Category Archives: organizing information

Offer students check lists to help them evaluate their essays

Much of my time as a tutor is spent helping students revise essays they have written.  To aid my students, I have written a check list they can use to analyze the organization of various essays.  Below is such a checklist for an informational essay.  You might find it useful too.Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.

[ ]  Is a thesis (an overall topic sentence for the whole essay) included at the end of the introduction (usually at the end of the first paragraph)?  

[ ]  If there is no thesis, write one.  This declarative sentence should tell the reader what you will prove in the rest of the essay.

[ ]  Is the thesis repeated or paraphrased in the subtopic sentence (usually the first sentence) of each body paragraph?

[ ]  If the thesis is not repeated in the subtopic sentences, repeat it.  Or if such a sentence is missing, write one.

[ ]  Does each subtopic sentence break down the thesis idea into reasons, examples, or parts?

[ ]  If not, identify how you are breaking down the thesis in each body paragraph. 

[ ]  Do the details in each paragraph support the subtopic sentence for that paragraph and support the thesis?  Delete those which do not.  Write details that do.

[ ]  In the introduction, do the sentences leading up to the thesis tell the reader the broad topic of your essay?  If they don’t, make them.

[ ]  In the conclusion, is the thesis broadly repeated?  It should be.

[ ]  Does the conclusion provide a satisfying ending.  It might look to the future of the thesis claim, or give an anecdote, or elaborate on one of the supporting ideas, but it should not include information that has not already been stated in the body.

I find that check lists like this one offer students independence and save me time.  Students learn to repair their essays’ shortcomings–at least some of them–without a teacher’s help.

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

The only three organizers elementary and middle school students need

To write well, students need to plan their writing before they write.  They need to organize their ideas on paper, tablet or computer before they write sentences.

Some workbook publishers suggest students need a different type organizer for almost every essay or narrative they write.  Other publishers suggest as few as six.

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

This is an example of a mind web.

I suggest three.

A mind web (sometimes called a spider web or mind map) suffices for most expository and persuasive essays. The topic goes in the center, and then, like spokes of a wheel, three or four subtopics connect to the center.  The student augments each of these subtopics with details.  Then using colored pencils or markers, the student loops the information for each subtopic using a different color.  Lastly, the student numbers the subtopics in the order in which they will be written about.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.

This is an example of a chart.

A chart suffices for comparison/contrast essays. The student draws a horizontal line across the top of the paper (or online page) and then draws three equally-spaced vertical lines.  At the top of the middle and right columns the student writes the two topics to be compared or contrasted.  Down the sides of the left column the student writes the ideas to be compared or contrasted.

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

This is an example of a modified timeline.

A modified timeline works great for narratives. At the top of the page on the left write “beginning.”  Next to it stack the words “setting,” “POV,” “characters,” and “inciting action.”  Below the word “beginning” write “middle,” and near the bottom of the page on the left write “end.”  Next to “end” write “climax” and “resolution.”

These three organizers cover the situations elementary and middle grade students need to write about.  I particularly like the mind web because it is so flexible.  The more “sloppy” a student is allowed to be in creating an organizer, the more apt a student is to create one.

I also recommend creating these organizers on notebook paper which can be placed next to an electronic surface if the student is writing online.  That way the student can easily glance back and forth to use the organizer.

For more on organizers, click on the cover of my book How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay in the  left side of this blog.

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.