January 9, 2016

Is Your Writing a Shack or a Mansion?_part 1

How many houses do you suppose you have seen in your lifetime?  Would you estimate the time you have spent inside houses to be considerable? If you close your eyes, can you vividly see the details of your dream home? Can’t you almost feel the front door handle in the palm of your hand?  Yet, if you were tasked today with building a house, what do you imagine the end product would look like? I’m fairly certain my own efforts would result in a sad, leaning shack, lacking the integrity to withstand even a stiff breeze!

It is, of course, crazy to assume that all the time you have spent looking at and being inside houses qualifies you to build anything of substance or quality, yet that is often what we do when we give students writing assignments: “You’ve read a lot of stories, books, and articles. Go ahead and write one now.”

Just as you might look at a pile of wood, windows, concrete, and tools with mystified, overwhelmed horror, so might some students view the blank page and pencil!

We must take careful aim to teach writing, not just assign writing.  Just as in math, we should break down writing to digestible base skills/components, and then apply these skills. So much goes into making a great piece of writing; it isn’t wise to teach too many skills at once, nor is it a wise approach to demand students apply all skills expertly on every final draft. When we focus in on building up a few skills at a time rather than expecting the sun, moon and stars on each essay, writing becomes demystified and manageable for even the most reluctant writers.  Of course, the end-state goal is to create expert writing incorporating myriad skills; I'm suggesting that the best route there is covered in smaller steps students can understand and easily see their progress.

How does one choose the skills upon which to focus? I base the decision on the standards I want to address as well as my students’ current needs. For example, if I am teaching middle school students who are presumed by grade-level standards to already possess the skills of basic structure and organization, but the reality in my classroom shows that they do not, I focus first on those core skills. I’d rather have students leave my classroom with the ability to construct writing with four walls, a floor, and a roof, so to speak, rather than the occasional beautiful sentence with figurative language buried in a disorganized mess of an essay. 

On the other hand, I always get a mix of student levels, so I never ignore my grade-level standards or students who work above them. Just as my students are a mixed bag, the focus skills for an assignment are too. My advice is to prioritize by asking yourself the following: What will make the biggest impact in improving students' writing? What gives us the biggest bang for the buck? What will be engaging/stretching for the students to learn & apply? I might choose to focus mini-lessons and assessment on organization and varying sentence structure, for example. (More on this to come in part 4.)

Typically, I find the root problem for most students is organization. Because of this, I believe it's necessary to start at the beginning of the writing process - no matter the grade - and build up from there.  If I can beat the house analogy into the ground just a little further, let's think of how one might go about building a house compared to building an essay:

Build a House
Build an Essay
Gather materials
Gather ideas/brainstorm
Make a blueprint
Finish work:
Make it a home. Add windows, moulding, maybe some paint, furniture, etc.
Make it enjoyable to read! Consider modifying sentence structure/flow, addressing the audience, opening paragraphs, closing paragraphs, transitions, descriptions/word choice (action verbs, strong adjectives, figurative language, etc.), voice, mood, and tone, etc.)

My experience teaching grades 2 - 7 showed me that absolutely every grade level required instruction, modeling, and lots of practice – both isolated and applied – for every step of the writing process and skills within each process! Making assumptions of student background knowledge is done at your own peril! 

To avoid an absurdly long post, I’ll focus on one step at a time in this four-part series of teaching writing posts.

Step 1: Brainstorm

Teaching brainstorming and categorizing of ideas is critical!  Frankly, I believe you can't get or give enough practice with this; students who can formulate and organize ideas quickly are at a huge advantage when responding to writing prompts and to life in general! 

To teach brainstorming, start by modeling with whole-class participation. Once a juicy list is created, ask students to help you pull out categories. If they have difficulty, pull out a group of ideas and ask for what they have in common. For modes of transportation, you might say, "I'd put helicopter, airplane, and hot-air balloon into a group. What should we call that group?"  (travel by air)


Whole-class brainstorms on gender stereotypes. The students had a little too much fun with this one!

Next, move to small group practice with large whiteboards or chart paper, and a broad, accessible topic (forms of transportation, ways to use water, etc.).  
Once groups have generated lots of ideas, they should categorize. This becomes the basis of body paragraph outline options. When they get to outlining, they’ll find some ideas don’t make the cut. Conversely, they may find they had an interesting/unique idea they’d like to use, but no other ideas to accompany it in a category. Because of this, it's important students do not throw out their brainstorm or categorization.  They might need to go back to it later!  (More on outlining to come in part 2 of this series.) 

Encourage students to continue adding ideas as they categorize, if they desire. These processes are fluid. In fact, I teach it both ways: sometimes we brainstorm, then put ideas in categories, and other times we generate categories first and brainstorm examples underneath. Just as there are multiple ways to solve a word problem in math, there are many accepted approaches to writing. Be sure not to be too rigid!

Whole-class brainstorms on essay prompt on how Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dreams have been, and still remain to be, fulfilled.

Once students have had many opportunities to practice whole class and in groups/partners, individual brainstorming and categorizing on a given topic or prompt becomes a great 5-minute bell work or exit ticket activity!  Taking the time for focused and frequent practice of brainstorming and categorizing pays off in a major way when your students are never again intimidated to get started on writing prompts!  Think of how nice it will be to not hear, "I don't know what to write..."  That's definitely worth your time!

Related Posts (clickable once posted):


Expository Writing Unit

Persuasive Writing Unit

Check out these other great ideas from some of my favorite bloggers:

An InLinkz Link-up



A. A. Hicks House 1 via photopin (license) Gloomy Barn via photopin (license) 09_09_2010EOS REBEL T1i5913 via photopin (license) Minha porção pesquisadora II via photopin (license)


  1. Great analogy! And I so agree - we need to TEACH, not just ASSIGN writing.

    1. Thanks, Retta! Assigning vs. teaching can be all too easy a trap to fall in!

  2. Love the concept of houses and writing! Can't wait to read your upcoming writing posts, one of my favorite subjects to teach!

    1. Thanks, Kathie! I've got my outline ready for the next posts, just need to start drafting! I agree with you; writing is one of my favorite subjects to teach! That and science are my first teaching loves! :)

  3. I really love how you relate this to building a home and break down writing for students. Nice post!

    1. Thanks! I hope you'll find the rest of the series just as helpful!

  4. "We must take careful aim to teach writing, not just assign writing." Here here!!!!!!

    1. Print Path, you pulled my favorite line from the post! :)

  5. Great post. I totally agree with what your saying about writing. It truly does need to be broken down into small chunks.

    1. Thanks, Deann! I've got my outline ready for part 2 (Outlining) ready to go and will be posting in a couple of days. Hope you'll find some ideas you like there as well!