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Deedee Wills - Mrs. Wills Kindergarten

Emergent Writing with Whitney La Rocca Author of Patterns of Wonder

Teaching writing to PreK, kindergarten, and first-grade students can be challenging. Deedee is joined by the author of Patterns of Wonder, Whitney La Rocca as she simplifies the process and offers advice to primary teachers!  This is a must-listen episode!  You can find Whitney’s book on Stenhouse Publishers or on Amazon.
About Whitney:
Whitney La Rocca, with more than 20 years in education, has been a teacher, a literacy coach, and a consultant, working with children and teachers across grade levels, schools, and districts. With a deep knowledge of content, standards, and best practices, Whitney enjoys delivering professional development and coaching teachers to support children as they develop their identities in the world of literacy. She continues to learn from children each day.

Emergent Writing Podcast Transcripts

Patterns of Wonder


Deedee Wills  0:00 

Hey, good morning, everybody. Thank you so much for joining me. I’m Deedee Wills, I am joining with my new friend, Whitney La Rocca La Rocca. Thank you so much for joining me, Whitney La Rocca.


Whitney La Rocca   0:38 

Well, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.


Deedee Wills  0:51 

I am too. Adam is off today. He is traveling with teachers, seeing teachers, and talking to teachers. So you and I have an opportunity to get together talk about your exciting new book that’s coming out.


Whitney La Rocca   1:06 

I am thrilled about it. It is called Patterns of Wonder, inviting emergent writers to play with the conventions of language.


Deedee Wills  1:15 

I’m super excited about that because one of my favorite subjects to talk about is writing, and I know Adam loves it as well. And primary writing is such different, emergent writing is such a different kind of beast because you’re starting from the ground. You’re setting up this foundation that really kind of sets the tone for them. So I’m really excited. For those of you who are listening, I’m not sure exactly when this is going to be published. It should be next week and maybe your book will be released out into the hands of teachers and maybe not quite yet.


Whitney La Rocca   1:52 

They are thinking mid-December is when it will start shipping so soon. Yeah, so sort of thickness present to look forward to.


Deedee Wills  2:03 

Wow, that’s really exciting. So I was talking to Whitney La Rocca before we started recording, and she was saying that because of supply chain issues, the book is done, but it is all sealed up. It’s like waiting for Christmas but in a different way. And it’s been done since August, and it’s just a matter of getting things out into the world again.


Whitney La Rocca   2:26 

Yes, for sure. And I’m just a kindergarten teacher so I know writing at this age is so different. I was an instructional coach for many years. And as an instructional coach, one of my biggest struggles was developmentally appropriately supporting kindergarten teachers and pre-K teachers because I just found so many things were being shoved into kindergarten, upper grades. And we were all in agreement that no, this is not right. Our students are literally scribbling on a page at the moment, and we can’t expect them to write sentences right now.


So that was really the passion that I had behind this book, and I really wanted something that could move into Patterns Of Power for schools that are using patterns of power in the upper grades. But something that could also stand alone as well, specifically for pre-K kinder, and even first grade anyone with emergent writers in their classrooms. So there’s definitely my passion project. I’m making sure this was going to set that foundation as you said, and really support our writers no matter where they are.


Deedee Wills  3:50 

First of all the forward is by Matt Glover, who was somebody that I’ve told people before, I shamelessly stalked him at a conference before. I mean, I wrote every word that comes out of his mouth. I’m just like writing it down. For whatever reason, he speaks to me like whatever he says, I’m like, yes, yes. And then as I was reading your book, I was doing the same thing. I was reading the first few chapters because I haven’t gotten my hands on the entire thing yet, but I was looking at the first few, the introduction, the first part of it, and I was like doing the same thing. Yes, yes. So I loved the way that you spoke, and I wanted to say something a little bit about what you were talking about how schools make decisions for the second third grade. And then they find a solution on how to make that work for those emergent students. They don’t [translate].


Whitney La Rocca   4:52 

It’s very frustrating.


Deedee Wills  4:53 

Very frustrating. So you were talking about the underlying belief that you have is that emergent writers are already writers. So can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?


Whitney La Rocca   5:11 

We talk about speaking to Matt Glover. He is just my Springboard constantly. He speaks to me about everything that he does, Katie would write those are my go twos when it comes to early writing. So Patterns Of Wonder, of course, reflects the beliefs that I’ve gained from them as well, and I was so honored that he said he would write the forward for this. I cannot even express how excited I am about that. But when we’re thinking about a writer, you know, emergent writers are already writers. The minute they pick up that crayon that writing utensil when they’re two and they draw on the wall, or there’s something they’re writing. They have figured out that they can make something to make meaning. So we strongly believe that the minute they pick up something, and draw, and in that case, they’re making, meaning. They’re using marks to make meaning.  And from our eyes, we’re not going to know what that meaning is until we talk with them. And so it does with oral language, and sharing their stories orally and working on that storytelling, or that teaching language prior to writing letters and words and sentences.


Deedee Wills  6:37 

There are many times when I’ve sat down with my students, and I sit down I go, I think in my head, I look at those stomachs, oh, boy, what’s going on here? And then like, this elaborate story comes down out that not only do they tell me today, what it is, but if I go back to them a couple of days later, I don’t remember exactly what was this? And the story is the same. The first time I talked to them, they’re talking about when they were at the fair, and then the next time was when they were shopping at Walmart. I mean, it’s completely the same story and that’s when that they had a story to tell. They are invested in that story.


Whitney La Rocca   7:21 

Absolutely, and they see others writing so they know that this is a way for them to communicate their message. And we know that message is important, and we want to tap into that. We want them from the very beginning to know that their voice is one worth sharing. So we want to hear it orally and through their pictures, and whatever it is any of those marks that they put on the page.


Deedee Wills  7:47 

Right, even though the number three is on there, and a triangle along there.


Whitney La Rocca   7:57 

In fact, the Patterns Of Wonder book is organized into what we’re calling the phases of writing. So we took different stages of writing out there. There are so many different versions of stages of emergent writing. So we compile those and just broke them into four, and what we call phases because they will overlap. They’re not linear. We don’t see them as a level or anything like that, but it is an organization system mainly for the lessons that are in Patterns Of Wonder, and how we support our writers where they are.


And the triangles and the number three and everything that is in our symbol and letters, phases of writing. So that phase we call symbols and letters because that is where they’re learning that there are symbols, you know, that eventually turn into letters. And the four phases we have the scribbles phase, which is the very beginning that’s your wavy writing, your line writing, bit scribbles drawing to represent writing. And then that second phase is that symbol and letter. So symbols are going to have letters, letter strings, a lot of times their name is within there because that’s like letters they know, and their drawing is more representational, we can really better see what they’re doing through their illustrations.


And then we move into the transitional phase, which is a huge project prior to kindergarten because that is the going into that letter-sound correspondence and making words and eventually kind of playing around with those spaces between the words and playing around with that punctuation. And then the last phase is conventional writing but even though it’s called conventional, we still celebrate approximation. There’s still, we value that approximation, and so conventional does not mean perfect at all. But it is definitely the writing that we can read on our own.


Deedee Wills  10:00 

As I was listening to you, I remember somebody saying this, it may have been Matt Glover, I don’t remember. But were saying one of the things that are like writing is watching a tree grow. I’ve heard this before, I don’t know if it was him, I don’t remember who it was like watching a tree grow. If you look at your yard, and you plant your tree in November, everybody takes their family picture in November. And every day you walk by the tree, it’s growing, but it’s hard to notice it. But then the next November, when you take your picture again, you really do notice how much it’s grown since the previous year. And if we only think about writers as the measuring yard being conventional writing, it will be harder for us to see that growth unless we can kind of, I don’t want to say benchmark because that feels like such an assessment word, but you don’t have to be else to kind of see that pattern.


Whitney La Rocca   10:58 

And that’s what is writing can help the teachers. When they’re looking at writing, they can think, oh, we’re working with, you know, the behaviors that I’m seeing in this writing, these characteristics really are within the similar letter. So I’m really going to continue to build this oral language and continue to work on some letter-sound correspondence and the formation of letters like there are support systems for teachers based on what their students are doing. So that’s what we really look at. And this I got from Matt Glover, as well as three avenues of support. And so when we sit down with our writers, we take a look at what they’re doing that day with their writing, and we choose one avenue to support the end. So oral language, we can support them through oral language. We can support them through their illustrations, or we can support them through print. So it’s really like that’s helped me with writing conferencing so much.


Deedee Wills  11:54 



Whitney La Rocca   11:55 

I’ll just sit down. And when I’m talking with the writer that day, I can be like, Oh, what’s a today, I’m going to support them in their illustrations, and then that’s it, and that’s my one teaching point. I know, I can support them, and we use [cross talk 12:07]


Deedee Wills  12:10 

That conferring process can become overwhelming if you are tied into the idea of moving them towards just conventional writing. It can be really overwhelming. You see all the things, they’re not there yet, and you feel like my teaching point needs to be moving them constantly into that capital letter period, kind of discussion. You know that’s makes it challenging, I think he also said something about the next steps, not necessarily the next

. So I love that you’re putting out another resource that’s going to help support teachers, and give them the vocabulary to talk about emergent writers.


Whitney La Rocca   12:57 

Absolutely, and how to meet them where they are and watch them feel, you know, just successful in what they’re doing as a writer and to see themselves as writers, no matter what it is that they’re putting on the page.


Deedee Wills  13:11 

I love that you talked about the grace of approximation. Can you talk a little bit more about that?


Whitney La Rocca   13:21 

We tend to like you said, aim for perfection. We tend to really over-focus on conventional, and but we have to understand that especially emergent writers literally, they’re just learning to pick up the pencil and use it, or the crayon or the mark or whatever it is. So that grace of approximation, we celebrate that they’re trying that out. And that’s where the play comes in and that’s why we say inviting the emergent writers to play with the conventions of language because that’s what play is trying things out, and seeing how they work. And when we value approximation, we’re valuing that they are trying it out to see how it works. They’re playing around with the choices they have as writers. And as they continue to play then, of course, they get better with them, just like we do. When we’re first learning something, you know, when we first learned how to rollerblade like I just think of my daughter when she got her rollerblades last year, and at the beginning, she’s pretty, like off-balance, and now she’s all over the neighborhood. And that’s the play that’s involved in and that’s what happens with writing as well.


So we go ahead and honor anything that they’re trying with it and continue to use mentor texts. That’s what we do. We use books that help us be our writing teachers. And we continue to look and see what other writers are doing and continue to move in that direction with our own writing.


Deedee Wills  14:45 

I’d love to ask, you talk about mentor texts, and I’d love to Katie Wood Ray’s book, and pictures and words changed everything for me. I would love for you to maybe mention, and you don’t have to come up with the answer because I didn’t tell you this before, but I would love a couple of your favorite mentor textbooks that you seem to gravitate towards if you have the titles right on handout be great. [inaudible]


Whitney La Rocca   15:19 

I definitely do. So first of all, I tell teachers all the time a book that you love is your favorite mentor text. So that’s the one thing is that as teachers we have to really love that book in order for it to have the effect on our students as well, and so we can take these lists from everybody, and get all of these books and teach with them. But unless we absolutely love them ourselves, they’re not a strong mentor text. But, of course, I have my favorites especially [inaudible 15:50] writers so my very favorite one that I think every kindergarten teacher should have in their classroom because it can be used for so many different writing techniques, and moves in both illustrations and words is “Quit Calling Me A Monster” by Jory John.


Deedee Wills  16:06 



Whitney La Rocca   16:10 

We do such a name study in kindergarten that just Quit Calling Me A Monster, this monster is very upset that everyone keeps calling him a monster. And he explains why people would call him a monster. He justifies and just because I have claws, and crazy hair, and angry eyes. He goes through all of these reasons why people would call him a monster. And he still is upset that people are calling him a monster because he’s perceived as bad. He’s perceived as scary. He goes through and talks about how his parents are monsters and he’s like, okay, so technically, I am a monster, but I have a name and my name is Boyd Peterson, and I would like to be called by my name. So it’s the importance of our names and where those coming place, so I love the book itself. It’s hilarious first of all because of Jory John. But the illustrations, there are lots of moves that emergent writers could use in their own illustrations and then in their oral language as well. So I use that book in a couple of lessons in Patterns Of Wonder. [inaudible 17:18] I also really like the author, Angela DiTerlizzi. She wrote Some Pets. She wrote The Magical Yet. I love her just simplicity of language that she uses for emergent writers. And then I also really like my map book. Do you know my map book?


Deedee Wills  17:54 

I love that. Yeah.


Whitney La Rocca   17:59 

You could use this for illustrating, but then you could just use it for idea-generating as well. There’s just so much here, and I tied in heart maps and everything too.


Deedee Wills  18:07 

That’s a great one. That’s my favorite. I saw you mentioned that in the book.


Whitney La Rocca   18:13 

So I mean, those are some I have. You can see behind me. I love books so I have a ton. But I mean, those are some off the top of my head that are pretty much my go twos that I make sure to read.


Deedee Wills  18:28 

We might be related, [inaudible] you’re not seeing…. bookshelf behind her.


Whitney La Rocca   18:38 

I do have a bit of afoot. I mean, I have an addiction.


Deedee Wills  18:48 

I saw that mentioned, it’s called Can I be your dog?


Whitney La Rocca   18:52 

By Troy Cummings?


Deedee Wills  18:54 



Whitney La Rocca   18:58 

It has letter writing in it too. So I mean, there’s that piece but the dog writes a letter. He’s trying to find a home. So he writes a letter to all of these different places in this neighborhood trying to get home and they write back and say no. And in the end, he finally finds the perfect place but it’s wonderful. So there’s a lot to do with that, too. If you want to go deeper. There’s a perspective there and there’s letter writing, of course, but it’s just really good and the kids love it.


Deedee Wills  19:29 

You mentioned oral rehearsal and its importance, can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? What does that look like from a day to day operation in the classroom?


Whitney La Rocca   19:46 

Oh, my goodness. First of all, I’m just asking them what their story says, to decide and I am involved in an inquiry group with Matt Glover and Kathy Collins. And they’re really looking at language composition, and that’s something really interesting to think about. And when emergent writers are sharing their stories, but also when they’re reading pictures, and paying attention to the language that they’re using. So are they just labeling when they are sharing their story, or are they using sentences, and how developed are those sentences? And so with Patterns Of Wonder, because those lessons are on the use of grammar and conventions, what we do with those lessons is were developing the oral rehearsal of their stories. So moving from just labeling, using one word per page, like Mom, Dad, as they’re going through, or pointing to each part of their picture saying, Mom, Dad, me, swimming pool, moving into sentences, and then moving into either storytelling language if it’s a story, or teaching language, if it’s like a list book or some kind of teaching book.


In Patterns Of Wonder, in our lessons, we have what’s called a Focus Phrase. And that focus phrase is a child-friendly, learning objective statement where they can internalize it. So in the scribbles phase, it might be I tell about people, places, and things in my writing. So it’s essentially nouns but it’s through that oral language. So I’m going to tell about that, and then we get to really develop as we’re adding in all of these parts of speech into our telling’s or oral rehearsal. We get to really develop the language that they’re using in their writing. We can also use that in their reading as well. So that focus phrase can go both into reading and writing, as they’re developing that language.


And then, of course, with the phonological awareness that we’re doing. And you know, during our PA time in our day, there is a spot so the Patterns Of Wonder has a process that you follow. So the first day, and you’re taking a look at a page from mentor texts, and you’re just asking, what do you wonder on this page, what do you see the writer and illustrator have done, let’s take a look and we just explore that. And through that, we find that we discover the focus phrase.


So then the next day, we do the same thing, but with another book or another page from that book, or even something a teacher’s created. So we’re doing some comparing and contrasting of the two. But on the third day, we create another piece of writing together, and so that’s three, their shared writing or interactive writing. So during that time, we can connect that phonological awareness to print. And so we can go ahead and think how many you know if we’re going to write a sentence, how many words are we going to put on our sentence, and really plan that out and orally rehearse it over and over and over again and then writing it.


Deedee Wills  23:03 

And kids come in with such a different suitcase of skills at the beginning of the year. Some of them come in, and they’re talking to you and saying, And then you have some that are giving you one word just in conversation. And the same is true. I mean, we can talk about kindergarten, but really first grade, you’ll have that and even second grade, if you have some students who may have a second language as part of their background, or some oral language learning differences or some language differences. I don’t know of a second-grade teacher who hasn’t had a student who thinks, Oh, I could use some of those kindergartens lessons because that’s where this particular student is.


Whitney La Rocca   23:57 

Absolutely. And just the importance of reading aloud, right, and modeling that wedge with books. And so that’s why we have so many mentor texts listed because we do want these read aloud to develop that language, and for students to really hear how books go, how language is used, depending on what type of book it is.


Deedee Wills  24:20 

One of the things you had talked about is how you went through a book, a mentor text, and wrote about or talked about things that they wonder about. And one thing that I always noticed, like I always have in my head like I’m sure they’re going to talk about this part. But inevitably, they always mentioned something that never really even occurred. They see things that I don’t see.


Whitney La Rocca   24:43 

And that’s why we start with wonder, and in what I have found when I’ve done these with pre-K and kindergarten classes is their wonderings are very much attached to their noticing, of course, because they’re seeing things there, and then they’re wondering from that. So a lot of times I will say, what do you wonder? And they’ll share with me what they see on the page. But like in Can I be your dog, You know, the student, well, there’s a cat in the tree, I wonder if it’s going to go higher. So we got to have this conversation around. Well, yeah, right now it’s sitting on this branch, but maybe it will move higher. Where will it move higher into the tree? And we could really develop the oral languages through their wonderings that way. And essentially, you know, once they start to recognize some of the prints, they will say, oh, I wonder what that mark is, or I wonder why they made those words so big or, but we really wanted to tap into their natural curiosity. And in Patterns Of Power for grades one through five, we start with what do you notice, but we’re looking at the sentence itself. But here and patterns of wonder, we’re looking at the entire page, and we want to just happen, everything is new to these writers. We just want to tap into the curiosities that they have, and move in that direction.


Deedee Wills  26:06 

Wonderful. You talked about acknowledging and celebrating right where they are. We’ll kind of finish off with that if that’s okay with you. You talk a little bit about what does that sounds like when you’re with a student, and you’re sitting down with the page of things that need to be deciphered? What does that look like for you?


Whitney La Rocca   26:33 

Well, first, I just say, I simply ask, oh, tell me what you’re doing with your writing today. And so they might share the story with me, or they might tell me what they’re drawing. And again, I am thinking, okay, how will I support the writer today? Is it that going to be through oral language, illustration, or print? So as they share with me, then I decide and what I always do, and this is typical, and this is the structure of the conference as I noticed something that they are already doing.


So I noticed, you’re telling about people, places, and things in your picture. You’re telling about the people in your picture, and another thing you could do is also tell about the places in your picture or the things, and so it’s really just meeting them where they are by finding out what they’re doing. And then what else could they do based on that and with that, you know, in a lot of times. They’ll draw pictures, and I’m like, oh, remember, we use pictures and words, you’re using pictures. So now add some words. And a lot of times, they’ll say, well, I don’t know how to write words, and I say, oh, but you know some letters like think about your name, you know some letters. Yeah, I know some letters, okay. Words are made of letters. So write some letters, and they should have their little alphabet chart in front of them.


And so sometimes those letters will be very random. And if they are random, then that’s our next thing is, oh, what is this right here, it’s a book. But you know, and we can begin down correspondence, but you have to, you can’t go with scribbles and expect them to write words. So you have to thank what I mean by meet them where they are, figure out what they are doing, a compliment that, notice that name it, that’s Katie would write notice a name, and move forward from there.


Deedee Wills  28:22 

One of the things that I always try to keep in mind, and it sounds like you’re in the same, is when you sit down, you’re not there to look at their writing, you’re there to look at the writer. Little gems that you want to give, leave them with or things that are going to help them be a stronger writer tomorrow. So if we sit down and think about, oh, let’s go back and fix all of these things, those are the things that one makes writing so parallelizing for adults is thinking about going back, and changing all of those things or is trying to move forward. For a teacher to have to go back and say well, capital letter here, a period, that’s not the place for it.


Whitney La Rocca   29:15 

Well, and I just think right now, I have the dream job. I don’t want to brag but right now  I’m a consultant. So you know, but so much of my work is virtual. And because of COVID, there are some parents in my neighborhood that did not want to send their kindergarteners to school this year, and they were worried about COVID. So they were looking for homeschooling, and they were looking for someone to help out and I was like, I would be happy to have them a couple of days a week for literacy. So I have four children. I have two, four-year-old and two, five-year-old that come to my house for a couple of hours a day, a couple of days a week, and we get to do literacy, and I get to do Patterns of Wondering, all the writing, reading workshop, phonics. We do it all.


And we have one that just turned four, we have a middle of the road for one that just turned five and then and so they’re very much in different spots. But at the beginning with their writing, some were just literally drawing the big circle with the potato, the potato with the leg. And the other day, she started to add letters. And she’s like, I wrote words, and she was so proud of herself. We don’t know what that says but she did very much, associates those letter strings with what it says. And she was just so proud of herself for writing words in her mind. And so that’s what it’s all about is just moving from just marks on the page to words in their eye, and how proud they are to do that work. So that’s it.


Deedee Wills  30:57 

That does like a dream job.


Whitney La Rocca   30:59 

It’s really awesome. My two, five-year-old are going to start. They’ve been vaccinated. So they are going back in January. So I’ll just have my two, four-year-old’s for the rest of the year, but I just am like, they’re going to be so ready about where they’re at right now with their writing.


Deedee Wills  31:17 

Oh, that’s amazing how exciting. Thank you so much for joining me. I’ll add a link where people can find your book, and perhaps maybe when this was published, well, they can pre-order it right now. So that’s something that they can do now.


Whitney La Rocca   31:35 

And it is like you can preorder on Amazon as well, but it is cheaper to go through Stenhouse and you get it cheaper if you go through the publishing company itself. So it’s definitely better that way to go. And you’ll probably get them even earlier through Stenhouse, for Amazon anyway.


Deedee Wills  31:52 

Well, thank you so much for joining me, I cannot wait to get my hands on the full enchilada. I am so excited that there’s another book out there that’s going to, you know, support teachers, and give them you know, sometimes it just feels so overwhelming. And sound like you have brought the perfect solution. So I’m super excited.


Whitney La Rocca   31:58 

Well, and it’s a process. So it’s supposed to, you know, just be very short in your day of little, tiny snippet each day. And so that’s what’s nice is yes, there are over 50 lessons in the book, but they’re meant to be picked and chosen depending on where your students are.


Deedee Wills  32:42 

Well, thank you so much. All right, everybody. We will see you next week. We’ll be back. Thank you so much. Thank you. Bye, y’all.





About the Podcast

The Classroom Collaborative Podcast is a show about teaching, classroom, and education. We tackle new classroom tips and tricks in every episode.

About Your Hosts

Deedee Wills is an early childhood educator, instructional coach, and international educational consultant. She is also the author of the award-winning blog, Mrs. Wills Kindergarten.

Adam Peterson is a kindergarten teacher, nationally recognized speaker, and educational consultant. He also the creator of the popular YouTube channel,

I hope you enjoyed this episode! See you on the next one!

Deedee & Adam

Teaching emergent writing to PreK, kindergarten, and first-grade students can be challenging. Deedee is joined by the author of Patterns of Wonder, Whitney La Rocca as she simplifies the process and offers advice to primary teachers! This is a must-listen episode!

Pin for Later

Teaching emergent writing to PreK, kindergarten, and first-grade students can be challenging. Deedee is joined by the author of Patterns of Wonder, Whitney La Rocca as she simplifies the process and offers advice to primary teachers! This is a must-listen episode!


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