Last week I was working with a group of pre-service teachers like I do every semester. I lingered on the writing examples, techniques and goals in the genres, mentor texts, and specifically generative writing. As I presented to this group, I literally wondered “aloud” why I had never written about generative writing. I believe that the power of generative writing lies in its ability to replace tired, ineffective DOL practice with meaningful, relevant writing that can also be used as formative assessment tasks.
So what did the pre-service teachers do?
They wrote a sentence where “writing” was the first word in a sentence with at least 10 words. And then they wrote a sentence where “writing” was the last word in a sentence with at least 10 words. Finally they wrote a sentence with “writing” as the fourth word in a sentence where they could choose the length (but it had to have a minimum of five words so “writing” was not the last word).
And then we had a conversation/discussion with a few focused questions:
- Which sentence was the hardest to write?
- What made it hard?
- What strategies did you use to help complete the task?
The majority said that the sentence with “writing at the end” posed the most challenge because it was the complete opposite of the first sentence. Some said that the first two were basically easy because it was about “flipping” the words in the sentences and that the third use of “writing” as the fourth word was harder because “you had to think about what could go before it”.
Strategies that they used were counting words on their fingers, oral rehearsal, drafting and scratching out, drafting and then counting, and checking with a partner. This was meant to be an introduction, that in a classroom would include oral practice, study of mentor texts, and examples of vocabulary words used in various positions in real published work.
What is Generative Writing?
Generative Writing is a term used to describe instructional strategies that provide students with parameters for their writing. These factors define boundaries for writing at the sentence level.
Providing a word to be used
Defining the word’s position in the sentence
Specifying the number of words in a sentence
Limiting the number of words in a sentence
The model described above comes from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s Scaffolded Writing Instruction: Teaching with a Gradual-Release Framework.
What are the effects of generative writing?
- Build sentence fluency
- Build word choice
- Deepen understanding of content
- Deepen understanding of vocabulary
- Use writing as a tool for learning
- Write in a variety of genres
I think that sentence fluency, word choice and writing in a variety of genres are already covered in many writing workshops at a variety of grades. However, I believe that using generative writing in content areas to deepen understanding of content, vocabulary and even as a tool for learning and assessment are previously untapped areas of formative assessment that could be guiding higher-quality targeted core instruction for ALL students.
So how would I use generative writing as a Formative Assessment?
I would use this with departmentalized content-area teachers who have all of their own content standards as well as a responsibility for reading and writing ELA standards. Asking a science class to use “photosynthesis” as the first word in a sentence will probably result in a definition. Here is an example of how the work may be sorted as well as the plan for using a second generative writing after some re-teaching.
How did I plan for the generative writing at the top of the page?
I am a firm believer that I must “practice what I preach” and complete writing tasks in order to increase my own understanding of writing. So of course I actually wrote some sentences. Here are some examples of sentences that I generated during the planning phase for my work.
Writing is one of my favorite ways to express ideas because my artistic and musical talents are limited. There are some days that I feel like the most important part of the day is when I have time for writing. Some may argue writing is just one of many skills that students need to develop, but I would suggest that totally divorcing reading and writing is an exercise in futility. “Show don’t tell” and “Teach the writer not the writing” are my two most favorite Lucy Calkins’s quotes about writing. What are your favorite quotes that you use to encourage writing?
The tasks I assigned myself:
- Use “writing” as first word in a sentence with at least 10 words.
- Use writing as the last word in a sentence with at least 10 words.
- Use writing as the fourth word in a sentence as well as somewhere else in a compound/complex sentence.
- Use writing as the last word in a sentence using quoted text.
- Use writing as the last word in a question.
- Develop a cohesive paragraph during this generative writing exercise.