Teaching writing skills: Part I
by Elaine Gallagher Sometimes, as teachers, we run out of ideas of things for students to write about. We complain that our students «can’t […]
Sometimes, as teachers, we run out of ideas of things for students to write about. We complain that our students «can’t write». We say that they don’t have «creative» ideas.
I ask you: Do you assign a writing topic… or do you TEACH them HOW to write?
Sometimes, we assign students simple, predictable, low-level thinking, easy topics, such as: «What did you do last summer?» «What is your favorite pet / sport / book / movie / hobby / food, etc?»
We concentrate on the mechanics of writing, such as punctuation, capital letters, spelling….all of which, yes, are important, but when do we emphasize the theme? Elaboration of vocabulary? Passion for the idea?
No wonder our students don’t like to write, and consequently, they don’t write well. This is true in English, Spanish, Portuguese….in any language: first, second, or third languages… if oral fluency, reading, writing, vocabulary development, and critical thinking are not emphasized.
You can guide your students to high quality, creative writing, from 3rd grade of primary through high school in five, easy steps. Within just a few months, your students will be writing better, and more importantly, they’ll actually look forward to writing. The key is YOU.
You need to guide them to write, teach them HOW to write, and how to organize their ideas. You need to look at the content of what they write as being equally important to the mechanics of their writing. In fact, when I taught kids, I gave them TWO grades on writing assignments, shown as a fraction: mechanics on top, and the concept/theme as the denominator, the core of the writing. EXAMPLE: 80/90 = 80 on the mechanics, and 90 on the theme/topic.
Another important factor in teaching writing is that «slow and steady wins the race.» For every writing assignment, I recommend you spread it out over two weeks: two themes a month. Don’t worry about what any books say. The book is just your guide. YOU are the master of the classroom, not the book!
Another factor: Do NOT give writing for homework! The students can THINK at home, develop ideas at home, or look into internet to expand their knowledge of a topic at home. Those examples are what I choose to call «legitimate» homework. They are things that mom cannot do for her child. If I don’t see something completed in my classroom, I ethically cannot give it a grade. Why? You all know why. We have no proof of who actually did the work.
For the first few months of school, the teacher needs to provide topic ideas. Gradually, students will be able to offer suggestions for the bi-monthly topic. The five steps (shown below) are used all year.
We are building writing habits, brain patterns and connections. If all the teachers in the school use the same format for writing, the students, by secondary level, will have transformed into apt and creative writers.
One source for topics, teachers, are famous quotations. I am NOT very creative. I find it difficult to invent a completely new topic, but by looking quotations in Internet, I get an idea and expand on it. The expansion part is creativity.
For this article, I have chosen a quotation I saw on Internet:
«It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” ? Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I show the quotation to the students. They copy it in their notebook or writing journal. I explain the word (verb) pursuing as «looking for something; chasing after something; searching.»
On the board, I write (inside a circle) «PURSUNG DREAMS».
So what are the five steps to good, effective writing….steps that I, myself, even as an adult, use whenever I write a book?
Days 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, listed below, are not Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.
They refer to 5 days of guided writing instruction, spread out over 10 days of school, 2 weeks.
DAY 1: (about 15 – 20 minutes)
Teacher guides the students to brainstorm. Teacher writes a topic on the board, circles it, and as the students give words, ideas, or themes connected to the topic, the teacher draws lines from the circle (like spokes on a wheel), writing what students suggest.
REMEMBER: with brainstorming, ALL ideas are valid. None are rejected.
Students copy the diagram in their notebooks or writing journals.
EXAMPLE: «PURSUNG DREAMS».
Students have developed a group graphic (from DAY 1) with such words /phrases as:
be rich, famous, go to Hawaii, be President, buy my mother a house, go hunting with my father, get good grades, I’m a millionaire in dollars, cure cancer, build robots, control the world, I’m a genius, I’m director of this school, don’t give up, try hard, study in university, be the next Steve Jobs, etc.
DAY 2: (15 -20 minutes)
We look at the graphic we had worked on in the previous lesson. Teacher reviews it, and advises students to begin thinking about one of the words/phrases from the chart that interests them the most.
Students work in pairs to select one of the words, but each one writes his/her own graphic. They begin their own mind map, based on the word or phrase they chose, and elaborate on it, talking with each other, expanding ideas, writing additional vocabulary words (guided by teacher) , and write thoughts, as a skeleton to develop their own writing.
EXAMPLE: «PURSUNG DREAMS».
Students already have developed the group graphic (from DAY 1) and now, in pairs, they choose one of the phrases or words to expand. If a pair chooses:
cure cancer, they have to draw a circle around it, and place words that could help them write on the topic, keeping in mind the main topic of PURSUING DREAMS….such as:
study hard, visit hospitals, go to clinics to see what’s happening, research on internet, study biology, volunteer at a hospital for old, sick people, study medicine in university, avoid smoking, etc.
DAY 3: (25-35 minutes)
Each student writes on his/her own, individually, guided by the words, phrases, and ideas developed in their graphic organizer/mind map from the previous lesson. (This is a first draft version. The teacher does not correct or grade it.)
Based on the ideas from DAY 1 and 2, students now can begin to write something.
FIRST: teacher guides them to see that they have 3 sections in their writing:
(a) AN INTRODUCTION: telling what the main idea of the writing is, or asking a question of the reader; ,
(b) The BODY (ideas they want to express), and
(c) A CONCLUSION, a summary and/or a smooth ending to the ideas presented in the essay .
DAY 4: (20-25 minutes)
Holistic review and editing… in pairs. The first time in the school year that this is done, the teacher distributes a guide-sheet, so students will know what to check for improving their papers. The students save this guide-sheet in their notebooks for use every time they write. .
Students also are guided by the teacher, who’s circulating around the room to help students, perhaps giving an English word they ask for, helping with spelling, or answering a question about content.
Each student helps the other to read the essay aloud (quietly), noting errors, and sharing ideas for corrections, helped by the guide-sheet and/or the teacher. The long-term goal is to have independent writers. Scaffolding pays a large part in student success.
DAY 5: (30-35 minutes)
Individually, students now write on a clean sheet of paper, or their i-pad (in technologically advanced schools), preparing to submit a final version of what they had worked on in DAYS 3 and 4.
This final draft is submitted to the teacher, who will give a holistic grade, based on content and mechanics. No one fails, unless he/she refuses to work. Neatness is important, but handwriting is not to be graded since in this century more and more written work is being completed digitally. Much more important than the handwriting is the quality of the content presented by the students.
The time limit (35 minutes) must be respected. If some students finish earlier, they need to check their work with the guide-sheet, to make sure they have followed all the guidelines for good writing. If, however, students do not finish in 35 minutes, the teacher needs to collect the paper. No sanctions should be given if a child does not finish. He/she will, however, will need to show the teacher the notes from DAYS 1-4, to ascertain that the student actually completed the preparation to the DAY 5 work. The expectation is that the next writing assignment, the student will have learned to complete the work faster, to be within the time frame.
(WATCH FOR THE NEXT ISSUE OF UNO NEWS.
1. We’ll provide you with a copy of a writing guide, so students can check their own work. (DAY 4 work) This guideline list is useful from 3rd grade through high school.
2. Also, we’ll give you suggestions on organizing students’ notebooks.
HINT: They will need 8 dividers in a loose-leaf notebook, the kind with rings, to enter sheets of paper, not a spiral-bound notebook where things need to be glued to the page….19th century style.)
3. We’ll show you sample rubrics for guiding and grading students’ writing.