Pre-Writing and Embodied Learning

It saddens me when I walk into classrooms and see prewriting taught using some perfunctory graphic organizer that every student must complete. We send the message that creating new ideas requires a formulaic approach. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Prewriting, like writing in general, has as many methods as their are writers. Instead of one specific strategy we need to build in multiple opportunities for our students  to explore meaning making within a community of writers.

My Reflections

In a previous post I documented the complexity of my own prewriting process. I decided to once again collect artifacts of my work and then reflect on my own thinking.



I took a picture of my process that emerged when writing yesterday’s post on Affinity Spaces. It started with me grabbing a pice of scrap paper and jotting down a few ideas. There was no real organization just a chain of thoughts.


I then went to wikipedia to do a quick crosscheck of my facts. I am not one of those educators who thinks to ban Wikipedia. Instead I embrace it. I go to wikipedia for quick fact checks and to look for primary sources.



This lead me to the work cited page and I realized, “DUH, you own this book (or at least the rights to it).” So I grabbed my iPad and went and scanned Gee’s 11 principles of affinity spaces.


After a quick refresh of Gee’s writingI returned to my original scrap paper ideas. It was time to organize my thoughts in my final step of prewriting. During this step I thought about the organization of ideas. I also considered how my organization affected my design choices. This last step is a critical process for multimodal composition. One must consider how design can enhance rather than detract for your ideas. For me this was a matter of determining my heading levels throughout the post.


My Thoughts on Pre-Writing

So much more happened to generate my post than what the picture captures. I have long joked that I do my best writing when walking the dogs. How can we teach and model that to writers? Prewriting for me is an embodied cultural experience. I pace. i chug coffee. I may even throw stuff. Can I hang that poster in my room? “Good writers throw things?”

Yet when you walk into most classrooms, especially at the elementary level (too many writing practices are assumed in secondary education), you do not see writers struggling with ideas or trying to create new meaning. All too often they just complete the district wide graphic organizer.

Some Take Aways

After thinking about how i work through multimodal composition I had a few thoughts I wanted to share.

Writing is an Embodied Cultural Practice

I know I have discussed this idea before but it is worth reiterating. We cannot look to writing as a set of discrete skills. Instead writing is best taught when we use student writing to build both their sense of identity and agency. First students need to see themselves as writers. Writers who grapple with ideas like every other person who has put thought to paper. Students also need to find agency in their words in order to understand that their meaning has power that can affect their lives and the lives of others.

In terms of pre-writing this embodied teaching would require students to interact with a community of writers with varying expertise. They could share their reflections on generating ideas with the class or with other writers on

Teachers also need to share with students to understand that their are multiple pathways to knowledge when pre-writing. Instead of demonstrating one graphic organizer include mini-lessons on multiple graphic organizers for multiple purposes. Let students choose and reflect on a system that works best for them. this could include formal outlines, bulleted outlines, Venn diagrams, concept maps, expository pillars, Vee diagrams, etc.

Pre-Writing and Multiple Source Reading can not Be Separated

Expository writing is a dialogical conversations with the texts we read. One of the major shifts (or better practices as I prefer to call them) is the use of sources when writing. This of course means that educators can not draw a false line between reading and writing during inquiry learning.

In my example above I first recalled information I have come across in the work of others discussing JPG’s affinity spaces (Black, Schraeder, Brown, etc) and from reading the primary source. I used Wikipedia as a secondary source. I then returned to my book. The act of prewriting was in itself an act of synthesis and of multiple source reading.

Screencasting Alone can not Capture the Complexity of Multimodal Composition

For my dissertation I watched hundreds of hours of video as students completed internet inquiry tasks. During my time at the New Literacies Research Lab I did the same. In all of the research the students had to finish with some sort of multimodal composition.  For my dissertation this involved posting a response to a discussion board (the post did not use academic discourse not multimodal design…but more on that later).

The point is I tried to capture the synthesis of ideas just by recording screens. Based on my reflection above this violated basic ecological validity. It isn’t how I synthesize and plan writing when reading multiple sources online.

At the very least an study looking at prewriting and multimodal composition must allow for and document any paper based notes. I would say the same goes for any assessment that attempts to score students synthesis of readinr or their prewriting.

In all honesty because writing is an embodied cultural practice it would take much more to document pre-writing when planning for multimodal composition (or any writing actually). For example I could forsee an ethnography of bloggers that requires video of the workspace; collection of all artifacts, paper and pixel based; reflective blog posts or journals by the bloggers discussing their decisions in the creation of both copy and design.

Then maybe we can capture the complexity of pre-writing. Then maybe we would know exactly how many writers throw stuff.

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