#SOL15: Generative Writing and Word Study

I was back in some classrooms this week and I was continuing to think about generative writing, in particular with younger students.  See this earlier post for the nuts and bolts about generative writing.  I continue to believe that it’s a powerful strategy not only for writing but also for formative assessment.

I saw students working with tubs of objects based on the vowel sounds of the words.  The tubs looked like these.

vowel tubs for phonics

These first graders were using the tubs to name the objects, write the words and / or use the words in sentences as part of a focus on Word Work during Daily 5 rotations.  Students could choose the vowel sounds tub that they wanted to use.  Some students were writing words, others were writing sentences, and still others were filling a page with sentences that clearly demonstrated their understanding of the items in the tubs.

How did I know the students were learning?

At first glance it seemed that students were working on many different levels of writing.  How could I capture that information?  My mind was buzzing.  What did I see in front of me?  How could I capture that information and make it usable as well as “teacher friendly” so that it could be one piece of formative assessment that was used to guide future instruction?

What if I created “messy sheets” to “sort the work that students were doing?  See Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s blog (@ClareandTammy), “Organizing and Displaying Assessment Data so We can Use It” for an explanation of messy sheets (or check out their book here).

Here are my drafts of two types of messy sheets (student names would surround the ovals – initials are shown for the first two ovals on the left): one for volume of writing and one for quality of writing. (Do note that I did not have a complete set of classroom data and I was operating on the basis of what I saw students doing at that point in time.)

Volume Messy Sheet

writing quality messy sheet

What do I know about a writer who only uses the “word” as the last word in a sentence (thinking back to the previous post about generative writing)?  Which “Messy Sheet” helps me better understand these writers?  Is it an either / or?  Do I have to choose one? My questions continue on and on.


Take a deep breath.

Remember my “OLW15” (“One Little Word”).

Can my questions guide my continued study of the student writing?  If yes, then I might also consider adding ovals or even a third “Messy Sheet” for conventions.  From this writing sample, I could gather data about the “transfer” of learning from one writing activity to another.  Which students consistently have capital letters at the beginning of their sentences?  Which students consistently have end punctuation?  (I don’t need to give students a prompt.  I can use this “data” to add to my picture of each student as a writer!)

How could a teacher use the information from the “Messy Sheets” to guide instruction? 

In order to determine the need for additional small group or whole class explicit instruction, I could develop instructional groupings! Here are three examples:

Use generative writing in small groups to work on missing skills in writing for the students.

Tape record instructions of generative writing for students to complete in small group with a leader in charge of the recording. (interactive white board with picture and recording or ipad)

Revise and expand generative writing in a mini-lesson during Writer’s Workshop. (ie. Work with revising sentences in writing pieces to further develop sentence fluency and/or to show word meaning when deepening word understandings)

Additional Word Work:

Let’s consider the “long a” tub that is open in this picture.  It contains the following miniature items: snake, scale, whale, bacon, baby and a cage.  Students can practice naming each of the items and can record those words on paper because they are listed on the under side of the cover.  Additional activities that involve sorting could be combining items from the long a and short a tubs and sorting them  into columns based on the vowel sound, the location of the vowel sound, or even the number of syllables in the words (or even the spelling patterns that are used for that particular vowel sound – How many follow the cvce pattern?).

How might you use generative writing in the primary grades or to teach the writer?

Tuesday is the day to share a “Slice of Life” with Two Writing Teachers. Check out the writers, readers and teachers here. Thanks to Stacey, Anna, Beth, Tara, Dana and Betsy for creating a place for us to share our work.

19 responses

  1. I love the ideas you posted on “How could a teacher use the information from the “Messy Sheets” to guide instruction?” …. Great ideas!!!

    1. Isn’t it great how real student work can be the assessment and not “just numbers”? So love talking about real work and real students! ❤

  2. “Really? You can tell that much without doing a State assessment? This is all wrong. You need to put those tubs and messy sheets away and get everyone back on the same page. Stop talking to the students. You can’t know their strengths and weaknesses this way. How can you really assess? How can this inform or guide your instruction without the formal assessments? You are going to get behind on your assessment data.” says a nagging, cynical voice somewhere deep in a teacher’s brain (put there by ??).
    But you know better.
    Sometimes (no, all the times) “they” just have to let teachers teach and stop making them ineffectual and crazy.
    Was this too cynical, speaking of cynical? I’m just tired of formal assessments replacing real teaching and authentic assessing, as you have shown here.

    1. Okay,
      I am just about hysterical here!
      I can’t stop laughing!

      NO PSYCHOMETRICS needed here. Kidwatching. Mining the work for information to guide instruction so I know what to do tomorrow!

      THANKS! ❤

  3. Messy sheets – brilliant. I don’t think we give our kids enough practice with this sort of work, Fran, which really sets the stage for the work we want them to do. I’ll have to think of ways to apply this to the stuff we do in 6th. grade.

    1. Tara,
      This “Messy Sheets” is Clare and Tammy’s work. I bet you do something similar without the ovals!

      I’ve been letting it simmer in my brain (older age – takes longer) and this is such a perfect use. It’s also so easy to show “flexible” groups (not until the next benchmark), but until the next time that I need to check for growth. For Susy, that may be tomorrow. For Joey, I may need a couple of days of instruction.

      Life, instruction, and common sense!

  4. Fran,
    My second graders last year LOVED “Power Writing” from an issue of The Reading Teacher last year. Such a cool strategy. I clicked on your previous post about generative writing and it reminded me of it. The ironic part is that today I was going in and out of our third grade classrooms during our AIS block and they actually began the lessons today with Power Writing. It is a strategy that has stuck with most teachers in our building.

    I’m going to “close read” your generative writing piece again and see how we can incorporate it. Thanks!

    1. Marcie,
      Power Writing is so much fun as a way to see volume and stamina increase for young writers. I can think of ways to sort writing based on “Messy Sheets”.

      So many ways to look at improving writing . . . BY WRITING! 🙂

  5. What great and useful ideas. There are so many more kinds of assessments than filling in little circles just right. Why can’t the powers that be see this?

    1. I’m not a very good “circle filler in” as I just don’t see the real life utility.

      Is there something in the word “power” or “powers that be” that cause rational, common sense thinking to be a lower priority? Sometimes the simple solutions are right under our noses!!! ❤


  6. Messy Sheets! I had forgotten about these! Thanks so much for the reminder! I love how these were used in first grade! This is awesome. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Kendra! So many tools to use! Love the conversations that generate more and more ideas. Collaboration is power – and leads to greater learning!

  7. Love how you used the messy sheets! Every time teachers share how they are using them it amazes us! We think the power in the messy sheets is the space they create for teachers to document, reflect and use their expertise as teachers. We look forward to sharing how you used them with other teachers. Thank you!!
    Clare and Tammy

    1. Thanks, Clare and Tammy.

      That means so much because they are yours!!! It’s a richer, more powerful conversation when it does not always have to be about the NUMBERS! I also liked that we talked a lot about what students can do/ did do! Focus on the positive really moved the “instruction” conversation forward very quickly!


  8. I’m always scribbling away on sheets. But THIS messy sheet is really not so messy! It is wonderfully organized visually. I like that. I’m thinking generative writing work is what we need to do to get to the idea of “playing around” with sentences. It’s playful and thoughtful at the same time.

    1. Well, I had to draw this on my computer because no one (not even me) can read my own writing. Clare and Tammy show them as handwritten and use them to show how quickly you can sort work products . . .

      Flexible, formative, fun . . . when have we used the word “fun” in the same sentence as assessment?

  9. I love this! Your messy sheet idea and how to use it fantastic. I can’t wait to share this! Keep the great ideas coming Fran! You are a gem.

    1. Jessie,
      You would love Clare and Tammy’s book – it’s amazing! The “Messy Sheets” are totally theirs. I am just loving the flexibility that I see in ways to use them formatively and quite literally for short-term small groupings!

  10. […] Should I use “Messy Sheets” to triangulate the data and look for patterns?  You can learn about “messy sheets” in the preview of Clare and Tammy’s Assessment in Perspective available here or in my post here. […]

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