Category Archives: teaching writing

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!

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 http://www.stenhouse.com.

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.

For kids with sensory integration issues, choose picture books with pared down shapes, colors, focus

If your child resists using certain picture books to retell a story, it could be the pictures themselves that discourage writing.

3rd grader writing an essay.

Choose picture books with plain or no background, solid colors, one or two characters and a single, focused idea in each drawing

Picture books with detailed backgrounds or with copious patterns can turn off children with sensory integration issues.  Such children have difficulty focusing if there is too much pattern, noise, motion, or texture in any experience.  They prefer plain painted walls and plain bedspreads, not papered walls and patterned bedding; low, instrumental music by a single instrument, not loud music or music with lyrics; sitting or standing still, not rocking or dancing; and loose knit clothing, not clothes with tags or clothes that are tight-fitting.

When you choose books for children who show sensory integration issues, search for picture books with these characteristics:

  • Pictures with no backgrounds, or just the hint of background—a wash of green to represent grass and trees, for example, or one or two birds in the sky, not a whole flock.
  • Characters dressed in solid colors without shading or patterns in their clothes. If you have seen Pippa the Pig books or cartoons, with their simplistic images, that is the kind you want to show your child.
  • Pictures using flat shapes and limited colors, the kind that children themselves produce. (Think of the way Peanuts cartoon characters are presented—Charlie Brown with his round head and Lucy with her dress of a single color.)
  • Pictures focusing on one or two characters, not groups. Look for pared down, minimalist images which have removed everything but the essential elements.

When you look for picture books for children with sensory integration issues to write about, search for picture books with the features just mentioned.  Some wordless picture books offer these kinds of pictures, but not all do.

Finding such books in your library or book store is not easy.  A section labeled “simplistic art” doesn’t exist.  I have had to scour shelves to find what I am looking for.  But the search is worth it to entice a reluctant child writer.

Next blog:  A list of books with the kind of art which appeals to children with sensory integration issues.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Read John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” if you are a fiction writer

If you are an aspiring novelist or fiction writer, may I recommend a good how-to book?  It’s not new, but it’s new to me.

Cover of John Truby's The Anatomy Of StoryJohn Truby’s The Anatomy of Story; 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller has been around since 2007.  I’ve seen it recommended in other how-to writing books, but the “22 steps” part of the title put me off.  And after reading the book and rereading parts, the “22 steps” still seem like a juggernaut to an aspiring novelist.

Yet the book is a masterpiece.  Several points ring true.

  • Every story must have a single pathway to its climax and end. Even stories with as many side steps as Homer’s Odyssey must lead the main character and reader toward a single goal.
  • Every compelling story has one main character (hero) fighting along that pathway toward his or her goal.
  • If the hero’s enemy is an abstraction (a company, a war or evil) the reader will engage more if that enemy can be embodied into a single human enemy such as Darth Vader or Voldemort.
  • The main character must have a flaw to overcome by the end of the story. How he overcomes his flaw is the real story.  Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort.  But Harry is a meek eleven-year-old at his story’s start.  How he overcomes his fears and grows into a man brave enough to defeat Voldemort is the real story.
  • If the main character makes difficult moral choices (not just action choices) on his pathway, the story gains depth and the possibility of greatness.

One inclusion I particularly like is the many novels and movies which the author analyzes when he makes his various points.  I have long known that I like The Godfather, Shane, Chinatown and Casablanca, but now I know why.  It’s because these stories contain so many of the elements which Truby says are essential in great stories.

As for the 22 steps?  Because so much else rings true in The Anatomy of Story, I accept that the 22 steps are necessary for a great novel.  Nobody said writing a novel is easy, and Truby says writing a great novel is rare.  But he has created a formula.  If you are writing fiction, check it out.