Tag Archives: organizing essays

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.

Clueless student writers benefit from a fill-in-the-blanks book report form

Although a specific prewriting organizer for a book review (see last week’s blog) is sufficient help for some writers to get going, for other students, this is not enough. “Yeah, but how do I begin?” they ask after they have filled in the boxes of the organizer.

For them, I use a fill-in-the-blanks book review. It looks like this:
Form fill-in-the-blanks book report


Form fill-in-the-blanks book report
When students have filled in the blanks I ask the students to read the black typed parts and their own words aloud, listening for mistakes. Together we correct the mistakes.

Then I either accept the book review as is, or I ask the students to rewrite it on a different sheet of paper, using the black typed parts and their own words but leaving out the red directions. Rewriting the fill-in-the-blanks sheet strengthens the features of a book review in the students’ minds so I see this as a useful task. Plus it prepares the student for revising in the future.

A fill-in-the-blanks book review form is a crutch for primary school students and ESL students who don’t know what is expected in a book report. After students use it a few times and become comfortable with its features, I ask them to look at it while they write their reviews, but to write their reviews on a different sheet of paper. Eventually, as they become more confident writers, they no longer need it.

How to help clueless children organize a fiction book review

Some children are truly clueless when it comes to writing and can benefit from step-by-step directions. If they use the same directions several times with different prompts, they begin to pick up patterns they can use in much of their writing. Here is how I approach a book review assignment for such children.

  • First, I hand out a blank prewriting organizer that I designed. (See below.) On it are important categories that should be mentioned in a book review.

prewriting organizer book review

  •  I ask the student to write down the name of the book. “Look at the cover,” I tell him, “and write it down exactly that way.” Then he writes down the author’s name. Sometimes I ask the student to go to the title page if the cover is confusing. There the information is clear.  If there is an illustrator, I have the student add the artist’s name.
  • Next, I ask where the book takes place. I probe until the student gives a detailed answer. He might start out saying something vague like “near a volcano,” but with help, he will say “in Pompeii, a city near a volcano called Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.” I ask him to write down the specific details on the prewriting organizer.
  • When did the story take place? The student might say something like “once upon a time.” We discuss if the events really happened or if they are make-believe. I probe, trying to get the student to supply a date, or a time period, or a certain number of years ago. If necessary, we page through the book together to find the information, and he might write “about 2,000 years ago.”
  • Who are the important characters? This information is usually easy for the student to supply, but some students have trouble distinguishing between important characters and minor characters. We discuss those ideas if this is confusing for the student. He might write down “Annie and Jack.”
  • What problem do the characters face? Huh? The student might have no idea if he is not used to thinking about a book this way. I explain that in all fiction books the main character(s) needs to do something: find out where a missing cat is, discover that her new baby brother is not a monkey after all, or stay safe from the big, bad wolf. Together we talk about what the problem in the book is, and the student writes it down.
  • How do the characters solve the problem? Again, the student might not be aware that at the end of most novels, the character solves the problem he or she faced throughout the novel. How does Cinderella meet the prince again and marry him? How does Sylvester return home to his family? How does Junie B. get home without taking the school bus? The student writes down the solution on the prewriting organizer.
  • Last, we talk about what the student liked or didn’t like about the book. If he just shrugs, I go back to the ideas we have already discussed—the setting, the characters, the problem and the solution. Did you care about any of them? Usually he cares about something, and we write that down. If there are illustrations, we talk about those. We talk about the vocabulary—too easy, too hard, or just right? Was the book funny? Eventually we come up with three or four ideas about why he liked or didn’t like the book.

This prewriting organizer worksheet and my help force students to think about the setting, characters, problem, outcome and likes/dislikes before they write the first sentence of their book reviews (which is, of course, what good writers do).

However, even with this preparation, some students still struggle with how to write that first sentence and how to sequence the rest of the information. We’ll talk about an even more specific strategy to get them started next time.

(The worksheet used here is my adaptation of one created 30 years ago by K. Wood. More about that can be found in Wood, K. D. (1984). Probable passages: A writing strategy. The Reading Teacher, 37(5), 496-499.)

Use a prewriting organizer to write the first draft

After helping students create a good prewriting organizer, I sometimes see students begin their first drafts with no prewriting organizer in sight.  “Where is it?” I ask.  They dig through their writing binder and find it, hidden somewhere.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs (click the graphic for more information).

This tells me that those students are not used to writing an essay with a prewriting organizer.  They don’t know how to use it.  I can’t assume that “If they write it, they will use it.”  They need to be taught how to use it.

I insist that the prewriting organizer be situated to the side of the notebook paper on which the student is writing his first draft.  To show me that he is using the prewriting organizer, I ask him to cross out lightly the ideas as he includes them in his essay.  By the time the essay is done, all the ideas on the prewriting organizer should be crossed out.

An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

Use a modified time line as a prewriting organizer for narratives (click the graphic for more information).

If a student is coming in cold after creating a prewriting organizer the day or the week before, I ask her to read the prewriting organizer to herself in the order in which she has numbered the subtopics.  This warms up her brain and reminds her of the details and the scope of her essay.

While she is writing the first draft, I usually allow the student space, looking over her shoulder occasionally.  If she is making progress, I leave her alone, but if she seems stuck, I intervene.  The most common problem is how to start body paragraphs.

Use a chart for comparison and contrast essays.

For comparison and contrast essays, use a chart or a Venn diagram as a prewriting organizer (Click on the graphic for more information).

We reread the information planned for the paragraph and see how it relates to the essay topic, and from this we write a topic sentence.  If a student has not written an essay before, I offer more help than I do for experienced writers.

Sometimes students recognize that they should change the order of their subtopics.  Before beginning the rough draft is a good time to do that.  Just cross out the numbers on the organizer and write new ones.  Sometimes students recognize that they have little to say about one subtopic, but they can think of another one with greater detail.  This is a good time to make that change.

Sometimes the student has lost interest in the topic of the essay completely and wants to change topics before he begins the first draft.  Usually I let him discard the completed organizer and start over.  You might think that creating that organizer was a waste of time, but no.  The student has practiced organizing an essay, an essential skill of a good writer.  Not every planned essay needs to be written.

In our next blog, we will talk about the conclusion, another difficult part of the essay for many students to write.