Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

The Functions of Talk within a 4th-Grade Writing Workshop: Insights into Understanding

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

The Functions of Talk within a 4th-Grade Writing Workshop: Insights into Understanding

Article excerpt

Over the past 30 years, writing workshops have been implemented in classrooms around the world. Students are being asked to write across multiple contexts and genres and to use digital technologies. At the same time, high-stakes writing tests are increasing even though the time teachers spend teaching writing is decreasing. This study examines academically tracked 4th-graders' first-time engagement with a writing workshop structure and the functions of students' talk within this curricular venue. During writing conferences, author celebrations, and author sharing, talk functioned as a tool for creating a shared learning space, developing meta-awareness of processes and practices, and building writing identities. These functions of talk have implications for the teaching of writing, in general, and for teaching writing in the intermediate grades, in particular, given that most states have a high-stakes writing test in 4th grade.

Keywords: writing instruction, talk, elementary education, writing workshop


During writing workshop in Jackie's (all names are pseudonyms) 4th-grade classroom, children write a lot and talk a lot: children lean across tables to see what their friends are writing, inquire about spelling, and discuss favorite television shows or playground events. Children also talk with Jackie about their writing lives and their writing work. Teachers like Jackie--who listen to and reflect on these kinds of conversations--gain insights into their students as readers, writers, and learners. Researchers acknowledge the importance of this talk. Those who have studied children's talk, however, prominently focus on the words and voices of young children. They document the role of talk in young writers' writing practices and demonstrate the ways that children's writing is saturated by their complex social and cultural worlds (Bomer, 2007; Dyson, 2003; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Wells-Rowe, Fitch, & Bass, 2001). Talk, though, is not only essential in the early years of schooling, but also important throughout children's educational experiences (Wells, 1986, 1999, 2006). As Wells (1986) noted about the significance of talk: "It seems that a valuable resource is being insufficiently utilized, particularly as there are a number of children in almost every classroom who are able to work on new ideas more effectively in speech than in writing" (p. 138).

There is a need, then, for writing researchers to study and understand the role of talk in upper elementary students' growing understandings of writing processes. This need is particularly important because there is an increased emphasis on the teaching and testing of writing, yet little instructional time devoted to the teaching of writing (Juzwick et al., 2006; National Writing Project & Nagin, 2003). To contribute to the knowledge base about the role of talk in writing for upper-elementary students, I studied 4th-grade students' first-time engagements within a writing workshop curriculum. In so doing, I explored how student and teacher talk functioned within a writing workshop structure and explored what that talk illuminated about students' writing processes, practices, and writing identities.


A sociocultural theory of learning underpins the current study. Central to sociocultural theory is the belief that one's understandings of literacy shape and are shaped by the social contexts in which they participate (Barton & Hamilton, 2000; Bomer, 2007; Dyson, 2003; Street, 1995; Wells, 1999; Wells-Rowe et al., 2001). Therefore, children learn the role of literacy through participation in everyday literacy events alongside significant others. Within the daily rhythms of homes and communities, children come to understand what literacy in general and writing in particular is about and for.

In school, writing workshop focuses on writing as a process in which writers recursively engage in collecting ideas, developing drafts, revising, editing, and publishing their self-selected works (Bomer, 1995; Calkins & Bisplinghoff, 1994). …

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