Teaching Oral Language

This is the first of a two part blog post on how I begin to teach my first grade writers.  I’m going to first talk about a process called oral writing. In this post, I’ll share how my students went from writing one complete sentence to three paragraph essays over the past five months!

The Power of Oral Language

First graders are so capable. They are at an age where their little brains are sponges – soaking up everything and anything they can learn. Writing instruction has always been a favorite of mine.  It’s incredibly challenging.  I’ve never taught it the same way from year to year. I add elements, throw out lessons, change techniques, change routines…it’s a never-ending cycle of figuring out what works best for my kids.  Throughout all of the change, there is one standard I’ve held onto in my classroom every year:

We write a lot in my classroom.

We write every day.  We write about everything and anything. We write for enjoyment. We write to share. We write to teach.  And I demand quite a bit from my first grade writers.  I am always, as this post is titled, raising the bar with my first graders’ writing skills.  This year has been no different.

Using Oral Writing in the Classroom

It started with Whole Brain Teaching.  I “met” Farrah Shipley through the blogging world. She introduced me to a concept called oral writing.  Lucy Calkins has called this style, “writing in the air”. Oral writing completely transformed the way I have approached writing instruction with my students.  It not only transformed my thinking, my teaching, and my enthusiasm, but it transformed 21 little first graders as well.  (Farrah, although I have told you this before, I cannot thank you enough, my friend!)

We started with a sentence.  Well, rewind. We started with an oral sentence.  Close your eyes and think of your classroom at the carpet during a discussion. How many times do you allow a student to answer you without using a complete sentence? Chances are, if you are like most, a million times a day.  This is the secret to oral writing: When our students do not consistently speak in complete sentences, it becomes immensely difficult for them to not only form their thoughts into a complete sentence but then transfer that complete thought onto paper – with correct conventions and spelling!

Speaking in complete sentences, answering a question in a complete sentence, and explaining an idea or thought in a complete sentence is a rule in our room.  We call it “college talk.”

It has worked miracles for my kids.

While I don’t have a video of oral writing to share with you, due to privacy, you can google Whole Brain Teaching Oral Writing videos on YouTube and find a plethora of videos to watch. When you watch them, you’ll see that the students are acting out their capital letters by raising their arms vertically. They are ending each sentence with a period by saying -Errrr!!! and pushing their hand out in front of them. These gestures are working in a powerful way to help students remember these important conventions:

We first practiced saying one sentence aloud with gestures. We now act out a capital and a period when we speak. The rest of the class mirrors whatever the speaker says – so all students are practicing conventions every time. Once we mastered this, it was as if capitals and periods were embedded into my students’ brains. They would sit during Writer’s Workshop and act out the gestures as they wrote their stories. It was ah-mazing!

Writing a Paragraph

We went on after Thanksgiving to write paragraphs, or what we call “a micro essay.” A micro essay is a 5 sentence paragraph that has a topic sentence, three detail sentences, and a conclusion sentence.  I created this color-coded chart for my students:

Before we wrote a micro essay, we orally wrote the essay as a class using our gestures. I modeled, modeled, modeled a solid five sentence micro essay to my students.  It was not long before my students were pros at writing five sentence micro essays.   They color-coded their micro essay by underlining with a crayon as they wrote to visually keep track of their topic sentence, details, and conclusion.
This is a student who came to me in August just writing scribbles on the page. I got teary eyed the day he put a few words on the paper.  I almost cried the day he wrote his first complete sentence.  Imagine my excitement when he wrote this complete, five sentence micro essay back in December!
The visual color coding for the writing procedure has helped my students immensely.  I have never before had a class who understands topic sentences so well. I have never had a class where approximately 90% of my first graders are consistently and independently remembering proper conventions of capitals and punctuation at all times when they write. A couple of weeks ago, we added the gesture for a comma (We say zoop! with a swing of our hand).  I now have students successfully writing sentences with commas in a series – on their own. Never before have I seen such a transfer of skills into their writing as I am this year with the addition of oral writing within our classroom.

Ready to Get Started With Oral Writing?

If you’re looking for a resource that will transform how your students think and speak in complete sentences, check out my Think, Talk, Teach resource in my TpT shop. It has three levels of difficulty and your students will be practicing essential oral language skills EVERYDAY in just a few minutes time! I promise that when your students can think and speak in complete sentences, it makes WRITING in complete sentences so much easier! Click HERE for my Think, Talk, Teach pack or click on the image below:

Think Talk Teach Oral Language Resource for the Classroom

My students are now writing three paragraph essays and I’ve shared pictures and the process for our paragraphs in my Part 2 blog post that you can find HERE. You may be asking “Why the need to write a three paragraph essay as a first grader?”  My response: Because we can. Because my students are now so accomplished at writing an informational paper with a topic, details, and conclusion, that it is time to continue to raise the bar even higher. I am so proud of them!

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  1. Absolutely LOVED this post. I just went to a conference that stressed the importance of students talking in complete sentences to lay a foundation for writing in complete sentences. Last year implementing Read 3D which requires a written response I got SO frustrated trying to teach my kids the importance of complete sentences. This year was such an eye opener as I realized I had been missing the most important part.. oral complete sentences! Also, I am attending a conference on whole brain teaching in 2 weeks and couldn't be more excited! I think this post was just the push I needed to take my writing instruction to a new level. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much! 🙂 I felt the same way – I couldn't believe I had missed such an important basic part of writing. Once I targeted this fundamental understanding of a sentence, everything else started to click much faster for my students. 🙂 Let me know how it goes! 🙂

  2. Wow – this so resonates with me and my second graders. So many of them don't apply the conventions. I can't wait to look at the video again and think about this. You are awesome! ~Barb

  3. This is an awesome post! I am ready to try some oral writing tomorrow!! First step teach the kids that a complete sentence=a complete message. WBT ON, friend:) Farrah is the best.

  4. This is great!! I too am doing WBT but the "writing thing" has been hard for me to wrap my brain around… I have watched the videos, we talk in complete sentences, we do the gestures, we work on the genius ladder, but to get to the essay part I could not wrap my head around… Your post just clicked with me!! Thank you
    Kickin It Whole Brain In Texas

  5. I loved reading your post! I am a huge fan of Whole Brain teaching. For now I just use the gestures and sayings, but after reading your post I really want to dive into the writing! I love how you have such high expectations for your students! Sometimes I'm "afraid" that it's going to be too tough for them, but I like how you believe they can do it!!

  6. I loved this post!!! My EL students have to take the Las Links test so part of that is speaking. Since I usually have the EL students in my grade level, I have tried to make sure that everyone answers in complete sentences, but I sometimes get so rushed with things that I forget to slow down. I so want to learn the WBT ideas with writing!! I'm going to try to start doing more oral writing next week!! Thank you!!! 🙂

    All Things Apple in 2nd

  7. I love your post! I am just delving into whole brain teaching and loving it. The writing TOTALLY amazes me though. It is frustrating to teach capitals and punctuation to firsties when only a handful truly get it! The oral language component totally makes sense! Thanks for sharing:) I can't wait to read more.

    The Resourceful Apple

  8. This post has gotten me pumped! I read the Whole Brain Teaching book this past summer and have incorporated several of the techniques. I thought the writing sounded great and planned to do it at some point, but haven't followed through. Your post has me so excited to get started seeing how successful it's been for your class! Wow, I'm just so impressed! I would love to see a breakdown of how you started it all to get to the point you're at now.

  9. Christina, thank you so very much for taking the time to blog about your micro essays. This is the perfect "next step" for our students and your explanation has helped me visualize how to begin. You are not only teaching your first graders but helping my first graders as well. Thank you!!!

  10. Love love love love love. WBT is the best and I use it throughout the day, but haven't done much with my actual writing block. This inspired me to take the leap and get my second graders writing in this manner. They're gonna love it and they need the help!

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