How many kinds of prewriting organizers does a student need to use?

Some students to whom I have tutored writing tell me their teachers suggest a different kind of prewriting organizer for every kind of essay essay.

That’s ridiculous.

Most children can rely on three types of prewriting organizers for the kind of writing they are expected to do in elementary and middle school.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.A mind web (sometimes called a spider web) works great for most expository and persuasive essays. The topic goes in the middle of the notebook paper, and, like spokes of a wheel, two, three or four spokes go out to subtopics. Each subtopic is further subdivided into many more details.

An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.A modified timeline works great for most narratives. At the top left of a notebook page goes the word “beginning.” Branching off from it are the words “setting” (divided into “time” and “place”), “characters,” “problem to be solved,” and “how it begins.” A little farther down the page on the left is the word “middle” and next to it and covering most of the page is a sequence of actions (the plot). At the bottom are the words “climax” and “resolution” where are listed the high point of the drama and how the story ends.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.For comparison or contrast essays, either a chart with three or four vertical sections or a Venn diagram works well. I prefer the chart because the overlapping section of a Venn diagram is often too small (the way children draw it) to allow much detail to be written there. But either can work.

For reluctant writers or for young writers I break this rule of three and use as many kinds of prewriting organizers that encourage the child to write. One time I taught a third-grader who was going through a transformer phase. Each week I would draw the outline of a different transformer which he delighted in filling in with details of his planned paragraph.

As a professional writer and tutor who knows a lot about writing, I face the problem of contradicting a teacher who seems to know little about writing. (I have a masters degree in middle grades education and for that degree I was not required to take a single course in how to teach writing. Many grade level teachers haven’t taken a how-to-teach-writing course either.) If a teacher is suggesting a different type of prewriting organizer for every writing situation, the child can becme overwhelmed in remembering what kind to use in what situation. I suggest that he follow his teacher’s instructions when he is writing a school essay, but when he is with me, I suggest he rely on just three choices: the mind web, the modified time line and either the chart or Venn diagram.

I have paged through various writing workbooks meant for children and find numerous prewriting organizer styles when only three are needed. Why would a workbook publisher suggest so many? The reason is simple: to make money. The publisher thinks unsuspecting parents will decide knowing many kinds of prewriting organizers is necessary.

The fewer choices there are to remember, the more likely a student will remember and will use those choices. Stick to three prewriting organizers—a mind web, a modified time line and either a chart or Venn diagram.

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