Category Archives: teaching writing

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.

 

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

How to encourage kids to write

The best way to improve your writing is to write more.  Writing is a skill which improves with practice.  But how do you get kids to practice writing?

The blog Daily Writing Tips offers ten ways.  Let me paraphrase a few of them.

Encourage students to read, read, read.  Reading isn’t writing, true.  But if students read widely, they encounter all kinds of writing styles.  Subconsciously they discern what is good writing.

Encourage students to write stories for younger kids. If students are in third grade, have them write for kindergarteners, using themes and words kindergarteners understand.  By doing so, students consider audience, style of writing, how complicated to make the plot, what kinds of characters to include, the setting—all elements of stories.

Encourage students to keep going even if they know there are mistakes.  Professional writers don’t stop to fix every mistake as they write.  No, they know they will go back later and fix mistakes.  Once students are in the “flow” of writing, they should push on.

Encourage students to keep journals and to share those journals.  With partners or in small groups they can share their writing and receive feedback.  Positive feedback is so important to motivate a student to keep writing.

Encourage students to ask for help.  Some parents think students should write alone and confer with a teacher only when the writing is done.  Wrong.  Conferring during the writing process allows students to ask questions about verb tenses, a better way to say something, the meaning of a word, and plot possibilities.  The teacher becomes not the judge but the helper.

And I would add an idea of my own.  Write with students.  Ask them questions as you write, so they can see you welcome their help.  Share your writing when it is done, warts and all.  Model the behavior you hope they will use with you.  Let them help you.

Using current events to provoke writing assignments and learning new vocabulary

Too bad school’s not in session.  Retorts by Congressmen to President Trump’s remarks about President Putin would make a great vocabulary lesson, tying current events (of interest to students) to vocabulary (of lesser interest).

Using direct quotes could happen any time a current event brings forth a slew of comments.  Even events from history and the responses of the people of the time could be used.  What could the writing lessons be?

  • Define ten of the words as used in the sentences and then use them in your own unrelated sentences.
  • Select ten of the words and write a narrative / editorial / news story /poem using those words properly.
  • Create a multiple choice test. Use the quoted sentence as the prompt and then underline one word per sentence and offer four choices identifying the correct meaning.
  • Write a persuasive essay saying which remark is the most persuasive or the most polarizing or the most noncommittal.

Here are some of the comments from a week ago.  (The underlines are my own.)

Senator Susan Collins of Maine:  [The president’s] position is untenable.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska:  When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.

Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas:  The problem is. . .Russia’s duplicitous behavior.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington:  The president must hold Russia accountable for their adversarial actions and their continued efforts to undermine our democratic institutions.

Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina:  the United States will not tolerate hostile Russian activities against us or our allies.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri:  [Putin] is a calculating adversary who is trying to exert all the influence he can anywhere he can.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas:  I think [Trump is] conflating different things — the meddling and the collusion allegations for which there does not appear to be any evidence.

Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma:  We must unequivocally denounce Russia’s election interference attempts.

Senator John McCain of Arizona:  No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.

How to encourage more student writing and still have a life

If students are to improve their writing, what is the single best thing they can do?

Write  Write.  Write.

Teachers know this.  So why don’t teachers assign more writing?  To paraphrase a former President, “It’s the grading, stupid.”

Reading student writing takes a long time, but writing comments on the writing takes a life time.  A fifth grade teacher might have 28 or more student papers to grade.  A high school English teacher might have 128.

So how can a teacher, tutor, or parent encourage frequent writing without giving up her life?

Here is the solution one teacher, Jori Krulder, has found effective.

  • The teacher reads student essays without writing a word on them.
  • On separate papers, one for each student, the teacher records three things:
  • One, a score for the essay based on a rubric which the teacher and students have previously agreed upon.
  • Two, an element of writing which the student did well.
  • Three, an element of writing which the student needs to improve.
  • The teacher jots down on another paper the strengths and weaknesses of the class’s essays and adds ideas for mini-lessons to teach the whole class.
  • The teacher reports these strengths and weaknesses orally to the class.
  • The teacher returns the unmarked essays, giving each student a feedback paper to fill in. See the box.

  • While students work on their writing, the teacher meets for five minutes only with each student (taking up to three days of class time per class or section per essay). The teacher and student compare the score each gave the essay.  If the scores differ, the teacher talks to the student about the reasons for the discrepancy.  Then they talk about the rest of the information on the feedback sheet.
  • At the end of five minutes a timer rings and the conference ends. If students want to talk longer, they can visit the teacher after school.
  • Students as a group are given a resubmit date for their essays.

According to Krulder, students are able to focus on what the teacher says during the conference, take notes, and use that information to improve their essays.  The result is a noticeable improvement in the resubmitted essays.  An additional yet unexpected benefit is improvement in student-teacher relations.

For more information on Jori Krulder’s method of responding to student writing, go to edutopia.org.

 

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge—Writing examples

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) is one way in which teachers can develop deeper thinking skills in students.  Bloom’s six cognitive skills start with easier thinking skills and move to more difficult, “higher order” thinking skills.

Bloom’s Level objective
knowing remembering facts
understanding showing understanding of facts
applying apply knowledge to new situations
analyzing examining information for component parts
synthesizing* creating something new from diverse elements
evaluating making judgments based on evidence or criteria

*Synthesizing is now called “creating,” and it has become the sixth, not fifth, level.

About 40 years after Bloom’s Taxonomy became known, a refinement of Bloom’s taxonomy called Webb’s Depth of Knowledge was developed (1997).  It has four levels.

DOK Level title of Level
1 recall and reproduction
2 skills and concepts
3 short-term strategic thinking
4 extended thinking

 

For teachers wanting to demand deeper thinking of their students, both Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s DOK Levels can be used to design lesson plans.  Below are some writing assignments based on Webb’s Levels.

 

Literature

 

Level 1  Identify a list of important characters from the first Harry Potter novel.  Explain their relationship to Harry.

Level 2  Compare Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s personalities.

Level 3  Explain how the opening scene in the first Harry Potter book lures readers into that book.

Level 4  Show how the authors of the first Harry Potter book and the first Percy Jackson book used a similar plot sequence to begin those books.

 

Social Studies

 

Level 1  Match famous quotes with 20th century American leaders.

Level 2  Create a set of ten cards with a quote by a famous 20th century leader on one side and the leader’s name on the other side.

Level 3  Using the set of cards created for Level 2, create a set of three clues for each quote, one easy, one difficult and one in between.

Level 4  Describe how specific references such as Stone Mountain and MLK, Jr.’s little children can be understood as metaphors for other concepts in MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

Math

 

Level 1  Define given vocabulary words relating to circles (radius, diameter, circumference, ray, arc, pi, center point).

Level 2   Explain why pi is approximately and not exactly 3.14.

Level 3  Describe three real life situations in which understanding pi can be useful to solve problems.

Level 4  Write an essay on the history of pi, citing sources.

 

Science

 

Level 1  Define a fossil.

Level 2  Identify the sequence of events in the forming of a fossil.

Level 3  Explain why a fossil from an earlier time is found in a lower layer of rock than a fossil from a later time.

Level 4  From the school library take three books about fossils appropriate for a certain grade level.  Critique each book, explaining its strengths and weaknesses for that grade level.