Here are essential mini-lessons to target first-draft, on-demand prompt writing within the waning weeks before the state writing assessment:
- Study examples of good ones. Print off examples from the Department of Education website that include strong responses (level 6), solid responses (level 4) and weak responses (level 2). Have students read and study them. Together create a kid-friendly list of the qualities in each one. What do they notice to be the differences between the good and the not-so-good ones? What makes a response a great one? Students need to know what a “good one” looks like in order to create a good one themselves.
- Just like we teach students to identify the important information in math story problems, teach them to decode the essential information in a writing prompt. They need to be able to attack a prompt and know what it is they are to write about. Teach them to read the prompt and underline the key words. They should not only note what aspects of the topic to explore, but also what genre the response should be written in. For example, Does the prompt state they should explain (expository response) or persuade/convince (persuasive response) or describe a story (narrative response)?
- Make sure students can pre-write quickly in words and phrases. Teach most students about grocery-list pre-writing. Compare an effective pre-write to an effective grocery list. When writing a shopping list, no one writes “Heinz ketchup in the 32 oz. bottle with the white label and gold and black stripe all around it in aisle 7 halfway down about knee-high on the left.” If someone needs ketchup, he simply writes “ketchup” on the grocery list. Use that analogy to convince students to stop writing whole sentences on their own pre-writes. The only person who sees the pre-write is the writer. So it begs the question, Why are you writing whole sentences to yourself? Look at the pre-write as a quick list of words and phrases – a grocery list of details. Help students to practice listing essential details and organizing them.
- The number one reason students aren’t passing state writing assessments nationally is because they write too little. They are done in 11 minutes! It wasn’t the conventions (spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, etc.). They didn’t pass because their writing lacked elaboration and idea development. Teach students 4 easy ways to add detail:
- NUMBER DETAILS: date, age, quantity, time, temperature, distance, weight, height, length, width, speed, etc.
- NAME DETAILS: proper nouns and specific nouns (rather than “stuff” and “things”)
- DESCRIPTIVE DETAILS: sights, smells, tastes, touches, sounds
- COMPARISON DETAILS: compare each of the descriptions to something else (simple similes and metaphors)
- Whether you discuss it during the “grocery-list” lesson or during the “adding details” lesson, make sure to also address the power of strong action verbs. By eliminating weak verbs (is, are, was, were, be, being, been, get/got, put, take/took, make/made, do/did, go/went, etc.), the writer obviously strengthens his word choice score but also improves the overall sentence fluency score. With action verbs, sentences tend to be longer. (The puppy is cute. The cute puppy cuddled on the couch.)
- The number two reason students aren’t passing state assessments is because they only wrote pretty good “middles.” Their writing lacked a beginning and/or an ending. Make sure your students include both. Conduct some lessons to target these two essential ingredients.
As you plan your lessons in these final weeks, consider that not all these skills may be weaknesses for your writers. Address only those that are relevant.