Category Archives: practice writing skills

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.

* NASA.gov, adapted by Newsela staff, https://newsela.com/articles/lib-nasa-neptune-overview/id/22033/

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).

Find a topic for a student to write about by using picture books

Many children hem and haw about choosing a writing topic.  I ask for their suggestions and they shrug.  I give them options.  They object.  It’s possible to waste so much time during a writing lesson settling on a topic.

EPSON MFP imageI’ve figured out a way to end students’ angst and to start the writing lesson quickly.  I bring a children’s picture book to the lesson.  The student reads the book aloud.  Then I tell the student he is going to write a book patterned after the book he has just read.

“You can redo the same story, or you can use that story as a starting point for a different story,” I say.  This way the student has choices.

Let me show you two results.

One second grade girl read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst as her prompt.  It concerns a boy for whom everything goes wrong one day.  Here is my student’s result.

Terrible Very Bad Day

Nick woke up in the morning and he fell out of his bed.  At breakfast his brothers ate all the cereal.  I think I’ll move to Washington, D.C.  In the bus he had to sit next to girls that he liked and everybody laughed at him even the girls.  In class Jackson said he was not his best friend.  At lunch everybody had desserts like cupcakes except him.  After school his mother took him to get shoes but he did not get what he wanted which was blue with red stripes.  At dinner his mom had spinach and he does not like spinach.  When his brothers got to watch TV he had to sleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a good day, he said.

That same second grader read Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi as her prompt.  It is about a boy who fears playing his trumpet in a school concert.  Here is what she wrote this time (with names changed).

Sue loved making friends.  For weeks she had been looking forward to meeting the new girl in her school.  On the day she was meeting the new kid, she had a worry and it became bigger and bigger.  She was worried that the girl wouldn’t like her or that she would say something mean to her.  When it was time to go to school, she did not want to go.  Her mother said, “Is something wrong?”  She said, “Yes.  I am worried that the new girl will not like me.”  Mother said, “She will like you even if you make a mistake and I will love you.”  Sue’s worry was gone.  When she was at school, she met the new kid, Annie, and they became best friends.  Sue learned worrying is silly.

Some tips for using this technique:

  • Choose a book that the student can read in five to ten minutes so that most of the lesson is devoted to writing.
  • Beginnings are hard. Let the student see how the author started the novel.  Then suggest alternatives.
  • You might show the student the illustrations as she writes, but cover the words. Encourage her to write her own words.
  • Endings are hard. Suggest she write a moral if that makes sense.  Or suggest she reread her first two or three sentences and see if the character she is writing about has solved the problem presented.  Let the ending be a comment on the solution.  Or let the ending look to the future in light of what the student has written about.
  • Incorporate some particular aspect of writing into the lesson. In the first example I asked the student to keep going because I know she wants to finish quickly.  In the second example, I asked her to use direct quotes, and we talked about how to punctuate them.

The new SAT writing essay is an improvement

Big changes have come to the SAT essay.

  • It’s optional, not required any more.
  • You have 50 minutes, not 25, to complete it.
  • It’s based on a reading passage, not an out-of-the-blue idea.
  • It will be judged on three criteria: your understanding of the reading passage, your ability to analyze the reading passage, and your writing skills.

It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly more like the writing students do in college.  Often college students need to read a book or a journal article and write a response to it.  Students need to show that they understand what the reading is about, that they can analyze the thinking that went into the passage, and that they can do so in clear, sophisticated English.  Rarely are college students ever offered a philosophical problem with no warning and no preparation, and rarely too are they asked to respond with an essay in one sitting.

The old, 25-minute limit was ridiculous.  Planning a response was reduced to three minutes; writing was limited to 20 minutes; and checking for errors lasted about two minutes, or more often, not at all.  When I work with students on writing anything we spend significant time on planning, developing details and ordering the paragraphs.  You can’t do that in three minutes.  And for most of the writing college students do they have overnight or longer to provide a response.  Good writers put their writing down, take a walk or a hot shower, and then return to the writing inspired.  At least with the new SAT there is breathing room.

Even though the reading selection might contain highfalutin vocabulary, you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a reading selection and to analyze it.  The reading passage is long enough and contains enough persuasive arguments that the student can readily understand it with a strong high school vocabulary.

And the essay is optional.  For students who can write, this is their chance to prove it, adding another way to impress college admission officers.  For students who can’t write well, their lack of skill will show in the multiple choice section of the writing test.

Google the new SAT writing test to find websites offering greater perspective on the change.  See if you agree that the change has improved the test.

How to use vocabulary workbooks as the basis for writing lessons

Teachers and tutors, do you want to save time and get double or triple use from the same source?  Use your students’ vocabulary workbook to teach writing.

EPSON MFP imageMany of my  students use the Wordly Wise 3000 series (which I recommend).  It has 20 lessons per booklet, one booklet per grade, first through twelfth.  In each lesson is an annotated list of new vocabulary words plus exercises using the words.

Like other vocabulary building series, each lesson also has a reading selection in which each new vocabulary word is used.  These reading selections are followed by many questions asking the student to use one of the new vocabulary words in a complete sentence answer.

But other ways to use the vocabulary and reading selections augment their original purpose and make them valuable as writing tools.  Here are some I have used.

  • Summarizing.  I teach students to underline the most important or key words in each paragraph.  Next, I show how to analyze each paragraph and to write an identification in the margin next to the paragraph.  Those phrases might be “dodo bird’s appearance,” “raising $ for Statue of Liberty base,” or “Renaissance dates and definition.”  Then, using the underlines and margin information, I teach the student to write a summary of each paragraph in about one or two sentences.  When he is done, he has a good summary of the reading selection.
  • Paraphrasing.  Taking one sentence at a time, I ask students to rewrite the sentence, keeping the meaning but changing the sentence structure and, where possible, the vocabulary.
  • Writing RACE responses.  I write a question based on the article.  Then I ask the student to respond using the RACE format (Repeat the question, Answer the question, Cite part of the article used as evidence, and Elaborate on that evidence with more evidence).
  • Writing sentences using new vocabulary words.  So many times students can define a word but they cannot use it properly in a sentence. I ask them to write sentences using vocabulary words. This shows their weakness in understanding certain words and helps me to explain the words better to them.
  •  Writing paragraphs using new vocabulary words.  I ask students to write each new word in a coherent paragraph or two. Writing a paragraph takes more skill than writing independent sentences.  Not only does the student need to know how to use the word, but he needs to know its noun, adjective and verb forms and whether it is the best word in a given situation.  Forming a coherent whole takes imagination and hard work.
  • Writing narratives.  Put a person or animal into the nonfiction situation in the reading passage and write about it. What if you were a dodo bird encountering your first human being?  What if you were a Cherokee forced to say good-bye to your land in North Carolina and trek toward the unknown?  What if you were Leonardo’s apprentice, entrusted to carry the rolled up canvas of the Mona Lisa from Florence to France?

If you are teaching children to write, you know that coming up with a writing topic is tedious.  But by using the reading selections from the vocabulary workbooks, the subject matter is identified, the student has prior knowledge, and the vocabulary words are identified.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel.