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.
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.
Of 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.