Category Archives: comparison essay

How to better use prewriting organizers

Organizing writing before the first sentence is written is a sure way for students to improve their writing.  Yet many students (most students?) don’t do it.  Why?  Some kids are in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to create an organizer.  Some kids don’t know how to create useful organizers.  Some kids think skipping an organizer won’t harm their writing.

What can teachers do to encourage students to create organizers and to use them?

Teachers could insist students use a prewriting organizer before writing a single sentence, and grade it or include it as part of the writing assignment grade.  For a given assignment, the teacher could reproduce several student prewriting organizers (and the teacher’s own prewriting organizer) for the class to analyze.  What ones are effective?  Why?  The teacher could ask students to compare those to their own organizers.  Then the teacher could ask students to improve their organizers before they write their essays.

Teachers could insist that students follow their organizers, and grade the essay, in part, on whether the organizer was followed.  Teachers could ask students to exchange organizers and essays before they are turned in for grades.  Classmates could alert students who have not followed the organizer.  Teachers could give those students more time to align their essays with their organizers.

Teachers could limit the kinds of organizers students use to

  • Either mindwebs or semiformal organizers for most informational and persuasive essays,
  • Either Venn diagrams or charts for comparison or contrasting information, or
  • Modified time lines for narratives.

Teachers could spend more time teaching how to use organizers without requiring the resulting essays.  Not every organizer needs to lead to an essay.

Teachers could provide exercises using poor organizers for students to analyze.  Students would need to identify why those organizers are poor and how they could be improved.

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: exciting writing topics

Students love to talk about current events.  But usually their ideas lack facts—high on “Well, I heard” but low on hard facts.

Here’s a way to give them the facts on Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Harvey—the geography, the science, even the math.

Order* “Hurricane Irma (or Harvey):  storm graphing, tracking and analyzing.”  With the information provided, students will be able to

  • Plot the latitude and longitude of Irma (or Harvey) on their own maps. Then they can use that data to write about the day-to-day path the hurricane took, where it crossed land, and where it went next (or where it stalled, in Harvey’s case).  This essay would be heavy on geography—what Caribbean islands the storm passed, what waters it passed through, what states, cities or counties were involved.
  • Create bar graphs of the lowest barometric pressure and the highest wind speed of either hurricane. Then students can compare the two graphs and notice how higher wind speed correlates with lower air pressure and with Saffir-Simpson categories.  Numbers are details, and with two graphs plus the Saffir-Simpson chart, the students would have plenty of details to write an essay heavy on science and math.
  • For a comparison/contrast essay, students could interpret a chart comparing Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey. Plenty of facts describe both storms.
  • Or for an expository essay, students could write an essay explaining why Hurricane Harvey was so destructive. All the information is provided.  Students could use this same information to paraphrase one paragraph or several.
  • A different expository essay could focus on why hurricanes form and strengthen, using scientific facts about Hurricane Irma. A shorter writing assignment using the same facts could be a summary or a paraphrase of a single paragraph.
  • What makes for an accurate forecast of a hurricane’s landfall location could be another expository essay, focusing on why meteorologists had trouble pinpointing the landfall location of Irma. All the information is provided.  Or a paragraph or two could be paraphrased.  Or the ideas could be summarized.

I wrote the lesson plans and gathered the facts, focusing on activities appropriate for fifth through eighth graders.

*To check out one or both lessons, click on Irma or Harvey.  The cost is $5 each.

Use a prewriting organizer to write the first draft

After helping students create a good prewriting organizer, I sometimes see students begin their first drafts with no prewriting organizer in sight.  “Where is it?” I ask.  They dig through their writing binder and find it, hidden somewhere.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs (click the graphic for more information).

This tells me that those students are not used to writing an essay with a prewriting organizer.  They don’t know how to use it.  I can’t assume that “If they write it, they will use it.”  They need to be taught how to use it.

I insist that the prewriting organizer be situated to the side of the notebook paper on which the student is writing his first draft.  To show me that he is using the prewriting organizer, I ask him to cross out lightly the ideas as he includes them in his essay.  By the time the essay is done, all the ideas on the prewriting organizer should be crossed out.

An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

Use a modified time line as a prewriting organizer for narratives (click the graphic for more information).

If a student is coming in cold after creating a prewriting organizer the day or the week before, I ask her to read the prewriting organizer to herself in the order in which she has numbered the subtopics.  This warms up her brain and reminds her of the details and the scope of her essay.

While she is writing the first draft, I usually allow the student space, looking over her shoulder occasionally.  If she is making progress, I leave her alone, but if she seems stuck, I intervene.  The most common problem is how to start body paragraphs.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.

For comparison and contrast essays, use a chart or a Venn diagram as a prewriting organizer (Click on the graphic for more information).

We reread the information planned for the paragraph and see how it relates to the essay topic, and from this we write a topic sentence.  If a student has not written an essay before, I offer more help than I do for experienced writers.

Sometimes students recognize that they should change the order of their subtopics.  Before beginning the rough draft is a good time to do that.  Just cross out the numbers on the organizer and write new ones.  Sometimes students recognize that they have little to say about one subtopic, but they can think of another one with greater detail.  This is a good time to make that change.

Sometimes the student has lost interest in the topic of the essay completely and wants to change topics before he begins the first draft.  Usually I let him discard the completed organizer and start over.  You might think that creating that organizer was a waste of time, but no.  The student has practiced organizing an essay, an essential skill of a good writer.  Not every planned essay needs to be written.

In our next blog, we will talk about the conclusion, another difficult part of the essay for many students to write.

For comparison and contrast essays, use a chart or a Venn diagram as a prewriting organizer.

How are Percy Jackson and Harry Potter the same?  How are they different?  How are an iPhone and a Droid the same?  How are they different?  How are elementary school and middle school the same?  How are they different?

For essays like these, where one concept needs to be compared (to show similarities) and contrasted (to show differences), a simple chart or a Venn diagram is easy for children to create and does the job well.


Click on the graphic to enlarge it.

For the chart organizer, draw two vertical lines on notebook paper, creating three columns.  Use the first column to list ideas to be compared or contrasted and the other two columns for the ideas being contrasted (for example, WWI and WWII).  Similarities can be written over the line separating the second two columns.

For the Venn diagram organizer, start with two huge circles that overlap by a third.  On their own, students draw circles that are too small and that barely overlap.  Instead, I have them trace a seven or eight inch bowl whose shape fills about two-thirds of a page of notebook paper.  If two seven-inch circles are traced, overlapping in the middle, the result is enough room for the three kinds of information needed in the essay:  how each concept differs (the outer parts of the circles) and how each concept is similar (the overlapped part).

For students comfortable with mind webs, I recommend using Venn diagrams.  The circles of the Venn diagram look something like a mind web and bring continuity to the prewriting experience.  If there is not enough room in the circles, we tape another paper to the bottom or side of the page and add more information there.  But a chart works just as well for students who prefer that way of organizing.

When the chart or diagram is full, I ask students to use colored pencils to identify information that should go together in the same body paragraphs.  Students might circle Harry Potter’s and Percy Jackson’s ages in red; where they live in red; where they go to school or camp in red and when the stories take place in red.  They might circle their friends in blue.  They might circle their tasks or actions in green.  Then they number the colors to show what kinds of information they plan to use in the first, second and third body paragraphs.

Essay on sharks by a third grader.

To enlarge, click on the photo.

Previous blogs have covered why prewriting organizers are important, and how to construct and use easy kinds of organizers for expository and persuasive essays (mind webs) and for narratives (modified time lines).  Now the student is ready to begin the first draft.  Next time we will talk about introductions.