Emergent Writers Professional Learning Teaching Writing

The How of Writing: First-Graders Learn Craft

I am a first grade teacher who believes it is possible to learn from teachers at all grade levels, but on this day I am not so sure. A cup of coffee, bagel, and notebook in hand, I sit down in my usual spot with our group of cross-grade-level teachers who are determined to learn from each other. Kim, a college instructor, is preparing to present her demonstration on college research papers. College research papers? I may need another cup of coffee. Reminding myself that everyone here may not be as passionate about first-grade-level writing as I am, I settle in.

Kim begins her demonstration by showing us how she uses a best-selling text to generate more interesting research papers from her students. I imagine myself sitting in my college office, surrounded with books (some without any pictures even) reading a stack of research papers into the wee hours of the morning because I just can’t put them down.

Then Judy demonstrates ways to encourage senior high school students to write sentences modeled after great sentences taken from literature. I imagine myself sitting on a swivel desk chair in a dry-clean-only, two-piece suit reading senior high school English papers with flowing, fluent sentences.

My thoughts then turn to my reality. I sit on pint-sized chairs, wearing a 100 percent cotton, washable sweater with a touch of spaghetti sauce left over from an after-lunch hug, surrounded by books (some without any words even). On my desk is a stack of not-so-fluent first grade stories I can’t wait to read, some with only one very long sentence, but all straight from the heart.

On the drive home I think about how easy it must be for high school and college teachers to teach writing (since the students can already read and spell). But then an idea hops into my head, where it has been swimming around ever since. I can do the same exciting things that my college and high school colleagues are doing only at a different level!

This is where Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books come in. I use these books to help my first grade students become better readers. Why not use these same books to make them better writers? Inspired by the demonstrations, I realize these best-selling books provide just the right text for modeling great sentences.

When I need help with reading strategies, I open the Frog and Toad books and read until I find what I need to help me teach reading in an authentic manner. Since the connection between reading and writing is so strong, would I also find help for teaching writing? I opened Frog and Toad Are Friends to the first chapter, and a writing strategy leaped right out at me: Show Not Tell. I went on to find what I thought might be a writing strategy in each chapter of the four books in the series.

To be certain I was on the right track, I reread Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words (1999). She says, “Writing well involves learning to attend to the craft of writing, learning to do the sophisticated work of separating what it’s about from how it is written. When students are taught to see how writing is done, this way of seeing opens up to them huge warehouses of possibilities for how to make their writing good writing.” That’s what I wanted.

Now it’s February, and it’s time to try out some of these new writing strategies. The first grade students have just read their first “chapter” in Frog and Toad Are Friends. They are feeling like readers. I read the lines from the story “Spring” to them: “‘The sun is shining! The snow is melting.’ What is Arnold Lobel talking about?”

They look confused but answer enthusiastically, “Spring!”

I ask, “How do you know that? He doesn’t mention spring.”

They inform me, “Snow melts in the spring!”

“The sun is shinier in the spring!”

“It’s a story about spring.”

“So, you mean Arnold Lobel didn’t say the word spring, but showed you spring with his words? This afternoon in writers’ workshop, we are going to try that.”

This will be the first of my Frog and Toad minilessons to teach writing strategies, and I have the perfect place for students to house the writing they do: their writer’s notebooks. Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi (2001) talk about a writer’s notebook in Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide: “The writer’s notebook is different from a journal. Encourage students to use the notebook to experiment with writing techniques and as a place to record important thoughts, feelings, seed ideas, and dreams.” Up to this point, my students have used their writer’s notebooks to gather words and ideas. Now they would, as suggested by Fletcher and Portalupi, “experiment with writing techniques.”

Show Not Tell

First I reread the lines, “‘The sun is shining. The snow is melting.'” I give the students each an address label with the quote to stick onto a new page in their writer’s notebooks. I also give them a tab with the words “Show, Not Tell” to tape onto this page so it will stick out and make it easy for them to find the page just in case they want to try the strategy later in their writing.

“I am going to try a Show-Not-Tell. It will be kind of like a riddle that I want you to guess on your first guess.” On the whiteboard I write: “Oliver purrs, yawns, and stretches his claws.” I ask, “What kind of an animal is Oliver?”

“A cat!”

“You are so smart. Oliver is a cat. Now I want you to help me write a new Show-Not-Tell. What shall we show?”

“We can show my horse, Rosie.”

“How would Rosie sound?”

“She says ‘neigh.'”

“She goes clippety-clop.”

“What could a horse do?”

“She could eat hay.”

“And drink water.”

“She lives in a barn.”

“You really know about horses. You are telling me:

Neigh. Clippety-clop. Clippety-clop.
Rosie went into the barn and ate hay and drank water.

I write this on the whiteboard. They copy it into their writer’s notebooks right under the text example sticker.

Then I ask them to try a Show-Not-Tell by themselves or with a friend. Becky writes:

Bill eats minnows.
Bill [is] slimy and slippery.
Bill get[s] me wet.

When Becky asks her fellow writers to guess what kind of animal Bill is, they shout, “Walleye!” “Northern!” “Shark!” Becky says that he is just a fish. They all had good answers.

I remind the children, “Many authors use Show-Not-Tell in their books.”

In May the children write short stories during reader’s workshop on a topic they, as a class, choose. They pick basketball as their topic. They brainstorm basketball words, and I prepare a worksheet with those words. I remind them of our Show-Not-Tell lessons. Can they write about basketball without mentioning the word basketball?

Ann writes:

I am dribbling the ball.
“Time for a game,” said the coach!
I have the ball.
She shoots! She scor[e]s!

The class celebrates Ann’s effort.


Next, I want to show students how the word pictures they generate in Show-Not-Tell can help them with descriptive writing in general. I read them a passage from Night Noises by Mem Fox. “Outside, clouds raced along the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the moon. Wind and rain rattled at the windows, and trees banged against the roof.”

I have students sketch on paper what they “see.” We display the pictures with the quote. Later I read Night Noises to them and show the illustrations. They use Mem Fox’s model to generate their own picture sentences. At the end of the workshop, I encourage them to take their notebooks home to see if someone in their family gets a picture from their words.

Onomatopoeia: Bang, Thud, Plop

Books for young children are full of sounds, so why shouldn’t my students’ writing also have its share of sounds? I find the models I want in the Lobel story “Down the Hill” (1976):

Bang! The sled hit a tree.
Thud! The sled hit a rock.
Plop! The sled dived into the snow.

I draw more good examples from Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman (1992):

Snap! Off came the pumpkin!
“Drat!” said the witch.
Whoosh! It flew and it flew and…

I give students a model drawn from my experience. “Crash! The vase fell to the floor.” What can the class come up with? As it turns out, we are watching trees being cut down just outside the classroom window. The students have little difficulty generating: “Buzz! The chainsaw cut. Bang! The tree fell down.”

Now the students are on their own. One student writes:

Tweett! Tweett! The berd is singing. It’s a bleu berd. It is in a tree.
It is beutefulle.
Flup! Flap! It is fling [flying].
Crachel! Crach! It landed on a tree.

Later, as with Show-Not-Tell, I want to find out if the students can apply the Bang!-Thud!-Plop! strategy to a story written on an agreed upon topic. This time the topic is watermelon. Some students are able to make use of both onomatopoeia and Show-Not-Tell in a single piece. Alexandra writes:

Patooie! I spit out a seed.
Slurp! It tastes so juicy.
Yummy! I eat it all up.

Kurtis also used the strategy, applying his unique punctuation and capitalization, in a story full of voice:

It is sticky.
It go’s sh-h-h.
It go’s squash when you Squeeze it too!
Some-times It go’s slush.
You can slurp! It.
And It is Yummy!

Good Beginnings

Writers of children’s books know that if their text begins with a strong first sentence, they are likely to have a young reader hooked. Sometimes the sentence catches an appropriate mood as with “The night was cold and dark,” the sentence that begins Loebel’s story “Shivers” (1979).

I modeled the helpful but not particularly original “The afternoon was snowy and windy.” From here the class and individual students had little difficulty coming up with: “The morning was nice and warm” and “The night was warm and starry.” But when I read students the entire story “Shivers,” they better understood that in this case the line “The night was cold and dark” was a perfect beginning for a scary story. They wanted to write scary stories of their own. I reminded them to use a spooky Good Beginning. This student got the idea:


by Jane

The night was dark and cold. When
I went for a walk in the woods, I
lost my wae. It was
I wanted to go back to my
grandmas house.
I found the path.
But I herd a o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o
I ran as fast as my lags can go.


The View

There’s always something new to see right outside my window.
—Mary Ann Hoberman, Right Outside My Window

Children’s writers join writers of all stripes in presenting a character’s visual perception as a way of setting a scene. I thought this was a strategy my students could master. I began with this sentence from Lobel’s “The Letter” (1970): “Frog looked out of the window at Toad’s mailbox.”

I based my own model of this form on a classroom incident: “I looked up from my desk and saw Patrick reading the menu.” The class-generated example also emerged from a classroom experience: “I looked out the classroom window. The bus was coming.”

One student used the model to generate a little story: “I looked out my window. I saw my dog chasing a bunny. She did not cech it but I gave her some dog food.”

And in May, Alex wrote:

I was outside swinging on a swing and then I saw a bird.
I chaste it all arou[n]d the yard.
Then it went on a high d[b]ranch
Then I climed the tree to see eggs.
And saw them and They were wite.

When I pointed out to him that he had used The View strategy, he said, “And I wasn’t even trying.” Had Alex internalized this technique? I inwardly beamed. Alex thought of himself as a reader and a writer.

When these strategies are taught, the students always have a choice about whether or not to use them in their writing. Some of the students either do not understand how these techniques may improve their writing or are not interested in trying something new at the time. Maybe the understanding will come later.

I have found the strategies I use for my first grade writers mostly in the Frog and Toad books because I know they can read them, but I know there are many other picture and chapter books in which one can find these same techniques.

The college, high school, and elementary teachers I have been working with have sparked ideas, and by laying my techniques out as I have done here, I hope to spark ideas in other elementary teachers and maybe even some high school and college teachers. Our grade levels may be different, but our goals are the same—”to experiment with writing techniques” (Fletcher and Portalupi 2001) and “to make their writing good writing” (Ray 1999).



Fletcher, R. and J. Portalupi. 2001. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fox, M. 1992. Night Noises. San Diego: Voyager Books.

Hoberman, M. 2002. Right Outside My Window. New York: MONDO Publishing.

Lobel, A. 1979. Days with Frog and Toad. New York: HarperCollins.

Lobel, A. 1976. Frog and Toad All Year. New York: HarperCollins.

Lobel, A. 1970. Frog and Toad are Friends. New York: HarperCollins.

Lobel, A. 1971. Frog and Toad Together. New York: HarperCollins.

Ray, K. 1999. Wondrous Words. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Silverman, E. 1992. Big Pumpkin. New York: Scholastic, Inc. by arrangement with Macmillan Publishing Company.