For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic. A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.
Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix. Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results. And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”
The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world. (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.) Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.
Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager. They balk at reading books during the summer. “It’s vacation!” they wail.
What to do? Here are my solutions.
For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles. Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer. I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings. Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.
Using news stories has many advantages. It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about. It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper. It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book. It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay. Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.
The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them. But this is my job.
For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer. www.edconpublishing.com produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level. Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions. I assign these, one a week or one every other week. After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.
Using booklets like these has advantages. They introduce students to great stories. They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read. They offer students and me a common topic about which to write. I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master. We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.
Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books. I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.
These days I interact with students via Zoom. I find the results are good. Students share their essays with me via Google drive.
It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer. Perhaps you have found some other ways? If so, please share them with me at this blog. Or if your student needs a tutor, contact me.