Category Archives: teaching writing

Two typical writing problems for middle schoolers and how a tutor overcomes them

Problem 1:  A seventh grader is writing a narrative about the first day of the new semester.  She starts her story by recounting how her alarm rang.  Then, lying in bed, she worries about two new teachers she would meet that day.  Next, she writes that she goes downstairs, eats breakfast, dresses and takes the bus to school.  Once in school, she grabs her texts from her locker, talks to a friend,  heads to her first class, and meets one of her new teachers.

“Do you need that part about going downstairs, eating, taking the bus, and going to your locker?” I ask her.

“Well, yeah.  How else do I show that I go to school?”

“Could you write about waking up and being nervous to meet your new teacher, and then jump to the part where the teacher meets you, saying ‘Welcome to our math class, Cara.’?”

“No, because how will the readers know who is talking and that it is later that day?”

“Okay.  Could you say, ‘Cara, is it?’ my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later.”

“You mean I don’t need to say all the in-between stuff?”

“That’s right.”  I suggest she cut and paste her paragraphs about eating, riding the bus and going to her locker to the bottom of the narrative for now while she thinks more about it.

She does, hesitantly.  A little later, she deletes that part.  “I guess I don’t need it after all.”

Problem 2:  But I can’t write, “’Cara, is it?’” my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later” because it’s only one sentence, and every paragraph needs five sentences.”

“No, it doesn’t.  Look at any book and count the number of sentences in each paragraph.  Lots will have only one sentence, and others will have seven or ten or even a fragment.”

She picked up a book and opened it and counted sentences.  She closed the book.  “But then why do my teachers say I need to write five sentences in each paragraph?”

“That’s to encourage you to write more.”

“You mean there’s no rule?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

She left the one-sentence paragraph on her page, and followed it by another one-sentence paragraph.

* * * *

Sometimes working with a writing tutor means dispelling myths, like the five-sentence paragraph or needing to write a “before” to a story instead of jumping right in.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means making mistakes repeatedly, like forgetting to use apostrophes or using texting abbreviations, and asking for help.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means trying stylistic changes, like adding dialog or figurative language.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means experimenting with vocabulary the student has not written before.

Do you know a student who could use one-on-one writing instruction?  Tell that student’s parent about me.  I tutor writing to students, second grade to high school,  online.  Together students and I plan, organize, write first drafts, and revise, noting why each step in the process is important.  Writing well is like playing the piano well or kicking a soccer ball well.  It takes practice.  And with a knowledgeable coach or tutor, a student improves faster.

 

 

How to incorporate direct quotations into text

Incorporating direct quotes into their own writing can be difficult for students.  They may not have read the kind of writing—academic, scientific—which routinely uses direct quotes, so they are unfamiliar with this type writing.  And they may not have been taught it explicitly—with lessons, examples, and practice.

If so, where should a teacher begin to teach how to incorporate quotations?

One way is with the image of a hamburger in a bun.  The hamburger stands for the direct quote, and the top and bottom buns stand for the “before” and “after” information that is also needed.

The top part of the bun is where you introduce the direct quote by explaining who the quote comes from and why the quote is worth quoting.  

For example, suppose you write about democracy, and you want to quote Abraham Lincoln’s definition.  You could introduce your quote by writing, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as. . .”

The hamburger part of the image is the direct quote itself: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  You don’t need to quote a whole sentence—just the part which meets your needs.  You might need to rewrite your introductory information to make it work grammatically with your quote.  You don’t introduce the quotation by saying, “It says,” or “Here it is,” or “The quote is.”

For example, you don’t say, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said, ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  This example is not good because the writer does not transition into Lincoln’s quote.  A better way is, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said democracy is ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  Even better is using the word “as” to replace “He said democracy is.”  One word instead of four.

The bottom part of the bun is your understanding of the quote and why you consider it relevant.  A good example is “This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

The finished quotation is “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

To recap:

  • To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.
  • The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.
  • Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).
  • Any change in the direct quote must be shown either with ellipses or with brackets.
  • If several changes must be made, paraphrasing might be a better alternative.

Recap lessons immediately after they are done

Are you an online writing tutor? Or an online tutor of any kind?  If so, might I suggest a quick and easy tip which I have found useful?

Immediately after each lesson, write a recap of that lesson, including everything you and the student or students did in that lesson. 

Send copies of the recap to the student or students you have just taught and their parents if they are children.  This way they receive immediate feedback on the lesson.  And because the recap contains homework assignments for the next lesson, students and parents know what work students should complete for the next lesson.

Save another copy for yourself.  For each student or each class, copy the email sent to the student and parents.  Paste it along with the date you sent it in a folder named after the student or the class.  Paste the most recent recap at the top of a file.  If you send any additional information before the next lesson, add this to the top of the file with the date.  This recap helps you recall the past lesson and reminds you of the homework expected at the next lesson.

Since I teach writing online, in my recaps I include the writing we did during the lesson.  Students sometimes keep a copy from the class, but in case they don’t, they can copy from the recap and paste the writing  to a document and continue the work there.  Or in the recap I remind the student that the unfinished work is a google doc which they can easily access.

Here is an example of an email I sent recently:

Today ____ and I revised an essay he wrote on the film The Last of the Mohicans.  It was perhaps the best essay he has written for me in terms of organization.  That is because we organized the essay last week before he wrote it, and he followed the prewriting organizer.

Next he chose another topic (see below) and together we created a prewriting organizer for that topic.  He will complete the essay for next our next lesson.

Genre:  Persuasive

Topic:  Why Miss Kathy should visit Orlando, FL

Intro:

Thesis:  You should visit Orlando, FL, because it has Universal Studios and a waterpark.

Topic sentence 1:  One reason you should visit Orlando is because Universal Studios is there.

  • Harry Potter, Hogwarts world
  • Underground roller coaster

Topic sentence 2:  Another reason you should visit Orlando is because it has a great water park.

  • High, long sliding board/tube
  • Bumper cars in water

Conclusion

Because I include the essay outline in the recap I save for myself, I have a detailed reminder of the work we did in class and the work expected from the student.  I reread the recaps before the next lesson.  Sometimes in my own version I include work I must prepare for the next lesson, such as finding grammar worksheets on a particular topic or providing an answer key to a vocabulary quiz.

For me, this kind of recap is definitely worth the small effort it takes.

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

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.