What is Writing? Or, What Do I Believe About Teaching Writing? by Melanie Brown
As someone whose practice (teaching, coaching, and staff developing) has lived in upper-grade lands for most of my career I have lots of experience with upper-grade writers that represent a range of strengths and challenges. I’ve supported 7th-grade students that struggle to write a paragraph and fifth-grade students that write 10-page long fantasy pieces.
As my knowledge of the teaching of writing has evolved over the years, I’ve become more secure in my belief that writing is drawing, labeling, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pieces. What I didn’t know, until I saw it with my own child, was that writing can also include a movable alphabet.
I work hard to expand my knowledge of literacy instruction. As a first-year teacher, I taught poorly: whole-class novels chosen only because the ‘book room’ had enough copies or writing to a prompt because I was told ‘test scores are bad and we will be shut down.’ For more than twenty years I have taken deep dives into workshop instruction, balanced literacy approaches, Units of Study, homegrown curriculum, foundational skills, word study, and guided reading & writing as ways to craft instruction that is responsive and engaging.
Over the last two years, as my child has attended a Montessori school for early childhood education, I’ve watched the highly structured materials and diverse approaches to literacy. So many have been outside my practice. It's been enlightening to learn alongside my son and his teacher and discover ways to support a less proficient writer.
The Moveable Alphabet is a Montessori material that can be used in a variety of ways. It’s a tool that can grow with a child as they increase their language skills. There are different versions of it, but generally, it’s a wooden box with compartments for all 26 letters. My son’s school has paper copies of letters, but in my research, I’ve seen wooden or magnetic letter options. The letters are stored alphabetically and consonants and vowels are in different colors.
Like most materials and instructional practices in Montessori the Movable Alphabet is only introduced when a child demonstrates certain readiness: the ability to analyze and reorganize graphic symbols for phonetic sounds among them. The goal is to prepare children for writing, reading, and spelling. A child begins with single words, moves to phrases and sentences, and eventually crafts entire pieces. For my son, this tool has had a dramatic impact- both on his handwriting (he copies his pieces after constructing them with the Movable Alphabet) and his stamina as a writer.
I’ve come to understand that in using a Movable Alphabet every piece of writing that happens takes place in three ways: oral rehearsal, composing with the Moveable Alphabet, and then recopying onto paper with a pencil. This repeated practice means that fewer pieces are produced in a given week or month, but the writing itself is more secure and intentional. The idea that quality over quantity is a goal should seem obvious, but I’ve spent years suggesting that 'writing more will improve writing.' But really, what I now believe, is that thinking more about writing, and having multiple ways to practice a single piece of writing can also improve writing.
It’s not one size fits all, and maybe that is the most important point for me.
It’s been over twenty years since I began teaching and I’m still uncovering new ideas and forming new beliefs. I wish that for all teachers.