As I’m finishing up my latest book on writing, I am struck by how simple teaching writing is. And simultaneously struck by how I never ever thought I could actually teach kids to write. I went through the motions of it, but I found myself falling back on really lame prompts to kids who were struggling to write. I’d say things like, “Try harder! You can do this!” (Um…not exactly teacher of the year status, eh?), or “Just keep listing ideas until one you really like hits you.” (So…that’s akin to just expecting a miracle, right?)

Now that I’ve written this book and scratched the “how to teach writing” itch that I’ve had for so many years, I realize that I have over dramatized how to teach it. Basically writing is this: a big skill deconstructed into a whole bunch of smaller skills that, if mastered, would mean that you could write.

That’s it!

If you can master the itty bitty skills (like how to write a call to action in a conclusion or what is means when you’re told to “add details”), the sum of all of the little skill part is that you can write. Now some people will say that writing is a highly creative process. It is. For people who know how to write.

But for the rest of us who weren’t born with a golden pencil in our hands, we have to learn the little skills one by one. It’s not highly creative when you’re learning the skills of writing, but once you know them, the party can begin.

One of the real learnings for me as I researched and wrote the book was how much work needed to happen to set the stage for the actual writing. I KNOW that’s where I went wrong in my teaching! I did two things often (and they aren’t good things!):

  1. I would do no pre-writing or organizing of ideas before kids wrote. So basically they had a writing prompt, a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and they were told to “Write!”
  2. I would do so much aimless charting, brainstorming, graphic organizer stuff that we never got on with things and actually wrote.

What I know now is that when kids understand how to USE things like brainstorming and graphic organizers to organize their writing. I learned this when I was trying to come up with a definition (for the book) of mapping out the content before we start writing. The definition of content mapping, the way I see it, is “to organize your ideas in a way that increases the odds that the reader learns the most important information.”

I mean DUH!

The whole point of all of the steps is to create a seamless experience for the reader. And by organizing the text in a certain way, organizing your points in a certain way and organizing your wording in a certain way, you are increasing the odds that the reader listens to what you’ve written about and actually goes and does something because of it! It’s like marketing for your reader, when you really think about!

I am so excited to finally know all of this, can you tell?

So, let’s look at brainstorming. Like I said above, my teaching of brainstorming was pretty fruitless. We wasted a lot of time and it was really hard to narrow down ideas into useable pieces. We either had not enough ideas or too many ideas. Either way – we were stuck!

I have found that when I teach brainstorming in this simple way, I get the best results. And by “best results” I mean content from the brainstorm that really helps kids get organized on their ideas and start writing. I really like the get started part. It’s half the battle.

Step 1: Reflect on the writing prompt or purpose of writing and determine why you are writing this piece. This really helps focus ideas and help your brainstormed list be more useful because you’re thinking about the outcome of the piece, not just a zillion ideas about a topic.

Step 2: Structure the brainstorm a bit. Determine whether you will free write all ideas all over the page, whether you’ll list ideas under a topic or header or whether you will do a bubble map or some other organizer. Already you’re thinking about your topic and how you can best organize ideas, even if you won’t end of up using all of those ideas!

Step 3: Give your brainstorm a time limit (typically 3-8 minutes). If you run out of ideas, just start writing words that remind you of the topic, start writing names of people that come to mind when you think of the topic, write ideas that you’ve already written. Just don’t stop writing.

Step 4: Clean up ideas. Combine like ideas, cross out repetitions, cross out wild ideas that are too far off topic

Now this next step was the kicker for me – I didn’t teach it and I didn’t do it in my own writing until now.

Step 5: Look at your ideas and start to find patterns or a logical flow of points within your brainstorm AND then determine what text structure would work best for your writing as you move forward.

Whoa! Using my brainstorm to determine (or at least start to think about) the structure of the text I’ll write? That was huge for me.


Question of the Day: Which of the four steps above, if implemented in your classroom, could improve the quality of your kids’ writing? I’d love to hear from you!