Forming Habits of Mind in Young Writers through Research and Inquiry

by Ann D. David and Megan Janak

Writing in Room 103

  • How big is a blue whale really? Is it bigger than our room?
  • Who would win in head to head race, a tiger or a cheetah?
  • Are naked mole rats really naked?

First graders inquire, and as their teacher, I work to draw upon their desire to know more about their interests using writing inside Room 103. So as we embarked upon a research and inquiry-based unit of study, my writers were enthusiastic to become experts in new areas and not in the least bit hesitant or concerned about the work they were to face because of their existing workshop knowledge and experience. We had been living a writing cycle in our collective writerly life.

Since the first day of school, my first graders have seen themselves as part of a community of writers who read, write, and think together. In my first newsletter to parents, I set the stage for our collective writerly lives:

“In our classroom we work in a workshop model for writing. Your student will maintain their very own writing portfolio as well as a notebook for collecting and trying out ideas. It is highly suggested as a large component of our workshop for your student to collect writing ideas in all areas of their lives. This may mean writing on the way to soccer practice or karate. It could also mean creating a list on the bus ride home from school. Writers use their notebooks or pieces of paper to jot down ideas everywhere to write things that come to mind. Please encourage your child to use a notebook or loose paper to record their thoughts.”

Diving Into Research and Inquiry in Room 103

During the nine-week unit on research and inquiry, I hoped to provide my students with experiences using sources and conducting research. I also wanted to incorporate a digital component to the composing that my first graders were doing.

david and janak image

Jack’s writing about Golden Eagles was made using a digital publishing platform that allowed him to take pictures of his own illustrations, then add captions and other text.

Examining areas of curiosity, my students spent two weeks learning about topic choice and question forming. By pouring into the deep work of research to satisfy students’ questions, and thereby modifying and developing new questions, three or four more weeks flew by. In the golden eagle sample, I appreciate one student, Jack’s, understanding of questions and answers in non-fiction texts. In this brief window into his work, you can also see his depth of knowledge and commitment to his research in the detailed diagram of his golden eagle as well as his trying out of the question and answer form that some informational texts take on. The class spent the final three to four weeks of our writing processes crafting our findings to share with peers and families.

When young writers begin with the desire to know more about a particular subject, it satisfies their curiosity and develops their sense of ownership in decision-making around the writing process (just like published authors). Inquiry-based writing can foster ownership of ideas and confidence in decision-making for young writers. Once students are in the habit of writing to examine their curiosities, their desire to know more can fundamentally drive their writerly lives. And, yes, I am confident, and my students are too, that as first graders, they have writerly lives. I say to them once, “You’re a writer” and they take on that identity.  

Curiosity is a window into beginning to write. But the writing process is long, exhausting, and intense. Once the newness, the novelty, wears off, young writers need to be able to sustain engagement with their writing work and develop persistence. Drawing on the writing process throughout the unit, my first graders were frequently working through very different stages in their process. While they were all headed for the final product, they were learning necessary skills for research at moments that were most valuable to them in their individual processes, not just when the whole class was researching. Some of this process work included:

  • Scanning indexes and table of contents to locate potential answers to their questions,
  • Searching for ebooks through our school library databases,
  • Formulating further questions based on newly discovered information, and
  • Connecting with peers to evaluate sources and share findings.

For this work to happen simultaneously, and for me not to end up manic, my students had to take charge of their learning and persist through the challenges that arose. In our first grade classroom, I established persistence and ownership necessary for this work through modeling and conferring. Students then practiced these habits, with support, and integrated them into their developing writerly lives. Again, they were writers who then confidently approached the next writing task, even wishing for more time to engage in the work of writing.

Writing Beyond Room 103

And these skills of ownership, assertion, drafting, and conferring, developed in Ms. Janak’s classroom have persisted into Jack’s future classrooms. I know this because I’m his mother, and also an education scholar who cares a lot about writing instruction. I have seen, in Jack’s experience with Ms. Janak, how appreciative stances and habits of mind, grounded in a love of writing, build the identity of writer.  An appreciative stance toward writing is one that values what is going well and supports the writer’s continued growth through the strengths they bring.

Even now, over a year later, he notices when he reads about golden eagles and sometimes seeks out books with golden eagles in them.  Even better, he does this with excitement and curiosity, ownership of the topic, not the dread of “Oh, great, more about golden eagles [insert eyeroll]” which is how many of my college students greet research topics from their high school writing lives.  And, he dove into his second grade research project on hooded cobras with as much enthusiasm as I saw with golden eagles, in addition to the habits necessary to sustain this writing project.  He even sustained journaling through the summer, almost entirely on his own.

Through this summer writing, and other writing he’s done and continued to do, Jack is developing habits of mind for writing:

  • Curiosity
  • Persistence
  • Openness
  • Engagement
  • Creativity
  • Responsibility
  • Flexibility
  • Metacognition

These habits are the skills and competencies that good writers demonstrate, whatever the writing task or situation.  As Ms. Janak describes above, Jack dug into persistence, curiosity, and engagement.  While often discussed in the context of college and career readiness, these habits can apply to the work Jack did with Ms. Janak, the work my college students do for me, and Ms. Janak’s and my work on this post.

First graders, high schoolers, college students—all of them—have a right to writerly lives, writing for now and for later. And the way we can support them, as teachers and as parents, is to turn an appreciative lens toward that writing, at whatever stage it is. Moving away from focusing on spelling or grammar, at whatever age, we can ask questions to engage students’ curiosity, honor their persistence when they stick with a piece of writing, and honor their engagement with the writing they’re doing.  

Ann D. David is an assistant professor in the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX.  She is thankful for her former students and teacher friends who give her so many good stories to tell her preservice teachers.

Megan Janak is a first grade teacher in San Antonio, TX, who is currently in her ninth year of teaching. She loves growing and changing with each group of first grader writers she teaches in Room 103 as they constantly challenge her thinking.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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2 thoughts on “Forming Habits of Mind in Young Writers through Research and Inquiry

  1. Pingback: Advice to Teachers: What Do Young People Have to Say About Writing? | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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