Posted in Writing

How to Synthesize Key Ideas in a Conclusion

Before I knew better, I used to ask students to merely summarize their key ideas in the conclusion. But as I noted in the first post in this series, I’ve come to realize middle school students are capable of much more than I’d allowed myself to believe. Every sentence, even those whose purpose is to remind readers of key points, should build on the previous information. Every. Single. Sentence.

Moving Beyond Summary to Synthesis

Now, if I’m being honest, I do ask students to summarize their key points when drafting the conclusion, but only as a jumping off point. In fact, I ask them to write these summaries without rereading their body paragraphs. This often yields a fresh way to convey each key point—or at least identifies the absence of a single cohesive line of thought.

Next, I have them look for a common thread among the ideas, something other than the topic itself. This is a challenging step as it requires critical and analytical thought. You might want to prime the pump by having them warm up with some analogies. I’ve used this analogies worksheet to get students into the groove of identifying patterns and relationships.

I once had students write about the qualities of a hero, and one summarized their body paragraphs as follows.

If students identify a connection between two of the ideas—in this example they noted #1 and #3 both require self-sacrifice—ask them if that trait might also be true of #2. This often leads to deeper insight into their topic as they recognize previously unseen relationships. In this case, the student noted that justice, too, requires self-sacrifice since it requires the individual to give up personal freedoms for the good of the community at large. Once such a commonality is identified, have students explain the link and note its significance. The result is a sentence that synthesizes the ideas, and one worthy of their conclusion.

Sometimes, try as they might, students just cannot seem to find a connection between their key points. This is where I offer an alternative strategy… the “So What? Why Should Anybody Care?” strategy. Answering these questions about each key point will also lead them to deeper thinking. So what if a hero is courageous? It means they’re willing to face something unpleasant or dangerous, and put their own comfort and safety aside. Why Should Anyone Care? Well, if everyone put their own comfort and safety aside to help others, it would make for a much more supportive society. It would also mean that those lives that someone sacrificed to benefit must have a certain value, maybe even a responsibility to do something important with them.

Remember all of those “Making Connections” lessons we used to teach before Common Core? Text to Self, Text to Text, and Text to World. That’s what synthesis is all about… making those connections and being able to commit them to writing. Synthesizing key ideas is more powerful than summarizing them because it tells readers that the author has had this larger purpose in mind all along (even if they only just discovered the “bigger truth” while crafting their conclusion). Yes, it is a more difficult writing skill to master. But with a little help, your students can learn to do it, and the extra effort is what gives it immense value.

Posted in Writing

Thesis Restatement – It’s so much more than its name implies

The word conclusion means the finish or the end. But it also means coming to a decision, making a judgement about something you’ve been contemplating. An essay’s final paragraph should be and do both! In my previous post, I revealed why learning to write an essay conclusion is a critical skill. *Spoiler Alert* It’s not about a state test score. It’s much more relevant.

The conclusion begins with a thesis restatement. While it’s safe to say that means it rephrases the thesis, if that’s all it does, the author has missed a golden opportunity. Since the restatement appears after the essay’s full body of evidence, it has more room for creativity. Think of it this way, if the thesis is the controlling idea of the essay—its brain, so to speak—then the re-statement is the essay’s heart.

For instance, in an essay describing the benefits of being vegetarian, the writer’s rather formal thesis…

A vegetarian diet reduces the risk of obesity and serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and it is good for the environment

…is restated with the more emotionally compelling:

Healthy bodies and a healthy earth—the vegetarian lifestyle promotes a harmonious and natural balance.

Before I continue, a few words about conclusion transitions are in order. Years ago, it may have been enough to tack the phrase In conclusion or In summary onto the front of the restatement. However, today’s readers expect more. A simple, but less hackneyed, transition (like one of those listed on this student handout) is now the minimum. Even better is a subtle transition elegantly woven into the fabric of the sentence itself, one that connects the final line of the last body paragraph to the first line of the conclusion. This link can be a single word, an idea, a continuation of imagery, or an extended metaphor. Here’s an example.

“Even today, Darwin’s work is a lightning rod for controversy.
Though a storm of public criticism arose with each of their groundbreaking theories, Copernicus, Pasteur, and Darwin sparked powerful and positive changes in the world of science.”

Now, let’s dive into three ways you can teach students to write a strong restatement.

#1 Use synonyms for key words

Start by having students highlight key words and ideas in their thesis statement. Then, challenge them to brainstorm a list of synonyms (or phrases and/or acronyms, such as “unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)” instead of “drone”). I let them work with partners or in groups responding to the same prompt and urge them to use the classroom thesaurus or online thesaurus.

#2 Change the sentence structure.

I ease novice writers into this part of the process by having them simply reverse the order in which key ideas appear. For example the thesis,

“Local governments should set aside undeveloped land to be used for public recreation, nature preserves, and future infrastructure”

is reordered (and reworded) to become

“Public parks, wilderness areas, and future expansion projects will only be possible if local governments set aside the land for them now.”

More accomplished writers are encouraged to reframe the thesis by adding elements like subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases. The finished product might look something like this.

“Only by acting now to preserve it, can local governments ensure there will be enough land for the parks, wilderness areas, and public projects yet to be built.”

#3 Be more expressive.

Ideally, the restatement should be more expressive—more passionate and more pointed—than the original thesis. By the end of the essay the writer has (presumably) connected with his or her readers and constructed a framework of reason and evidence. It is from that vantage point that the author now delivers his or her final charge to readers. The restatement is a confident and heartfelt expression of the essay’s core message. And it’s a great place to showcase voice.

You can teach students to ratchet up expression by incorporating words that convey emotion. Instead of writing “Invasive species affect their new habitats by…” Write “Invasive species wreck their new habitats by…”.  If you haven’t already taught or reviewed connotation, this is the time to do it.

Did you notice how the above example also draws a conclusion, identifying the effects of invasives as decidedly negative? This is another aspect of adding expression, sharing a salient deduction. It doesn’t matter if the essay is informational, either.

The writer’s opinion about their subject matter should be evident in the restatement. The previous example—from a cause and effect essay—made it clear by using the word wreck that the author believed the effects of non-native species were problematic. In argumentative essays, opinion comes naturally. But even informational essays should reveal the author’s judgement on the subject. The restatement in a process essay might explain why the process is valuable. In a compare and contrast essay the author can identify the most important similarity or difference. Another way to add opinion to the restatement is to note the subject’s broader implications. The following example illustrates.

“Native Americans did not merely influence American culture, they largely defined it by instilling a deep respect for nature, the idea that a community is responsible for the welfare of all its members, and the belief that children are society’s precious hope for the future.”

Clearly, the thesis re-statement is much more than its name implies. It’s where shrewd and skillful authors can flaunt their voice, their power of deduction, and their talent for words. It’s where the author’s fervor for their message can also rouse the reader’s heart.

Posted in Writing

Wrapping Up a Text-Based Essay

Consider this my public apology to all the students I shortchanged over the years. Writing an essay conclusion—a genuinely good one—is a struggle. But for an embarrassingly long time and for many reasons (overzealous pacing, undervaluing the skill, and yes, grading exhaustion), I gave short shrift to teaching students how to write a skillful and satisfying conclusion.

I guess I wasn’t expecting much from 6th graders in the way of brilliant endings. So, when a true “drop the mic” conclusion crossed my desk one day, it was an eye-opener.  Maybe middle schoolers were capable of more than even the scale-score 10 released writing exemplars might lead one to believe.

The essay in question was an argument for allowing gum in schools. It was engaging, used sound arguments and spot-on evidence. The conclusion recapped key points and wove them into a convincing body of reason. But it was the final line—just three creatively conceived and artfully applied words—that rocked my teaching world. It ended “Chew on that!”

This cheeky challenge haunted me and ultimately inspired me to revamp my writing instruction. Yes, a conclusion should begin with a transition that signals completion.  But those transitions should go beyond the boilerplates “In conclusion” and “In summary.”  Yes, a conclusion needs to restate the writer’s thesis, but it should do that in a fresh, pithy, cut-to-the-chase way.  A conclusion shouldn’t just summarize key points—it should meld them into one cohesive and purposeful concept. And that final line… well, a moment of brilliance here is like the striking of a church bell.  It’s clear, it’s commanding, and it resonates for a long time afterward.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be posting more detailed ideas for teaching essay conclusions. While it can be daunting for students, there are many techniques you can use to help them demonstrate a deep understanding of their topic and its broader implications.  There are also tricks for coaxing out those clever endings.

Middle school writers can move beyond mediocre—with a teacher who expects and encourages more. Expert-level conclusions are tough because they demand critical and creative thinking. They require writers to identify the essence and the importance of their message. In truth, that’s what makes writing conclusions one of the most valuable skills we’ll ever teach. In a frantic world, the ability to get to the heart of the matter is a super-power. Consider the power of my student’s admonition to “Chew on that”—a brief turn of phrase that turned my writing instruction on its head.

Posted in Other, Writing

Accommodations for Dysgraphia

We’ve all had those students… the ones whose written papers bring to mind a Cy Twombly paining. And while messy handwriting might be nothing more than carelessness, it can also be caused by dysgraphia—a disorder that affects the ability to sequence and control fine muscle movement.  In my previous post I detailed how to recognize dysgraphia, often referred to as “impairment of written expression.” Here, I focus on how teachers can provide extra support to help students who struggle with it.

STRETCHING

For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing can be physically taxing if not outright painful.  In the same way warming up before a run can ready your muscles for the workout ahead, having students warm-up their hands before writing is a big help.  Encourage students to wiggle and stretch their fingers before writing. Better yet, give them a stress ball or putty for a pre-writing workout.

WRITING TOOLS

Pencil grips help dysgraphic students hold their pen or pencil correctly, reducing strain and increasing maneuverability. Unfortunately, older students are often reluctant to use them.  So, use the fattest cushioned grips you can find and offer them “to make the pencil more comfortable,” knowing in your heart that the increased diameter tends to force their hand into the desired tripod position.

Specialty lined paper can also aid students with letter placement and alignment. Paper with raised lines is best since it gives tactile as well as visual cues. (It’s also a must-have for students with visual impairment.) If that’s not in your budget, use regular graph paper or print out this specially lined notebook paper I created to help with spacing.

Allow students with dysgraphia to type assignments on the computer. It eliminates some of the barriers to writing (pencil placement, holding the paper in place, alignment, erasure issues) while it strengthens muscles in their hands.  Even cursive writing can be easier than print since they don’t have to lift the pencil up and down quite as much.

NOTE-TAKING HELP

Students with dysgraphia also benefit from note-taking assistance. Their struggles with the physical act of writing diverts attention from your lesson.  Instead, print out notes for them (one reason why I create most formal lessons on PowerPoint) or ask another student to scribe for them using carbon-paper (@30 cents a sheet, but reusable) or carbonless forms (@10-cents a sheet).

HANDWRITING INSTRUCTION

While there’s not enough time to provide one-on-one instruction for handwriting in middle school, you can provide students with a folder of handwriting worksheets they can work on whenever they have some free time.  Although some experts claim most middle school students’ handwriting is too deeply ingrained to change, I’ve seen several motivated boys become much neater writers simply by giving them the tools to practice it.  Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have an occupational therapist visiting your school, ask for their help.

Remember in my previous post when I talked about my husband’s soul-crushing “chicken scratching” experience? In high school, his drafting teacher gave him nightly lettering practice that he labored over at home. The long hours paid off by retraining his muscle memory for writing. Today, he gets compliments on his neat, easy-to-read handwriting.

DIFFERENTIATING PRODUCT

Differentiate the product used to assess mastery by allowing dysgraphic students to respond orally, or when that’s not feasible, use graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can help in two ways. First, on lengthy writing assignments, using a graphic organizer or outline helps students focus their thoughts before they must code them in writing. If possible, let them turn in writing “drafts” as graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can also be used to show mastery of reading skills like plot, character traits, or text structure. Use these for literary text and these for informational text.

Reduce the volume of writing required.  Allow students with dysgraphia to highlight text evidence instead of rewriting it.  Permit students with dysgraphia to use agreed- abbreviations or symbols when writing (w/ for “with” or + for “and”). Share this list of common symbols and abbreviations as a reference tool. Wherever possible, remove handwriting, capitalization, and spelling as a grading criteria for written assignments.  Test the latter two with a computer-based quiz or multiple-choice/check-the-box assessment.

If you want to learn more about dysgraphia and what you can do to support students who have it, I highly recommend Reading Rockets as a resource.  You’ll find literally hundreds of articles about it—everything from handwriting samples, to assistive technology, to the latest brain research.

Posted in Other, Writing

7 Signs Your Student Has Dysgraphia

Decades later, my husband can still recall being called out by an English teacher for turning in a written assignment that looked like “chicken scratching.”  Even though he’d tried his best, his handwriting—weirdly spaced with shaky lines– looked like it was produced by a very young child.  The teacher accused him of being lazy, but he was actually struggling with dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a nervous system disorder that affects fine motor skills used for writing.  It’s often associated with other learning disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia.  While it used to be an official diagnosis, now it appears on IEPs or 504s as “impairment in written expression.” Of course, I’ve also encountered dysgraphic students who had yet to be diagnosed.

So, how do you know if a student has it?  There are some tell-tale signs teachers and parents can look for.  First and foremost, students with dysgraphia are often described as having “messy” handwriting, with the following characteristics:

  • Irregular spacing
  • Unevenly sized letters
  • Writing above or below the lines
  • Erratic pencil pressure
  • Poor spelling, omits letters or words
  • Capitalization errors, including mid-sentence caps
  • Frequent scratch-outs and erasures

Students with dysgraphia may hold their pen or pencil in a tight or claw-like grip.  They may hunch over their paper or turn their hand (or paper) at an odd angle to write.  These students often avoid writing assignments and write much more slowly than their peers. Also, because so much mental energy is dedicated to task of production, it’s hard for students with dysgraphia to compose their thoughts while writing.

An official diagnosis can be made by psychologist or neuropsychologist, or an occupational or physical therapist can test motor skills.  However, if you suspect a student has dysgraphia, there are a number of ways you can help them.  In my next post, I’ll detail ways teachers can differentiate for students with dysgraphia, and how one teacher’s intervention made all the difference for my own significant other.

Posted in Writing

Building a Body of Writing Resources

When our state changed writing standards several years back it became especially challenging to find quality, targeted instructional material.  While creative writing prompts were abundant (Imagine you could have any job for one day…), resources for writing text-based essays were few and far between.  Even materials from our textbook provider seemed to have been hastily thrown together.  The example essays did NOT match the requirements of our state writing assessments.  The source texts were only loosely aligned to the prompt, and to one another.

Frustrated, I began creating my own…literally researching and writing my own text sets and exemplars.  I made video tutorials  and practice activities to reinforce skills like analyzing the prompt and elaboration (always a challenge, that one).  Now, I’m fine-tuning those original lesson presentations with lessons learned over time, and I’m making them available to other teachers in an editable form.  Because we all have our own tips and methods to pass on — especially when it comes to writing.

Each new lesson presentation is available to my followers for FREE immediately following its introduction.  This post is to let you know I just released a PowerPoint on Body Paragraphs, and over the next month I’ll be uploading new presentations for Citing Text Evidence and Writing a Conclusion.  I’m also working on a new essay packet and additional practice activities suitable for use in literacy centers.  All materials will be available through TeachersPayTeachers.com.  If you’re not already following me there, you may want to consider it.  Followers receive an email notice every time I upload a new product.

I appreciate your support.  I appreciate what you do for our students and our collective future.  (I don’t think any of us hear that enough!)  I’m honored to be a part of it!

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.