The Writing Traffic Light

Kari has written a wonderful book on teaching writing... It is ten chapters long and this is installment two. She has graciously given permission for "The Sentinel" to publish it over the next ten weeks. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have!


After 20 years of teaching and writing with children, I have come up with my own, complete, boiled down, all-encompassing, everything-I-know-about-writing, theory.  I call it my “Writing Traffic Light” Theory and I have it hanging on my wall.  On a single sheet of black construction paper, are the sharply outlined red, yellow, and green circles of a traffic light with the words, “WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!, EDIT, and SPARKLE written on them.

Green Light:  WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! (Sloppy Copy)

 “When you start a story or paper, just WRITE everything down, get all your ideas and thoughts out of your head.  Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just do your best.  We will worry about all that later.”  This is what I tell my children and students, when they sit down to write. I give them the green light to write.  This is the SLOPPY COPY.

Yellow Light:  EDIT (Working Copy)

When driving a car, a yellow traffic light means slow down.  The same is true for writing. Slow Down, step back and edit. My yellow traffic light means EDIT.  This is exactly what I tell my children to do next: “Editing is very important!  Go back over your writing, read it out loud, rephrase things to make them clearer, put things in order, correct the spelling and the mechanics of your writing.”  This is the WORKING COPY.


Red Light:  SPARKLE (Final Copy)

At this point, I tell my children to STOP.  “Don’t add anything new to your paper.  Now make your paper beautiful.  Make it SPARKLE by changing the size and font, and print it on nice paper.”  This is the FINAL COPY, it SPARKLES and looks its best.

Once I watched my 3rd grade daughter try to research and write a paper on gemstones.  Instead of writing, she spent the first 15 minutes just coming up with the title, finding the perfect font, color, and size as she typed on the computer.  I observed how long she took (nearly pulling all my hair out the entire time!)  By the end of class she only had a beautiful and very colorful title on her page.  She has not written anything because she had not learned to truly write.  She needed the “Writing Traffic Light” approach.  She had started with the SPARKLE step and had nothing to show for it.

The first step, or green light, is such an important step.  Children can get so bogged down by the spelling, the mechanics of writing and fear that they don’t get past the first sentence.

Many times children want to skip the EDIT step of the writing process and go right on trying to make it sparkle.  Editing, however, is a very critical step and defines what we want children to do as writers—that is to write well.

Sometimes children want to start with the SPARKLE step.

Writing is a process that anyone can learn including children.  Teaching children the steps for writing is a critical skill and can also be a BLAST along the way.  In the following pages each step is addressed by developmental age group.  Then, there are lots of activities to encourage children to start, and most importantly, keep writing.

Next week: "Developmental Writing Stages"

You can leave your thoughts, comments or suggestions here on my feedback page. Thanks!

- Kari