What if teachers write along with students?

Many times when I ask students to respond to short answer questions, to write summaries or even to write essays, I write too.  This “me too” approach has advantages.

I can test whether the assignment is doable. Recently I gave my fifth grade students a reading passage with a follow-up question requiring that the students supply two details from the passage to answer the question.  I could easily find one detail, but two?  The students had problems too.  Together we discussed this problem and figured out how to write an answer.  I recognized that their frustration was genuine, acknowledged that, and worked as a partner to solve the writing problem.  Sometimes I chuck the assignment altogether and give a different one.

If I suspect students might be struggling with a particular aspect of the writing—how to start, for example—I can offer several possibilities, and I can read my possibilities aloud, asking for students for advice as to which one I should choose. We can discuss the merits of each.  Or a student could say, “Here’s how I did it,” and read her solution aloud.  I am seen as more of a collaborator than a know-it-all teacher.  For some students, this can make me more approachable when they struggle with writing problems.  When I was in high school, I was assigned homework which would take two hours nightly in just one subject. By my doing the writing assignment with my students, I can judge how much time the assignment takes, and break the assignment into parts.

Students can listen to my vocabulary and sentence openings. They can listen for sentences of various lengths.  They can decide whether my “hook” hooks and whether my conclusion picks up on the introduction.  They can see how I use transitions, dialog, details and examples.  They can see how I incorporate the writing concepts which we talk about all the time.  And all this I do on a piece of writing which they are working on.  I give them a model which they can aspire to.

Of course, with some students my time is better spent discussing each sentence as they write it, making reminders as they go along, and praising attempts which flop.

But sometimes my example speaks louder than words.

Dialectical journals

If you are a high school English teacher, you might know about dialectical journals.  But elementary and lower grade teachers—and parents of younger children—might never have heard of them.  That’s too bad because they are a great alternative to a book report.

Quote word-for-word the text you are analyzing Citation

Q = question

C = Connect

CL = Clarify

P = Predict

R = Reflect

E = Evaluate

Write your response


A dialectical journal is a method of recording information about a book as you read the book.  It requires three types of information:

  • A direct quote of a passage which is worthy of consideration.
  • A one- or two-letter identification of the kind of response the student will make plus the page number or the act, scene and line.
  • The student response.

The response can take many forms.  Suppose the students are reading Lord of the Flies.  A response can ask a question about the text:  Why did Ralph decide on a conch shell to call the children to order?  Why not just whistle?  A response can notice a problem:  All the boys survive the plane crash without injuries while the pilot dies.  That seems unusual.  And items from the plane, like clothes, are not recovered.  A response can draw attention to the plot:  The naval officer arrives just as the boys are about to kill Ralph.  That timing seems unreal.

In using dialectical journals, students should strive to use higher level thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation so that the information can be used to spark class discussions.  Sometimes a response by one student can open the eyes of another without the adult intervening.  If no students are mentioning a concept that the adult thinks is important, the adult can suggest that they keep “tone” or “figures of speech” in mind when they do the next few pages of reading and responding.

By the kinds of responses students make, teachers can gauge what interests or perplexes students about a text and can provide supplementary materials.  If students can write, they can use dialectical journals.   They can be appropriate for students as young as third grade.

Evaluating student writing

When I work with student writers, I ask them to evaluate their own writing.  The process I use is simple and works no matter what type writing the students do.

After the student has revised a piece of writing, I draw a large “T” which creates two columns.  I label the first “Did well” and the second “Needs improvement.”  I ask the student to identify what was done well and what needs work.

We start with the “Did well” column.  If the student is stumped, I ask questions about things which the student obviously did well.  “Did you have a beginning, middle and end?”  If he says yes, I ask him to write “B-M-E” under “Did well.” “Did you spell correctly?”  He writes “spelling” under “Did well.”

I try to list at least three things the student did well, no matter how basic his writing is.  Handwriting, starting sentences with capitals, writing periods and commas that look like periods and commas—I search for positives.  The more the better.

Then we move to the “Needs improvement” column.  Usually the student will mention errors we have just corrected during revision.  He might say “run-ons” and using a word like “so” or “just” over and over.  With practice he will identify the conceptual errors, such as organization problems or not writing a topic sentence.  I  bring up one of these larger issues and go back to the paper to show an example of that problem.

I limit “Needs improvement” to three so the student doesn’t get discouraged and so he can keep those three in mind the next time he writes.

After we do this many times, the student realizes he is making the same kinds of mistakes over and over.  When this happens and a student is about to write a  new draft, I ask him what mistake he is likely to make.  He says, “run-ons” or “a hook that doesn’t hook.”  This helps him focus on how to improve his writing while he is writing, long before we evaluate it.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay published

Do you know elementary and middle school students who want to write better?  Do you know ELL or older students who want simple, how-to steps for writing essays?

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay brings together essay writing ideas from EnglishWritingTeacher.com into a single source.  This book shows kids how to organize their ideas, overcome their fear of a blank page, write a good hook, connect their introduction to their conclusion, use transitions and figurative language, vary sentence types, use good vocabulary and revise, revise, revise.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay starts where kids start, thinking up an idea, and takes kids through the whole writing process.  This book offers a baby-step by baby-step process which kids can follow to write any kind of essay.  Plus examples from my real students show how other kids have succeeded using these same approaches to writing.

In particular, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay takes kids through the revising process, crucial to good writing.  Revising is rewriting—moving ideas around, adding details, replacing weak verbs with powerful verbs, varying sentence openings and lengths, adding figurative language and leaving readers with a smile.  This book tells how.

For twenty years, I have been helping kids write.  How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay collects my practical tips gained from working with hundreds of students. It can be used as a home school text, teaching kids the writing process from beginning to end.  Or it can be used to look up writing problems, like how to replace the verb “to be” with strong, specific verbs.

Directed at elementary and middle grade readers, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay  works for English Language Learners too because of its short sections (usually a page long) and numerous illustrations.   Parents and teachers will find the book a useful teaching tool.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay is available from Amazon for $12.99 as of February 15.

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

When to capitalize

Read the first 22 words of the Declaration of Independence as it was written in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them. . .”

Do you notice that Thomas Jefferson used six capital letters?

Now read the first 22 words of the Gettysburg Address, written 87 years later.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to. . .”

Abraham Lincoln used  fewer capital letters than Jefferson,  one to start the sentence and one more for the word “Liberty.”

Now read the first 22 words of John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, written 98 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying. . .”

Kennedy used one capital to start the sentence.

Over the centuries, the use of capital letters has decreased.  At the time of Jefferson, capitals were used to indicate the importance of a word or a phrase.  At the time of Lincoln, that was still true, although the use of capitals had greatly declined.  By the mid-20th century, rules for capitalization had become standardized, and Kennedy followed those rules.

What are the rules?

  • Capitals start sentences.
  • Capitals start names—people, documents, buildings, streets—anything we today consider proper nouns (or proper adjectives). But when the full name is not used, the generic word referring to the full name is not capitalized (George Washington University, but later, the university).
  • Capitals start Mom and Dad when those words are used as the names of people, but not when used generically.
  • Capitals start titles when the title precedes a name but not after a name (Senator Joan Smith but not Joan Smith, a senator).
  • Capitals start the word President when Americans refer to the US President, with or without the President’s name.
  • Capitals start a quoted sentence within another sentence (Anant said, “I finished my homework, Mom.”)
  • Capitals start months, days of the week and holiday names, including the word “Day” in New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. But capitals do not start seasons or directions.
  • Capitals start regional names (the Midwest) but not generic areas (the southern part of the country).
  • Capitals start important words in legal documents (the Plaintiff) but those same words are not capitalized when writing about the law for a lay audience.
  • Capitals start titles of books, films and works of art.
  • Important words (not articles or prepositions) within a title are  capitalized. In works of research, however, some style books call for only the first word and proper nouns to be capitalized.
  • Newspapers used to capitalize almost all words in headlines, but now most newspapers capitalize only the first word of a headline and proper nouns.
  • Capitals used to start all lines of verse, but now capitalization is up to the author.
  • Some 21st century words use a capital within a word (iPad).  These words are referred to as “camels” because of their “hump.”


Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.