It won’t be enough to just know the correct ways to put ideas on paper. You must be able to guide students in that direction, as well. A big part of this is prompting them to use available resources, including their own knowledge, to become more independent writers who won’t need your constant coaching. If you know what is needed for each step of the writing process, you’ll know how to help.
Many of us remember writing lessons that began with a topic written on the board and concluded with, “It’s due tomorrow,” with very little instruction in between. We just did our best to write about that topic and when our papers were returned, we saw things like “A+, excellent” or “C-, sketchy,” or “not fully developed,” etc. We were left with little in the way of useable suggestions for improvement. Times have changed, thank goodness, and today’s writing instruction has a method and structure.
A Writing Lesson
Today, many schools use the “writing workshop” format for lesson structure. This usually begins with a brief “mini-lesson” on one aspect of writing (about 10 minutes), followed by a lengthy period of time in which students work on individual or class assigned writing projects. Students may all be at different points in the writing process (see below) and may seek individual help from the teacher and/or assistant during this time. Sometimes, there is a short “sharing” time after the writing period in which students are encouraged to share their work and learn from the attempts of others.
Guidelines for Structure in Writing
Writing educators have found that it’s much easier to establish a preferred structure for student writing instead of presenting them with just a blank piece of paper and telling them to “write.” There are several writing structures in use for various writing purposes. One very basic structure dictates this format for a five-paragraph essay on a topic:
Paragraph 1: introduction/thesis statement
Paragraph 2: presentation and discussion of point 1
Paragraph 3: presentation and discussion of point 2
Paragraph 4: presentation and discussion of point 3
Paragraph 5: conclusion/wrap up
The Writing Process
No matter what the assignment or whether it is individualized or given to the group, students are generally expected to go through the same writing process during writing classes today. Each part of the process has a specific purpose. To successfully coach students in writing, it is important that you know which step they are on when you help them.
Prewriting— Several things need to happen before a student puts pencil to paper to create an essay, story, or other written material.
Brainstorming: Most writing teachers advocate brainstorming as the first step. Brainstorming involves thinking about ideas related to the task at hand and writing down all of them. At this point, the writer does not edit any thoughts and simply records them all. This list will be source of ideas to use in the next step: planning.
Planning: In this step, the student uses the ideas listed during brainstorming to map out a plan for the writing. Planning is so important for several reasons. A firm plan makes writing easier and encourages the writer to adhere to his or her purpose. It also keeps the writer from forgetting to include important things. Some students prefer to make a list-type plan, while others like something more visual, such as a “map.” Look here for a couple of common plan formats for a 5-paragraph essay, described above. (Scroll down to see the graphics just past the middle of the page there.)
Writing (or Writing the Draft)— During this phase, the student uses the plan he or she has created to actually write the content of the assignment. Accuracy and “perfect” presentation are not the points, here. Of course, the next two steps will be quicker if there are fewer spelling and grammatical errors to correct, but the main task now is to put content in written form. Teachers have found that students are more likely to write better content if they aren’t so worried about getting everything perfect at this point in the process. As an assistant, fight the urge to correct grammar, usage, and other small mistakes now. There will be time for corrections later.
Note: For the next two steps, it is often fun for students to use a red, purple, or other color pen or pencil. This way, they can easily see the corrections to make for the final draft *and they tend to feel more “in charge” and effective while revising/editing.*
Revising— At this point, the student is still not looking for capital letters and spelling errors. Revising involves an overall look at the piece and the order of the information. The student should be asking, “Is my message clear? Is there a better way to organize this to be more clear? Is there anything I need to add or delete? Can I say this in a better way?”
Editing— Now’s the time to get out the dictionary and go to town on spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and any other errors you find. Students should be encouraged to read their work slowly and carefully. Editing your own writing is usually much tougher because you know what you meant to say. If you help a student with this, involve him or her in the process. Instead of saying, “You need a period here,” say “Look at this sentence…is there anything missing?”
Publishing— This doesn’t mean that every piece of student writing will be inserted into a book or other work. “Publishing,” in the classroom sense, may simply be turning the assignment in to the teacher. Some teachers require some or all writing efforts to end up in some sort of final form, whether rewritten or typed. Sometimes, students will combine works into a class or school publication or students may submit their work as a contest entry. All of these are types of “publication” and simply indicate that the student is finished with that piece of writing.
No matter the type of writing, all writers write with a purpose. Even if the purpose is “to get the teacher off my back about this assignment,” a purpose has been established. The purpose of writing can change and there may be several purposes present at the same time, but it is important to keep the purpose in mind at all times so that the writing doesn’t drift away from its intentions. And with different purposes come different structures that may be appropriate for a particular writing task. The purpose and structure of an essay for English is going to be different from the purpose and structure of a lab report for Biology.
There are four main purposes to writing: to entertain, to persuade, to inform, or to explain. Sometimes the purpose is dictated by the teacher: “Write a persuasive essay in which you defend the actions of the antagonist in the story.” Sometimes the student must determine the purpose to his or her writing. Then he or she must decide, am I writing to persuade my reader of something? Am I explaining a process or procedure with which the reader may not be familiar? Am I writing to inform my mom that I’m going to the library after school, but I’ll be home for dinner? When given a prompt by the teacher, the purpose is generally provided, but sometimes the instructions can be so vague that the students must determine what they think the purpose is and how to approach the task.
Varying Forms and Modes
Just as writing may serve different purposes, there are varying forms and modes of writing to convey the message and serve the purpose. Here are some of the more popular ones that your students may encounter.
Descriptive Writing— Descriptive writing uses a lot of imagery to help the reader form a mental picture as the text is read. Descriptive writing helps bring a text to life and helps the reader connect with it as it paints a visual picture with language that appeals to the five senses.
Persuasive Essays— In persuasive writing, students are generally asked to convince their reader of something by providing a claim that not everyone will agree with and then formulating convincing arguments and providing evidence to support why their claim is accurate and others should join their position.
Narratives— Narratives are stories. When students write a narrative, they tell a personal story of themselves or of a character they create. The purpose of narrative writing is to entertain, but also to explain a lesson learned or insight gained by the subject of the narrative through the experiences of that person.
Argumentative Essays— Similar to persuasive essays, argumentative writing presents a claim that will not be popular with or accepted by everyone in society and the writer must use evidence and support to prove the claim. The writer is not necessarily looking to persuade or convince the reader to believe the claim, only to accept that it is a valid claim that deserves consideration even if the reader disagrees.
Letters— Letters are correspondence between people that may be formal or informal. Often personal in nature and intended for a smaller audience, letters allow students to share ideas with others in a less formal way than an essay.
Knowing Your Audience
In addition to establishing a purpose and selecting the appropriate writing form to deliver the message, writers must also consider the intended audience. A writer must consider the audience when selecting diction, format, organization, and so on. The vocabulary and sentence structure a student might use in writing a text to a friend is going to be vastly different from the vocabulary and sentence structure he or she should use in writing an essay for school. Knowing the audience, selecting words and examples that the intended audience can understand and with which they can relate, is important to effectively delivering a desired message.
If the writing assignment is a narrative or letter, the student may only need to access a dictionary for spelling edits or to confirm word meanings. If the task is a non-fiction informational piece, there are many more resources available and students need to understand their use and know how to access them.
The dictionary can be a helpful resource for spelling, etymology, determining a word’s meaning, and grammatical information about that word. Most, if not all, electronic devices have some sort of dictionary component that can be turned on to spell check words or provide alternative word choices that have similar meanings. This can be a useful tool, but should not replace careful proofreading by human eyes for spelling, grammar, and usage issues.
Similar to a dictionary is the thesaurus. A thesaurus contains examples of synonyms, antonyms, and related words. Unlike a dictionary, the definition of a word is not usually contained in a thesaurus, but lists of words that have similar and opposite meanings are included. This is a good resource if a writer is trying to avoid repetition by using the same word over and over again. A thesaurus gives ideas for other words with similar meanings that might work in the context.
An atlas is a collection of maps of the world. These maps may be geographical or topographical, as well as show distribution of population or language and dialect.
Primary Source Document
A primary source document is any piece of writing created during the time being studied. A primary source document might include a soldier’s letter home during the Civil War or a journal entry from a woman marching for voting rights or a recording of a speech. Primary source documents give valuable insight into historical time periods from people who were living and experiencing the events.
In today’s day and age, students who are told to research a topic will generally log into their mobile device and “google” the topic. Online resources provide a wealth of information and can be a very valuable and convenient tool; however, students must be taught how to evaluate online sites to ensure that the research they are doing is credible and accurate. Simply reading what wikipedia has to say about the topic may not provide enough accurate information for students to rely on. Questioning the author, the reputation of the site, the timeliness, and the tone of the resource can help students evaluate whether a site may be a reliable source for information.