Category Archives: practice writing skills

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.

How a grandmother encourages her seven-year-old grandson to write

I received a note from a reader, describing how she teaches her grandson to write.  The boy, who turned seven this summer, is an active skateboarder, bike rider and swimmer, but he finds school work hard.  I contacted the grandmother, and here is our conversation:

Does your grandson like to write?

No.  He hates to begin.  But once he starts, he relaxes and actually enjoys it.  He feels pride in his work.

How do you get him started?

Late afternoon is best when I am getting dinner ready.  He sits at the kitchen table.  It takes lots of conversation while he tries to negotiate a way out of writing. It is difficult to endure but I persist.  If I let him wait until after dinner, he is too tired. So I refuse to change the time.  I bribe him with food treats, which I would give him anyway.  Or I promise a chance to play on my iPad for 15 minutes after he is done.

And then?

I give him a choice of three topics to write about.  More discussion.  Eventually he decides on one topic.  I write that word in the middle of a PLAN paper and now we decide on three ideas about the topic.  I write three more idea words.  He connects those words to the topic word in the center of the page. The key is the PLAN.  Now the struggle s over.  He has a plan to follow, so there is no more pulling info out of him.  It is a task to be completed.  He can work independently for a moment using the notes in the PLAN.

I try to walk away and let him do his own writing.  I will spell a word or write a big word on his PLAN paper if he asks.  It is quite amazing how his attitude changes once he has a sentence written.  He is happy that his sentence is written.  He loves being praised for how nice he makes letter A. He rereads his first sentence to me.  I ask if it is missing anything at the beginning or the end.  Then he gets his first reward, one m&m for each word.  Now we proceed to the next sentence.

He writes three sentences for each writing task.  He enjoys reading his entire essay.  Then we are done.

His mother has said that it is difficult for him to remember his ideas when he is writing.  I hope this technique will help in the future.  I’ve learned most of it from reading your blog.

Is that it for the day?

No, next is flash cards, computer reading apps, or a real book.  With flash cards, I have him hold each card and make a little colored mark in the corner if he knows the word.  This keeps him from fidgeting and gives him an activity.  The cards get marked up, but so what!

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to

Citing evidence is an important writing skill

Citing evidence used to be a skill learned in high school, but with the Common Core State Standards, it has moved to middle grades.  This is because of the Common Core’s emphasis on problem solving.  But it is also because reading critically is an important life skill.


Click on the above graphic to open the pictured web page.

  • Here is the standard for ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade literature reading: ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
    “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

“Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”  (The only difference between high school and middle school standards is the degree of reporting textual evidence.)

  • Here is the standard for sixth, seventh and eighth grade social studies: ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1  “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.”

Middle school students I tutor need to be able to read a selection and answer a question based on the reading.  The students are expected to cite two or more lines of evidence from the reading when they answer the question.

With practice, most are able to do it.  But some students encounter problems, namely

  • Using in their answers information they know is true but which is not given in the reading passage.
  • Taking two sides of an argument when they are expected to choose only one.
  • Citing not enough evidence to thoroughly support their answer.
  • Citing evidence okay but not showing how the evidence supports the answer.
  • Talking about the text in general without actually citing evidence.
  • Writing evidence as direct quotes, without adapting it to the student’s sentence structure. This can include copying pronouns without identifying what they mean.
  • Not paraphrasing.

How to overcome these problems?

  • Emphasize the difference between a guess or hunch and evidence.
  • Model the difference between strong and weak evidence.
  • Make sure students can explain why evidence they choose supports their answer.
  • Practice paraphrasing.
  • Practice using nouns when pronouns are not clear.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

How to motivate reluctant child writers

If the problem is physical—holding a pencil or pen, having illegible handwriting, or sitting still long enough to write—you can help if you

  • EPSON MFP imageAsk the child to dictate the story to you. You write down exactly what he says.  Coax the child to help with revision.
  • Ask the child to write on a keyboard, phone or tablet. Sometimes technology entices.
  • If the child is willing to hand write, you type and print his work.

If the problem is perfectionism—erasing every mistake, insisting that she start over again and again—you can help if you

  • Reward the child for every line or paragraph written without starting over.
  • Offer to type the writing once it is done so the child can have a clean version.

If the problem is inexperience—too young or too sheltered to have a large mental “data” base—you can help if you supply the story structure.

  • Read a picture book together, discuss how the author began, what the author included, and how the book ended, and then ask the child to rewrite the book, using only the pictures for reference.
  • Find wordless picture books and ask the child to write the story.
  • Find a cartoon strip, cut out the words, and ask the child to write the story. Later you type and print the child’s words and paste them into the cartoon.
  • Introduce the child to storyboards and ask the child to draw her story’s main parts. Later she can add words to her drawings.
  • Encourage the child to find models of the kinds of writing she wants to do, and to follow those models.

If the child is a poor speller,

  • Encourage her to use technology with embedded spelling checkers when she writes.
  • Let her write a first draft by hand without interruptions. Later, underline the misspelled words and together work on fixing them.

If the child has no idea how to begin a story, or how to sequence it, or if she forgets what she wants to happen next,

  • Teach the child to create a mind web before she writes. Using color coding and numbering, help her to sequence the information.  Remind her to check her mind web as she writes.
  • You compile a list of ways to begin a paragraph or essay and review that list with her before she begins. Together come up with several possible ways to begin her particular piece of writing.  You say three or four possible beginnings and discuss the advantages of each.  Then let her choose.

If the child’s vocabulary is limited

  • Create a word bank the child can use and leave it next to her as she writes. Add to it as she describes what she has in mind.
  • Ask her to underline words that she thinks could be said better. Offer suggestions.  Teach her how to use a thesaurus.

If the child has failed at writing before, and fears failing again,

  • Find examples of the child’s past writing and analyze it for why it was done poorly. Many times the reasons are lack of detail, limited vocabulary, and run-ons.
  • If the reason is lack of detail, practice drills of extending sentences. Take a sentence the child wrote, write it on a new piece of paper, and then take turns adding details.  Do this with a whole paragraph and then read the newly written paragraph.
  • If the reason is run-ons, practice finding run-ons. Use the child’s own writing when possible.

Practice, practice, practice.  Writing is a skill, like playing the piano or swimming fast.  Research shows that to write better, a person must practice, practice, practice.

How to describe a story in a sentence or two

Professional writers  learn how to describe their novels in just a few words.  Sometimes this is called an “elevator” version meaning short enough to be said by a writer on  an elevator ride.

Learning such an approach before writing a story is also useful for children writing narratives.  In a sentence or two they should be able to name the important parts of their story, such as

  • the main character
  • what happens to make the story start
  • the goal of the main character
  • the opponent of the main character
  • and the climax the main character must face to reach his goal.

If the child writer cannot name all of those parts, his story is probably flawed.  It is  missing an important element which readers want.

Two books meant for adults which explain this well are Techniques of the Selling Writer by D. V. Swain and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.

Swain suggests a two-sentence pattern.  The first sentence is written as a statement.  It should include the situation, main character and objective of that main character.  In the second sentence, a question, the opponent should be identified and the climax or disaster near the end of the story should be named.

Here is an example for Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.  Wilbur, a piglet on a farm, must devise a plan to protect himself from being slaughtered for bacon.  Can he and his friend, Charlotte, figure out how to keep the farmer from killing him now that he is plump?

Or, in The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, two bored children are entertained at home by a playful cat.  But can the children put the  house back to order before their mother sees the mess?

Truby suggests a one sentence pattern which he calls a premise.  In it should be the event which starts the action, the identity of the main character, and the final outcome of the story.

For example, in Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur, a farm piglet, escapes death as a runt but later faces slaughter until his friend Charlotte figures out how to make him too famous to kill.

Or, in The Cat in the Hat, a playful cat arrives to end the boredom of two children who find ways to hide his antics and mess from their mother.

To use this approach to story writing with children, you might start with some familiar stories and analyze them.  In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly School Bus by Barbara Park,

  • Main character:  Junie B.
  • What happens to make the story start:  Junie B. hides when the bus comes
  • the goal of the main character:  Not to take the school bus home
  • the opponent:  Mrs., Junie B.’s mother
  • the  terrible problem at the end:  Junie B. needs to use the toilet but the girls room is locked

After the children get the idea, with you, the adult, leading, think up some scenarios.  It’s Halloween.  A child wants to go trick-or-treating.  Mom says no because it’s raining.  How can the child convince Mom?  Get Dad’s help?  Promise to carry an umbrella?  What crisis could almost ruin everything?  Tthunder and lightning?  What happens at the end?  The child wears boots and a raincoat and Mom holds an umbrella and flashlight?  A text message from the mayor postpones Halloween until the next evening?

Students need modeling to become comfortable with this approach to story writing.  The elements could be written on a bulletin board or on a permanent poster in the classroom for reference.  A five-minute mini-lesson on the elements could precede writing time each time students need to write a narrative.

And some writing time could include just identifying the elements in order to imprint this pattern.  If the students can identify the elements for several stories, then let them choose one to write.  Children need to learn that planning is just as important as sentence writing.

Copying sentence patterns can lead to good writing

For the most part, sentence structure should be invisible, like the skeleton of a person.  It’s the message that the sentences tell, not the structure of the sentences, that we should focus on when reading.

girl writing and thinkingMost children write sentences in predictable similar patterns:  a subject followed by a predicate connected by a coordinating conjunction to another subject and predicate.  If there are prepositional phrases, they go at the end.  My dog ran, so I chased him up the street.

How to shake up the monotony of children’s sentences is challenging.  One way to do this is to have students copy sentence patterns while using their own words.

For example, see how the sentences below, taken from an article on Neptune*, can be used to write a paragraph about Disney World.

Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the last of the hydrogen and helium gas giants in our solar system.

Bright, crowded and filled with happy children, Disney World is my favorite place in the warm and sunny southern state of Florida.

It is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth.

It is visited by millions because of its big airport in Orlando.

Neptune’s atmosphere extends to great depths, gradually merging into water and other melted ices.

Disney World’s crowds come from far away, even traveling from Brazil and other South American countries.

In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large, oval-shaped, dark storm in Neptune’s southern hemisphere, a “Great Dark Spot” that was large enough to contain the entire Earth.

In 2016 I visited the tall, white-painted building in the Magic Kingdom’s heart, “Cinderella’s Castle” that was big enough to contain my whole fourth grade.

Triton is extremely cold.

Disney World is really wonderful.

With first or second graders, I choose sentence patterns that are short and easy to duplicate.  If I am teaching parts of speech, I might combine a writing lesson with a grammar lesson.  I model how to write sentences using other sentences as patterns before I ask students to try writing on their own.

With older students, we might discuss the various ways the sentences begin (in the examples above, with adjectives, a pronoun, a possessive noun, a prepositional phrase and a noun).  We might count words and discuss how differing lengths add variety (22, 14, 14, 28 and 4 above).  We analyze whether sentences are simple, compound or complex.  (Four of the examples above are simple and one is complex.)

If students keep a writing notebook, one section could be a collection of sentences they have patterned.  Later, when they are writing, I encourage them to use their notebook fo sentence structure ideas.

Modeling new sentences on given sentence patterns can be a useful writing homework assignment.

*, adapted by Newsela staff,