Posted in Writing

Uncommonly Good Commentary

In a workshop designed to deepen teachers’ understanding of our state writing assessment, I was struck by just how much emphasis is placed on student commentary. It makes sense. That’s one place where the author’s voice can be most clearly heard. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the places where my students seem to struggle the most.

When the new standards were first introduced, I invested a lot of energy teaching students how to analyze a text and find relevant evidence to back their ideas. But, ever since that workshop, I spend even more time showing them how to add their own commentary to build on that foundation of evidence. Keep in mind, I teach those who struggle with reading. Essay-writing is twice as formidable to them. So, I have to provide lots of examples and mentor texts to model how authors elaborate on their ideas. And, I have to break down each example to show them what makes it tick.elaborationhandout

Here’s what works for me. I focus on six types of commentary: facts, examples, definitions, reasons, importance, and process. At this point, I don’t try to distinguish between elaboration and explanation… I just lump all six together as elaboration.  This handout defines and gives examples of each of the six. My goal is to expose them to these six elaboration techniques as much as possible, so when their role is to author an essay, the possibilities will come to mind.

elaboration-ticketsOf course, you can present the techniques and challenge students to try their hand at writing each one, but unless your students already have a firm grasp on writing, this may prove difficult. Instead, I have them analyze numerous examples of each technique, so they start to see patterns and can replicate those patterns on their own. To that end I created an elaboration game that requires students to match examples of elaboration with the technique used to write it.

I use small numbered cards, twenty in all, each elaborating on one of five different topics.  I print up several sets  of these cards, each on a different color paper, so several students on the activity at one time without mixing up cards.  (I place each set of cards in an envelope or small baggie to keep them organized.)  Each student also gets an answer sheet.

The answer sheet has five boxed “paragraphs” consisting of a topic sentence and cited evidence only. Each ticket elaborates on one of the paragraphs. Students must first sort the tickets by topic, identifying which tickets match each paragraph.  This step passively teaches them how authors use key words and synonyms to add cohesion to paragraphs.  Next, students  analyze each example of commentary to determine if it uses a fact, example, definition, reason, statement of importance, or describes a process to elaborate on the given topic.  In this step, they learn to look for signal words and text structures associated with each technique.  Students record their answers by noting the card number next to technique it represents under the appropriate paragraph.  When they finish, they can check their work against the answer key.  Or, I’ll review their work, put a check mark on the correct answers, and have them revisit and reanalyze incorrect answers.

Another teacher wanted to use this as a quick review for her students. So, she printed a class set of the table containing the numbered examples and saved the time of cutting apart each ticket. This worked for her since her students can easily handle multi-step processes. My kiddos need to take it a step at a time, sorting by topic first, and then analyzing the author’s technique. Plus, the manipulative aspect keeps them more engaged.

We both agreed, however, that all of the students benefitted from the extra exposure and practice.  elaboration-AS

Posted in Writing

Quickest Way to Score Essays

rubricsIn my book, grading student writing is one of the most daunting tasks faced by any teacher.   Considering the time it takes to read each heartfelt word your students have penned, analyze their technique, comment on strengths and offer advice on how to improve it — at a minimum we area talking about two hours per class per paper.   Expediting that process would give us back some of our lost personal lives, and it would also give students more timely feedback.  Toward that end, I never attend an NCTE conference without hitting at least one session dedicated to this worthy goal.  Over the years, I have discovered and tested many innovative methods, including: post-it scoring (where students choose which trait they want you to assess for each piece), audio feedback (where teachers record comments about highlighted text, usually in digital format), and peer-review (which involves students using checklists to offer constructive criticism to one another).  Each method has its pros and cons, but in the end they did not really shave much time off the task.

Eventually, I always returned to the trusty rubric… where the complicated writing process is broken down into its most basic components and a quick stroke of the pen rates student performance on each of these elements.  After grading (literally) thousands of student essays, I was able to identify common areas of strength and weakness, reflecting that in the progression toward mastery that each column of the rubric defines.  I created one for each targeted skill, and I am happy to share some of mine with you here.

Typically, I use the rubrics to either grade student writing overnight (I usually break up essay-writing paragraph-by-paragraph), meeting with students the next day for a one-to-one (and one minute long) mini-conference about their writing.  If I am pressed for time, I sometimes even score the work during the conference as I meet with each young author.   Each rubric offers a quick assessment of the targeted skill, and makes it easy to identify the area where students most need to improve.  At the same time, the next steps are already spelled out.   Below, I am including links to three writing rubrics I developed and have honed over the years.   I’m including both PDF and MS Word formats, and information about the fonts I used, so you can edit them to meet your own needs.

Writing Rubrics (zip file)

After meeting with students, I often “prescribe” a video tutorial for them to review before they make revisions.  In a previous post, I shared tips on using and creating lesson videos.  You will also find links to several of my free writing tutorials in the menu to your right.   Enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe to get more ideas and freebies from All-Star ELA.

Posted in Writing

Multi-Task With Tutorials

videosTeachers are masters at wringing every second out of our limited instructional time.  Last year, though, as I graded student writing –and made a list of all the topics I needed to go over with my kiddos–I realized there simply was not enough time to cover it all during class.   While I knew many teachers were flipping the classroom, assigning reading or lessons at home that were then practiced during class, I had never seriously considered it since I was hard pressed to get students to spend even ten minutes finishing work they had begun in class.

I usually hold mini-conferences with my young writers, either individually or with small groups, discussing what they did well and what their next steps should be.    At times I feel like a broken record repeating, “Before diving into your opinion on this topic, you have to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to care about it.”  Finally, it occurred to me that I could create a video of these same mini-lessons, and instead of having to deliver each one personally, I could use my conference time to triage student essays and then prescribe the lesson that would benefit each student the most.

The multi-media format appeals to a variety of learning styles, and it lets me use color and graphics to highlight important concepts and I can include lots of model texts.   To create each video, I started with a Powerpoint presentation, then I scripted it and used the Record Slide Show feature to narrate and animate each slide.   The program even let me save it in different formats, so I could upload them to the internet and put links on my class webpage.

Students tell me that they often go back to the videos again and again, or pause and play them while they write.   It was effective, too.   Their writing improved by leaps and bounds. In fact, my struggling readers and writers averaged about the same on the state writing assessment as did the advanced and gifted students at our school.   I can tell you we were all celebrating their achievement!

Best of all, this year, when it was time to tackle text-based essays again, I already had several solid lesson videos I could reuse.   This leaves me free to work on adding to my collection.  I’m currently working on one that focuses on the introductory paragraph in an essay.  I will be making it available for free as well.  If you want to be notified when I post it, please subscribe.

Happy writing.



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