A local policeman recently explained to an elementary school class, “In 20 years, I have shot my gun twice. I use my pen every day. If you want to be a cop, you have to learn to write.”
This was good advice. Today, more than 90% of white-collar and 80% of blue-collar workers’ jobs involve writing. Writing also enhances our lives beyond the workplace. Capable writers have a powerful tool for learning and personal development, compelling communication, social and political engagement, self-expression and self-advocacy, and more.
Skilled writing is complex, requiring extensive self-regulation of a flexible, goal-directed, problem-solving activity. Becoming a good writer takes time and development, but what should elementary students know, believe, and be able to do on their path to becoming thoughtful, effective, and fluent writers? State and national standards, as well as the research we have on writing and its development, pinpoint six critical goals for all of our students when it comes to developing their identities as writers.
1. Facility With the Writing Process and Writing Contexts
Basic components of the writing process include prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Skilled writers use these parts of the process recursively and thoughtfully—not as a simple sequence of events! By the end of the elementary grades, our students need to be engaging successfully in each aspect of the writing process. The research is clear: students who know and use the writing process well become stronger writers.
However, students cannot come to use the writing process effectively unless they have had time and opportunities to write. Our students also need explicit instruction, support, and experience writing to learn to self-regulate this complex process, including orchestrating goal setting and self-assessment of both process and product. Our young writers are learning to focus on factors such as organization, form, and features; purposes and goals; reader perspectives and needs; and evaluation of whether their multiple goals are being well met. It’s a lot, but given opportunities to collaborate with peers and their teachers in a supportive and motivating writing environment, research shows elementary students can use the writing process effectively.
2. Powerful “Know How”
By the end of the elementary grades, students need to have developed powerful knowledge and capabilities that enable them to write for multiple purposes. Writing to tell a narrative, inform or explain, and persuade are each important to success in and out of school, although not all that our students need to learn about writing. Each of these genres has its own structure, conventions, and language. Skilled writers use strategies appropriate either across genres—for example, an opening that catches the reader, or good word choice—or specific to a genre, such as use of emotional appeal to persuade a reader. Further, much as a jazz musician first learns a melody before rifting, twisting, and improvising, our students come to own the genre knowledge and strategies they are learning and develop their own voice and approach across writing tasks, genres, and audiences.