Category Archives: Introductions

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

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

Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

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.)

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.

Would you read—or discard—a book based on its first paragraph?

I do it all the time.  I figure if a writer hasn’t put enough thought into hooking me, then maybe the writer hasn’t put enough thought into maintaining my interest over 200 or more pages.

These days first paragraphs and first pages of a story need to attract.

Table first paragraphs of books

To prove this to my students, I read to them the first paragraphs of a dozen or so novels, histories and biographies.  I asked the students to record why they would or would not continue reading.  Only after they had written their comments did I tell them the names of the books.

Under “I wouldn’t continue reading” the students wrote

  • No action
  • Boring
  • Not interested in topic
  • I don’t get it

Under “I would continue reading” the students wrote

  • Action, adventure
  • Humor
  • I want to find out more about something

Rejected books include The Great Gatsby, Hatchet, Johnny Tremain, Bridge to Terabithia, Anna Karenina, North to the Orient, Little House in the Big Woods, Stuart Little, Walden, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

 Books which hooked my fourth through seventh grade students include Superfudge (“I want to know what the big news is.”), John Adams (“I like the description of the winter.  I want to know why those men were out on such a cold day.”), To Kill a Mockingbird (“I want to know why Jem’s arm got broken.”), Ronald Reagan (“It’s funny.  Why does it help to be a dummy?”) and Angela’s Ashes (“Why did Margaret die?”)

Only one book sparked keen interest by every single student, and that was Juliet by Anne Fortier.  Its first paragraph is four words:  “They say I died.”  “Why do they say she died?”  “She must not have died or how could she be telling the story?”  “How did she almost die?”  “I want to know more.”

Juliet is the most recently published book (2010) of all the ones I read, and John Adams and Ronald Reagan, two others which attracted, were published in the past 20 years.  Most of the rejected books were published some time ago.

So what?  I can tell students how important a beginning is—to a story, to an essay, to any kind of writing.  But now they know from their own experience.  Their homework assignment is to write a compelling first paragraph.  Stay tuned.