Create a mind web organizer

Organizing their thoughts before writing their first drafts is a step many children skip.  “Takes too much time” they claim.  Or “Too difficult.”

If students write an organizer the way I was taught in school, they are right.  A formal organizer can be time-consuming and frustrating.

But a mind web organizer can be quick and easy.  It does what an organizer is supposed to do–organize thoughts coherently and concisely–but without the pain of a formal outline.  Plus kids of almost any age can design one.

Here is an example of a mind web from a seventh grader I taught this past week.  He divided his topic, video games, into three parts:  Minecraft, time limits his parents impose, and why he likes video games.  He had never created an organizer before, so I wrote down the words he said at my end of the zoom meeting, held up my diagram, and he redrew it at his end.  It looked something like this:

For homework he will add details on this mind web for Minecraft and time limits. After that we will discuss why each of these subtopics is too large for a good essay, and instead of writing the essay, we will  turn one of those three subtopics into the new topic of another essay and create another mind web.  This is a new skill for this student, and he needs practice.

Creating this organizer took only a few minutes–far less time than revising a poorly organized essay.  You can find more information about how to create mind webs on pages 8 to 11 of  my book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay, available from Amazon.  There you will see another example of an organizer, this time created by a third grader.

Using How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay to teach how to limit a topic

After babysitting my home-bound five-year-old and three-year-old grandsons for many months, I recently resumed tutoring writing, this time 100% online.  I’ve learned that using my book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay, has helped make the teaching more personal.  And so I am going to share how you, too, can use this writing instruction book to improve your child’s writing, online or off.

Writing is a process done in a sequence of steps.  The steps are always the same—deciding on a topic, limiting it, organizing details around one main point, writing a draft, and revising, revising, revising.

Children are not born knowing these steps any more than they are born knowing how to play a sonata or bunt a baseball.  The steps must be learned and practiced.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay explains these steps, using examples written by children from first to sixth grades.  Yet the process is the same no matter what grade or what age.

One of the most difficult steps is the first step, choosing and limiting a topic.

Narrowing an essay topic from general to specific information is shown in the diagram above.  For more information about my book from which this diagram is taken, click on this link ( or on the book cover in the left column.

Often a teacher assigns a topic such as the American Revolutionary War which is usually studied in fourth grade in the US.  But as I explain in pages 1 and 2 of the book, the Revolutionary War is too big a topic.  Your child can narrow the topic by writing about a battle—say the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Even that is too big a topic.  Your child can narrow it further by focusing on Paul Revere’s part in that battle.  But Revere’s actions on April 18 ad 19, 1775, include too much information for a five-paragraph fourth grade essay.

What to do?  Choose one of those ideas—say getting the signal–“one if by land, two if by sea.”  With this narrow topic, the student can research targeted reading and can discover fascinating details for an essay.

All this is covered in the book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay.

Take another topic not covered in the book:  the Pandemic of 2020.  Again, this is a huge topic, too big for a student of any grade to tackle.  How about narrowing it to how the pandemic is affecting my family.  Still too big.  How about the pandemic’s effect on me:  being homebound, needing covid testing, not playing with friends, fear of getting sick, attending school online.

How about taking the last idea—attending school online—and further subdividing that.  A noisy house, no privacy, a spotty internet connection, difficulty with Zoom, mom as teacher.

Suppose your student chooses difficulty with Zoom as her topic.  How did she learn Zoom?  Who taught her?  Did she watch You Tube videos?  What problems did she encounter?  How did she feel?  How did she learn?

But wait—this topic can still be subdivided.  What if she chooses as a topic watching You Tube videos to learn Zoom.  This is a much smaller topic than the Pandemic of 2000.  Maybe there was one video which was particularly useful or confusing.  The student could focus on that one video and explain what she learned from it, or what confused her and how she solved the problem–or didn’t.

Or she could choose getting tested for covid.  Maybe she needed to wait in the car for ten hours on a hot summer day while her mother snaked the car through a huge parking lot.  What did she do while she waited?  Did she bring food?  How was the test administered?  What was the tester wearing?  Did the test hurt?  Did she need to wait for the results?  How long?  What were the results?  How did she feel?

Students come to writing with the idea that they must choose big topics such as the solar system or the life of Abraham Lincoln.  They think if they limit their topic, they won’t have enough information to write five paragraphs.  As the teacher, your job is to help a student narrow his topic until it is manageable.

And once you have done that, it is your job to help the student organize his information.  We will talk about that soon.  Or you can go to How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay, pages 3 to 23, to find out more.

State your main idea explicitly in nonfiction

My friend handed me a book of nonfiction her uncle had written and asked me for my opinion.  I scanned through the first few pages and handed it back.  “He doesn’t say what the book is about.  I have no way to evaluate the book without knowing what his point is.”

adult couple in discussionThe author of this book made a mistake that many young writers make, namely, not stating explicitly what their thesis is.  Without knowing the thesis, readers can’t judge whether a book does what it says it will do because it never says what it will do.  It’s like giving a person a car but not giving any directions.  Where should the car go?  Should the car pick up passengers?  What is the purpose of the trip?

If you are writing a nonfiction book, essay, chapter or news story, you should alert the reader to your purpose.  You can do that several ways.

One way is to write a headline or title which encompasses the main idea.  “Twenty dead in tornado” and “Biden wins Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes” clearly state the main details of the article to follow.

Another way is to state in the first paragraph (or rarely, in the last, if you are leading up to your main point) the thesis of your writing.  A classic example is the following:  “Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways.” –The first sentence from “The Ways of Meeting Oppression” by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The rest of his essay identifies those three ways and explains why one is best.

If you are writing a book, use your introduction to explain to your readers what the purpose of your book is and what they should learn.  “You’re reading this book because you want your business to grow. I’m going to show you a proven system for making all this happen.  –The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell

If your readers need to infer the main idea, they might stop reading.  Too much work.  So make sure you state early on what your point is.

What is a strong verb?

The surest way to improve writing is to write strong verbs.  But what are they?

  • verbs which show specific actions
  • verbs with one unambiguous meaning
  • verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin
  • verbs of one or two syllables
  • verbs stated in the active voice

The surest way to weaken writing is to write weak verbs.  What are they?

  • linking verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
  • verbs with multiple meanings
  • verbs with general, nonspecific meanings
  • three-, four-, and five-syllable verbs of Latin origin
  • verbs stated in the passive voice

Take the quiz to see if you can spot the strong verb.

1a.  The Senator waited for the election returns.
1b.  The Senator sweated out the election returns.
1c.  The Senator listened for the election returns.

2a.  Grandma looked peaceful sleeping in her rocker.
2b.  Grandma slept in her rocker.
2c.  Grandma giggled while sleeping in her rocker.

3a.  The toddler squealed while opening his gift.
3b.  The toddler was excited while opening his gift.
3c.  The toddler cried out while opening his gift.

4a.  The coffee burned my tongue.
4b.  The coffee scalded my tongue.
4c.  The coffee hurt my tongue.

5a.  I was startled when the cat appeared.
5b.  I was surprised when the cat appeared.
5c.  I leapt when the cat appeared.


1b.  “Sweated out” is more specific.

2c.  “Giggled” is an action.

3c.  “Squealed” is more specific.

4b.  “Scalded is more specific.

5c.  “Leapt” is an active voice verb.


Students lack practice in wide array of writing genres

Last winter, before covid 19 closed schools and eliminated statewide exams, I was tutoring Georgia students for the writing portion of the ELA state exams they faced.

Almost all of the writing portions of the exams required responses to reading.  A student would read a short passage and then be asked to answer a question about the passage.  A more complicated response might require a student to read two passages and combine information from both passages to answer a question.  Both kinds of writing tested reading comprehension.

In preparing for their exams, students might think that the only important writing required of them was responses to questions about reading passages.  “Why did the author call the dog “That Spot” instead of just Spot?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”  “In what way was the bird in The Secret Garden similar to the horse in Black Beauty?  In what way were the animals different?  Use details from the passages to support your answer.”

The kind of answers required by the exams was short answer responses:  two or three sentences for some responses, or maybe five or six sentences for others.

Some students I tutored had been taught in school to start every answer the same, and to use a fill-in-the-blanks approach to writing.  “One way the bird in The Secret Garden is similar to the horse in Black Beauty is ____.  [Give a detail.]  One way the bird and the horse are different is ____.  [Give a detail.]

Unfortunately, high scores on the exams are so important to school’s and teachers’ reputations that the main focus of the writing program is how to answer these kinds of questions.  Almost no essays.  Almost no book reports.  Almost no responses to current events.  Almost no journal writing.  Almost no poems or letters or research reports.  Almost no science experiment reports.

For most of the students I teach, coming up with their own topics tortures them.  They don’t organize a topic because they haven’t practiced that skill in school.  Revising?  They don’t do it because they don’t know how.  A first draft is good enough.  Editing means correcting spelling errors.  All they know how to do well is answer short response questions.

We are teaching children to be skilled adults.  How many adults are asked to read a two-page passage and answer comprehension questions about it.  “Read this section of the debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Harris.  In what way were their responses similar?  In what way were they different?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”

Teaching for the test is limiting our students’ ability to write.  It is limiting the genres they practice.  It is limiting the research they do and combine meaningfully in writing.  It is limiting the expression of their own ideas.  It is limiting their thinking.

The curtailing of state exams in spring 2020 was probably good for student writing.  Or rather, it could have been good if students instead practiced other kinds of writing.  Hmm.