The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Reading Road to Writing

on December 2, 2015

Today’s post is an essay I wrote many years ago that I think bears repeating in light of today’s mechanical practices for teaching reading ding and writing. The only change I made is the addition of a fable written by a seven year old girl in our school in Wisconsin.  It is one of many pieces of children’s writing I still have.  Many of them are just as remarkable as this one considering the ages of the writers.


In first grade my oldest son wrote a fairy tale, “The Bat Who Eats Children.” When I read the finished product I saw a coherent story with complete sentences and correct spelling and punctuation throughout. Although I credited his teacher with editing for technical correctness, I was sure that the story was of my son’s own making. He had modeled the plot on the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, which I had read to him more than once, and borrowed the bat character from television’s Sesame Street. The events and characters’ behavior in his story were just minor variations on the original. Although at age six my son was not yet an accomplished reader, he had learned the basics of writing from being read to at home and in school. No one had outlined the structure of a fairy tale for him, told him how the characters should behave, or pointed out examples of fairy-tale language, but he knew them all.

At that time I was teaching high school English, and laying out a path of reading and writing for my students that was similar to the one that was working for my son. When I taught a unit on short stories, for instance, I did not ask my students to analyze the structure of a story or identify the types of sentences, which the Common Core Standards now expect students to do. Nor did I ask them to write in their personal journals every day as many Writers Workshop advocates do. Instead, we talked about the overall message of each story and how it was laid out, the behavior of the characters, and the frequent surprise endings. I concluded the unit by asking my students to write their own short stories. As I expected, most of them did very well. They had learned the basics of the short story genre.

Much later, as principal of an elementary school I learned more from our teachers about the power of reading to teach writing. They did not use commercial textbooks or workbooks but real pieces of literature suited to students’ interests and needs. Then, they used some of those sources as models for student writing. One popular model in primary grade classrooms was, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. After reading that book, children used it as a model for writing about their own bad, good, boring, or whatever kind of day. They were free to use as much or as little of the original story as they wanted. Some of the final pieces of writing showed only minor changes from the model, but others were truly creative. More important, however, was the fact that all children had learned important things about the structure of one type of children’s literature.

Here is an example of a fable written by a seven-year-old girl after her class read and talked about famous fables. Although the teacher may have done some editing, I have made no changes in the version that came to my attention.

Once upon a time, not my time and not your time, but once upon a time the moon was all alone in the sky.

Now directly down there was a skunk village. Now there was a problem. Each night the skunks wouldn’t have enough light. Finally one night the genius of the skunks had a council. He glued a match on a board. By accident one of the skunks struck the match and a ball of fire shot up in the air—shaped like this *.  The skunks thought it was weird but from that day on they called it a star-y, but the skunks forgot how to pronounce it and started to call it a stara. But one day a new skunk said, “Look at the stars.”

 And so it was that from that night to this night the stars have been twinkling.

Sachi Komai

Now, as a writer myself, I still believe that the best way for students to become writers is by reading as much good writing as possible and internalizing the various structures and techniques they encounter. For extras, the habit of reading will also increase their vocabulary, improve their spelling, and help them grasp the fact that many of the conventions of written language are different from those of spoken language. More than lessons on how to write an effective argument or an informational piece students need to immerse themselves in the worlds of stories, poems, myths, fables, business letters, opinion and information essays, advertisements, instructional manuals, newspaper articles, memoirs, biographies, and whatever else captures their interest. Although only a very few will become professional writers, almost all of them will be able to do the kinds of writing needed for success in “college and careers” and every day life just as Sachi had done.









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