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Writing through Childhood: Rethinking Process and Product

reviewed by Karen Broaddus - 2003

coverTitle: Writing through Childhood: Rethinking Process and Product
Author(s): Shelley Harwayne
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325002908, Pages: 368, Year: 2001
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In this companion volume to Lifetime Guarantees (2000) and Going Public (1999), Harwayne moves beyond a general introduction to the writing workshop to examine the nuts and bolts of effective instruction. How do teachers support students at different grade levels in producing writing that is worth the process of revision? This careful consideration of how student development informs instructional practice as students move through an elementary school writing program is the strength of this final book in Harwayne’s trilogy.

Affiliated with the New York City Public Schools for years and currently a district superintendent, Harwayne describes the writing program that she spearheaded at the Manhattan New School during her term as principal. Highlighting the work of a group of students whom she followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, Harwayne examines meaningful writing experiences at each grade level.

Harwayne critiques practices that emphasize writing form without appropriate regard for the student’s writing development and individual expertise on a topic, advocating instruction that captures students’ experiences and interests:

When we put a premium on topics that are considered meaty, deep, or significant to adult eyes and we ask students to probe these issues with sophisticated techniques, we are denying children the opportunity to capture their childhoods through childish eyes. We are also denying them the written texts that will preserve their memories of themselves as children. (p. 10)

Harwayne does not suggest that teachers limit their teaching of writing to a narrative format that only records students’ personal experiences. Rather, she demonstrates how students can explore varied forms and content through purposeful writing tasks such as collecting information in a writer’s journal. Examining the work of professional authors or other students provides models for both form and content.

In chapters 1 and 2, Harwayne develops her premise that children’s writing is inherently different from adult writing. This belief is based on a deep respect for the childhood experience, and as a result, suggested instructional practices focus on the strengths children bring to writing and the interests they demonstrate. Capturing the writer’s voice by encouraging students to write about the topics that they know best—joyful experiences, bittersweet times, more painful experiences—also creates a setting in which students begin to write using rich detail. Harwayne overviews how this writing program harnesses student engagement by setting up grade-by-grade “rites of passage.” For example, in the second grade, students begin to study published poems and books as models for their own writing, and in third grade, students start to use writer’s notebooks.

Chapter 3 extends this powerful concept of a writer’s notebook, a journal that provides each student with a portable means of recording anything from a snippet of an interesting conversation to a close observation. Taking a scientist’s stance naturally leads to observational writing and research as students learn to pay attention to details in their environment and to record their findings. This chapter is unique in showing how process writing in journals lays the foundation for students’ understanding of technique and form. Keeping a dialogue journal with the teacher can help students discover how to initiate topics, or writing focused descriptions can provide the raw material for free verse poetry. Writer’s notebooks allow students to discover that form supports interesting content in their writing.

Conference guidelines are covered in chapter 4, complete with samples of student work and individual scripted sessions with two sixth-grade boys and one third-grade girl. Teacher response to student writing is determined by four factors: how students felt about writing, if they took risks, if they understood the purpose of the writing, and if they determined ways of improving what they had done. Harwayne makes a strong case for explicit teaching through individual conferences.

Chapter 5 is one of the most useful chapters in the book for practitioners, providing the reader with book-by-book descriptions of how to use published authors as models for student writing. For example, Cronin in Click Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (2000) uses protest letters and other forms of persuasive writing, while Murphy in Pepper’s Journal: A Kitten’s First Year (2000) displays a record of monthly events and records detailed observations. Items such as menus and cards also serve as formats for design, and Harwayne describes how she shares the work of other children with their peers.

In chapter 6, Harwayne considers the needs of the youngest writers, focusing on real purposes for writing so that children are inspired to write. Moving from kindergarten to second grade, she builds a case for particular instructional practices at each level. Although Harwayne provides guidance on modeling for children, her procedures are somewhat lost in the small print format of a letter to a group of teachers. These ideas are worth more space. Her special attention to facilitating student sharing of work is especially important with this age group.

Chapter 7 on spelling lacks the explicit teaching suggestions of the chapters on the writer’s notebook and teaching with literature. Harwayne does not refer to the developmental research about how students learn to spell and how spelling relates to early writing (e.g. Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2000; Temple, Nathan, Temple, & Burrus, 1992), but rather focuses on how to encourage students to spell and to compare words. Elementary classrooms include students with different understandings about sounds and words, and Harwayne does not clarify how a teacher’s knowledge of a child’s spelling development informs instruction.

In chapter 8, Harwayne considers the teacher as researcher, then looks at focused courses of study, such as exploring nonfiction topics in a calendar format. Techniques for the collection of information, such as the use of graphic organizers, are not covered. The ideas are engaging, but the reader is left to determine how a teacher implements a research project in the classroom. In chapter 9 on poetry, Harwayne discusses how to conduct a focused study of poetry at different grade levels. Although she describes how she models the writing process by composing in front of students, a detailed script of this type of interaction would have been informative.

Chapter 10 completes the book with a discussion of editing, publishing, and working with parents. Harwayne lists the types of editing activities parents are likely to see when they visit classrooms, although it is not clear how teachers are organizing their classrooms to complete these activities. The ideas for publishing and working with parents are innovative. I found myself wishing that Harwayne had tackled the difficult task of discussing how student work is evaluated and grades are assigned. These are areas that even the most skilled teacher can find challenging.

Harwayne’s writing style is straightforward and filled with practical instructions and examples of student work; however, this is not an introduction to the writing process for novice teachers. Harwayne does not examine the research background for her instructional approaches, and although a list of professional resources is provided in the Appendices, the only references cited at the end of chapters are suggested readings in the other two volumes in this trilogy. Other features of the organization of the book, such as “Key Writing Lessons” outlined at the beginning of each chapter, do not establish the relationship of topics effectively for the reader.

Harwayne’s rich developmental framework makes this book a valuable resource for administrators and teachers planning or evaluating school-wide programs of writing. Practitioners who seek a deeper understanding of instructional issues in the writing workshop will find inspiration and practical support in Writing through Childhood.


Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2000). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Cronin, D. (2000). Click clack, moo: Cows that type. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Harwayne, S. (1999). Going public. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Harwayne, S. (2000). Lifetime guarantees: Toward ambitious literacy teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Murphy, S. J. (2000). Pepper’s journal: A kitten’s first year. New York: Harper Collins.

Temple, C., Nathan, R., Temple, F., & Burris, N. A. (1992). The beginnings of writing. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 7, 2003, p. 1222-1225
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10941, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:50:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Karen Broaddus
    James Madison University
    E-mail Author
    KAREN BROADDUS is Associate Professor of Reading Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her research and teaching focuses on reading and writing across the content areas and working with struggling readers and writers. She is the author of a book with Jo Worthy and Gay Ivey titled Pathways to Independence: Reading, Writing, and Learning in Grades 3-8 by Guilford Press. Her recent articles have been published in Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, and Journal of Literacy Research, while forthcoming articles will be featured in Language Arts and Middle School Journal.
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