Look around. Today symbols are everywhere, communicating their messages with speed and accuracy; logos, computer icons, advertisements, Facebook, Twitter, phone apps. Our students take to symbols like fish to water. Since, according to researchers at IBM, these images are processed 60, 000 times more quickly than words,
it is no wonder they have become the communication of choice in our fast paced, diverse, global system. It only makes sense that education jump into the twenty - first century as we begin to use these effective tools in our classrooms.
A symbol, by its very nature, communicates an idea. When this idea is universal, connecting to a deeply familiar concept, it can be understood by a vast populace as it is translated into the language of the viewer. Its meaning transcends social, cultural, political, language and academic barriers, communicating quickly, clearly, and effectively. The ability of an idea to communicate so well to such a diverse population is particularly significant since our nation's schools are filled with richly diverse student bodies. The importance of our communication as teachers is paramount, as it is the factor that defines the effectiveness of our instruction. A symbol can also be used to explain complex ideas when words cannot and inspire us to write needed words by the idea it conveys. This theory inspired the Trait Mate, a symbol I developed to communicate concepts for writing. The Trait Mate is a concrete visual explanation of abstract ideas to help students think about narrative structure and elaboration. It is a symbol that communicates concepts in a way students will understand and therefore enjoy. As students use versions of this symbol to write, they will develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between the symbols and narrative writing, ultimately using the Trait Mate with automaticity as a framework for structure and elaboration in their stories. Using symbols as a method to teach writing is fun and engaging. Because the Trait Mate symbols communicate ideas so well, writing concepts are easily taught and quickly learned, making them powerfully effective tools for teaching.
I teach second grade at John S. Martinez Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut. The New Haven School District uses the Mondo reading and oral language curriculum and has recently added the Mondo writing curriculum. These programs connect oral language, reading, and writing instruction. In my opinion, there couldn't be a better relationship. These three skills are directly and fundamentally related, woven together as a family, each unique and interrelated, necessary for the individual growth of one another. A student's development in one of these three skill areas closely parallels and reflects the relationships of the other skill areas. For example, a student's oral language score reflects the complexity of the language structure a student uses in spoken language. A similar level of complexity is often demonstrated in the student's writing. Finally, this level of complexity and structure is what a student is able to understand when reading and is represented in his or her DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) score. Simply put, according to the Mondo program, what you can think, you can say; what you can say, you can write; and what you can write, you can read, in that order!
Teaching students to think with clarity and structure about writing provides a foundation that will help them to grow as writers reinforcing and supporting their reading skills as well. This is exactly what the Trait Mate does.
Students come to second grade with limited writing experience. Developmentally, my students are in the early emergent and emergent stages of writing. By the end of second grade, they are expected to be able to write a well-developed narrative that shows a clear sequence of events. Each event needs to be sequenced with transitional words and elaborated with specific details. In addition, each story needs to be well organized and fluent. This is a challenge for any teacher.
The Trait Mate symbols are concrete guides that can also be used as mental images to help students to sharpen thoughts about the elaboration and structure of their writing. Since our thoughts guide what we write and since how we think about our writing ultimately moves our thoughts to the words that are written, thinking about writing more strategically is an important skill for students to learn. The multifaceted symbol of the Trait Mate can help students learn to write strategically because it visually demonstrates the need to describe the character's thoughts, feelings, actions, dialogue and other characters' reactions through the easily understood language of symbols. The Trait Mate symbolizes narrative structure when he holds the problem and solution symbols and is labeled with transitional words on the action symbols (hands and feet) to illustrate a sequence of events. Using the Trait Mate as a writing friend that creates a framework of mental images will help students to write more effectively because it visually explains narrative structure and elaboration in a way that students can easily remember. It provides concrete support for students' thinking that will reduce anxiety as they approach their writing, especially when they are asked to write to a prompt
The high anxiety students experience when writing to prompts can quickly scramble thoughts like a high-speed blender. This unit also discusses how the Trait Mate symbols, as partners to writing, can be applied to reading in a way that supports the elements of writing that students need to understand and include in their own pieces. Students learn by studying the works of published authors. By examining these published works, students see how various authors structure their story sequence and elaborate the characters. In addition, students can examine specific details of elaboration, identifying and labeling stated or inferred elements with the appropriate symbols, reinforcing each symbol's use and purpose. In addition to serving as concrete guides and a mental framework for students in their reading and writing, the Trait Mate symbols can be used as a visual language for the teacher and students to communicate with each other about revisions.
I teach reading and writing closely in a way that supports their reciprocal relationship through shared, guided, and modeled lessons. Reading comprehension strategies are taught explicitly as well as the study of genres and text structures through the construction and deconstruction of text. The more closely these skills are taught, the more effective instruction can be. During this instruction, the components of narrative structure are taught (character, setting, problem, sequence of events, and solution). Students begin to develop an understanding of structural elements in a variety of genres with their unique characteristics. Ideally those features and concepts would be transferred to writing as students become authors and describe each narrative component in their stories. However, this is not typically the case. When students sit down to write independently, they struggle to structure their thoughts, organize their writing, and access ideas.
The corner stone of the use of the Mondo program in our school is the interrelated instruction in language, reading, and writing. As a result, I embed oral language exercises into many of my lessons as a way for students to expand language structures and organize their thoughts. Students often turn and talk with a partner to practice saying what they think, a kind of thinking "rough draft." I call it a "thought draft." Listening to these oral drafts can be an excellent assessment tool. A student's oral language reveals the structure that the student thinks in. The way in which a student speaks closely reflects the level of complexity in sentence structures and very often parallels raw writing structure. In addition, the way in which a student tells a story will also reflect the kinds of organization and elaboration of a writing prompt. It was through this very assessment that I discovered that there was still a gap between my students' oral and written stories. After listening to what students were saying, I realized that they were having difficulty talking about the same kinds of things that they were struggling with in their writing: organizing their thoughts, structuring the events and describing the character through thoughts, actions, dialogue, feelings, and traits. It finally dawned on me that my students could not write it because they did not know how to think it. The purpose of this unit is to show students how to think about their writing by using visual symbols as tools. The mental pictures of the Trait Mate could be considered thinking guides as students write their stories. The language of these visual symbols is meant to evoke specific thoughts that a student responds to in writing. They are used as a visual bridge from thinking to writing. These symbols give support for what students are asked to write as they describe a character's trait through his or her thoughts, dialogue, actions, feelings, and others' reactions. They are tools that are easy to use, fun and engaging for students. The symbols are familiar and easily understood, leading the student gently forward to discover themselves as authors.