Category Archives: prewriting organizer

Diagrams help students read and write

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to write a biography of Coretta Scott King.  Maybe the student has written a list of ideas related to Mrs. King’s life, from her education to working with her husband on Civil Rights matters to promoting his legacy.  But this brainstormed list seems to be without order.  The student doesn’t know what goes with what or how to begin.  How could a diagram help?  Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.  These insights could provide transition ideas from one paragraph to another.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.

A student can make a diagram like this after he creates a prewriting organizer such as a mind web or a brainstormed list.  Or this diagram can take the place of that prewriting organizer.  Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the essay breaks down into smaller chunks.

A similar diagram can be made by a teacher to preview what students are about to read.  Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

Should children write in a composition notebook or on notebook paper?

The parents of most children I tutor supply them with a brand new composition notebook, the kind whose pages are sewn together.  They do this with good intentions, a way to keep all the children’s writing together.

But is this a good idea?  Much better is to supply children with loose, lined notebook paper.

When students create prewriting organizers (mind webs, charts, Venn diagrams or a series of drawings), those organizers need to be referred to in order to be useful.  I ask students to set the organizers to the left or right of the page on which they write their first draft.  That way, students can refer to the organizer while writing.  If the organizer is in a composition notebook, students need to flip pages back and forth to use the organizer, an annoying process.

When students finish the first page of their rough draft, with a composition notebook usually they turn the page to write the next page.  That way they can’t see what they have just written.  Good writers reread what they have written as they move along.  If the first page of a rough draft is on loose notebook paper, the student can push that page up on the desk and lay the next page beneath it, creating visual continuity.

What if students are writing on computers?  Some of my students create prewriting organizers by hand on notebook paper and put the organizer next to their keyboards when they write.  Some create organizers on their computers and split their screens so they can see the organizer while they compose.  Since pages scroll down, the paragraph or two just written is always on screen, allowing for continuity.

Computers have other advantages because they fix the spelling and alert the writer to grammar mistakes as the writing goes along.  They allow the writer to erase or to re-position words with a swipe and a click of a mouse.  Composing on computer is ideal, but some children are too young to know where the letters are on the keyboard, and waste time hunting for a letter, forgetting what they were going to write.  For keyboard savvy students, though, I recommend composing on computer.  With practice, this is the most efficient way to write.

It seems like a small thing, choosing to use a notebook or loose notebook paper on which to write.  But the loose paper or a computer screen leads to better results.

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!

Prewriting organizers don’t work unless you use them

Organizing your thoughts before you write is one of the best ways to improve your writing.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.But that organizer, no matter how detailed, can’t help you if you don’t look at it.

All the time I see students who create great organizers and then set the organizers aside when they write their first drafts.

Consulting your organizer offers advantages:

  • Your essay or narrative becomes organized as your write.  You don’t have to go back later to move big chunks of text around.
  • You save time.  Revising can take as much time as writing a first draft.  You can shorten the time you revise by sticking to your plan.
  • Instead of focusing on organization as you write your first draft, you can focus on style, that is, sentence structure, vocabulary, and figures of speech.  You have already thought through the details to include, so now you can focus on the best way to present them.

If you are right-handed and hand writing your essay, I recommend that you place your organizer to the left of your notebook paper.  If you are left-handed, place the organizer to the right.  That way the organizer is easy to see, and because it’s easy to see, you will use it.  If you are composing on a keyboard, place your handwritten organizer on the side where the mouse isn’t.  If you created your organizer on the computer, use a split screen so the organizer is always visible.

As you complete each detail, cross it out on your organizer.  Make sure you can still read it though, in case you need to refer to it again.  Crossing out shows that you are making progress.

Do you need to use everything on your organizer?  That depends.  If you have included a dozen or more details for each body paragraph of an essay, you can skip some of the less important details.  But if your organizer is skimpy, you need every detail and then some.

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.

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).

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.