By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).



Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.

Student Example


The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.

student example


Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.

student example 4


Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.





For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.



Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!


student work

Student Work 2

Student Example 4





7 comments on “From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing”

  1. 1
    Kacey Edgington on May 1, 2015

    Hi Debbie, Thank you for explicitly leading me through the process of creating meaningful student writing. The powerful information that the students are learning in the Core Knowledge Listening and Learning strand is evident in their ability to communicate through writing. I believe the provided writing samples embody the essence of the common core shifts in our instruction. Thank you for sharing your valuable expertise! Kacey

  2. 2
    Sarah on May 1, 2015

    This was a very inspiring post and as a second grade teacher that uses pieces of the CK curriculum I will be incorporating some of your ideas. Thanks!

  3. 3
    Ponderosa on May 1, 2015

    I think that the dominant view of writing instruction in this country is largely hokum. Very many kids who get 12 years of writing workshop are still, in most situations, terrible writers. Yet kids who get no writers’ workshop but WHO KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT THEY”RE WRITING ABOUT can produce good writing. I get admirable essays, stories, poems and songs from kids AFTER a unit in which I’ve supplied them with knowledge. Then they are good writers ABOUT THAT SUBJECT. There is no such thing as an all-purpose good writer, and there is no such thing as all-purpose writing skills. One’s writing ability is a spotty affair –always strong in the areas one knows about, and weak in the areas one does not know about. The way we talk about writing obscures the reality about writing. The essential ingredient in good writing is knowing. Knowing the subject, but also knowing the conventions of English and knowing a good deal of words with which to express what you know about the subject. We’re in Cloud Cuckoo Land when it comes to so much in education –writing is no exception. The panacea (almost) for all that ails American education is knowledge of the sort that Core Knowledge provides. Banish writing classes (and all literacy classes). Let us teach the kids juicy content and the writing and the reading will take care of themselves.

  4. 4
    Chrys Dougherty on May 6, 2015

    We would expect a content-rich curriculum such as Core Knowledge to increase students’ intellectual curiosity and interest in a wide range of topics. This interest should show up in a variety of ways: not only in students’ writing, but in the number and types of questions they ask, the library books they check out, and their responses to impromptu surveys on their interest in learning more about a given topic. It would be interesting to find a school or district that is collecting indicators of students’ intellectual engagement and relating those indicators to the curriculum being taught.

  5. 5
    Knowing is essential to writing — Joanne Jacobs on May 7, 2015

    […] second graders’ writing was flat, repetitive and dull — until she gave them “an opportunity to build knowledge and  way to organize what they’ve learned,” writes Debbie Reynolds, a Nevada teacher, on Core Knowledge Blog. Before students wrote about […]

  6. 6
    JK Brown on May 9, 2015

    You’ve stumbled across the long neglected knowledge of how to study.

    I refer you to: How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (there’s an edition scanned online at

    McMurry’s book, actually more directed toward teachers, offers 8 factors in studying.

    The factors of studying:
    1. Provision for Specific Purposes
    2. The Supplementing of Thought
    3. The Organization of Ideas
    4. Judging the Soundness and General Worth of Statements
    5. Memorizing
    6. The Using of Ideas
    7. Provision for a Tentative rather than a Fixed Attitude toward Knowledge
    8. Provision for Individuality

    Obviously, a student, even a 2nd grader, who has applied some or all of these factors to a topic, such as discussing them with others rather than just passive listening/reading, will be able to write more effectively on the topic.

    “The student has accomplished much when he has discovered some of the closer relations that a topic bears to life; when he has supplemented the thought of the author; when he has determined the relative importance of different parts and given them a corresponding organization; when he has passed judgement on their soundness and general worth; and when, finally, he has gone through whatever drill is necessary to fix the ideas firmly in his memory. Is he then through with a topic, or is more work to be done?”

  7. 7
    JGabrielson on May 20, 2015

    As with any meaningful learning, one must be given time to build knowledge and connect new learning to their prior schema. With the Common Core, writing has become a focus, and as educators we are now allotted more time to incorporate writing workshop. Whereas in the past, students were taught to respond to specific types of questions that they may encounter on standardized tests which led to a formulaic writing. We all remember the five paragraph essay or the brief constructed response, as referred to in Maryland’s state assessments, formulas. In that we lost the true art of writing, and now we have a chance to regain the art.
    We need to give students freedom within their writing to be creative and display their knowledge, as well as their writing skills, but this takes time. Modeling the art of writing, as you did with your quilt activity for each section, allows them to see the process involved. Ad as with any skill, time to practice must be given. Often, this is where we fail our students in the teaching of writing- we never give enough time. t is critical that students understand the process involved in creating exemplar writing.
    Lastly, in addition to the benefits of creating much more vibrant writing, as you have pointed out, writing also allows students a place to practice grammar and phonics skills in a meaningful and purposeful way. Students writing can be used to launch lessons in language skills, rather than worksheets or textbooks. I also find incorporating mentor texts as models of exemplary writing to be a most effective tool in writing workshop. Through integrating reading and writing workshop, we are able to meet the standards through an engaging and meaningful process that brings the students’ writing to life!

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