Category Archives: expository essay

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.

What writing skills are expected of fourth and fifth graders?

  • In fourth grade simple stories or essays are expected from most children. A topic sentence becomes the introduction, lots of facts become one or more body paragraphs, and a summing-it-all-up sentence becomes the conclusion.  Many students need help with the introductions, not knowing how to begin.  Almost all students need help with the conclusions.  They are expected to use transitions.  Students need to learn to plan their writing so that sequencing information isn’t a problem.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks fourth grade students to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information; introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose; provide reasons that are supported by facts and details; link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition);and provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
  • The CCSS also asks fourth graders to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly;
    introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension;
     develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic; link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because); use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic; and provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.”
  • As for narrative writing, the CCSS asks fourth graders to ” write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences;
    orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations; use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events; use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely; and provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • girl with pony tail on floor writingBy fifth grade, if the students have had enough practice, they should be able to write simple expository (informational) and persuasive essays and short narratives. They should write an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.

 

What kind of writing should second and third graders do?

Here are what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) expect student writers  to achieve in second and third grade.

  • The CCSS expects second graders to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section; write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section; write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.
  • In my experience, by second grade, students learn the concept of paragraphing, or as the children understand it, collecting sentences about the same thing in a single paragraph. They learn to indent.  But most still write everything as one long paragraph and need to be reminded about paragraphing, punctuation, spelling, and upper and lower case use.
  • In my experience, by third grade students learn to write topic sentences for paragraphs, usually by asking a question (Do you want to know about my dog?) or by making a statement about the obvious (I’m going to tell you about my dog). They need help imagining other ways to start paragraphs.  Some students still need help separating a group of sentences into paragraphs although a few students might be writing longer and somewhat sophisticated passages.  They learn about different kinds of writing–informative, persuasive and narrative–and try their hands at each kind with varying success.”
  • For persuasive writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons;introduce the topic or text they are writing about, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons;provide reasons that support the opinion; use linking words and phrases (e.g., because, therefore, since, for example) to connect opinion and reasons; and provide a concluding statement or section.
  • For informative/explanatory writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly; introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension; develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details; and use linking words and phrases (e.g., also, another, and, more, but) to connect ideas within categories of information; provide a concluding statement or section.”
  • For narratives the CCSS recommends that third graders “develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences; establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations; use temporal words and phrases to signal event order; and provide a sense of closure.

In second and third grade, the CCSS also expects students  to begin to use electronic equipment.

For more information, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/3/.

Writing topics for bored students

Do you have students who read over a list of writing topics and then set it down, bored? I have found topics that are sure to interest them.

high heel shoes made of wireOne group of topics concerns weird, unusual or unbelievable images.  If you use any of these topic suggestions, make sure you share the images from the internet with the student. It’s the images which will bring a smile and a flicker of interest. Then together you can come up with ways to work one or more images into writing.  If access to the internet is not available, then make a photocopy of some of the images for the student to look at.

These topics work well in the fall as Halloween approaches.

  • Search “ugly haircuts pictures” or “ugly haircuts images.”
  • Search “ugly dog pictures” or “ugly dog photos.”
  • Search “weird faces pictures” or “weird faces photos.”
  • Search “unusual jack o lanterns.”
  • Search “unusual shoes.”
  • Search “scary photos of people.”
  • Search “longest fingernails photos.”
  • Search “smiling horse pictures.”
  • Search “expensive car images.”
  • Search “twins images.”

shoes with ladder heelsAnother group of writing topics of interest to kids is the games that they play.  I allow students to add hand drawn diagrams to their writing to encourage them to use these topics, but I make sure they explain everything in words too.  Some ideas you might try are

  • How to solve a Rubics cube.
  • How to checkmate a king in four steps.
  • How to get down to one marble in a solitaire game.
  • What properties to buy in “Monopoly” in order to win.
  • How to win at “Clue.”

What about video games?  I find they don’t work.  When I let kids write about them in the past, the essays would go on for eight or ten pages with no end in sight.  I wound up writing “to be continued” at the end of a page so the student could move on to revising and editing.  Also, the writing is tough to understand even if it is done well because of the strange way vocabulary is used in the games.  Beware.

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.

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs.

I define best using two criteria:

  • the kind of organizers students are likely to use because they are easy, and
  • the kind of organizers that keep the writer focused on one main idea and relevant details.

Many students skip using a prewriting organizer because they think that using one is difficult and a waste of time.   In fact, what they might be rebelling against are the kinds of prewriting organizers that teachers recommend.  Formal outlines are incredibly difficult for students to use, yet some teachers insist on them.  I never use them, and I am a professional writer.   Why would I when there are easier approaches that do the job better?

Nearly every student I have tutored  had a teacher who suggested a unique organizer.  Students move from fourth grade to fifth grade to sixth grade, and each time students need to learn a new type of organizer to please their teachers.  This frustrates students needlessly and doesn’t lead to good essays.

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

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student’s handwritten mind web (click on the picture to enlarge it).

What I recommend to my students who write expository (informational) and persuasive essays is to use a mind web organizer, sometimes called a spider web.  The student writes the single topic of the essay in the middle of the paper, and then, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, draws two, three or four lines out from the topic.  At the ends of these lines, the student writes the subtopics he will develop.  Then from each of those subtopics, he draws new “spokes,” naming the details he wants to use to explain each subtopic.

Beginning students need to be walked through these steps.  Often I start the web by asking the student questions to find out what the subdivisions will be and to begin finding details.  Then I hand over the unfinished web to the student to finish.  Modeling is an important way to show the student the kind of detail he needs to develop.  In general, beginning writers use too many generalities and too few details.  They need someone to model how to find and write down details.

After the mind web is complete, I ask my students to encircle each mind web subheading and its details in a different color, using colored pencils, markers, or crayons.  Using color is a visual way to connect details that belong together.  Students can see immediately which subheadings have too little development and can add more details before they write.  Lastly, I ask students to number each colored group of ideas in the order in which they want to write about them in the essay.

Here's the finished essay using the "Snow Week" mind web organizer(click the picture to enlarge it).

The colored borders were added to the final essay to show which essay paragraphs match up with the encircled mind web ideas(click on the picture to enlarge it).

Why does as mind web organizer work?

  • With a single idea centering the web, the student is forced to write about one idea only.
  • With two, three, or four subtopics (never more than four or the essay becomes more a laundry list than developed thoughts), the student is forced to break down the topic into a few explaining ideas (expository essays) or reasons (persuasive essays).
  • The looseness and scribble-like quality of the mind web relax the student into thinking, “I can do this.”  Students turn the paper sideways when they run out of room, or draw arrows to indicate information on the back, or tape another paper to the side and extend the web to a second page.  The mind web expands endlessly, encouraging the student to add more details.
  • Because the structure is loose, students can add more details as they think of them, even after they begin their first drafts.  Change is always possible with a mind web.

The result is a detailed prewriting organizer about a single topic.  Sometimes it looks a mess, but the only ones who need to read it are the students and I.  When parents first see the mind webs of their children, shock crosses their faces, but later, when I show them the writing that the mind webs lead to, their surprise turns into smiles.

Mind webs are easy and they work for expository and persuasive essays, two of the main kinds that students need to write. But what kind of organizer works for narratives? We’ll talk about that in the next blog.