What’s interactive writing and the way can I exploit it within the classroom?
Interactive writing (IW) has decades of research behind it, but many teachers may not realize the power it has in developing children’s writing and reading skills. Below, I share strategies for using IW to teach basic skills such as concepts about print, phonemic awareness, and phonics. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I will reveal what experienced teachers do to make the practice effective.
What is interactive writing?
Many of us are familiar with the most popular form of interactive writing (IW) – the morning message. For example:
Interactive writing takes up the children’s ideas and creates readable texts. Interactive writing is immediate, personal and relatable. The experience is designed to model how language and pressure interact. As simple as it looks, the conversation that leads to the negotiated text promotes the students’ understanding of complex language concepts.
Interactive writing highlights the writing process for children and the importance of writing in getting a message across. What makes it so effective as a writing and reading practice is all that teachers can do to direct the experience based on observed strengths and needs during the reading class. For example, imagine that students in a small reading group have difficulty solving unfamiliar words. Perhaps they are trying to sound out words letter by letter, which is not always productive given the irregularity of the English language. When the teacher notices this, he quickly records these observations. After the students finish the text, the teacher asks them a question about the main character and together they study IW to generate a statement in response to the reading.
As the teacher and students record the statement, the teacher remembers the unproductive word solution she saw. While writing, the teacher specifically uses examples that show students how to hear and record larger, more efficient chunks of information. The teacher also shows how students can perform the same action while reading. Making these connections offers students new alternatives as they solve problems while reading. In addition, any type of jointly created IW texts becomes a source of reading material that children can fall back on and reread and reread on their own.
A blessing for the start of the school year
IW is an amazing back to school routine that helps develop a sense of the class community. The message you write can be a classroom summary at the end of the day (one of my favorites because when kids are asked about what happened in school instead of saying nothing, the highlights of the day are fresh in the Memory); the results of a scientific experiment; a letter to a favorite author or any other topic that matters to children.
Regardless of the genre and form chosen, the subsequent conversation with the students offers a variety of opportunities to support language development, including background knowledge and vocabulary. If you are interested in learning how to implement IW, you can find much more advice in my book Interactive Writing: Developing Readers Through Writing (Benchmark Education, 2020). For now, let’s focus on the 3M for successful management.
IW is not for the faint of heart. In fact, after an IW session, I often feel like I’ve run a marathon. Hence, planning this literacy activity is paramount to its success. There are many ways to differentiate teaching for individuals, and making the best teaching decisions for the moment keeps my brain moving in a flash. But here’s what I want you to know – my brain can’t work at lightning speed unless it’s “free” to focus on class. Yes, the apparent spontaneity of responsive teaching is actually based on a plan.
“The apparent spontaneity of responsive teaching is actually based on a plan.”
Model routines: dealing with traffic
The plan begins with clearly defined routines and processes. At the beginning of the year, I have kids practice getting on and participating in the IW charts. This may sound trivial, but if it takes a child 15 minutes to add a letter or word to the text we’re creating, chances are I have some time management issues. It can be helpful to think about where IW is taking place in the classroom; the flow of traffic to and from the IW text often needs to be optimized. Ideally, you can set up a carpeted space in front of the chalkboard as meeting on the carpet sets the tone for the activity and adds to the sense of community.
While students can participate from their desks or team tables, I recommend using a dedicated space – even if that requires students to slide a table back a few feet to open an area in at the beginning of an IW session that everyone can see the diagram clearly and sit comfortably. The room in which the children will write must be accessible. Therefore, as you plan your classroom, remember that “creating a conducive environment for interactive writing means creating space” (p. 47).
Manage time: watch out for wiggles
Another important aspect of planning is time. When I do IW I pay close attention to the children’s body language. Are they getting shaky and restless? At the beginning of the year, an IW session can only last 10-15 minutes. With increasing stamina of the children, the IW lessons can be extended to 25-30 minutes. Regardless of the length of the IW session, I always keep a divided attention to involve the entire class, even with a child at the blackboard.
For example, we can write the date during a simple morning message. The sentence starts with the word “Today,” and I let the children clap the parts of the word before I intentionally invite a child to contribute the first part of the diagram. While the child goes to the horoscope, I build phonological awareness with the others.
Developing phonological awareness is a fundamental skill, and IW offers many authentic ways to do it. I quickly say the parts of several compound words and pause in between (outside – side; game – bottom; jelly – fish). After each, students mix the two parts as they say the word.
Of course, I also check the child on the display board and give support if necessary. The interactive thing in interactive writing traditionally involves “sharing the pen,” but there are many ways to make this powerful practice interactive.
Manage materials: Prepare the participation package
Another way to make IW interactive for all children is to use so-called participation packs. These materials enable the students on the floor to work with the child on the blackboard. While the student begins to write the word “to” on the board, students can write the word on the floor at the same time. I often say things like, “Write the word ‘on’ as often as you can before your classmate sits down.”
When I started using the participation packages, I have to admit that managing the materials was a bit overwhelming! But after years of trial and error and some planning together, I have developed a system that works. I keep the participation packages in a tub and each student receives one at the beginning of an IW session. The proposals for the participation package include:
- 8 x 11 whiteboards.
- Plastic solo panels (works like a whiteboard).
- Blackboards and colored chalk.
- Small magnadoodles.
- Boogie boards.
Work with your grade level team to create a list of rotating supplies for the participation packages. Then anyone can find and purchase one of the materials on the list to share with the group. The monthly change of the materials in the hands-on packages motivates the children to use the materials.
An organized system and plan for IW will help with all management issues. Taking the time at the beginning of the year to start a framework that provides structure for both teachers and students supports teaching and learning. Most importantly, an established framework allows the IW to focus on the interrelationships in writing and reading and to make important teaching decisions.