Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Connect back to the thesis in persuasive essays

Click on the chart for a larger version.

Suppose you need to write a persuasive or argumentative essay, as do many seventh graders whose states are following the Common Core curriculum.  Suppose you need to take a position on the following statement:  Santa Claus is real.

You decide to take the position that yes, Santa is real.  For your evidence, you use the following points:

  • The Weather Channel and many other news media track Santa’s whereabouts all over the world on Christmas Eve.
  • Santa’s image is used in advertising by Coca Cola and retailers during the Christmas season.
  •  Many movies have been made featuring Santa, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express, The Santa Claus I, II and III and A Christmas Story.

For your first body paragraph topic sentence, you write, “Many television and radio stations track Santa’s sleigh and reindeer around the world on Christmas Eve.”  If you add, “thus proving Santa is real,” you have a perfect topic sentence.  Then to back up your topic sentence, you list  TV and radio stations which do this.

So far so good.

You start your second body paragraph with, “Second, Coca Cola and other retailers use Santa’s image to sell items.”  The problem here is, “second” what?  You need to say something like, “A second reason to prove that Santa is real is that Coco Cola and other retailers. . .”

Every sentence in every body paragraph should support the topic sentence of that paragraph.  Just as importantly, every topic sentence should support the essay’s thesis.  Some students think, well of course, if I say “second,” the reader knows that what I mean is that this is the second reason why Santa is real.  Not so.  You need to say that.

You always need to state the connections between the evidence and your topic sentences, and between your topic sentences and your thesis.

In working with students writing persuasive essays, I see this lack of connections all the time.  To show the flow of connections, I draw arrows on students’ essays.  One group of arrows goes from the data in a body paragraph to the topic sentence of that body paragraph.  Another arrow goes from that topic sentence to the thesis or topic sentence of the whole essay found in the first paragraph.  If the connections is not stated, I draw the arrows with dashes rather than with solid lines to show that the connection is not explicit.

Make your connections obvious.

Why does “there is” and “there are” lead to poor writing?

Sentences which begin with “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be” put the subject after the verb. Most sentences, like the one you are reading now, name the subject first, and then tell what the subject does.  But when the sentence begins with “There is” or “There was” the subject is the third or fourth word, a weaker construction than the typical subject-verb construction.

“There is” and “there were” compound the weakness by using the weakest verb in the English language, “to be.” In a sentence like “There are two dogs,” we know nothing about the dogs except that they exist.  Even if we add a bit more information, such as “There are two dogs across the street,” we know little except that they exist across the street.

“There” like “It” (It’s raining out. It’s three o’clock) is a filler word, a word to get the sentence going without adding any information.  This construction is similar to a child starting a paragraph with, “I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.”  This child’s sentence offers a way for the child to start, but a poor way.  If the sentences which follow are about a dog, do you really need to start off by saying that you are going to tell us about your dog?

Sometimes the noun that follows “There is” is a noun which can be changed into a verb. When the sentence is rewritten, the sentence becomes more dynamic.  For example, take the sentence, “There was anger in the school about the school lunches.  “Anger” has no verb form, but “fume” or “seethe” are synonyms which could be used as the desired verb.  But now we have another problem.  Who fumes?  Who seethes about the lunches?

This problem leads to another shortcoming of “there is.” Many times “there is” creates a passive construction, one in which the reader doesn’t know who is acting.  Most of the time, the writer isn’t intentionally hiding who is doing the action in a sentence.  The writer is rather relying on an easy way to begin a sentence.  Why not come right out and say the actor, making the sentence more direct?

Another reason not to start a sentence with “There is” is that the beginnings of sentences receive the most focus. English speakers are accustomed to hearing the doer of the action named first.  (“John bounced the ball” not “The ball was bounced by John.”)  But when the beginning is a filler word like “There,” that opportunity to highlight the subject is squandered.  We focus on a meaningless word.

Analyze a piece of your own writing.  Circle all the “there is” and “there are” constructions whether they occur as the first words of sentences or the first words of subordinate clauses.  Now figure out how to eliminate them.

One exception:  When you write dialog, write the way people speak.  People say “there was” and “there will be” habitually.  On the other hand, if you want your speakers to sound dynamic, active, animated or enthusiastic, don’t put the words “there is” into their mouths.

Prewriting organizers don’t work unless you use them

Organizing your thoughts before you write is one of the best ways to improve your writing.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.But that organizer, no matter how detailed, can’t help you if you don’t look at it.

All the time I see students who create great organizers and then set the organizers aside when they write their first drafts.

Consulting your organizer offers advantages:

  • Your essay or narrative becomes organized as your write.  You don’t have to go back later to move big chunks of text around.
  • You save time.  Revising can take as much time as writing a first draft.  You can shorten the time you revise by sticking to your plan.
  • Instead of focusing on organization as you write your first draft, you can focus on style, that is, sentence structure, vocabulary, and figures of speech.  You have already thought through the details to include, so now you can focus on the best way to present them.

If you are right-handed and hand writing your essay, I recommend that you place your organizer to the left of your notebook paper.  If you are left-handed, place the organizer to the right.  That way the organizer is easy to see, and because it’s easy to see, you will use it.  If you are composing on a keyboard, place your handwritten organizer on the side where the mouse isn’t.  If you created your organizer on the computer, use a split screen so the organizer is always visible.

As you complete each detail, cross it out on your organizer.  Make sure you can still read it though, in case you need to refer to it again.  Crossing out shows that you are making progress.

Do you need to use everything on your organizer?  That depends.  If you have included a dozen or more details for each body paragraph of an essay, you can skip some of the less important details.  But if your organizer is skimpy, you need every detail and then some.

How to end a narrative essay

One way to end a narrative is to look to the future.  When J.K. Rolling ended her final Harry Potter book, she skipped forward 20 years to show a new generation of students—Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s kids—heading off to Hogwarts School.  This ending of the series reminds readers of the beginning of the series when Harry, Ron and Hermione first headed to Hogwarts.  The author takes us full circle, back to the beginning, but not the same beginning.

boy writing on a window benchEven if your story is only a few pages long, you could look to the future.  The character could wake up hours after your story seems to end and think back—with fright?  with happiness?—at what happened earlier in your story.  Or if a dramatic rescue happens near the end of the story, you could jump forward an hour or two to let the characters describe how they feel, or to show them sleeping safely.

Another way to end a narrative is to stay in the present time of the stories but have a final scenes which leave the reader with an important emotion.  That emotion could come from a single image, the last image of the story.  Maybe your babysitter has worked really hard to care for a cranky toddler.  The babysitter leaves, exhausted and thinking she will never return.  But as she looks back, she sees the toddler looking out the window, smiling and waving.

Still another way to end is with action, as if, on to the next adventure.  Superman stories often end this way, with Superman solving a problem, and then flying off.  We assume he is off to solve another problem, but his real reason for leaving is that the story is done, and the writer needs to find a way to end it.

I have had some students end their stories with cliff-hangers,  scenes where something awful  happens, and we, the readers, of course want to know how the disaster is resolved.  But all we read is “To be continued.”  This is really not an ending but a way of pausing when a student is tired or out of ideas.  Don’t use this kind of ending or your audience will be disappointed.

If you have used dialog in your narrative, then ending with dialog (or the thoughts of a character) makes sense.  But the dialog should not be preachy or try to tie up loose ends.  Instead, use dialog to create a mood.  That mood becomes the lasting impression which the reader has.

Do you need to explain everything at the end?  No.  If the details are not important, let the reader guess at them.  That’s part of the fun for the reader.

Think about what mood or question you want your audience to dwell on as they finish your narrative.   Then figure out a good way to convey that idea.  If you do, your ending will be satisfying.

What writing skills are expected of fourth and fifth graders?

  • In fourth grade simple stories or essays are expected from most children. A topic sentence becomes the introduction, lots of facts become one or more body paragraphs, and a summing-it-all-up sentence becomes the conclusion.  Many students need help with the introductions, not knowing how to begin.  Almost all students need help with the conclusions.  They are expected to use transitions.  Students need to learn to plan their writing so that sequencing information isn’t a problem.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks fourth grade students to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information; introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose; provide reasons that are supported by facts and details; link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition);and provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
  • The CCSS also asks fourth graders to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly;
    introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension;
     develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic; link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because); use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic; and provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.”
  • As for narrative writing, the CCSS asks fourth graders to ” write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences;
    orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations; use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events; use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely; and provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • girl with pony tail on floor writingBy fifth grade, if the students have had enough practice, they should be able to write simple expository (informational) and persuasive essays and short narratives. They should write an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.

 

What kind of writing should second and third graders do?

Here are what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) expect student writers  to achieve in second and third grade.

  • The CCSS expects second graders to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section; write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section; write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.
  • In my experience, by second grade, students learn the concept of paragraphing, or as the children understand it, collecting sentences about the same thing in a single paragraph. They learn to indent.  But most still write everything as one long paragraph and need to be reminded about paragraphing, punctuation, spelling, and upper and lower case use.
  • In my experience, by third grade students learn to write topic sentences for paragraphs, usually by asking a question (Do you want to know about my dog?) or by making a statement about the obvious (I’m going to tell you about my dog). They need help imagining other ways to start paragraphs.  Some students still need help separating a group of sentences into paragraphs although a few students might be writing longer and somewhat sophisticated passages.  They learn about different kinds of writing–informative, persuasive and narrative–and try their hands at each kind with varying success.”
  • For persuasive writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons;introduce the topic or text they are writing about, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons;provide reasons that support the opinion; use linking words and phrases (e.g., because, therefore, since, for example) to connect opinion and reasons; and provide a concluding statement or section.
  • For informative/explanatory writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly; introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension; develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details; and use linking words and phrases (e.g., also, another, and, more, but) to connect ideas within categories of information; provide a concluding statement or section.”
  • For narratives the CCSS recommends that third graders “develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences; establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations; use temporal words and phrases to signal event order; and provide a sense of closure.

In second and third grade, the CCSS also expects students  to begin to use electronic equipment.

For more information, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/3/.