Teaching Children to Write: Constructing Meaning and Mastering Mechanics
reviewed by Kathryn Pole - August 31, 2012
Title: Teaching Children to Write: Constructing Meaning and Mastering Mechanics
Author(s): Daniel Meier
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752398, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
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If children are to see themselves as competent and skillful writers, the early elementary years are a critical period in the development of their habits and dispositions toward writing. Teachers have an important role in guiding and encouraging young writers. Daniel Meier's new book, Teaching Children to Write: Constructing Meaning and Mastering Mechanics (2011), treats us to a look into how teachers can help young children develop as writers. The book is a conversation about teaching the meaning-making of writing, and a discussion on the importance of strategy instruction, illustrated with student writing samples. We also see vignettes into teaching stories told by real K- 4 teachers about what writing is like in their grades.
The book is divided into 6 chapters. Chapter One, "Children's Early Writing Development," provides an overview of the research and theory that serve as the foundation for the book. Taking a historical perspective, Meier indentifies particular theorists, and how their work can inform children's writing development. He draws on the work of Vygotsky (thought and language), Britton (language and writing development), Read, Chomsky, and Bissex (writing before reading), Ferreiro & Teberosky, and Clay (development), Graves and Calkins (writing as a process), Delpit and Dyson (sociocultural perspectives), and Reyes, Samway, and Gregory (new language learners). He doesn't just survey them, but weaves them throughout the book as support for our understanding of the ways that written mechanics and the meaning-making part of writing work together as children learn to write, and to illustrate that how teachers help children develop as writers comes about through the philosophies of teachers. Sure, there are plenty of other books that offer theoretical perspectives on literacy, but Meier has managed to tease out the essentials of what theory has to say about teaching children to write, in small, readable sections, and then reminds us of these theories in later chapters in practical applications.
Beginning in Chapter Two, and throughout the book, Meier uses narratives told by a select group of seven teachers he identifies as "exemplary" as illustrations of what classroom instruction might look like in various grades. Their stories do attest to their good teaching. Meier's teachers are not unique, but rather, serve to explain and model what good writing instruction might look like. In light of current literacy policy and the trend toward scripted curriculum, it is helpful to broadcast work being done by teachers like these, particularly when that work reveals the professional nature of teaching, and especially when that work takes place in schools where teachers have freedom to "envision and teach literacy and writing as they see fit" (p. 32).
Chapter Two looks at how the mechanics and content of written language can be defined. Meier discusses standards and expectations for each of the grade levels, K-4, but does so with the explanation that standards and expectations alone do not tell the complete story, because writing is a complex process of meaning-making and mechanics integration. In an era of increasing standardization of grade-level expectations, it is refreshing to see Meier show us how "good writing" goes beyond a list of language conventions to be mastered, and although standards serve as sign-posts, it is important for teachers to have their own definitions of writing that can be articulated. As Meier illustrates through the teacher narratives and links to theory, a teacher's conceptualization of writing impacts what happens during writing instruction.
Chapters Three through Five follow a "stages of the writing process" model. In some books, explanations of the writing process become overly simplified so that it ends up being a step-by-step formula. Meier avoids this, and shows the recursive nature of writing, with writers moving in and out of each of the phases.
Chapter Three explores the ideas and strategies behind planning and preparing for writing, and Chapter Four looks at the process of composition. Through both of these chapters, Meier gives practical guidance for ways to teach (for example, through mini-lessons) and concepts for instruction (for example, the genres of writing). Throughout these chapters, he reminds us that writing is a process of transition; young writers write, think about writing, and juggle the functions and forms of writing as they work toward an integration of meaning-making and mechanics.
Chapter Five examines the processes of revision and editing. Meier explains how these steps are not the final phases of writing, but rather, as part of writing instruction that integrates meaning-making and mechanics, revision and editing are sprinkled along the journey. We are referred back to the theoretical foundations that were explored in Chapter One so that we can form a deeper sense of the roles that revision and editing take when meaning-making and mechanics are integrated. We are also given specific strategies for working with young writers throughout the experience of writing.
Chapter Six, the final chapter, offers ideas for expanding the writing mind. Meier describes learning to write as a long-term process in which children learn to write well, bit by bit, through the practice of writing. He discusses three key ideas inventiveness with mechanics, originality and creativity, and the evolving teaching mind all as part of the process of learning to write and as ways to support the development of young writers.
I appreciated the constant message that learning to write does not follow a lock-step string of developmental accomplishments, but rather, is a built through an evolving relationship between teacher and student. Because writing is complex, teachers of writing and the children they teach end up in a "less-than-graceful dance" (p. 9), going back and forth between message and mechanics. This book does an admirable job in showing some of the choreography of that dance. It would be a helpful addition to the professional library of teachers working with K-4 writers.