My first-graders aren’t producing much writing? Help!

  • 29 June, 2018

Teacher question:

I’ve collected some data on first-grade writing. I developed a plan for getting 6-year-olds to write arguments and I have a rubric designed to allow me to figure out how well my supports help them to write effective arguments (evaluating whether they took a clear position on the topic, and how much evidence they used). I tried it out and gave the kids plenty of time but was surprised to find that they didn’t write much; I’m having trouble evaluating the quality of this writing given how few words they produced. Any ideas on how to better evaluate the impact of what I did?

 Shanahan’s response:

The specifics of your question are unique—most educators aren’t doing research—but the issue you raise comes up often.

For instance, I frequently hear from kindergarten, first-, and even second-grade teachers who are required to teach the Common Core State writing standards. Those standards require that first-graders be able to:

  • “Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure."
  • “Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure."
  • “Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

They write plaintively to me that their students’ writing doesn’t resemble those descriptions and for the same reason that you give. Most young kids struggle to write enough words to satisfy any of those goals. For those kids, writing might be no more than a sentence, and a hard-won sentence at that.

One of the problems here has to do with expectations. Teachers read those standards and assume those outcomes can routinely be accomplished by average kids. However, no such normative data exist on first-grade writing, so being perfectly honest, no one (including me) really knows what the average 6-year-old can write or the conditions that need to exist for that to happen.

Many of us “grew up” on Lucy Calkins and Donald Graves’s accounts of first-grade writing, and though enlightening, those results were not obtained from “average children,” something that Carol Vukelich and others have written about when they have collected first-grade writing data from larger and more representative samples of 6-year-olds.

As a former first-grade teacher who worked with kids a bit below average, I know we can stimulate writing fluency among first-graders, but that takes a lot of teaching. Just having a good, supportive pre-writing plan alone will not be sufficient in most cases.

We don’t provide teachers with much support for writing instruction. Back in the 1970s I did a study that showed that there weren’t elementary writing programs, writing wasn’t on the report cards, parents didn’t ask about writing, and teachers didn’t receive training in writing. Things have improved since then, and yet not much of what is now provided acknowledges the fact that most first-graders aren’t particularly fluent writers. Thy simply don't tend to elaborate.

I guess I should be happy that there is current interest in improving the “quality” of first-grade writing. But, in my experience, writing quality is something you worry about once kids can actually produce a bunch of words about ideas—not before.

Your writing preparation plan explained clearly what you wanted and provided students with evidence that they could use in their compositions. Those are real pluses. However, they didn’t reach your goal, because those things aren’t what are preventing young kids from wrting fluently.

As a first-grade teacher, my boys and girls wrote every single day. My goal? To get them to produce a bunch of writing. What about focus—the ability to stay on a topic? Not an issue until they can write a bunch of sentences. What about argument structure? Ten words rarely has much structure.

What—for the writing process proponents in my audience—about revision? Revising among young children tends to be adding, not true revising (look at Lucy Calkin’s doctoral dissertation).

Initially my priority is for children to get ideas on paper—lots of ideas. My first-graders engaged in revision a few times a year; not enough to make them good revisers, but sufficient for informing them about what was coming in the future.  

There will be plenty of time in Grades 2 and 3 to making sure that students make logical arguments, that their narratives are appropriately sequenced, and that their expositions include related details. But first let’s get words on paper.

What can teachers do to develop writing fluency with young children?

1.  Encourage talk.

Writing is a secondary form of language. When it comes to expressing themselves, kids think of talking, not writing. Consequently, one of the best prewriting activities is talking. Get kids to tell a story and then see if they can write it (the second version will be abbreviated, but not as abbreviated as if that student had started with writing). The exercise used to support argument writing that led to the query above didn’t include student talk. Next time—after you’ve read a text to the students and explained evidence—have them do a “Turn and Talk” with their neighbor—stating their opinions and ideas that support that opinion. Do something like that and you'll see better writing.

2. Encourage drawing.

Another good way to stimulate writing is to begin with drawing. Expressing oneself in writing is easier once the ideas are on paper pictorially. By second-grade, drawing becomes a way to illustrate the written words, but with younger kids drawing gives them something to write about. For writing arguments, what if you’d given the kids a piece of drawing paper divided into thirds—a place for a picture illustrating each piece of supporting evidence? I bet the writing would get richer.

3. Support drawing and talking.

One of my favorite prewriting activities—because it worked so well—with first-graders is to have them draw pictures. And, then each child presents his or her picture to the group and the other kids ask questions about it. The picture presenter answers the questions and I let this go on until the presenter has enough ideas for a good piece of writing.

4. Accept free spelling.

One of the biggest threats to early writing fluency is children’s concerns about doing it “right.” It is really important to stress that spelling doesn’t matter during this kind of writing (spelling matters in lots of situations, but not when you are getting your ideas onto paper). Any child who knows letters and letter sounds should be able to write reasonably legible text. Some teachers like to provide word lists to help the kids or to run around the class writing words for them, and that’s okay, but those approaches         don’t provide as much phonological awareness or phonics practice as just letting them write the words the way they think they are spelled. No matter how you do it in your classroom, kids shouldn’t be slowed down by concerns about spelling.

5. Hold talkathons and writing marathons.

One of the hardest things about beginning writing (at any age) is that it requires the writer to sustain an extended monologue. I can have wonderful conversations with my three-year-old grandchildren, but a conversation is a like a game of catch. You react to me; I react to you. I don’t sustain the expression, and you don’t sustain it; we do that   together. But with writing, the writer has to think up one sentence after another without any support from a conversational partner. Try involving your students in      monologue practice. My first-graders started the year trying to give 5-second talks; when they could sustain that, we moved to 10-second talks—and so on, through the year. By year’s end each of them could talk on a single topic for a full 60-seconds without any support. Similarly, we did writing marathons where they learned to write non-stop for 2- or 3-minutes (if they ran out of ideas, they were to copy the last sentence they had written until they got another idea). The point is to get them to think while writing (rather than think-write-think-write), and not to stop just because their hands get tired.                          

If you engage in those kinds of instructional practices, your kindergartners and first-graders will eventually produce a lot more writing. Once they do, you can guide them to improve their texts; but until they can generate much writing, accomplishing sophisticated argument will be tough sledding.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Diane McCarthy Jun 30, 2018 11:39 AM

Poetry is a great starter at any age. See Paula Green's blog for kiwi kids. Video and audio poems transmit to an online audience. Even though it's not prescribed in the curriculum it can be fun to begin to love words. Writing reading and performing are interchangeable.
Thank you for your great work. Nga mihi Diane McCarthy

Lori Schunka Jun 30, 2018 05:44 PM

What makes the students in Caulkins’ work “not average” or less than representative? We purchased Caulkins Units of Study in our district & would like to share your points.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 30, 2018 09:49 PM

The work I was referring to was the work she did in New Hampshire—very small groups of highly advantaged kids.

Harriett Janetos Jul 01, 2018 12:40 AM

Great suggestions. I would add "use good mentor texts". For example, when I taught opinion writing to kindergarteners, one of the stories I read was "Red is Best", which gives about ten reasons supporting the main character's opinion about red. My students thought I was letting them off the hook by only asking for three. They chose the color, made a claim, and then supported it with examples. A good mentor text scaffolds the writing experience and promotes elaboration because contrary to what the students may think, they aren't "done" until they've fulfilled the features of a given genre. And as you said: If they know their sounds, they can write anything.

Alba Jul 01, 2018 05:23 AM

Thank you very much for this post. Our first grade team really needed this last year, but I will forward this to them for this next year!

Elizabeth Sulzby Jul 01, 2018 06:18 PM

Take Tim's ideas to heart; he is right on point. Too often, what I see in first grade classrooms is "fill in the blank" type writing prompts. Prompts: What do you want to be when your grown up? or My favorite animal is . . . ." Then, when I invite them to think of a story they want to write, they only produce a sentence or so with that kind of frame. But if you were going to ask them to think about a story they want to write and then talk with a buddy or with the entire class about a story they want to write, that conversation can prompt them to think of more details, vocabulary, etc., they want to include. And the more "free writing" you have in your classroom, with chances to share, read, display their writing, the greater chances to have to reach those Common Core goals. (And we do need actual normative data about them.) -- Elizabeth Sulzby

Karen Jul 01, 2018 06:19 PM

Are there any writing curricula you recommend? Our very small, rural district was recently awarded a literary grant, and part of it is to go towards K-12 writing materials. In my 20 years in the district, we've never had writing resources beyond what we created ourselves, so we don't even know what options are out there. We have a very high percentage of language learners and students in poverty.

Harriett Janetos Jul 01, 2018 06:58 PM

Karen, if you're short on time for training, the "Help Desk Series" is a good place to start. These books are short and to the point and give good writing suggestions. I particularly liked the recommendation to give kids a variety of paper styles, so for the informational writing that my second graders did I made up a template modeled after the Time for Kids format, and the kids did a great job with the small circles and rectangles for drawings and captions, a "think box" and "power words" sections.
The Workshop Help Desk Series:
"If you’ve wondered how to tweak your workshop teaching to make it more effective and lasting, if you’ve needed to adapt your teaching for English learners, if you’ve struggled to teach persuasive nonfiction writing—if you’ve faced these and other specific, pressing challenges, then this series is for you. Provided in a compact format, the Workshop Help Desk series offers packetized professional development."
pressing challenges, then this series is for you. Provided in a compact format, the Workshop Help Desk series offers packetized professional development.

Natalie Wexler Jul 03, 2018 01:31 PM

Tim, you make some great points--especially that talking comes more easily to children than writing--but I'd like to offer a different perspective. We shouldn't be focusing on developing fluency in writing with first-graders, let alone "argumentative writing." Writing at length places an enormous cognitive load on inexperienced writers--far greater than reading does on inexperienced readers. They're juggling with letter formation, spelling, word choice ... and asking them to also organize their thoughts coherently in writing is really asking a lot and is probably counter-productive.

Here's what I would suggest instead: Begin at the sentence level, with a series of explicit strategies that kids can practice orally and communally and that will give them a feel for what a sentence is and is not and will introduce them to complex sentence structures. One brilliant way to do this is to use printed strips containing phrases and have children manipulate them to create complete sentences, as shown in this video -- which was filmed in a Title I school with a large immigrant population:

Also -- as in the video, writing instruction should be embedded in the content of the curriculum as much as possible. When it's done in a way that doesn't overwhelm students, it's an incredibly powerful tool for teaching content and developing analytical abilities, WHILE teaching writing skills. (The kids in the video are learning about caterpillars while also learning how to use subordinating conjunctions like "after" and "before.")

This is a very different approach from that of the Common Core--not to mention Lucy Calkins--but it does have the advantage that it actually produces competent writers. Full disclosure: I'm on the board of a nonprofit that trains teachers in this method of writing instruction, The Writing Revolution, and I've co-authored a book with Judith Hochman, creator of the method. This article provides a summary:

Tim, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Radnor, PA Jul 03, 2018 07:51 PM

Fascinating discussion. I hope the teacher who wrote the question in really reads Tim and Natalie's responses, because it is vital children of this age are given the time and mental space to simply get words on paper first. It saddens me anyone would even think to give first graders a rubric and tell them they must produce "argumentative writing." Even the most advantaged and naturally bright 6 and 7 year olds would struggle with this. I also don't think a lot of "planning" makes sense here, until they are really comfortable writing a whole paragraph of sentences with relatively good grammar and word choice. Reading how elementary teachers are told to approach writing today makes me very worried students will be discouraged ("I'm no good at this. I can't do this.") before they have even begun.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 05, 2018 05:34 PM


I'm sorry to say that I don't know any current writing curriculum well enough to make such a recommendation. Some readers have written that Lucy Calkins' units of study are in line with what I recommended in terms of drawing and talking (my concern would be how much revision they focus on, but as I said, I don't know the program well enough to evaluate that).

good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 05, 2018 05:37 PM


Teaching kids to use a writing pattern or to replicate a predictable structure is a tool I often used as a first-grade teacher. As you point out, with that kind of support kids can generate more writing. (I think that is also very much in line with what we do with older kids when we provide them with a writing template). thanks.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 05, 2018 05:42 PM


I couldn't disagree more (I don't serve on a non-profit board of a writing organization, but I have taught writing to young children for most of the past 45 years and have a deep understanding of research on the topic). Writing might place an enormous cognitive load on children, but I started my own children onto writing when they were 3 and have been doing the same with my grandkids--and have also taught writing in it preschool, kindergarten, and grade 1 during my professional career. Most kids find it enjoyable and they learn a lot from it. If it is an enormous burden it is one that they evidently enjoy and profit from. I'm not against your idea of having kids write sentences, but our kids are recording experiences, writing stories, and producing much more varied and ambitious pieces of writing than you describe. Thanks.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 05, 2018 05:44 PM


Thanks for your support. For those who don't trust my knowledge in this area, I hope you are aware of Elizabeth Sulzby's extensive career studying such issues with populations in this age group. Her endorsement of these activities should matter.


Tijl Rood Jul 07, 2018 07:25 AM

You state that spelling doesn't matter in this stage. I don't agree. Own texts are much beter than textbooks to acquire spelling skills. The message that mistakes are not to be corrected is possibly harmful for learning progress later on. Correction of course should be gentle, it should never lead to decreased writing motivation.

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My first-graders aren’t producing much writing? Help!


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