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Making Writing Purposeful
Judi Fenton

Teaching writing can be daunting and overwhelming, yet if we make writing useful and purposeful for students, it will be more likely that they will be motivated to learn how to write well.

In a 3rd grade special education class, students were planning a publishing celebration scheduled in a couple of days. During choice time, when they could have chosen to play anywhere in the classroom, Shawn and George took out markers and paper and began to make invitations to the celebration for their parents and favorite teachers.  These reluctant writers purposefully used the word wall, asked their teacher for Friday’s date so that they could add it to the invitation, and revised their invitations until they got them right.  During her prep period, the teacher made copies of their work so that the class could take the invitations home.

Would Shawn and George have done this work with such intent if they didn’t believe that their invitations would be sent out?

After 1st grader Maria finished her math workbook page, she went over to the writing center and wrote to her teacher:

Dear Ms. Jackson,
Can we do our stories after lunch today?
I love you!
Love, Maria

She went over to her teacher’s mail cubby and put the letter in. Ms. Jackson wrote back:

Dear Maria,
Thank you for your note.
Yes, we will work on our realistic fiction stories after lunch today.
I love you too!
Love, Ms. Jackson

If Maria hadn’t believed that her note to Ms. Jackson would get her the results she wanted, would she have written her note? 

When 5th graders Nancy and Hannah returned from the bathroom, they commented to their teacher that there was no soap and paper towels left.  The teacher told them that they could write a note to the custodian about it.  They wrote the note and brought it down to the custodian’s office. Later that day, the custodian came into the class with the note, a big plastic bottle of liquid soap, and several packs of paper towels. He told the class that he needed their help to let him know whenever they noticed that the soap or towels in the bathroom were low, so they wouldn’t run out again.
If the custodian hadn’t responded to Nancy and Hannah, would they have written to him so readily?

During independent writing time, Gerald and John, 2nd graders, took out their folders and found a space to spread out the scenes of the play they were writing for their classmates to act out. As they were writing additional scenes, other students excitedly came over to ask for parts in the play.
If the play wasn’t taken seriously by their teacher and classmates, would Gerald and John have worked so diligently on it?

These students, all of them real examples, all understand that communicating through writing is a useful and appropriate way to achieve a desired result.  On the surface, it looks as though there was little that their teachers did to encourage students to view writing in this manner, but there are several things that all of these teachers did that helped students realize the power of writing. You can easily do these things too:

1. Provide writing materials for students to manage and use independently.
2. Value the purpose/message behind the writing as well as the writing itself.
3. Enable students to see the results of their purposeful writing.
4. Be responsive to student writing and communicate with other adults in the building (and parents/caregivers) about the importance of their responsiveness.

Of course, simultaneously teaching students the genres and conventions of writing is crucial. And, when we help students see the purpose, results, and culminations of their writing as a tool to communicate, they are more likely to learn and internalize this more obvious “teaching” of writing.

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Judi.


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