Tag Archives: prewriting organizer

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.

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.)

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs.

I define best using two criteria:

  • the kind of organizers students are likely to use because they are easy, and
  • the kind of organizers that keep the writer focused on one main idea and relevant details.

Many students skip using a prewriting organizer because they think that using one is difficult and a waste of time.   In fact, what they might be rebelling against are the kinds of prewriting organizers that teachers recommend.  Formal outlines are incredibly difficult for students to use, yet some teachers insist on them.  I never use them, and I am a professional writer.   Why would I when there are easier approaches that do the job better?

Nearly every student I have tutored  had a teacher who suggested a unique organizer.  Students move from fourth grade to fifth grade to sixth grade, and each time students need to learn a new type of organizer to please their teachers.  This frustrates students needlessly and doesn’t lead to good essays.

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

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student’s handwritten mind web (click on the picture to enlarge it).

What I recommend to my students who write expository (informational) and persuasive essays is to use a mind web organizer, sometimes called a spider web.  The student writes the single topic of the essay in the middle of the paper, and then, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, draws two, three or four lines out from the topic.  At the ends of these lines, the student writes the subtopics he will develop.  Then from each of those subtopics, he draws new “spokes,” naming the details he wants to use to explain each subtopic.

Beginning students need to be walked through these steps.  Often I start the web by asking the student questions to find out what the subdivisions will be and to begin finding details.  Then I hand over the unfinished web to the student to finish.  Modeling is an important way to show the student the kind of detail he needs to develop.  In general, beginning writers use too many generalities and too few details.  They need someone to model how to find and write down details.

After the mind web is complete, I ask my students to encircle each mind web subheading and its details in a different color, using colored pencils, markers, or crayons.  Using color is a visual way to connect details that belong together.  Students can see immediately which subheadings have too little development and can add more details before they write.  Lastly, I ask students to number each colored group of ideas in the order in which they want to write about them in the essay.

Here's the finished essay using the "Snow Week" mind web organizer(click the picture to enlarge it).

The colored borders were added to the final essay to show which essay paragraphs match up with the encircled mind web ideas(click on the picture to enlarge it).

Why does as mind web organizer work?

  • With a single idea centering the web, the student is forced to write about one idea only.
  • With two, three, or four subtopics (never more than four or the essay becomes more a laundry list than developed thoughts), the student is forced to break down the topic into a few explaining ideas (expository essays) or reasons (persuasive essays).
  • The looseness and scribble-like quality of the mind web relax the student into thinking, “I can do this.”  Students turn the paper sideways when they run out of room, or draw arrows to indicate information on the back, or tape another paper to the side and extend the web to a second page.  The mind web expands endlessly, encouraging the student to add more details.
  • Because the structure is loose, students can add more details as they think of them, even after they begin their first drafts.  Change is always possible with a mind web.

The result is a detailed prewriting organizer about a single topic.  Sometimes it looks a mess, but the only ones who need to read it are the students and I.  When parents first see the mind webs of their children, shock crosses their faces, but later, when I show them the writing that the mind webs lead to, their surprise turns into smiles.

Mind webs are easy and they work for expository and persuasive essays, two of the main kinds that students need to write. But what kind of organizer works for narratives? We’ll talk about that in the next blog.