Category Archives: prewriting organizer

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.

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.

EPSON MFP image

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.)

Use cubing to entice your students into prewriting activities

My favorite prewriting organizer is a mindweb because of its informality and flexibility.

But I have recently discovered another organizer—the cube—which I am sure to use more of. Let me suggest you try it to. Here’s how.

A cube is just what it says, a six-sided three-dimensional shape. You can make one out of paper easily. (Go online to http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Paper-Cube.com  or to other cube-making websites for easy directions).

Or you can buy an already made plastic cube or use a child’s block. The cube needs to be big enough to tape a word on each face, so even inch by inch by inch cubes will do though I prefer cubes with two-inch faces because they are easier to read.

diagram of a cube

One cube per student works, but so does one cube per group of students or even one cube per classroom for certain activities.

What words go on the faces? The options are almost limitless, but let me suggest a few for particular kinds of writing.

  • Suppose you (the teacher or parent) are trying to develop higher level thinking skills in a student. You could write the words from Bloom’s Taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing), writing one word on each face of the cube. (Make sure the students know what the words mean.) And suppose your student has just read the novel, Hatchet. You could write six questions, one for each kind of thinking, on a separate piece of paper. The student throws the cube and gets “applying.” He refers to the question about applying, such as, “Suppose the pilot had survived. How would Brian’s summer in Canada have been different? How would he be different at the end of the book?”  Or suppose he throws “analyzing.”  The question could be “Draw a chart showing the organization of the novel chapter by chapter.”
  • Or you could write words like “main characters,” “setting,” “initiating event ,” “problem to be solved,” “climax,” and “resolution/ending.” This set up could be used for almost every novel. The student throws the cube, and for each word or phrase, he takes two or three minutes to write down every detail he can think of. When he has written information for every word or phrase, the student is ready to begin writing a summary or a book review or other kind of writing.
  • Another kind of cube could have the names of six important characters from a novel (Harry Potter, Ron, Hagrid, Malfoy, Voldemort, and Dumbledore, for example). You ask a question related to the novel throw the cube.  The student has to think how that character might respond to that question. For example, you might throw “Ron” and ask, “Should Harry, at 11-years-old, confront Voldemort?  How would Ron respond?” If the student responded for each character, he could read over his answers, and write a reply from just one character’s point of view for a grade.
  • The cube can be used for nonfiction too. Suppose your student is studying a historical event, such as the creation of the Declaration of Independence. How would different people look at that document? On the cube you could write Thomas Jefferson, King George III, Tories, King Louis of France, a slave in Virginia, and Cherokees in north Georgia. In a classroom, each of six groups could write about the perspectives of one of these people.  Or a single student might write about two or three of the people.  Students are forced to consider a historical even from different vantage points.
  • Or in a science class, students learning about minerals could use a cube with such words as color, streaking, luster, hardness, density, and stratification. They could investigate a rock, describing its attributes using the cube as a guide. Or they could study the drought in California from the perspectives of a vineyard owner, a Silicon Valley geek, a migrant farm worker, an homeless person, a home owner whose well is dry, and a car wash worker.

All students would like the variety of using a cube, but less motivated students who might need a gimmick to foster interest might be particularly interested.

For more information, see research by Wiggins & McTighe, 2005.

Use pictures as prewriting organizers for kids who can’t read yet

dog barking; wants man to go for a walkOrganizing their thoughts is something good writers do before they write their first sentences. But little kids who are learning to read (or ESL students without much English background) might not be ready for for mindwebs, timelines, comparison/contrast charts or Venn diagrams. What kind of prewriting organizers work for them?

dog brings man leashOne kind I have found effective is a group of drawings about a subject which can be sequenced into a meaningful order to tell a story.

For example, suppose you would like your child to write the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

  • First, read the fairy tale to her to reacquaint her with the details.

man runs with dog

  • Second, find a six-panel cartoon describing the story of Little Red Riding Hood. If the child is really new to writing, you might start with three panels which tell a story and work up to six. Cut out the six panels, shuffle them, and lay them in front of the young writer.

dog is exhausted

  • Encourage the child to put the cartoons in the correct order, discussing why one panel goes before or after another if she seems hesitant.
  • Explain to her that she is going to write down the story of Little Red Riding Hood in the correct order, according to the panels.
  • Capitalization mistakes, missing punctuation, spelling errors, verb tense inconsistencies—ignore them and focus on the storyline. When the child is learning, accept her invented spelling and grammar.
  • If there are three panels, you might expect the child to write three sentences. If there are six, she should be encouraged to write six or more.
  • Often beginning writers forget to use transitions. You might suggest words like “then,” “next,” “a little later” and “suddenly” to smooth out the sequencing of events.
  • Publishing is important too. Hang the finished piece on the refrigerator. Scan it into the printer and email it to Grandma. Print a copy to show the child’s teacher.

Where can you find drawings which tell a story and are suitable for sequencing?

  • Search online. I found some immediately when I looked.
  • Photocopy pictures from a story the child likes and let her sort them into the correct order.
  • Photocopy pictures from a wordless picture book from the library.
  • Goodwill sells dozens of children’s books every day that could be cut up for this purpose.
  • Use family photos. If there was a special event recently, and you have photos of what happened, the child could sort them into a meaningful order.

For some children, writing begins before reading. There is no reason to wait until the child is an adept reader before encouraging her to write.