Empowering Writers

January 2011 Lesson of the Month

This month we’re actually offering two lessons! Last year in January, with state testing around the corner, we offered test-prep strategies, and thought it was worth running these again. Also included will be a mini-lesson on “response to literature” that can be applied to whatever your students are reading. Simply scroll past the test prep section to access this lesson.

Let’s begin by empowering your young authors to approach their writing test with confidence and skill – and giving you the tools to painlessly prepare them. We often forget that successful responses to formal writing assessments depend not only on solid writing skills, but on savvy test-taking strategies. And, of course, simply administering lots of prompts is not the answer.

Rather than take on a frenzied last minute review just prior to testing, or administering lots of prompts, begin now, at a more leisurely pace – the steps suggested here can be scheduled over several weeks. The review we suggest is made up of a number of components:

A) The review and reinforcement of all key genre-related skills:

  • Organization, and skills in isolation should be modeled and practiced.
  • Students should practice applying these skills to an entire piece of writing, in directed fashion.
  • Constructive specific feedback should be provided.

B) Direct Instruction on Test-taking strategies

  • Prompt analysis – determining the genre and the given and variable elements
  • Effective pre-writing/planning strategies

Here’s what to do:

1a.) If the focus of your instruction has been creative writing – NARRATIVE writing, and/or if your state generally provides a narrative prompt (a story vs. information) list the following on the board and discuss each with the class, including the productive questions used to generate effective writing in each skill area:

(Helpful pages in the Comprehensive Narrative Writing Guide to guide your discussion are noted.)

  • Narrative Writing Diamond – p. 46
  • Entertaining Beginnings – p. 47-49
  • Elaborative Detail – p. 79, 89
  • Suspense – p. 215-216
  • ** Fully Elaborated Main Event – p. 255-257, 259
  • Extended Endings – p. 305-307

(Note: You may want to have students make review folders and copy some of these pages for student reference.)

1b.) If the focus of your instruction has been EXPOSITORY writing, and/or if your state generally provides an expository prompt (information about a topic, experience or person) list the following on the board and discuss each with the class, including the productive questions used to generate effective writing in each skill area:

(Helpful pages in the Comprehensive Expository Writing Guide to guide your discussion are noted)

  • The Expository Pillar – p. 14 – 16
  • Broad Yet Distinct Main Ideas – p. 115-116
  • Elaborative Detail – Detail Generating Questions – p. 185-187
  • Golden Bricks – p. 241, 243
  • Introductions – p. 301
  • Conclusions – p. 302, 343-345

(Note: You may want to have students make review folders and copy some of these pages for student reference.)

2.) Next, students will have the opportunity to look at some student work and compare it to an anchor set. Click here for student samples that have been annotated for your discussion, as well as the corresponding anchor sets (taken from our Narrative and Expository Writing Assessment Review Materials). You can make copies or project these for your class discussion. (Later, students will be asked to write to the same prompt they’ve analyzed here.)

3.) After your genre-specific review, explain that you’ll be administering a prompt in a directed fashion, meaning you’ll coach students through their responses, reviewing and reinforcing as they go. This helps students remember what you’re looking for, and helps them to assimilate and apply all skills into a cohesive whole.

For narrative writing, use the following prompt:

Think about a really fun day you had doing something outdoors. Write a story about your special outdoor activity.

For expository writing, use the following prompt:

Think about someone you look up to. Write a piece explaining what you admire about that person.

4.) Analyze the prompt before they begin to determine the genre.

Discuss the genre – is it meant to entertain an audience of others (narrative), or to inform (expository)?

(Keep in mind that there are some prompts which can be interpreted as personal experience narratives OR expository pieces. Ex. Think of a day you did something really fun. Explain what you did and why it was enjoyable.)

This could be successfully addressed as a personal narrative – a story with an entertaining beginning, middle with a single significant main event, and a satisfying ending in which the author shows how much fun she/he had. It could also be addressed as a piece of exposition with an introduction, a number of main ideas, each covering one aspect of the fun event, and a conclusion. What’s important is that students do not try to write a “hybrid” piece with elements of both narrative and expository, rather, that they select the genre they’ve worked on this year and write with the specific purpose, organizational strategy, and skills that define that genre!)

5.) Analyze the prompt for givens and variables. What this means is, what does the prompt require they include (givens) and what decisions do they need to make as the author (variables)?

  • Comprehensive Narrative Guide – see pages 342-343
  • Comprehensive Expository Guide – see pages 383-384

6.) Review the graphic organizer they should use for planning.

  • Narrative Writing – Comprehensive Narrative Guide – see page 343
  • Expository Writing – Comprehensive Expository Guide – see page 384

7.) Direct them through the response process, reviewing each skill as you go. The following pages of the guides show how this is done in timed test situations, if you are fortunate enough to live in state that does not place timing restraints on students, simply remove the timing cues. What’s most important is that you remind students of the specific skills they need to demonstrate in each section of the story or piece!

  • Narrative Writing – Comprehensive Narrative Guide – see page 347-349
  • Expository Writing – Comprehensive Expository Guide – see pages 418-419

8.) After students are done, collect their responses and, as quickly as possible, provide specific feedback. Look at their work with an eye for evidence of each skill taught. Be sure to use the anchor sets for comparison purposes. Use sticky notes or write directly on the paper to applaud and affirm skills in application (Ex. YES! Love your use of specific elaborative detail here!) and to make clear suggestions for specific improvements. (Ex. You gave it away too quickly here – instead, build some suspense!) Write the holistic score on the paper for them to see.

9.) When you’ve handed the papers back, have them use “tails” (strips of lined paper that can be taped onto the piece for revisions, additions, etc) to address any of the suggested revisions. Show them how these improvements can raise their holistic scores – then change the holistic scores accordingly!

This process really helps kids approach the “real” test with confidence. Additional suggestions:

  • Select another prompt from the Comprehensive Guide and model an entire response, again, reinforcing the application of skills in an entire piece of writing. Be sure to analyze the prompt for givens and variables first, and then discuss each of the skills you want to see.
  • For a more detailed pre-test review, why not take advantage of our product of the month.

RESPONSE TO LITERATURE LESSON:

Often students are asked to respond to a piece of literature they’ve read. Questions arise about how to best organize responses. In fact, this kind of writing is expository in nature, as it provides information about what was read. A well-crafted response will not only include literal information from the story, but will look for evaluative and inferential thought as well. In planning this lesson you may put some boundaries on the assignment simply by asking children to respond to one, some, or all of the questions.

Here’s what you’ll do:

1.) Select a piece of literature (or several) that your student writers are working with. Explain that response to literature questions help the reader think more carefully (critically) about what was read. These kinds of questions will not only ask about what happened in the story (literal), but will challenge the reader to compare the character’s experience to their own (evaluative), to draw on their own life experience to better relate to and understand the character , and to help infer (guess, predict) what might happen, or how the character will change as a result of the events in the story (inferential).

2.) Post one or more of the following questions that you’d like students to address. You may also differentiate by assigning different questions to different students. The literal questions are the easiest, evaluative and inferential questions more challenging. (Questions are marked for you with an L. E. or I. to indicate the type of question.)

  • What was the main event in the story? (What is the story all about?) (L)
  • Who was the main character and what was he/she like? Be sure to include behavior that shows what the character was like.) (L)
  • What, in your life, can you compare to the main character’s experience in the story? Was there a time you felt the same way? (E)
  • What character trait do you share with the main character? (E)
  • How do you think the main character felt about what took place in the story? (I)
  • What do you think the main character will remember most about what happened? (I)
  • What do you think the main character will do differently from now on, and why? (I)

Talk through the selected questions. Post sentence starters to help students articulate their responses. A variety of these are listed, below, with the corresponding question. Sentence starters will not only provide sentence variety, but will help direct student thinking. Stress that the use of specific examples from the story, as well as from their own lives, will enrich and enhance their responses.

• What was the main event in the story? (What is the story all about?) (L)

The story was really all about __________.

(Title) tells about a time when __________.

In (Title) the main event centered around __________.

The challenge in (Title) was that __________.

The highlight was when __________.

• Who was the main character and what was he/she like? Be sure to include behavior that shows what the character is like.) (L)

The main character, (Character name) was a __________ person.

The main character in (Title) was named __________ and was __________.

The hero/heroine of (Title) showed that he/she was __________ when __________. (Character name), the protagonist, demonstrated that she/he was __________.

when she/he __________.

When (Character name) __________ we were able to see her/his __________.

• What, in your life, can you compare to the main character’s experience in the story? Was there a time you felt the same way?(E)

This story situation reminded me of the time __________.

The main event in (Title) is very much like __________.

I experienced a similar situation when __________.

I knew just how (Character name) felt because __________.

I empathized with (Character name) because in my own life I __________.

• What character trait do you share with the main character? (E)

Or, if you do not share any traits, explain.

(Character name) and I are both __________ because __________.

I feel I am like (Character name) because __________.

When I __________, I was __________ like (Character name).

I am nothing like (Character name) because __________.

• How do you think the main character felt about what took place in the story? (I)

In the end, I think (Character name) felt __________ because __________.

If I were (Character name) I would feel __________ at __________.

Because of __________ (Character name) must feel __________.

• What do you think the main character will remember most about what happened? (I)

The most memorable part of the story was when __________.

How could (Character name) ever forget the moment when __________?

If I were in (Character name)’s shoes, I’d never forget __________.

After everything that happened (Character name) will surely remember __________.

• What do you think the main character will do differently from now on, and why? (I)

(Character name) was changed when __________ and next time will __________.

From now on, (Character name) will probably __________ so that __________.

After these story events, (Character name) will surely decide to __________ because __________.

To avoid __________ next time, (Character name) will likely __________.

Here’s an example based on a sampling of these questions. See if you can match each sentence here with the corresponding question:

The story Newsgirl by Liza Ketchum was all about a girl named Amelia who moves with her mother to San Francisco in 1851. The challenge was that they ran out of money and Amelia tried to earn money posing as a newsboy, selling old East coast newspapers. The highlight was when she found herself on a runaway hot air balloon that dropped her in the gold fields miles and miles away from home.

Amelia was extremely brave, persistant, and smart. It was dangerous dressing up like a boy in order to sell newspapers, and she got bullied and excluded, but she pressed on, earning money for her little family. She wanted to write a newspaper story, and even though the editor sent her away, she didn’t let her discouragement stop her. Her intelligence and quick thinking saved her when she got stuck in the runaway balloon, and ultimately prevented a fatal crash. Later, she wrote about this adventure and got the story published.

I feel I am like Amelia when she wishes she knew her father. Unlike Amelia, I see my dad sometimes, but I don’t get to spend a lot of time with him. Amelia and I both feel sad when we see other children with their dads enjoying themselves. I know how it feels when your dad is not ever able to come to important events. You feel different than other kids who have two parents nearby.

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