Graves and Me

Graves and the writing process

In the article “All Children Can Write,” writing pedagogy expert Donald Graves explains how to implement an effective meaning-centered approach to classroom writing instruction. Through observation of children in the process of actually producing writing, Graves has determined that a successful writing practice depends on the establishment of a highly structured classroom environment where the teacher serves both as a fellow writer modeling the writing process and as an authentic and appreciative audience for the student writers.

Graves’s writing-process program hinges on four pillars: time, choice, response, and community. According to Graves, students need time to write in the classroom, at least four times per week for thirty minutes at a time, though ideally, kids should write daily in order to develop both confidence and fluency. The student writers should choose their own topics, so they can exercise their independent judgment and take ownership of their own writing (and of the knowledge that writing reflects). Teachers should guide students to find their own “topical turf,” where they can develop expertise.

Since the desire –and the need—to communicate is the basis of all writing, student writers need responsive, authentic audiences for their messages. Both teacher and fellow students should provide meaningful feedback to student writers “geared to help writers learn to listen to their own texts” (Graves np). Responses should be active and follow a predictable pattern:

  • first, confirm that the reader understands the text (effective reception);
  • then, ask clarifying questions (questioning); and
  • finally, help the writer focus on the next stage of the writing process (revising).

Feedback should be concise to avoid wrestling control and ownership from the student writer, and the focus should remain on specifics –text- and word-based details—not on praise. The teacher should explicitly teach the appropriate response method to all the kids, and the writing should be collected and published periodically.

This kind of writing and responding can occur only within the safety of a community of writers and learners, since as Graves states “[w]riting is an unpredictable act requiring predictable classrooms both in structure and response” (np). The teacher is the leader of this community, ensuring through his or her participation that all writers feel empowered. The teacher should always share his or her own writing and circulate among the students providing appropriate feedback.

My writing practices in the classroom

Although I was already familiar with Graves’s work, having read his seminal book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work as an undergraduate, I admit I hadn’t thought his ideas applicable to the secondary school classroom. It wasn’t until I revisited Graves in Eng 740 that I started to see how I might adapt some of Graves’s insights to my own teaching practice.  As a result, I have started to model writing more purposefully, letting my students –high school juniors and seniors—into my own learning and writing process and sharing my own work with them.

This does not mean that I haven’t written with them before! For example, last year my students and I did write together during November, as part of our first ever incursion into National Novel Writing Month (each of us wrote the draft of a 50,000-word novel that month!). We will NaNoWriMo again this year.

In my classroom, my students and I do informal, low-stakes writing almost daily: reflections, Daybook freewriting, answering questions, concept mapping, etc. My students also do more formal writing, in the form of in-class and at-home essays, short answer questions, etc. I have always stressed writing as a process, focusing particularly on idea generation, creation of ‘crappy’ first drafts, peer review, and macro and micro editing. I will now emphasize the need for student writers to share their own texts by reading them aloud, which I hadn’t insisted on before (though one common revising suggestion I have always given students is to read their writing aloud to themselves).

I am also committed to shifting the initial phase of peer feedback –and of my own response—to receiving and questioning, instead of praising and criticizing.

Eng 740 in-class activities

In addition to helping me reconsider my own writing pedagogy by revisiting Graves’s writing-process approach, Eng 740 has helped me reconnect with my writing self, through the use of fun, low-stakes, in-class writing activities such as the food idiom autobiographies and the hand descriptions. The professors have also served as models by writing with us and sharing their own writing. I am inspired to try new things in my classroom!

Graves-related resources:

Classic 1985 article: LD OnLine :: All Children Can Write.

Answering Your Questions About Teaching Writing: A Talk with Donald Graves


2 responses to this post.

  1. How do students respond to the idea of creating decent revisions after doing sloppy first drafts?

    Sometimes it seems that my students don’t do any major editing and focus on integrating only my suggestions on grammar and spelling. They tend to resist answering any probing questions that require them to actually analyze their work to improve it. I would love to know how you cope with this situation when it occurs in your classroom.


  2. The more open-ended my comments (the more Graves-like, I suppose!), the easier it is for the students to grasp that they have to revise. I have found that the more I nitpick about grammar and spelling, and the more green or purple ink adorns their papers, the less they think and the less they revise. If I comment too much, they tend to think that just by fixing what I marked wrong they have accomplished their editing.

    What I try to do if I expect revisions is to spend a few minutes with each student discussing the most important changes they should make. If I don’t have time for that, I discuss the major issues that came up for the class as a whole, and then set them loose to revise. It often works, but sometimes not. I haven’t yet figured out a more reliable way of helping students revise.


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