Category Archives: composing text on computer

Should children write in a composition notebook or on notebook paper?

The parents of most children I tutor supply them with a brand new composition notebook, the kind whose pages are sewn together.  They do this with good intentions, a way to keep all the children’s writing together.

But is this a good idea?  Much better is to supply children with loose, lined notebook paper.

When students create prewriting organizers (mind webs, charts, Venn diagrams or a series of drawings), those organizers need to be referred to in order to be useful.  I ask students to set the organizers to the left or right of the page on which they write their first draft.  That way, students can refer to the organizer while writing.  If the organizer is in a composition notebook, students need to flip pages back and forth to use the organizer, an annoying process.

When students finish the first page of their rough draft, with a composition notebook usually they turn the page to write the next page.  That way they can’t see what they have just written.  Good writers reread what they have written as they move along.  If the first page of a rough draft is on loose notebook paper, the student can push that page up on the desk and lay the next page beneath it, creating visual continuity.

What if students are writing on computers?  Some of my students create prewriting organizers by hand on notebook paper and put the organizer next to their keyboards when they write.  Some create organizers on their computers and split their screens so they can see the organizer while they compose.  Since pages scroll down, the paragraph or two just written is always on screen, allowing for continuity.

Computers have other advantages because they fix the spelling and alert the writer to grammar mistakes as the writing goes along.  They allow the writer to erase or to re-position words with a swipe and a click of a mouse.  Composing on computer is ideal, but some children are too young to know where the letters are on the keyboard, and waste time hunting for a letter, forgetting what they were going to write.  For keyboard savvy students, though, I recommend composing on computer.  With practice, this is the most efficient way to write.

It seems like a small thing, choosing to use a notebook or loose notebook paper on which to write.  But the loose paper or a computer screen leads to better results.

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to

How to encourage the addition of more details by students

Sometimes students balk at writing more details when they have finished their first drafts.  They think they have already included plenty of details when more details would enhance the writing.

To encourage the student to write more details, on a separate piece of paper I rewrite one of the student’s sentences needing more details and suggest we go back and forth–first me, then the student–adding details.  Here are some examples.

The student originally writes, “We walked back to the pool.”  I add, “In our flipflops and bathing suits,” to the beginning of that sentence.  “Well, of course we wore our bathing suits,” says my student, so he crosses out “and our bathing suits.”  But he adds, “In our flipflops we walked to the outside pool entrance.

Another sentence the student originally writes is, “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a glass and cut his fingers.”  This time the student starts the additions by adding “soda” to “glass.”  I ask which fingers.  He crosses out “fingers” and adds “thumb and index finger.”  But then without my asking him to, he continues. “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a soda glass and cut his thumb and index fingers.  You could see the fat and blood.  My uncle drove him in a taxi to the hospital emergency room.  My uncle sent a picture to my aunt, showing Johnny doing a pose in his bandage.”  What a difference!

Another sentence my student writes is, “We walked to the gift shop.” Before I could add details, he added “to get rocky road ice cream because it was 100 degrees F.

Why did this exercise work?  By pulling the sentences out of the student’s own work and isolating them, it was easy for the student to see the plainness of the sentences.  By my offering to write some of the additional phrases, the work seemed more like a game, and he was willing to play along.

Were we working on a computer, we could have swiped the new sentences and replaced the plainer ones, making the work even easier.


I want my kids to write more this summer. Any ideas?

Yes.  First, I would let the children know that they will be writing every day this summer.  Give them time to get used to this idea.  And tell them you will be writing too.  Every assignment they do, you will do too.  Your commitment shows them how important you think writing is.


Set up a schedule for writing time and stick to it.  Some kids think summer should be a completely unscheduled time.  Dispel this myth.  Let them know that at a certain hour every day they and you will write.

If the children have a computer or tablet available, let them use it.  This will make the idea of writing daily more palatable.  (But check to be sure they are writing and not surfing or gaming.)  Research shows writers write better when they use electronic equipment, perhaps because of the ease of erasing, moving around phrases and looking up synonyms and spelling.  If you have only one such device, stagger the writing times.

Since finding a topic to write about day after day will be a problem for your children, you decide on topics ahead of time.  You know your children’s interests and experiences.  You know what they have studied in school, what hobbies they enjoy, what trips they have taken.  These are excellent topics for writing.

Insist the children create some kind of prewriting organizer for each writing assignment.  Insist too that it be detailed.  Let the children know you want to see the organizers before they begin their first drafts, and that you will show them yours.  Monday’s writing assignment could be to develop such an organizer.  Together discuss the problems and benefits of creating an organizer.

Tuesday’s assignment could be writing the first draft.  Since knowing how to begin is often a problem, help your children.  Make suggestions to one another.  Let them help you too.  Let them see you as a learner in the writing process.  Prod the child to begin, even if the beginning isn’t great.  It can be improved later.  Allow errors and mediocrity at this point.  It’s better for the writer to get into a “flow” state of mind and to continue than to stop and start to fix errors.

Wednesday’s assignment could be to write a conclusion and to begin to revise.  If the child has trouble writing a conclusion, suggest possibilities.  Then, read aloud your draft and self-correct as you go along letting the child hear how it is done.  Ask each child to read aloud his or her draft, and let him fix the errors he hears.  Suggest places that are skimpy or confusing.  Insist that the children add more details, such as proper nouns, numbers, dates, sensory information, and for examples.

Thursday’s assignment could be to continue revising.  Identify verbs and strengthen them.  Identify sentence beginnings and vary them.  Identify lengths of sentences and vary them.  Older children could identify types of sentences used and vary them.   Final drafts should be completed and printed by the end of Thursday’s writing time, or if revision takes a long time, have the children prepare their final drafts at the beginning of Friday’s writing time.

Friday’s assignment could be to evaluate each piece of writing.  Use two columns marked “Did well” and “Needs improvement.”  Start with the “Did well” column, listing things the child did well, like sticking to one idea, organizing, adding humor, writing dialog, writing clearly, using capital letters—anything which will give the child confidence.  In the “Needs improvement” column, ask the child what he or she thinks needs improvement.  Maybe limit comments to the two areas the child thinks he needs to improve the most, such as run-on sentences, using direct quotes, spelling it’s and its or remembering to use periods.

On Friday also you could agree on Monday’s topic.  If the kids need to think about it or do research, they can do that over the weekend.  Let the children suggest topics.  The more they control the process, the more willing they will be  to participate.

Lastly, hang up the finished final printed drafts on the refrigerator or someplace where they can be admired.

(If you need information on any of these parts of the process, scroll back through these blogs.  Any blog might make a good mini-lesson.)

How to be better understood on the web

Readers from the US, Pakistan, India, Australia, Georgia and Norway have visited this blog today.  I assume many of them are not native speakers of English.

How do I (and you) write for an international audience so that our writing is clear?

  • Eliminate idioms. Idioms don’t easily shift from one culture to another.  They might be taken as literal by people who have learned English as a second or third language.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

  • Use a simplified vocabulary. Even if you know many synonyms, stick to common words, not rare ones.
  • Stick to standard English. Eliminate dialects or colloquiums.
  • Eliminate texting shortcuts. GTG is far from universal.
  • Keep your grammar simple. If you use complex sentences, limit yourself to one dependent clause per sentence.  Make sure pronoun antecedents are easy to figure out.  If they aren’t, repeat the nouns.
  • Use short sentences. Give yourself an upper word limit per sentence of 15 to 20 words.
  • Use American spelling.  It is the most common spelling of English words used on the web.
  • Assume your readers might not be fluent in English. Assume they might be ignorant of nuances of language that you take for granted.  Their English vocabularies might be rudimentary or restricted to one field of study.  Write accordingly.
  • Eliminate cultural bias. Pay attention to the connotations or double meanings of words.
  • Eliminate allusions.  So many references which well educated Americans use in writing are to the Bible, to Shakespeare or to pop songs.  Many readers will not understand them.
  • Use emojis.  Emojis can say in one picture what takes many words.

Which is better for taking notes—a laptop or handwriting?

For ideas which stick in the brain, taking notes by hand is better, according to Princeton and UCLA researchers*.

Their results are summarized in the chart below.

laptop longhand
word-for-word note taking  x
keeping up with lecturer  x
focusing on concepts x
recalling facts x x
remembering information longer x
using notes for review  x

The researchers say that even though taking notes in longhand is slower, this mode forces students to summarize the gist of the ideas presented.  To do that, the note takers must analyze what they are hearing as they are hearing it, evaluate  what is important and relate various ideas to one another.  Often as they take notes, they organize their notes, making them useful for further study.

The computer note takers, on the other hand, type almost every word but spend less time thinking about the lecture.  Their notes are copious but not digested, making them unweildly for study.

*For more information, go to  There the work of psychologist Dr. Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA can be read in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  Their experiment was reported in 2014 after being conducted on college students.

How to teach writing—what the research says

After analyzing 250 important research studies on how to teach writing, researchers found three constants:

  • The more time students write, the better writers they will be.
  • Writing on a computer, rather than by hand, leads to better writing.
  • Teaching grammar doesn’t help.

student thinking about what to write

Let’s look at each of these correlations with good writing.

Spending more time writing improves student writing. It’s common sense that the more time you spend honing a skill, the better you become at it. Yet research shows that after third grade, students spend little time in class writing. Why?

The more students write, the more teachers need to read, to respond to and possibly to grade. The paperwork becomes overwhelming. Teachers are unwilling to spend hours every night reading student writing.

Also, many English teachers love literature and want to teach it. But they are not writers. They had little instruction in how to write when they were in school, and their teacher training didn’t focus on it. They can’t teach what they don’t know.

Composing on a computer leads to better student writing. Once a student becomes familiar with the keyboard and functions, writing on a computer goes much faster than writing by hand. You can move phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs around by swiping, cutting and pasting. Spell check indicates spelling errors, and software alerts you to grammar errors as well. A dictionary is a click away. Want to check on idioms or figures of speech? Another click away.

All this work is called revising, and as every professional writer knows, it is the key to good writing. When it becomes easy for students, they are willing to do it.

Yet most schools still ask students to write using pencil and paper. Why?

Maybe teachers believe students “cheat” when they let software provide correct spelling and grammar. How can teachers check for plagiarism if students can download someone’s writing? Or maybe teachers think that because computer technology is not available to all students, to level the playing field they should ask students to use a technology that is available, pencils and paper.

Learning grammar by diagramming sentences or by listening to distinct lessons on how to use apostrophes does not improve writing, according to the research. But teaching certain kinds of grammar, such as usage, does help. The old-fashioned kinds of grammar lessons most children have in school do not improve students’ writing.

Why? Perhaps children do not see the connection between grammar activities and writing. Correcting worksheets by adding commas or coordinating conjunctions is not the same as writing. Maybe if the students’ own writing were used to demonstrate grammar errors and solutions, the students would recognize the connection between grammar and their own writing. But that is not the way grammar is taught.

Researchers at Arizona State University and Arcadia University led by Steve Graham, who conducted this research, found few rigorous studies on the teaching of writing compared to thousands of studies on the teaching of reading. However, with the greater emphasis on writing brought on by the Common Core Standards, more research on student writing is sure to come.