ERIC Identifier: ED391182
Publication Date: 1996-00-00
Author: Essex, Christopher
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Teaching Creative Writing in the Elementary School. ERIC
Most children enter school with a natural interest in writing, an inherent
need to express themselves in words (Graves, 1983). Couple this with the child's
love of stories and nursery rhymes (Who has not seen a goggle-eyed group of
kindergartners lost in the world of imagination as their teacher reads them a
favorite story or nursery rhyme?) and you have the basis for building an
emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating creative writing program
for your students. This "Digest' should help teachers with that task.
THE NECESSITY OF CREATIVE WRITING
Tompkins (1982) suggests
7 reasons why children should write stories (these reasons, of course, also
apply to writing poetry): 1) to entertain; 2) to foster artistic expression; 3)
to explore the functions and values of writing; 4) to stimulate imagination; 5)
to clarify thinking; 6) to search for identity; and 7) to learn to read and
With these compelling reasons in mind, it is hard to justify not making
creative writing an important part of the elementary school classroom day. It is
important that the reasons for writing be made clear to administrators and
parents, who may automatically categorize creative writing as merely frivolous
play, something akin to recess. While writing certainly should be enjoyable, and
children should have opportunities to choose their own subjects and methods of
writing, the importance of creative writing in developing children's cognitive
and communication skills cannot be underestimated (Tompkins, 1982).
By being actively involved with, and actively interrogating their involvement
with the elements that make up our written and oral communication, these young
writers of fiction will gain an intuitive and intellectual understanding of its
operations. This kind of understanding will elude those who merely observe it in
its final, polished, professionally produced presentation. Simply put, one can
best understand how something is constructed by attempting to put it together
Both the writer of fiction and the writer of nonfiction must put forth a
similar kind of questioning of his/her world. Teachers should emphasize that
good fiction requires logical consistency and factual accuracy. Creative writers
are asking us to believe in their dreams, and this requires that they "get the
details right." If a student wants to write a story about a pitcher for the
Seattle Mariners, then he/she should know things like: what the stadium looks
like, what kind of glove the pitcher wears, how high the mound is, etc. Even
stories that are based on fantasy or science fiction, with monsters and space
aliens, need to obey various rules of logic; they need to "make sense." For
instance, what might the monster eat? What kind of planet would the alien come
from? This kind of questioning can open up many new areas of intellectual and
emotional interest for student writers of fantasy or science fiction. These are
areas that they might not have as easily accessed through other types of
writing. Thus, their understanding of their world is deepened.
SUGGESTIONS FOR TEACHING STORY-WRITING
One of the most
difficult questions for many creative writing instructors to answer is, "What is
a story?" Most children, by the time they reach elementary school, have been
exposed, through first being read to, and then by reading on their own, to
hundreds of stories, and they may at this point have an intuitive feel for what
"seems like a story" and what doesn't. But this "story-sense" will vary in
degree for each student, and it is not something that can be relied upon to
occur automatically. A sense of what a story is can be reinforced during
classroom reading of stories, and also, importantly, in post-story discussion.
If students are led in a helpful way in these discussions, they may begin to see
similarities and differences between books of different writing styles and
content and will begin to form an idea of the forms and structures that stories
Taberski (1987) relates her experiences as a second-grade teacher struggling
with the difference between her expectations of her students' writing and the
reality of it. She set out, as she says, to "research the qualities of good
fiction and then develop strategies that young children could use to integrate
these qualities into their own writing." Her strategies are similar to those
used in graduate-school-level writing workshops, but are tailored to the unique
requirements of the elementary-school classroom.
Graves & Hauge (1993) have students take their growing knowledge of story
structure and utilize it in their own creative writing, using an
easy-to-understand checklist method. Hopefully, once students are used to the
self-monitoring checklist, they will internalize some of the general concepts of
story structure and rely less on the checklist.
Rensenbrink (1987) offers a slightly different approach which emphasizes
children's personal involvement and investment in their writing, and she
suggests several activities that will help children keep their natural
enthusiasm for writing.
For many children, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing fiction is
that it allows them to create "invisible friends" for themselves in the
characters that they invite into their stories. However, to the "outsider" in
this relationship--the reader--these characters may come across as flat and
one-dimensional, in a word, unrealistic.
Leavell & Ioannides (1993) provide specific suggestions about how to help
students create interesting, complex characters. Also, importantly, they
describe a method of having children evaluate their own work in regards to the
complexity of the characterization.
Many teachers, particularly those who did not get
to take extensive college coursework in English or creative writing, feel unsure
of themselves when confronted with giving feedback on students' creative
writing. They do not wish to stifle students' creativity or expression of
themselves, and may even feel that appreciation of writing is so subjective that
comments that are at all critical may be unfair.
The writing workshop, long a standby of college creative writing programs,
can also be adapted to teaching elementary students. Having students read each
other's work and comment upon it can help both reader and writer. Writers are
provided an audience for their work, and, for many children, comments by their
peers will be attended to in ways that teacher comments would not. The reader
may pick up on techniques of fiction that might not be apparent from reading a
professionally published book, and will have an emotional investment in reading
and understanding the work that other kinds of reading do not offer. The writing
workshop can further the kind of critical thinking skills that students are
already being encouraged to use in other aspects of their learning.
Many teachers report on being surprised at the insightfulness and quality of
the peer feedback that is a product of the writing workshop. Of course, as with
much student interaction, this feedback needs to be modeled and monitored.
Lensmire (1994) comments on his initial experiences teaching 8- and 9-year-olds
in the workshop format: "As I shifted control over aspects of the work of
literacy to children in this third-grade classroom, children's relations with
each other became extremely important for their experiences and writing in the
workshop. These relations included the rejection, by children, of members of the
other sex as partners in collaborative work, and peer hierarchies granting those
girls and boys at the top status and influence, and those at the bottom the
brunt of teasing and exclusion." None of this should come as any surprise to one
who has regularly worked with children, and this should not be seen as a
disincentive to the open sharing of writing in the classroom, but it is
important to consider the classroom management implications of creative writing
As mentioned above, many teachers view creative
writing as "impossible to grade," and think that any form of evaluation is
necessarily subjective and therefore often unfair. Related to this belief, they
think that if students' work cannot be judged fairly, then there is no way of
accurately monitoring their growth and progress. Glazer (1994), acknowledges
these worries, but argues that assessment can be practical, useful, and fair,
providing that the teacher clearly communicates consistent criteria for the work
that will be evaluated, criteria focusing on writing skills such as description,
organization, and punctuation, rather than relying on the teacher's general
"impression" of the quality of the work, or comparison with other students'
work. These criteria can be tailored to specific student strengths and
weaknesses, and can be modified as the child's abilities develop. Glazer
provides an example of a "framework," a collection of several of these criteria
that she uses to assess students' writing.
Many teachers look at publication, in some
form, as being a useful and satisfying conclusion to a unit of writing fiction.
Having a finished version of the student's work can often be a source of pride
to the student, and a way to share the specialness of creative writing with his
or her family. Publication also provides motivation for a student to do the
extra work of revision and proofreading, which they might otherwise be lacking.
Greenberg and Shapiro (1987) discuss specific techniques that will help teachers
present their students' work in the best, most attractive fashion. Simic (1993)
presents other alternatives to publishing as a way of presenting student work to
an audience, such as writing competitions and "the author's chair."
Glazer, Susan Mandel (1994). "Collaborating with
Children to Assess Writing Objectively." Teaching K-8, 24(5), 108-09. [EJ 476
Graves, Anne, and Rochelle Hauge (1993). "Using Cues and Prompts to Improve
Story Writing." Teaching Exceptional Children, 25(4), 38-40. [EJ 464 063]
Graves, Donald H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Exeter, NH:
Heinemann. [ED 234 430]
Greenberg, Harry, and Nancy Larson Shapiro (1987). "Variations on the
Culminating Event." Teachers & Writers Magazine, 19(2), 10-11. [EJ 364 712]
Leavell, Alexandra, and Anne Ioannides (1993). "Using Character Development
to Improve Story Writing." Teaching Exceptional Children, 25(4), 41-45. [EJ 464
Lensmire, Timothy J. (1994). When Children Write: Critical Re-Visions of the
Writing Workshop. New York: Teachers College Press.
Rensenbrink, Carla (1987). "Writing as Play." Language Arts, 64(6), 59-60.
[EJ 360 628]
Simic, Marjorie (1993). "Publishing Children's Writing." ERIC Digest.
Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. [ED
Taberski, Sharon (1987). "From Fake to Fiction: Young Children Learn about
Writing Fiction." Language Arts, 64(6), 586-96. [EJ 360 627]
Tompkins, Gail E. (1982). "Seven Reasons Why Children Should Write Stories."
Language Arts, 59(7), 718-21. [EJ 269 736]