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Cheryl Sigmon

Teaching Literacy

Validating Writers to Motivate Them
by Cheryl Sigmon
Regular contributor to the Gazette
January 1, 2008
If there is one overriding issue that causes students to be reluctant writers, I would say that it boils down to validation - or, even more importantly, the lack of validation. Many of our students - perhaps even the majority of them - donít feel that they have lives worthy of writing about. They simply donít think that they have anything to write that anyone would really want to read. There are so many ways, however, that we can reassure them that they all live lives that provide fuel for the pen. They just need validation from the teacher to get them started. Perhaps as youíre approaching the New Year in your classroom, youíll want to be more cognizant of the validation factor. Here are a number of ways to accomplish that:
  • Be sure that many of your own writing topics are about ordinary, everyday kinds of things. You donít have to have traveled to Paris or the Amazon or any exotic places to be a writer. Show them that writing is a basic communication skill. Write about your trip to school or to a concert or about your Uncle Joe. Carry your writing beyond the surface, though, with these ordinary experiences. Focus on one aspect of your trip to school - the way you travel so automatically since this trip is a habit for you or on the way the sun shone on the fields you passed. Use the concert as an analogy about life or on the feeling the music evoked. Share one story about Uncle Joe that shows rather than tells about his character. Use these ordinary experiences to show them how all writers make the transformation to the extra-ordinary.
  • Choose read-alouds that you can share often that demonstrate how published authors have used their own ordinary experiences. Read books like Cynthia Rylantís The Relatives Came, since we all have relatives, or Marge Palatiniís Bed Head, about a boy who has a bad hair day. Such books can assure students that the ordinary is what writing is all about!
  • Set clear expectations that students are to be searching for topics constantly. You might even encourage them to keep notebooks in which they can jot ideas, experiences, or events that might become good writing pieces in the future. When you tell them goodbye in the afternoon, remind them that tomorrow theyíll be expected to write and that they should be looking for something to share - look out of the car window, listen to music, watch movies, read books, and constantly think about what can be shared in writing.
  • You might try wearing a "fashionable" bracelet (a.k.a. a roll of masking tape) on your arm in the mornings when you greet students. What students donít come in first things wanting to tell you things that have happened overnight? As they mention these happenings, you can record a word on two on the masking tape. Then, tear off the reminder as you say, "Take this and stick it on your desk. Iím hoping that youíll tell me more about that when we get into our writing workshop today!" Immediately youíve validated for that student that he/she actually has something that someone wants to hear more about. Youíve also given them a bit of language to get them started!
  • Some teachers give students seal-top baggies that they can use over the weekend or during holidays to store souvenirs - movie tickets, pictures, wrappers, etc. These concrete souvenirs help students remember what they have to talk about in their writing.
  • Spend some of your mini-lesson time brainstorming your topics. There are many organizers to help you gather a constant store of ideas for writing. You might use a Bingo-like sheet with different major topics - Family, Pets, Holidays, Sports, etc. - in the squares where students can add ideas that fall under these categories. Alpha-boxes might also be used to jot down different ideas organized by letters of the alphabet - things theyíve studied like Saturn, soldiers, and stems under the "S."
  • On some occasions, use your writing workshop time for talking, but only allow talking on paper. Yes, students will love being given permission to write notes to each other! Even your most reluctant writers will love writing (although they hardly think of this as writing!), and youíll be offering a wonderful demonstration that writing is a basic communication skill - itís just talking done on paper. If you try this activity, you might want to have your students follow these rules: 1) You must talk (a.k.a. write) the entire time! (This is a rare use of that line in a classroom!) If youíre waiting on someone to respond to your note, write to someone else. You can have several conversations going at once. Get to know some classmates that you donít talk to often. 2) You can get out of your desk to deliver your note, but hurry back to your seat. (Iíve never had trouble with behavior during this activity. Usually students rush back to their desks because theyíre receiving mail that they want to read.) 3) Sign all of your notes so that the person responding will know to whom it should be returned. (This will also help students be more accountable for what theyíre saying in the notes.) 4) Donít write anything unkind about anyone! Youíll want to be ready to write notes to the students who might not receive mail from many/any other students. When this activity concludes, save a few minutes for discussion about why they find this kind of writing so easy and so much fun. Be sure they realize that much of the writing in "real life" is just this - basic communication through emails, notes and informal writing.
  • You might try using the kaleidoscope as a good analogy to writing. I bring in one of my kaleidoscopes that come apart. I take out the items inside - glass beads or other items Iíve put inside like crayon shavings, paper clips, etc. - and show them how ordinary the items are. Then, I put the items back inside the kaleidoscope. As I pass it around for the kids to view, I remark how extraordinary the items now look. It all depends on how you look at them. Writers have an extraordinary way of looking at ordinary things. Subsequently, you can challenge students to use their writerís eyes like the kaleidoscope.
  • You must let your students know that you value their ideas far more than the spelling, punctuation, and usage in their writing. Once theyíve become fluent in their writing and have developed their confidence and comfort level, there will be plenty of time to work on revisions and editing that include mechanics and technical aspects of writing. Theyíve got to take risks to produce quality writing!
Although these are all fairly simple ideas, youíll be surprised at how quickly your students will grow once they realize that they have the potential to be writers. Letís make a resolution to validate our students as writers in the New Year!

Happy writing!       -------Cheryl

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About Cheryl Sigmon...

Cheryl Sigmon is a former classroom teacher turned author and freelance consultant who travels the country - and the world - supporting teachers in the important work of teaching literacy.

Cheryl worked for 9 years with the SC Department of Education as a language arts consultant, working alongside teachers in classrooms of districts that were struggling in her state. As part of that effort during the mid-nineties, she helped teachers pilot the 4-Blocks literacy model.

Cheryl has written almost a hundred articles for Teachers.Net, available online at Cheryl is also the author or co-author of a dozen books about literacy instruction.

She has three daughters, two grandchildren and lives with her husband in South Carolina.

For more information about Cheryl Sigmon, her books, training and seminars, visit her site at

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