Emergent Writers Teacher Inquiry Teaching Writing Writing Assessment

Revision and Writing Groups in the First Grade: Finding the Black Ninja Fish

When I first started teaching, it was easy to believe that first-graders were incapable of revision. They’d rush up when they had finished their work, shouting “I’m done!” while waving their papers in front of my nose. Gentle questions such as “Is there anything else you could add to your story?” were invariably answered with a blunt “No.”

So I didn’t press the issue. First-graders had enough work to do in learning how to match sounds to letters, form the letters, and figure out the difference between letters and words, not to mention learning how to generate topics for their daily writing. Asking them to then revisit their work, analyze it in terms of its effectiveness in communicating their thinking, and change it accordingly seemed to be pushing things.

At the same time, however, I prided myself on my belief that when first-graders are given appropriate support and structure, they are capable of deep thinking and learning. Each day I saw new evidence that they could comprehend sophisticated stories, solve math problems using elegant strategies of their own devising, and write with great imagination and surprising insight. The lack of revision in my writing program began to bother me as I watched the children surpass my expectations in so many other ways. If they were capable of so much higher-level thinking in every other area, why shouldn’t they be able to handle revision?

For a while I ignored such nagging questions about revision because I had not found any way to answer them. Individual writing conferences didn’t seem to work. When I tried to explain to the students how their writing confused me or ask for more elaboration, they dismissed me. Because they had the complete stories in their heads, they believed that those stories had therefore been rendered perfectly on the paper before them. They could tell from my suggestions that I was unsatisfied with their work, but they couldn’t quite figure out why. So they shrugged off my pesky teacher comments. Their friends liked hearing their stories at sharing time, and that’s all that really mattered.

It wasn’t until I took part in the Puget Sound Writing Project Summer Institute (Washington) in 2001 that I began to see how I might support first-graders in revising their work. Specifically, part of the institute includes work done in a writing group: participants meet with peers for the purpose of gathering advice for how to improve their writing. In listening critically to others’ work, I found myself analyzing what makes a given piece more or less effective. In listening to others’ suggestions, I learned to take a step back from my own writing and see it more objectively—a stance from which revision becomes not only possible but probable. It occurred to me then that if I could find some way to implement writing groups in the first grade, I could help my students take their first steps toward this sophisticated, complex, and essential way of thinking. And because they would be getting feedback from each other and not just their teacher, they might actually put that feedback into practice.

As anyone who works with primary-level students knows, to say that you are going to do something does not mean you can turn around and do it. For revision to happen, I needed to convene writing groups. And for writing groups to be successful in first grade—for six- and seven-year-olds to be able to understand and benefit from the process—I had to take a fresh look at the entire instructional year. After three years of experimentation, I now have a road map that eventually leads us to revision by way of the writing group.

I spend the first half of the school year laying the groundwork that prepares the children for writing groups in the second half of the year. Part of that groundwork is getting these young writers into the habit of rereading their writing. This is one habit I encourage from the start because a writer needs to see the effect of the words he already has on paper before he can think about whether and how to change them.

No matter how much I might encourage them, first-graders in September do not necessarily do much rereading. If they do, it may be just to see that they can read what they have written, rather than to ask themselves, “What about this piece of writing can be improved?” Instead of worrying about playing the enforcer, however, I comfort myself with the knowledge that it takes time for behaviors to become habits. If I emphasize the importance of rereading early on, then more and more students will begin to do it naturally as the year progresses.

In October and November, as my first-graders become more confident in their ability to generate topics and record their ideas in a way that they will be able to read and understand later, I add another element that helps prepare the children for revision. I use a sharing circle or author’s chair as a time to expose them to language they can use when discussing writing. After writing time is over, children take turns reading their work to the class and taking compliments, questions, and comments from their audience. I sit in the audience, too, and raise my hand, hoping to be called on. The great thing about being a teacher is that even if I don’t get called on, I still get to make my point: “I love how you added so many details to your writing. You made a picture in my head.” Or “I like how you used describing words to tell what your toy looks like.” Or “I’m confused about this part of your story. Can you tell us more about it?” Before long the children begin mimicking me, using this language themselves.

Also during the fall, we work as a class to develop criteria for excellent writing by listening to a variety of writing samples from first-graders past, deciding which piece is better, and analyzing the reasons why one example is better than another. In the first such session, I tell the students that I am going to read two stories to them, and that I’m going to ask them which story they think is better and why. Then I read the following two journal entries, written by two different students several years ago, selected specifically because the difference between the two is so obvious. (Though I have corrected spelling and punctuation, the words quoted here and throughout this article are the authors’ own.)

The first example: “I like treehouses.”

The second example: “My brother had a dog but it ran away. My brother was upset and cried and cried. And when I was born, I did not know that.”

The children are generally quick to say that the latter piece is the better story, and they often give reasons such as “I could see that one better in my head” or “That one tells more about the story, and the first one just says `I like treehouses.'” We discuss what the second author did that the first author did not do—namely, he added details—and then I urge the children to make their own stories better by adding more details.

I repeat this process, using several different stories to illustrate the idea that adding specific details makes one’s writing better. (Later in the year, I might use student work to emphasize the importance of using interesting language or of organizing your story so that it makes sense, but in the early fall, writing more than two sentences is a significant enough achievement.) Over time, these child-generated criteria make it onto a poster that hangs on the wall throughout the rest of the year. This year’s version read:

Excellent writing…

  • has lots of details
  • puts a picture in your head
  • is really exciting or interesting
  • makes you feel like you are there
  • tells exactly
  • is easy to read.

Some of the points on the list come from an assessment I have the students make in mid-November; at that time I ask each student to look back over her own work, choose a “best piece” of writing, and explain why it is the best. As the year goes on, and as the students write more, experiment more, and learn more, we can add to this list. This year, for example, we added “Uses wonderful, outstanding words” and “Has a just-right ending” to our original poster. The children also have several other opportunities to reread their body of work and choose their best, so the criteria remain an important consideration all year long.

The establishment of criteria is a critical step toward revision because it not only helps students to see that there is a difference in quality between different pieces of writing, but also names the differences. If you know that the flaw with your piece is that it lacks interesting words, then you can rewrite it with more interesting words. But if you have no sense of what’s wrong with your piece, then it is very difficult to improve it. And if you fail to recognize that your work isn’t perfect, you will never consider making changes at all.

The first time I officially introduce revision is in December. Each year I ask the children to write about one family tradition. After they have initial drafts, I present the idea that writing can always get better and that writers are always looking for ways to make their writing more interesting. Writers do this, I tell the students, by rereading their work and making changes that will make their writing better.

After making sure my message is clear, I model revision. I let the children know that I’ll be reading about one of my family traditions—making Christmas cookies—and that their very important job is to listen carefully for what they would like to know more about and what confuses them. Once I have read my piece, there’s usually no shortage of genuine questions, as the sample I read is intentionally bare bones:

Every year we made Christmas cookies. We made a lot! We gave them away as presents. They were yummy.

The children’s hands shoot up immediately. They ask, “Who made the cookies?” “What kind of cookies did you make?” “Who did you give them to?” I respond by making changes based on their questions, physically showing them how they can insert text, cross out other pieces, and tack more ideas onto what used to be a finished piece of writing. When I’m done revising, I am sure to reread the final version carefully to see if there is anything else I should add and to be certain that the whole piece makes sense.

Immediately following this demonstration, the children get with a partner and take turns reading and listening, offering suggestions and accepting advice. They must then make at least one change to their writing. The earth does not shake as a result of the children’s participating in this activity. When they are with partners, they tend to ask about very small, specific details that can be answered with a word or two. The changes they make tend to be about adding that word or two.

Compare Robbie’s original beginning with his revised version.

Original: First we start driving for a long time. Then we are there. We unpack…

Revision: First we are packing. We bring sleds and skis. We start driving for a long time…

This is not a huge difference, but the new opening does give Robbie’s audience a better idea of what his piece is about than his original beginning did.

Or, consider Peter’s work. (His revisions are in bold.)

We have an Easter egg hunt. Some eggs have candy in them. Some are empty. They are outside and inside on top of the TV. None are inside. First we have to find our basket. My uncles come over. The first one is inside. It is a little hard and easy.

In this case, the revision is more confusing than the original: How could there be no eggs inside and the first one is inside? But even examples such as this are useful in that they give me good information about who will need more support with revision as the year goes on. Clearly, discussions about organization and clarity would help Peter move forward in his writing.

Since the changes are so minimal, I sometimes ask myself why I should bother teaching revision at this point. Every year as I try to oversee first-graders attempting to listen attentively to their partners and almost succeeding, I ask myself the same question. But every year, I remind myself that this is a developmentally appropriate first step. The very beginning stage of revision is to add detail to a piece of writing. This is precisely what my students are doing. If that weren’t enough to convince me, though, I also see some students make bigger strides with revision, as Bethany did. Following is her work, with revisions shown in bold:

We go to Lopez on the Fourth of July. There is a big parade. We go up with our cousins. There are lots of people in the parade. The people are throwing out flowers and candy. At the end of the parade there is a cookout. You have to get in line. When it is nighttime, we go out on my grandma’s boat. My grandma makes hot chocolate. We watch the fireworks on the boat. We have a lot of fun. After, we are in the car. It is usually about 11 o’clock. I am very tired so I usually go right to bed. But my mom sings us a song or a couple. I have a ton of fun. I have a blast.

Bethany’s new version is considerably more elaborate than the initial version. The details are also more personalized. While the description of the parade could be happening to anybody anywhere, the new section is more specific to Bethany’s own experience. The more precise the detail, the more compelling the writing, and any steps in that direction are something to celebrate.

After this initial exposure to revision, we begin to incorporate the mindset that writers always take time to improve their writing as we move into a unit on poetry. By February, the focus of writing workshop shifts from journaling and poetry to writing books. By the time March rolls around, we are ready to begin meeting with writing groups.

It takes many minilessons to get to the point at which I can introduce writing groups: we have to discuss what kinds of books it is possible to write, where to get the materials, the importance of planning ahead so you’ll know how to finish your piece, as well as precisely what steps are involved in taking a book from the first seed of an idea into a published product. But finally, once the students have enough written to be able to bring something to a writing group, I remind them that another thing writers do besides write and plan is to make changes to their work to make it even better. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know just how to change the piece, and for that reason, we will begin having conferences so we can give each other suggestions to help make our writing better.

From there, I show them where and how to sign up on the whiteboard if they are ready to get suggestions or if they need help thinking about what should come next in their books. I caution them against erasing anybody else’s name—only I have the power to do that. I also remind them that while they are waiting for a conference, they need to be working on something else. I won’t call any child for a conference who isn’t using his writing time well (though I do keep track of children who struggle to write, and I meet with them individually to solve their problems). Beyond this, I don’t give any of the nitty-gritty details about how the writing group will operate because I find I get too many “what if” questions that are much easier to answer by showing than by telling.

On any given day, once the class has settled down to work, I look at the sign-up list and call a group based on what I know the needs are. I may call a child whose name is not on the list if I know that he is at a point when he would benefit from being part of that group. Sometimes, a writing group may not be the most appropriate way to help a certain child, so I still do meet with individuals as needed.

Because groups are formed as students sign up, the same children do not work with each other each time they meet. Rather, they work with whoever else is ready to meet at the same time. This arrangement differs greatly from that of my own writing group: we met as the same group of three people every time we met, which not only allowed us to build our comfort and safety level, but also provided us with a shared history from which to draw as we continued working together. While I believe first-graders could benefit from such consistency as much as I did, I need to spend more time considering the practicalities before I can implement it.

The children whom I have called join me in a circle on the floor and take turns in the order that they signed up on the board. I ask the first child to tell why she signed up for a conference so that the other members of the group know what to listen for. If a child wants ideas about what should happen next in a story, I ask the other members of the group to think of some possibilities. If a child needs suggestions for revision, I ask the other members of the group to listen for things that confuse them or about which they want to know more.

Next, I read the piece of writing aloud for all to hear. I do the reading so that the audience can focus on the writing, rather than on the stumbles the author makes as she tries to sound out inventive spellings or to follow the trail of insertions and deletions. Finally, I ask the other members to offer their suggestions, which I record on a “Suggestions” page in the author’s writing folder. I also offer a suggestion and record it for the author’s consideration. As in a regular writing conference, I try to suggest the one thing that I think the child needs to work on most, so I find it helpful to read the children’s work frequently in order to be able to pinpoint their greatest needs. Ideally, I read the work of the authors with whom I will confer during writing workshop in the morning before school starts. Sometimes, though, I have to decide on my suggestions as I read the piece to the group.

It is not uncommon for at least one member of the writing group to say, “I don’t have any questions” or “I can’t think of any suggestions.” In response to this, I give prompts such as, “Was there anything you wanted to know more about?” or “Was anything confusing to you?” I’ll then allow the next child to offer his or her ideas, and I’ll add my own. Often, the child who was stuck will echo a suggestion made by one of the rest of us. If he still cannot think of anything, I might ask him to tell what part of the piece he especially liked, or I might let it go quietly so that we can all move on. In either case, I jot a note for myself and do my best to make sure that the child has plenty more opportunities to listen and respond to writing.

When each member of the group has had a turn to share his or her work and receive suggestions, I send the students off to work. The expectation is that they will make at least one change, either based on a suggestion from the group or on one of their own ideas. More often than not, they’ll follow through on one of the suggestions.

Robbie’s revision of The Two Ships is fairly typical of the kinds of revision first-graders make at this point in the year. In his story, two ships, laden with gold, are caught between pirates and an iceberg. They hit the iceberg and sink. Years later, deep sea explorers visit the wrecks. After hearing the story, the rest of Robbie’s group wanted to know more about the gold—where it was on the ship and what the explorers did with it—and also more about the sinking of the ships. In response, Robbie added these details to his narrative: “3 people died. 5 people lived. They had lifeboats.”

Sometimes, children incorporate all the suggestions they receive. Jenny, whose home language is Korean and who receives special services for speech/language, shared her story Dog Party with her group. The original was terse:

The dog had a party. And she make a party. And everybody come to the house. And they said “Happy birthday to you” and one more time. And they dance. And they go home.

Jenny’s writing group wanted to know a lot more. They asked what the dog’s name was, what kind of party it was, how the dog prepared for the party, and what happened there. Jenny answered all of their questions as she revised.

The dog had a party and it’s her birthday. And she fast as she can to make a party. And she make a party. And she make string [streamers] and balloon. And everybody come to the house. And one girl bring the cake. And they said “Happy birthday to you” and one more time. And Te-Te wish. And they dance and sing together and play puppets. And they go home. And she live happily ever after.

Sometimes, children will identify their own goals for revision and make changes accordingly. John, who had already participated in writing groups several times, signed up for a conference to seek suggestions about his travelogue Kauai. No one else was ready for a writing group that day, so I met with him individually. I asked him to tell me what changes he thought would improve his book. He told me that he thought adding more details would help, so instead of just saying “There are fish there,” he would tell what the fish looked like. John ended up adding five additional pages of description and explanation to his book, including lines like, “When you’re snorkeling, there are beautiful fish…There are black ninja fish hiding behind rocks.”

Throughout these discussions, I keep my anecdotal log handy to keep track of the suggestions children make as well as how they choose to revise their work. Each child’s name is printed in one box on a grid, and when I get a chance (during writing workshop, at recess, or right after school), I jot down a few notes about what happened that day. This helps me know whom to call on when I need students to model thoughtful questioning and thoughtful revision for the rest of the class. It also helps me plan for future instruction and writing groups.

Depending on the needs of the students with whom I am conferring and depending on the lengths of their pieces, a writing group can take anywhere from eight to fifteen minutes. During this time, the other children are working on their own books: writing, planning, revising, editing on their own or with a parent volunteer, or illustrating the published version. Depending on the needs of the class as a whole, I may hold writing groups several times a week or just once. I relish this flexibility because it enables me to be as responsive to student needs as I can be.

This week, for example, I know that I will need to meet with Mandy all on her own to help her choose one book to develop. She has a lot of beginnings but not very many middles, and I think that one-on-one attention will give her some helpful direction. Travis, Bethany, and Kristy all have finished drafts they would like to publish. They’ll be a good match for a writing group, as Travis is quite analytical about what makes sense and what doesn’t, Bethany has an ear for important details, and Kristy is learning to move beyond superficial questions. I’ll be keeping an eye on Brett, who just finished publishing his first book—about cobras—and is doing research on baseball slugger Barry Bonds for his second. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll use what he learned about organization in his last conference as he writes this new book.

In the end, I do not expect that every child will transform every piece he or she writes. That’s unrealistic, given both the developmental range that shapes the nature of teaching and learning in the primary classroom, and the fact that not every piece of writing needs to be transformed. Instead, my ultimate goal is that every child gains a deeper understanding of what it means to be a writer. Writing is more than merely putting words down on paper: it is an interaction between the author and his audience. How well the writer is able to communicate his message depends on his ability to evaluate his writing and shape it so that it says what he really means to say. It is this act of revision, or reexamining one’s work with an eye toward clarity and beauty, that can turn a string of jumbled thoughts into a coherent, convincing message. It is a complicated process to teach and to learn. But with time, some thoughtful planning, the expectation that it will happen, and the helpful advice of peers in a writing group, revision can be done, and done well—even in first grade.

NOTE: All names have been changed to protect student privacy.