The only three organizers elementary and middle school student need

To write well, students need to plan their writing before they write.  They need to organize their ideas on paper, tablet or computer before they write sentences.

Some workbook publishers suggest students need a different type organizer for almost every essay or narrative they write.  Other publishers suggest as few as six.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.

This is an example of a mind web.

I suggest three.

A mind web (sometimes called a spider web or mind map) suffices for most expository and persuasive essays. The topic goes in the center, and then, like spokes of a wheel, three or four subtopics connect to the center.  The student augments each of these subtopics with details.  Then using colored pencils or markers, the student loops the information for each subtopic using a different color.  Lastly, the student numbers the subtopics in the order in which they will be written about.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.

This is an example of a chart.

A chart suffices for comparison/contrast essays. The student draws a horizontal line across the top of the paper (or online page) and then draw three equally-spaced vertical lines.  At the top of the middle and right columns the student writes the two topics to be compared or contrasted.  Down the sides of the left column the student writes the ideas to be compared or contrasted.

An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

This is an example of a modified timeline.

A modified timeline works great for narratives. At the top of the page on the left write “beginning.”  Next to it stack the words “setting,” “POV,” “characters,” and “inciting action.”  Below the word “beginning” write “middle,” and near the bottom of the page on the left write “end.”  Next to “end” write “climax” and “resolution.”

These three organizers cover the situations elementary and middle grade students need to write about.  I particularly like the mind web because it is so flexible.  The more “sloppy” a student is allowed to be in creating an organizer, the more apt a student is to create one.

I also recommend creating these organizers on notebook paper which can be placed next to an electronic surface if the student is writing online.  That way the student can easily glance back and forth to use the organizer.

For more on organizers, click on the cover of my book How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay in the  left side of this blog.

How do you write the possessive of dress? Dress’s? or Dress’?

In the sentence, the “The dress’s / dress’ sleeve is too long,” how do you write the possessive form of dress?  Dress’s or dress’?

I tried to find the answer in my English handbook at home and in various internet sites.  But I couldn’t find an answer to the situation of a noun already ending in “ss.”

“Dress’s” looks funny because three letters s come together.  But “dress'” also looks funny because we pronounce a second syllable which seems not to be represented by a single apostrophe.

This question was presented to me by a high school student studying for his SATs.  I told him that it’s probably better to use the apostrophe s even though that creates three letters s in a row.  Other words which add a second pronounced syllable such as box’s and church’s add the apostrophe s.  So based on pronunciation, I would add the apostrophe s.

Anyone know what the answer is?

Bloated words mean longer, boring writing

Utilize.  Three syllables.  Use.  One syllable.  Why not use “use”?

Price point.  Two words.  Price.  One word.  Why not use “price”?

Vaporous.  Three syllables.  Vapid.  Two syllables. Why not use “vapid”?

Inflating your writing with multi-syllabic or multi-phrasal words when simpler words work just as well makes your writing pompous, long and hard to understand.

So why do it?

  • To sound important. In college I worked as a telephone operator, but my brother suggested I introduce myself as “an international communications coordinator.”  Nobody knew what I was talking about, and when I explained I was a phone operator, they rolled their eyes.
  • To sound educated. Many SAT words are multi-syllablic:  capricious, ephemeral, and facilitated, for example.  But isn’t it easier to understand synonyms such as flighty, short-lived and made easy?  And why do we write?  To sound educated or to be understood?
  • To please an English teacher who confuses big words with deep thinking. In fact, big words obfuscate logic (clutter your meaning) and enshroud cogitation (hide poor thinking).

What can you do to rid your writing of clutter?

  • Look for empty words. If you look, you will find.  Many empty nouns end in “tion,” “ment” and “city.”  Turn them into verbs and then search for simpler synonyms.
  • Tell yourself that big words aren’t better.  They are just bigger.
  • Look up synonyms for long words. Many English words with the most punch are ancient Anglo-Saxon words of one or two syllables.
  • Read the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost rarely used even two-syllable words, and that is no fluke.  He said good writing should be understood on a literal level the first time it is read.

Write short.

Draw pictures to remember what you read

Drawing pictures is almost twice as powerful a memory tool as is reading or writing, according to the George Lucas Educational Foundation called Edutopia*.

Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive: wimpy

Mutilate

When you draw, your kinesthetic , visual and linguistic brain centers all work.  Your brain processes the information you draw in ways which “interact,” forming strong bonds and deeper memory.

How to take advantage of drawing to improve memory:

One way is to draw when you take notes and write rough drafts. You can do this no matter how good or how poor an artist you are.  In a science class, for example, to show the water cycle, draw the sun with water below and arrows from the water heading up toward the sun.  Write “evaporation” next to that image.  Next to it draw clouds in the sky with rain drops falling out of them.  Next to it write “condensation.

Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive: wimpy

Unassertive

Another way is to use mind webs (sometimes called spider webs or concept maps) to show how concepts are connected.  For example, draw and label the topic in the center, and then draw spokes out from there.  At the end of each spoke, draw another picture and label it with simple annotations.

Use interactive notebooks, that is spiral or composition notebooks in which you take notes with pictures which your draw yourself or which you cut out and paste. You can draw or paste timelines. You can paste vocabulary cards which you can flip to see definitions or pictures of definitions.  You can draw or paste political cartoons on the subject you are studying.

Cartoon of a waterskiier withe the caption, Aquatic: relating to water

Aquatic

Use visuals to show data—timelines, sequence ovals with arrows, graphs, and maps.

*For more information and a cleverly illustrated version of the above ideas, go online to Edutopia News.

Maybe the textbook writer is to blame, not the student

Not all textbook writers are good writers.  They might know their subject, but they might not know how to write.

I learned this as a college freshman when I was assigned to read a nonfiction book by an expert in his field.  I read the first page and realized I didn’t have any idea what I had just read.  So I reread it.  Nothing.  I read the page a third time and a fourth.  And then I stopped.

I was a good student.  The author was an expert.  What was going on?

I counted the words in the sentences.  Every single sentence had more than 50 words!

I analyzed the sentences.  They were all complex sentences with three or four or even five dependent clauses.  That meant that each sentence had at least four ideas of varying importance which I was required to juggle before I reached the period.

And every sentence had great big words—SAT kind of words.

Ph. D. or no Ph. D., that expert couldn’t write.

And so I began the time-consuming task of translating academic English into plain English which I could understand.  Clause by clause, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, I rewrote the first chapter of my text.  What a pain.

From this experience, I came to believe that coherence—the ability of ideas to be understood—is the most important criteria to judge writing by.  If ideas are not logical, if they cannot be understood, then they are useless.

If you are a good student and you are reading an impossible text, analyze it for its readability.  Chances are it’s the book and not you.

What are the advantages of active verbs? of passive verbs?

Some of the advantages of active verbs are

  • Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time someone reads it.  The subject of the sentence usually comes before the verb.  The subject performs the verb, the usual way of expressing through sentences in English.
  • Brevity—The most concise way to write uses active verbs.  Compare:  Wilma ate the sandwich.  [active verb—four words]  The sandwich was eaten by Wilma.  [passive verb—six words]  If we omit “by Wilma” in the second version, we have four words, the same as the first version.  But those four words give less information.
  • Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs.  Active verbs  “slip.”  They make scenes go faster and conversations race.  That’s why sports writers write in active verbs.  Orders use active verbs.

Then, why do we have passive verbs?

  • To mask the performer of an action—Sometimes we don’t want to say who did the action of the verb because it might be more diplomatic not to identify the actor. “The last chocolate chip cookie has been eaten.”  Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “The market was targeted and bombed.”
  • To confuse. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure.  Detective novelists use this technique.  For example, you could say, “In darkness the body was buried in the woods.  It was covered with six inches of leaves, after which all footprints were swept until they were not noticeable.”
  • To slow down the action.  For example, you might say, “The history exam was returned to Jane.  It was folded, the grade hidden within where it could not be seen by classmates.”
  • To focus on the action of thinking.  Henry James, a 19th century American novelist, wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers today find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. Actually there is action, but it is in characters’ heads.  This kind of writing seems quaint and tedious to 21st century readers who want James to get to the point.  But maybe the people he wrote for had leisure to appreciate a slower pace in fiction.

Never start a direct quote with “He said”

When you are interviewing someone, and you want to quote that person directly, how should you identify who is talking?  Compare these examples:

  • Mrs. Smith said that I might want to avoid the back yard because  the dog poops there.
  • Mrs. Smith said, “You might want to avoid the backyard.  That’s where the dog poops.”
  • “You might want to avoid the back yard. That’s where the dog poops,” said Mrs. Smith.
  • “You might want to avoid the backyard,” Mrs. Smith said. “That’s where the dog poops.”

Each of the examples offers the same information, yet one excels.  Let’s examine them individually to find out why.

  • Because what is said is more important than who says it, the first and second examples are not as good as the third and fourth examples. But the first example has another problem:  it uses an indirect quotation when a direct quotation is livelier.  The reader would prefer to hear the exact words of the person being interviewed, providing that person is not hemming and hawing.
  • The second example improves on the first example because it replaces the indirect quotation with a direct quotation.  But it still starts with the least interesting information, who is speaking.
  • The third example is better than the first two because it uses direct quotes to start.  However, the reader needs to wait until the completion of the quote before knowing who is speaking.  Since there are two sentences, it makes sense to identify the speaker at the end of the first sentence.
  • The fourth example identifies the speaker after the first part of the direct quote, the correct location to do so. And it directly quotes the speaker.  This example wins.

So, to recap, use direct quotes rather than indirect quotes when the quotation is lively and dramatic, or when it shows off the speaker’s personality or diction.  Start with the direct quote, but pause either at the end of the first sentence or at a natural spot in the first sentence to identify the speaker.