How many times has this happened to you? You give a great lesson on the writing task at hand then send your students to go do their assignment. 2 minutes later, you hear those dreaded words. “J’ai fini”. You think to yourself, how is this possible? You’ve only been working for a couple of minutes! You ask to see their work and they’ve written one or two sentences and claim they have nothing left to share about the topic you chose. Now what?
In this post, I’ll be showing you how I teach writing in a way that really minimizes “j’ai fini”, gets your students writing the whole time while they stay engaged.
I have two ways of introducing narrative writing. How I do it depends on the age and abilities of my students. The lesson itself is the same, but I start with drawing pictures with younger students and we go for the writing first with the older students. Please note that what I’m describing below takes place over numerous days. We do mini activities after each mini lesson.
I start by stressing that writing is just telling a story but on paper. We discuss telling each other stories:
- What kinds of stories do you tell?
- What do stories do you tell different people (family, friends, teacher, etc.)?
Activity: In groups or in partners, have students make a list of different types of stories they can tell (e.g., what they did over the weekend, their favourite activity, a sports tournament they attended, etc.). When they’re done, bring the class back together and make a list with their ideas.
The next day, we actually get started on writing stories. I model the entire process with my students, doing a little bit at a time. I start by introducing the concept that writing is just telling a story but on paper. I model what it looks like to choose a subject. I think out loud and make sure to name a few topics before I choose one. Once I’ve settled on a topic, I get to producing. Now this is the part where how I teach looks different based on the age I am doing this with. If my students are older and are already strong in writing, we start by writing and draw our pictures afterwards. If I’m working with an age group who is learning to write, we start with the pictures.
I start by thinking out loud. “Ok, now that I’ve chosen my topic, what do I actually want to say about it? Oh! I know! I want to start with ***”. I repeat this process until I have my first page written. I don’t want to keep my students at the carpet for too long, so we do this over multiple days and do a bit at a time. I also use this time to model sounding out words. I will pretend I forget how to write some words and as a class we will sound it out. When I’m done my first page, then I work on the photos.
Our photos are an important part of our story. They help to tell it as well and they need to be clear and detailed. I stress that we ALWAYS draw in pencil first before adding colour. That way, if we make a mistake, we can fix it more easily. Like I did with the writing, I think out loud. I talk about what I wrote and what is the best photo I can draw to depict it. I start by drawing just one thing, but as our lessons progress (over the next few days/weeks) and we work at adding more detail to our writing, I also push adding more details to our pictures.
When this is done, I ask the students if they know what they want to write about. Those who do, share with the group what their topic is, then they go off to write. I find this helps my “I don’t know what to write about” students find a topic. Once everybody is off, I will sit at my u-table to offer support to anybody who needs it. I will also use this time to call over a few students at a time to conference with them about their writing.
Over the next few days, I continue writing my story for my students, adding more detail and using more resources. At the end, I also model how to edit your work. I have my students work at their own pace – they start a new story once they feel they’ve finished theirs. Since students all finish at different times, I will conference with them when they finish their draft. We will work together to edit it. At the end of the unit, I have my students go through their work, pick their favourite one to create a good copy.
The drawing first method is quite similar. I tell my students that drawing is a way to tell a story on paper. To tell a story with only pictures, they need to be clear and detailed. The first thing I do is I think out loud about what my topic will be. After coming up with a few options, I choose one and I model drawing a really detailed photo that depicts my message in a clear way for my readers. Next, we work on adding labels to our drawing. What are the important parts of your story? I practice sounding out words and I draw arrows to show what I’m labeling.
When I’m done, I do the same as I mentioned above. I ask my students who knows what they want to tell, we share our ideas and then they go off to work. I also do regular check-ins and work with my students to help guide them. We practice lots and over the course of the unit, work towards writing one or more sentences to tell our story. Some students are ready to do this independently while others need more small-group guidance.
I hope this helps guide your writing instruction. Let me know in the comments below how this works for you!