On Turning Seven
One recent January, I noticed something odd each time my class of first graders settled into their writing workshop tasks: A handful of children had begun writing with tiny, tiny letters. “You need to erase and write bigger,” I would say, again and again. “That writing’s too hard to read!” The children tried, but usually without much success. What, I wondered, could cause this change in handwriting habits? This handful of children had all turned seven during the fall or early winter. Could that be it? I decided to review the developmental behaviors typical of many seven-year-olds. My discoveries changed my teaching practices and my thinking about the range of developmental characteristics possible in a class of first graders.
Looking at the twenty-two children in my class with fresh eyes after that winter holiday, I could see how much they’d changed since fall. Most were noticeably taller, older looking, and more able to act independently. Maybe, I thought, the answer to the tiny handwriting of that handful of children lay in developmental traits common to many seven-year-olds.
I got out my copy of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14, which describes children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development and suggests curriculum considerations for each age. During the summer, I’d read the Yardsticks section on six-year-olds to acquaint myself with first graders’ developmental characteristics and needs. But now I turned to the section on seven-year-olds to find out if what I was seeing was typical for children at that age. Sure enough, there was my answer in the curriculum guidelines on handwriting: “Letters are often microscopic in size.”
Rethinking My Teaching
As I read on, learning about the developmental changes that typically unfold for seven-year-olds, my discoveries made me want to rethink how I taught first graders and what I expected of them, not only during writing workshop, but also during all the other parts of our days together. Here are my learnings in five key areas.
Once I understood that microscopic handwriting is developmentally typical of many older seven-year-olds, I rethought my insistence on having the children rewrite their work. “What is my goal?” I asked myself. Is it big handwriting? Or seeing that the children know their letters and sounds? Yes, the writing is tiny, but I can read the words, so I can evaluate their learning accomplishments and needs.
If, I decided, small handwriting is a common seven-year-old trait, then I would respect that. I switched to reminding children to write as large as they could so others could read their writing, but I stopped making them redo their work. As a result, the children felt more successful as writers, and we all enjoyed our writing workshop much more.
Quantity and Quality
Another possible developmental change during the course of first grade is the child’s perspective on work quantity and quality. Six-year-olds usually produce massive quantities of work but with little concern for quality. Sevens, by contrast, generally produce less work, but the quality is much stronger. They are perfectionists and want to finish one thing, whereas six-year-olds want to do many things and generally don’t worry about completing a task.
This shifting balance of quantity and quality was readily apparent in writing workshop. As the year began, some students typically produced up to twenty-five stories per unit. By mid-year, these children were producing as few as five stories. Their later work, however, was more detailed and showed more correct capitalization and punctuation.
Reading about this developmental shift in Yardsticks, I felt as if I had “permission” to let the students write in the way that felt natural to them. I no longer insisted that those who were developmentally younger add more detail. Nor did I push those who were developmentally older to finish more quickly. I was able to let them work at their own individual pace.
During my own elementary school days, I was always told, “Sit up straight and put your feet on the floor.” This is the way I began teaching writing workshops—insisting that to write properly, the children needed to sit up, with their backs firmly against the backs of their chairs.
But in the early months of each year, I’d notice many children practically falling off their chairs. They would wiggle, move around, stand up, lie on the floor, and practically sit upside down! I would continually ask them to “fix” their sitting. With dramatic moans, they would—for awhile.
When I looked closely at the Yardsticks’ description of six-year-olds’ gross motor ability, I found confirmation of what I would see at the start of each year: “Six-year-olds often work standing.”
So I decided to try something radical. I let the children write standing up. They loved it; they wrote and wrote and wrote, and I spent my time conferring about their pictures and stretching their use of words rather than reminding them about posture. Towards summer, most children were sitting to write. I enjoyed watching children make this change independently and was delighted to let them progress at their own pace.
Six-year-olds typically like to talk all the time and can talk over one another with no problem. Seven-year-olds tend to be better listeners and to enjoy thinking about things. They like to converse one-to-one and are rapidly developing their vocabularies.
This developmental difference was evident during read-alouds. As the first-grade year progressed, more children would stop me to ask what a word meant. By contrast, earlier in the year they had just wanted to get through the story.
With my new perspective on how children’s listening skills typically change as they grow older, I began preparing for interactive read-alouds by asking questions keyed to the children’s cognitive development. For example, sixes can answer questions about word meaning, whereas sevens are ready for the stretch offered by questions requiring inferences and self-to-text connections.
Setting Learning Goals
Early in the fall, I had guided the children in articulating their hopes and dreams for learning during our year together. After revisiting Yardsticks, I wondered if the children’s hopes and dreams would change as they matured, so I told them we’d be revisiting this expression of our younger selves.
I asked the children to think about their own personal hope and dream. Had they met their goal for what they wanted to do during first grade? Did they have a hope and dream that seemed more pressing now?
About half the class changed to a new hope and dream. For example, Amy had hoped to go apple picking. That trip happened in October, so in January she hoped to play more tag games at recess. Charlie had wanted to do math. He felt that now he could do math, so he changed his hope and dream to doing harder math. Riley had hoped to make new friends. She felt that she had, so her new hope and dream was to read books about dogs. Donny decided to keep his hope and dream of learning his spelling words, recognizing that he still needed to practice remembering all of them.
Watching sixes and sevens truly self-reflecting as they revisited their hopes and dreams reminded me how deeply children can engage in their learning when given the chance to do so.
Sharing My Learning with Parents
As a result of my learning, I now purchase a pack of “First Graders” child development pamphlets at the start of each year and give them out on Curriculum Night in late September. Because these pamphlets, which are based on Yardsticks, cover children’s changing developmental capabilities both at home and in school, they serve as great stepping-stones for conversations with families. We begin our discussions with a common language, and we build a shared vision of how to help the children learn and grow throughout their first-grade year.
Lisa Garsh teaches first graders at Broadmeadow Elementary School in Needham, MA.
Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14, by Chip Wood, focuses on the positive developmental attributes generally present in children at different ages.