Teach children how to think and write like reporters

Reporters are taught to begin news stories with the most important facts first—the who, what, when, where and how.  Less important facts go later in the story.  That way, if the story needs to be cut to fit a space, all the important facts remain.

Writing this way can be a worthwhile exercise for children.  It forces them to use higher level thinking skills:  to analyze a situation and rank facts in a hierarchical order, most important to less important.

news reports JFK's death

A good time to teach this kind of writing is during a social studies class.  Suppose the students have just finished studying the assassination of JFK.  What if they are reporters in Dallas and the assassination has just happened?  How would they write the story?

First, discuss with the students what the important facts are.  Then ask students to consider in what order the facts should be reported.

  • Would the story’s lead sentence start with the time or date? “At 12:30 p.m. central time on Friday, November 22, 1963. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with the place? “At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with the how? “With gunshots. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with who? “President John F. Kennedy. . .”
  • Would the sentence start with what? “An assassination. . .”

In this case, the news story would start with the who since the most important fact is the President of the US.  The next most important fact is that that the President died.  How and where probably rank next.  The least important fact is the date and time it happened.  “President JFK died from gunshot wounds in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 today” might be a good first sentence.

News stories don’t always begin with the who.  Suppose Hurricane Katrina is approaching Louisiana and Mississippi but has not struck yet.

  • Would the lead sentence start with the time or the date: “Sometime tomorrow, Monday, August 29. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the where: “The coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the who: “Millions of Americans. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the what: “A category four hurricane. . .”
  • Would the lead start with the how: “With a storm surge expected to surpass 12 feet and winds of more than 130 m.p.h. . . .”

In this case the what and the where are most important, followed by the when.  “A category 4 hurricane is expected to slam the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in the early hours of Monday” would be a good lead sentence.  How many people could be in harm’s way and the details of what a cat 4 hurricane can do are important, but they are less important than the fact of a strong hurricane threatening a particular area.

Writing like a reporter combines critical thinking skills with writing skills.  If the children report on a breaking news event, they can match their efforts with the stories of real reporters.  Or they can report on real happenings in the classroom–a spelling bee, a field day, a class visitor.  Connecting writing activities to real life events is a sure way to engage students.

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