My brother and sister in-law just had their second baby boy, Zachary. Zachary is a big baby (as far as newborns go) and he eats like a honey badger. (This is my brother’s analogy, not mine.) My brother and his wife are incredible parents. I was surprised when at six weeks after Zach’s birth, my sister in-law wrote on Facebook that she was tired of Zach waking up twice each night, and he needed to sleep through the night already. Many of her friends posted how their babies slept through the night at four weeks, which wasn’t much help. Zachary started sleeping through the night at ten weeks, and not a moment sooner.
This made me think about how often we want definitive answers to child development. Just like each baby has a different timetable for when they’ll sleep through the night, every child develops differently as a writer. Teachers can establish an environment that will nurture writing and provide the time for students to write, but this won’t guarantee a standard growth rate among students.
When I work with second-grade teachers, they all have the same question: Can second graders keep writing notebooks? Second graders are becoming more fluent writers, and most are able to hold their thinking and write part of a story one day and finish it another. Some second graders are attempting to write chapter and series books to entertain their friends. It’s a writing bonanza in second grade and a teacher naturally wonders, how do I challenge these kids? How do I support them in their writing now?
Not all second graders are ready for notebooks, and they’re certainly not all ready at the same time. There are still many benefits for second graders to use the small, stapled books (or big, stapled books). It’s important for children at this age to practice adding on to writing, extracting pages to take out information, or rearranging paragraphs and sentences. Illustration, poetry and informational studies can all be done in second grade. We can lift the level of our teaching to help writers, and you don’t have to have a notebook to do it.
Criteria for Notebook Readiness
So what’s the difference between second and third graders using a notebook? What difference can a year make? It depends on the child, the teacher, and the class. Teachers need to be the decision-makers. To help you make this decision or to gauge when students are ready, here are some cues to look for in your student writers:
- Word Wise: Although there are some notebooks with room for pictures, the focus of notebooks is using words to create pictures. Students need to be past the developmental stage of primarily picture writing. The notebook may have some sketches or doodling, but for the most part in notebooks words are used to create the stories.
- Reading Level: What does reading have to do with writing? Everything. Students who are still reading picture books or early leveled readers need to be making books that mimic what they’re reading. As students move towards chapter and series books, they learn to hold the story in their heads from day to day. They also learn how to create pictures in their mind from the words on the page. They’ll need to mimic this in a notebook.
Katie DiCesare, a first-grade teacher, puts it this way: “I find it easier for my primary writers creating pieces of writing that are organized and visually similar to most texts they are reading. Booklets allow for creating illustrations with words across multiple pages and for beginning writers this support mimics what they do when they learn to read.”
As students become stronger readers, they will develop as writers needing less support for creating pictures in their notebooks.
- Fluency: The notebook helps students develop writing fluency due to the nature of keeping entries, and for some students writing more than one entry a day. Students need to be able to write the words quickly, not belaboring the forming of letters, the spelling of each individual word, or thinking about what the next word is in the sentence. Young writers who are still laboriously rereading their work to think about the next word to write likely need the picture support they can have in booklets. Students who are able to write their thoughts a phrase or a sentence at a time, without losing track when writing each word, are likely ready for notebooks.
- Abstract Thinking: Although a writer’s notebook is tangible, it’s an abstract concept. Students need to be ready to grasp the notion of seed ideas for stories. Not every entry is a full story or taken through revision. The notebook is a lot of practicing -– practicing using voice, practicing finding topics, practicing developing ideas. Notebooks are practicing, practicing, and more practicing. Students need to be able to hold on to the idea that finished pieces are delayed gratification in the writing process. They need to be at the point where they realize they don’t need to publish every story.
- Stamina: We talk a lot about building student stamina to write for an entire workshop. With notebooks, children need a different kind of stamina. Students will not finish the notebook right away — it will take months. They need the stamina to keep writing towards this goal, knowing they’re collecting writing for future pieces. Although students will publish pieces outside of the notebook, they need to understand that the notebook won’t be finished in one writing cycle or unit.
Building stamina is a gradual process. Beth Lawson explained how she balanced booklets and notebooks in her second-grade classroom. “We used both writers’ notebooks and writing folders. During genre studies students wrote on lined paper or booklets and kept these in their folders. The readiness cue to begin using a notebook is simply excitement and a willingness to write.”
- Habit of Minds to Reread, Rewrite, and Revise: There are a lot of habits that we try to teach our students. When using a notebook, it’s helpful if students are ready to reread their work with a critical eye. They don’t reread just to share their story — they reread to think about new entries, connections, or places for development. Students also need to realize that they are not going to rewrite their entries as drafts. Rewriting or copying from the notebook defeats the purpose of a notebook. If students are not able to generate seed ideas that are developed more fully as drafts, then they’re not ready for the notebook. Copying writing from a notebook to a draft is a waste of writing workshop time. They need to be able to see their drafts outside their notebook as works in progress. Students use the notebook to try out different leads, settings, or dialogue in order to make purposeful revisions to their drafts. If students are just starting to revise by adding on, rearranging pages, and taking pages out, then this seesawing between the draft and notebook will be difficult for them.
- Maturity: Students need the maturity to begin trying things on their own with their writing. They need to be able to make decisions, answering questions like, Is this entry finished? Can I write more about this topic? Can I write about this topic in another way? The notebook is most effective when students take ownership and are somewhat satisfied with themselves being the primary audience for the writing.
- Fine Motor Skills: This may seem picky, but young writers are still developing their fine motor skills. It’s difficult to develop these in a writer’s notebook. For example, notebooks have lines. Young writers don’t always find lined paper useful. Students need to be ready to write their words on the lines. They need to have had practice writing left to right on paper as well as from top to bottom. Many booklets provide a variety of line and picture space. As students write more words and begin using pictures less to represent their story, they’re moving toward notebook readiness.
Truth be told, not all of my third graders come to school ready for notebooks. But those kids are the exception to the rule. Most third graders, after spending years making smaller books, are itching to keep their writing in one place. Because the workshop is a terrific place to differentiate instruction, it wouldn’t be wrong to introduce writer’s notebooks to a small group that was ready, while the rest of the class continued with draft pages or booklets.
Beth Lawson describes how she gave out notebooks in her second-grade classroom:
I did not hand out notebooks right away. Students were working on writing in booklets and over the course of a week or two, I handed out notebooks to writers during their conferences when it seemed like they were “ready” (i.e., motivated and excited to keep one). I made sure everyone received a notebook in less than two weeks so that no one felt discouraged. My reluctant writers became so curious about the excitement over the notebooks that they were incredibly motivated. Once they received one, it was like writing took on a whole new meaning.
After the first few days of handing out notebooks, some of the other writers would whisper and then clap when they saw me pause during a conference to give a writer a notebook. That particular group was so wonderful about understanding that everyone worked at their own pace, and they were very supportive of their fellow writers. I don’t think I heard a single, “that’s not fair.” In fact, each time a notebook was given, there were a lot of concentrated looks, often with little second-grade tongues out the sides of their mouths, and pencils flying in hands. They wanted to be “ready” for a notebook too!
Keeping notebooks may seem easier than having paper all over the classroom, booklets sticking out of desks, and writing folders that fall apart. But unless students are far enough along in their writing development, they’ll be spinning their wheels trying to make sense of how to use the notebook. It’s about patience and timing. Students will be ready, but they need the time to grow as writers in a way that supports their individual development.
Looking back on my years of teaching, there probably have been times I should have waited to start the writer’s notebook. I should have given the kids another month with booklets, or started one small group that was ready and hold off with the rest of the class. One year, Camille was in my third-grade class. She held her notebook to her chest and said, “Ms. Buckner, I just love my notebook. I have so many stories. I just can’t write all the books fast enough. This notebook holds on to them until I have time.”
Camille was ready for a notebook. She was itching for one. I think of Camille when I prepare to launch writers’ notebooks in my classroom. It’s my hope all of my writers will love their notebooks as much as she did. When they’re ready for notebooks, the blank pages aren’t scary; they’re exciting. This intrinsic motivation will fuel our writing workshop for the rest of the year.