Some children are truly clueless when it comes to writing and can benefit from step-by-step directions. If they use the same directions several times with different prompts, they begin to pick up patterns they can use in much of their writing. Here is how I approach a book review assignment for such children.
- First, I hand out a blank prewriting organizer that I designed. (See below.) On it are important categories that should be mentioned in a book review.
- I ask the student to write down the name of the book. “Look at the cover,” I tell him, “and write it down exactly that way.” Then he writes down the author’s name. Sometimes I ask the student to go to the title page if the cover is confusing. There the information is clear. If there is an illustrator, I have the student add the artist’s name.
- Next, I ask where the book takes place. I probe until the student gives a detailed answer. He might start out saying something vague like “near a volcano,” but with help, he will say “in Pompeii, a city near a volcano called Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.” I ask him to write down the specific details on the prewriting organizer.
- When did the story take place? The student might say something like “once upon a time.” We discuss if the events really happened or if they are make-believe. I probe, trying to get the student to supply a date, or a time period, or a certain number of years ago. If necessary, we page through the book together to find the information, and he might write “about 2,000 years ago.”
- Who are the important characters? This information is usually easy for the student to supply, but some students have trouble distinguishing between important characters and minor characters. We discuss those ideas if this is confusing for the student. He might write down “Annie and Jack.”
- What problem do the characters face? Huh? The student might have no idea if he is not used to thinking about a book this way. I explain that in all fiction books the main character(s) needs to do something: find out where a missing cat is, discover that her new baby brother is not a monkey after all, or stay safe from the big, bad wolf. Together we talk about what the problem in the book is, and the student writes it down.
- How do the characters solve the problem? Again, the student might not be aware that at the end of most novels, the character solves the problem he or she faced throughout the novel. How does Cinderella meet the prince again and marry him? How does Sylvester return home to his family? How does Junie B. get home without taking the school bus? The student writes down the solution on the prewriting organizer.
- Last, we talk about what the student liked or didn’t like about the book. If he just shrugs, I go back to the ideas we have already discussed—the setting, the characters, the problem and the solution. Did you care about any of them? Usually he cares about something, and we write that down. If there are illustrations, we talk about those. We talk about the vocabulary—too easy, too hard, or just right? Was the book funny? Eventually we come up with three or four ideas about why he liked or didn’t like the book.
This prewriting organizer worksheet and my help force students to think about the setting, characters, problem, outcome and likes/dislikes before they write the first sentence of their book reviews (which is, of course, what good writers do).
However, even with this preparation, some students still struggle with how to write that first sentence and how to sequence the rest of the information. We’ll talk about an even more specific strategy to get them started next time.
(The worksheet used here is my adaptation of one created 30 years ago by K. Wood. More about that can be found in Wood, K. D. (1984). Probable passages: A writing strategy. The Reading Teacher, 37(5), 496-499.)