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Application of the First Steps Continuum Method

By Siobhan Miles


The 'First Steps Writing Continuum' (FSWC) approach is an Australian program developed using research into how English speaking children develop literacy. It was designed to provide teachers with a way of looking at what children can actually do, in order to inform planning for further development. In essence, it gives teachers an explicit way of mapping a child's progress through observation.

The purpose of the FSWC approach is to link assessment with teaching and learning in a way that will support children and provide a practical assistance to teachers. Teachers can be consciously aware of which strategies they are selecting and why and how the activities will impact on the child's understanding.

Developmental records reviewed by the researchers demonstrates that children's language, including their skill in writing does not develop in a linear sequence (Raison and Rivelland, p.2) Children in fact can remain in one phase for some length of time and/or move more rapidly through the other phases.

Each child is unique with individual differences so that no developmental pathway is the same. Hence the indicators are not designed to provide evaluative criteria through which every child is expected to progress in sequential order. The phases included are a) Role Play Writing, b) Experimental Writing, c) Early Writing, d) Convential Writing and e) Proficient Writing (Raison and Rivelland, p1).

Our Elementary class at Northbridge International School of Cambodia (NISC), has been using this approach since January of 2005. The children range in age from 7 to 11 years old and range in level of English proficiency from newly arrived and virtually no English, to those that has reached a low intermediate level according to our own school assessment. The students meet on average for 10 hour per week in ESL and the rest of the time they are in their prospective mainstream class grades. These grade levels include the second, third, and fifth grades.

Whilst they are at varying levels of English proficiency in their respective class grades, the ultimate goal for all of them pertaining to the skill of writing is that they will become familiar with the various types of writing in an International English speaking school; and thus be better able to write to their mainstream class level.

"In the context of education it is worth remembering that most exams ...often rely on the student's writing proficiency in order to measure their knowledge." (Harmer, p.3) However, "What we do know about ESL learning is that while they are still learning English, they can write, they can create their own meaning." (See References NOTE 1)

I recognize that the 'First Steps Writing Continuum' (FSWC) is only one approach, of many to help children to improve their writing shills. My purpose is not to compare and contrast this method with others, but rather to reflect upon some of the activities I and my colleague used with our Elementary Young Learners class from the FSWC approach. The two styles of writing I will describe are 'recount' and 'narrative' writing styles.

All of the elementary students fall in the 'Early Writing' phase, with some bordering on the 'Experimental Writing' phase.

In the 'Early Writing' phase the children generally write about topics which are personally significant. They are beginning to consider their audience. They have a sense of sentence but they may only to deal with one or two elements of writing at one time eg. spelling but not punctuation. Typically children are in this phase for a very long time before they can be deemed Conventional writers.

Writing is one of the four skills of which the other three are listening. speaking and reading. "Most people won't realize that writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else." (Katherine Ann Porter)

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master". This statement by

Ernest Hemmingway typifies the ethos and belief of the First Steps Writing Continuum approach. Writing is a skill and ultimately there is no end to improving.

Children are developing as human beings, as learners of English and as writers. They need to be seen in this context. They are each unique and always progressing. For that matter, native speakers of English, both children and adults are always able to continue improving their writing skills. As Ernest Hemmingway implied, the process of learning to write well is unending for all us.

Writing is generally regarded as the most difficult of the four skills, and for most children this is probably true. (Harmer, p 96, Paul, p 96) It is not surprising that within our context, the ESL students have expressed frustration and discouragement when having to write in their mainstream classrooms. This has led for some a general reluctance towards writing in English in general.

The FSWC approach would attribute a student's lack of confidence and frustration towards writing due to a lack of familiarity with what is expected of them when they write. To add to this they don't know how to achieve the desired results. The approach aims to familiarize the students with the various styles of writing usually required to be mastered regardless of the mainstream class level, be it elementary, middle, upper school or even university.

A basic premise of the FSWC approach is that the skill of writing is learned by writing. The more writing practice, the better! " seems the actual process of writing (rather like the process of speaking) helps us as we go along. the mental activity we all have to go through in order to construct proper written texts is all part of the ongoing learning process." (Harmer, p79).

A 'Recount' is the retelling or recounting of past experiences. Recounts are generally based on the direct experiences of the author but may also be imaginative or outside the author's experience. Young children often write recounts which follow directly from their "news telling"(Raison and Rivelland, p 45)

To initiate recount with all levels we introduce the "Weekend New Recount" activity using the frameworks to guide the children in their planning stage. (see appendix) With all levels I first spent time modeling by example how I would go about using the framework to guide my planning of the recount.

I encouraged discussion and questions. According to Sarah Hudleson in her book ESL Writing: Principles for Teaching Young Writers" It is important for the teacher to model one's one use of the writing process" (ESL Magazine, V2N3, May-June 1999)

The recount framework begins by setting the scene or orienting the reader to the When? Where? Who? What? and Why? Recount then goes onto sequentially describes the major or key events after which it concludes.

With all the grades we learned and discussed helpful vocabulary. With the lower grades and those less proficient in English I had them draw pictures using the frameworks and with the older children they were able to take notes.

From their frameworks they wrote their recounts. All the activities were set in class time as my colleague and I felt this provided the children with adequate support as my colleague and I were readily available to help them progress.

Willis believes that "setting writing activities in class where you can watch them write, encourages them and stops early on bad habits early on. It also helps them to learn to spot and correct their own mistakes."(Willis, p157)

With all grades but particularity the second and third graders we did a lot of shared reading, be it fable, a short stories etc. This was then followed by the children doing a recount of the text using the recount frame work. I would then have the children create their own fairy tale or short story on a related theme.

I had the children read their own work to themselves and with a partner to help in the editing correcting process. They always had me and my colleague as a resource and as certain themes emerged that needed correcting such as sentence sense I would spend time in class on the issues that arose.

The second and third graders initially spent a long time working on sentence structure, i.e. that it is a complete thought and that it begins with a capital and ends in a full stop. The fifth graders initially needed more work on verb-noun agreement. As recount is telling of a past event we worked on simple past tense of verbs.

The children got to choose which of "their work" they wanted displayed on the school bulletin boards each week. Their audience was the rest of the school body, the staff and their peers. This became a very motivating exercise in itself as they wanted to impress their friends.

After introducing Recount, a few weeks later I introduced narrative writing style. We did a lot of shared reading and talked about the way the authors introduced the story and what elements were included.

We would discuss the complication and the resolution I asked the children to try and predict why certain things are mentioned and if they have significance. We looked at how the characters were described and what the author might have wanted us as the readers to learn. We used the framework as the outline to guide our questions and thinking (see appendix).

With the younger children and those less proficient in English I had them do spoken retell activities to each other of the stories. I also had them draw story maps if the stories lent themselves well to this activity.

The older children enjoyed reading and writing about famous or people who have accomplished worthy causes and have benefited others.

As with 'Recount' I did a lot of demonstrated my own thinking and planning of how to write a narrative which led on to a lot of useful discussion. We did a lot of shared reading and writing of the text or creating new narratives using the frameworks as guides.

They chose their best works on a regular basis for presentation to the wider school audience. "There is a special feeling about seeing your work in print...Never underestimate the value of making pupils' work public-with their consent of course."(Scott and Ytreberg, p 69)

I have found the First Steps Writing Curriculum a very helpful and practical approach to introducing the recount and narrative styles. The recount frameworks are a useful guide to structure the children's thinking and planning. I found the recount frameworks the most helpful tool of the whole FSWC program.


Paul, David. Teaching English to Children in Asia. Hong Kong: Longman Asia ELT, 2003.

Harmer, Jeremy. How to Teach Writing. Harlow Essex, UK: Pearson Educational Limited, 2004

Raison, Glenda and Rivelland, Judith. Writing Developmental Continuum. Melbourne: Rigby Heinemann, 1997.

Raison, Glenda and Rivelland, Judith. Writing Resource Book. Melbourne: Reigby Heinemann, 2004.

Scott, Wendy and Ytreberg, Lisbeth. Teaching English to Children. Harlow Essex. UK: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1990.

Willis, Jane. Teaching English through English. Harlow, Essex, UK:Longman Group, 1990.

NOTE 1: (Editorial Note). This citation was not properly referenced., 3/22/2005

PDF Format (File size 3.75MB): APPENDIX

APPENDIX Editorial Note: It is not clear from the paper if there are different "frameworks" or if there is only a "recount framework". The pages in the appendix are not properly labelled.

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