My middle school writing class has students who are not strong writers. In fact, they often refuse to write. It’s been a two week process, but I’ve finally gotten them to write a basic five-sentence paragraph. Too often they get stuck when they are expected to write because they don’t know how to begin; they think they should just be able to write. This often leads to behavior problems since not being able to do something can trigger emotional trauma. Now we have finally gotten to the point where the students brainstorm, outline, and then write.
The process that I’ve taught them is not something I came up with on my own. I have to give credit to the Stern Center for Language and Learning because that’s where I learned about this process through a course taught by Juliet King where she used the book Writing Skills by Diana Hanbury King to help us present writing in a new way to students with disabilities. I’ve adjusted the technique since using it for a few years, but I find it to be a great way to teach reluctant writers how to organize and plan writing that can be used to respond to a short-answer question.
This process is short and concrete. First students will brainstorm everything they know about a topic or question. For example, today, my students did a character study about a character from the book On My Honor. They all completed a sheet that included character traits and then specific examples from the story to support those traits. Once students complete the brainstorm they will do a simple outline. The outline contains the topic sentence, three supporting details (written in note form), and then the concluding sentence. After completing an outline, students write or type the final paragraph by using that outline. I’ve found this approach to be easy to remember and something that provides structure and organization for students who have great difficulty with that. The process of teaching them to use this format for writing meant that first I had to instruct them about how to brainstorm. Then I showed them how to categorize their brainstorm and organize it into more specific topics. Next, we learned how to write a strong topic sentence and to use the brainstorm to help write the supporting details. I also had to teach them how to put thoughts and ideas into a note form in order to get the main concepts of a sentence onto an outline without having to write out the whole sentence. Finally I taught them how to write a good concluding sentence. I had students practice this process verbally with lots of modelling from me before I had them move into writing on their own.
As students get better at writing, the simple paragraphs can be expanded with more details and supporting thoughts. They also can use the concluding sentence as a way to transition to the next paragraph when writing multiple-paragraph answers. Over the years I’ve found that it is important to help students who have problems with organization put things into an ordered process because it helps them learn it and remember it better. It also provides structure and support which makes them feel successful and helps them reach their academic goals.