Transferring Great Ideas to Writing – Part 1

“My students have great thoughts and ideas in discussions but then they don’t successfully transfer that to their writing. It just ends up being a summary.”

I recently overheard this lament from a teacher, and it was immediately echoed and affirmed by his colleagues in the room. They had observed the same thing from their students.

I immediately had a couple thoughts and a question. I’ll share my thoughts today and save my question for next week:

My thoughts:

  • First, how GREAT that students’ ideas are coming out in discussion and that teachers are regularly creating opportunities for students to discuss texts as a class!

Can we just pause for a moment to appreciate the richness and rarity of this alone?

If students hadn’t had the opportunity for open discussion, we wouldn’t have even known what great ideas were missing in their writing.

  • Second, these students have great ideas in discussion and have at least composed a summary in writing. Although a summary is not the end product for which we are aiming, let’s look at this as a place to start. Rather than discouraging us, let’s allow this to inform our next instructional steps. Possibilities:
    • Chart students’ comments and claims during discussions. These charts serve as scaffolds to get those ideas transferred to their papers.
    • Have students unpack the prompt. Students often approach writing with only a vague notion of the response they’re being asked to give. Given the time to identify cue words, re-state the question, remind themselves of rules for this type of writing, and list out specific expectations, students will be much more successful and specific in their responses.
    • Do you have even one successful student exemplar? Use it as a model. Make sure and save class sets of assignments to use as exemplars next year.
    • Have partners read each other’s papers aloud so students can hear their own thoughts from another reader.
    • Have students color code work for Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, and Summary. This helps them see what is there and what is missing in their writing.
    • As a class, chart the sentence starters we see being used for Claims, Evidence, and Reason so that students have language for writing their ideas and arguments.
    • Create opportunities for students to share their writing with the class. Teachers report that students are generally eager to show their work and they are very observant and honest with their feedback at the elementary level. If they start these practices at elementary grade levels they will be much more receptive to feedback as they move into middle school.
    • Refuse to be tyrannized by “coverage.” Insist on allowing time for several revisions so students can utilize feedback. Otherwise feedback is wasted.
    • Emphasize content first and structure second. Structure can be added during the revision process. Various research tells us that if we ask students to fit their thoughts and ideas into a specific structure before those thoughts and ideas are even formulated, then what we get from them is basically “fill-in-the-blank” thinking and writing rather than their real ideas about the text or question.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of modeling. When I say modeling I am not talking about simply providing a sample for students, or talking them through a pre-constructed paragraph. I’m talking about composing a piece of writing while students observe and take notes about what they see you doing and hear you saying. As you compose, verbalize each step of your process:

“Okay, so the prompt is asking me to list what I consider to be the most important qualities the immigrants needed to come to America. I’ve already charted that with page numbers so I need to look back at that chart. Also, I know from past assignments that I want to introduce my topic in the first sentence so I think I’ll say…”

All the while, you’re composing your paragraph and students are feverishly jotting, “re-read the prompt,” “look back at chart,” “use previous knowledge about paragraphs,”… creating their own little writing toolbox.

During the model include moments of indecision. Cross things out. Realize that you’ve included too much summary, refer back to the prompt and decide to edit it out. For many students a polished model of writing is like a rabbit pulled out of a hat. They have no idea where it came from or how it was generated. Seeing the whole messy process and noting how it unfolded is tremendously empowering for students.

What tips and tools have you found to help your students transfer their ideas to writing? Share with us and our readers, and tune in next week for part 2!