is another great tool for reducing cognitive load and allowing students to have the confidence to attempt their own stories when they are first learning to write.
We use known stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, and just adapt some of the elements (e.g. change the character of Jack to Sally, the beans to magic rice, the beanstalk to a ladder, and the giant to a dragon).
You could also adapt/change parts of a story e.g. change the problem in Three Billy Goats Gruff or change the ending to Hansel and Gretel.
In older years, I use Pie Corbett’s Story Models to give students lots of different story structure scaffolds that they could base a story around (e.g. warning tale, rags to riches tale).
5. Effective Learning Displays
As a class, we create a variety of learning displays to support our unit. For example, we create a bank of words that we come across throughout our lessons. These displays become an inspiration for students when they are creating their own characters or stories.
It’s important that your learning displays are clear and easy for your students to read, and that the students have helped to create them. Sometimes I give my students a challenge- e.g. I want you to have included at least three outside character traits or three adjectives from our display.
6. Practice, practice, practice
For whatever concept I’m teaching, I give my students plenty of opportunities to practise that skill before we move on. For example, we write LOTS of short character descriptions or setting descriptions. In older grades, I might get students to write five different story openings or five different character descriptions in a lesson. Or if we were learning how to plan a story, we might just practise creating lots of story plans.
BE FLEXIBLE PLANNERS
It is so important that we are willing to be flexible with the programs that we have created. We need to adapt them as we are teaching, so that they are based around the needs of our learners. Sometimes you will find that students grasp a concept much quicker than you’d anticipated, and you’ll be able to delve much deeper into that concept or move along to the next concept a bit sooner.
Other times, your students will really struggle with a concept and you may need to slow down and spend more time on something, or adjust the activities to better support your students. Most of the time you’ll probably need to do a mixture of all of the above, because the reality of teaching is that we tend to have a huge range of learning needs within the one classroom!
Be reflective practitioners and don’t be afraid to adjust your programs as you go! I recommend reading up on formative assessment techniques (otherwise known as assessment FOR learning) in order to build up a repertoire of ways that you can be checking in on student understanding throughout your entire teaching and learning sequence!