Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Building Blocks of Writing

What is one of the first toys we give our children when they can sit and crawl?


Rubber blocks, wooden blocks, cardboard blocks.

All kinds of blocks.

What do we give kids as they get a bit older into toddler-hood?

Duplo Bricks.

Then as they approach their adolescence...what do we give them?


Yes...from the time our children are teeny-tiny, we are giving them building blocks. They build from directions that allow them to create elaborate masterpieces and they free-build forms that are uniquely their own.

This isn't really any different than teaching writing. We need to give our children the building blocks appropriate to their age if we want them to ever free-build or free-write masterpieces of their own creation.

It is essential to begin when our children are toddlers by looking at letters and following along the words in picture books with our fingers. Sing rhyming songs and encourage rhyming games in the car, in the store - everywhere!

Then as bigger kids, give them the tools to write (even when it's not pretty!) Give them lots of paper and pencils of all colors. Let it be fun and let it be creative. Talk about nouns and verbs: the building blocks of sentences.

As children outgrow each set of building blocks, replace them with the next set...the next level of writing. As they grow, provide more direction (like the Lego set that points out where each piece belongs). Show them the formulas for strong introductory paragraphs and the way to assemble an essay.

If we start at the very beginning when our children are very young, writing won't be a scary prospect. It won't be a daunting task to teach or to learn. It will be a natural progression for everyone involved.

And remember that learning never ends. There will always be more to learn about writing and language even as adults!

Have you ever seen an adult hunched over a table under a bright light, poring over 1000 jigsaw pieces and placing them one by one? It's just another form of building and assembling.

After all, it's how our brains are wired...so teach your writing the natural and logical way by appealing to your student's desire for formulas and building blocks - you'll be pleased with the results!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why are Kids Still Struggling to Write Well?

In an August 2017 article in the New York Times, Dana Goldstein explores “Why Kids Can’t Write.”

What she found is that 3/4 of 8th and 12th grade students lack basic proficiency in writing (National Assessment of Academic Progress). This number is truly astonishing considering the added emphasis placed on writing skills by the implementation of national core standard curriculum.

Ms. Goldstein found that 4 factors were important in understanding why our students continue to lack writing skills:

1. Teachers largely rely on worksheets to teach writing skills.

2. Teachers lack sufficient training in writing specific techniques.

3. Teachers often lack confidence in their own writing ability.

4. Teachers generally focus their feedback commentary on the content and substance of student writing rather than the actual implementation of written skills.

When looked at objectively, these reasons all seem to make sense. Unless a teacher is an outstanding writer themselves, they need to be taught how to teach writing!

The national community of educators are beginning to realize what we at Online Scribblers have known for a long time: the best people to teach writing are writers and the best way to teach it is through consistent practice and trial and error.

Students learn as much from making mistakes as they do from their successes.

Worksheets can teach grammar, but they cannot teach the fundamentals of paragraph organization and descriptive writing. Students need to try their hands at these finer details of writing and experience how it all comes together into one beautiful piece of work. It is also not enough just to assign written work.

The time must be taken to mark up and give feedback on how to improve the writing. Is a student using redundant ideas? Is the student lacking a central focus or main idea? Is a student not presenting ideas in logical order? It is not enough to correct the grammar of a piece of writing and assign a grade. We need to be able to discuss proper writing technique at a deeper level.

Yes, it takes a great deal of time, yes. But the results are well worth the investment.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Raising Active Readers

Parents often ask me how to get their student reading at a deeper level. And honestly—there isn’t a quick fix. There is no magic way to get your child from Dick and Jane to Pride and Prejudice. And if she is reading Jane Austin, how can you be sure that she is understanding all that she reads?

As in writing, the development of reading comprehension skills is a process. But it is a process that can start even before your child can read or write his own name! It is a process that is never too soon to begin.

First, it is important to realize that reading comprehension isn’t just knowing which character said something in a conversation or the order of the plot points. Comprehension is understanding the broader context of the time period through the language the writer uses as well as identifying the motivations and complexities of each person in the story.

A student with strong comprehension skills should be able to make reasonable inferences about what a character “might” do in a given situation or draw conclusions about what the author is trying to communicate through these characters.

To do this, it is helpful to strengthen vocabulary. Having a thorough knowledge of the words an author uses is half the battle in comprehension improvement.

Encourage your student to jot down words she doesn’t know in each chapter. Make this part of the process. Then use these words as a vocabulary list and study them...of course if you’ve been following my newsletters for any amount of time, you know that I’m a fan of family wide vocabulary learning!

Next, begin when your child is very young and ask open ended questions about a text. An open ended question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.  

“Why do you think Winne the Pooh is so patient with Rabbit all the time?”    

And what happens if you disagree with your student’s answer? Super! This is a chance to have him defend his reasoning...ask him to use examples from the book to support his thoughts. This is the beginning of a literature paper. And all of this can begin in preschool with Winnie the Pooh!

Start these types of discussions early in your reading-together days as it will train your child to begin active thinking while he reads. This is what teachers truly mean when they tell students to “active read.” But this is a skill that can’t just be turned on one day in 5th grade. It needs to be modeled and cultivated one book at a time.

As your child grows and matures into higher level books, enjoy reading the same literature and create your own family book club discussions. You might be surprised to find that he has more complex insights than you give him credit for.

Friday, September 8, 2017

One on One Instruction is Best!

Writing instruction has been in the news a lot in recent years. Why are our students falling short in the realm of written communication? How do we best teach them these skills?

Teachers and experts banter back and forth with ideas and “fancy” curriculums, but as it turns out (and as we at Online Scribblers knew all along) “fancy” isn’t the answer.
Recently, Nell Scharff Panero, a veteran English teacher and PhD in education leadership, set out to find the best ways to improve student writing outcomes in the classroom. What she learned is maybe not what most schools want to hear—but it IS what works.

What she found is that 75% of students in grades 8 to 12 in the US are below grade level when it comes to written skills. Even more shocking is that teachers continue to move on to teach grade level writing skills each year regardless of where students are on the spectrum of skill.

But you can’t build upon skills that aren’t there. Presenting 9th grade skills to a student who has mastered only 5th grade skills  is ludicrous. It would be akin to teaching calculus to students who have not even had basic algebra. Yet, this is what is happening in classrooms across America.


There are several reasons.

First, students are not tested annually as they are in reading and math, so we don’t have a “writing level” established for them.

Second, even when students are recognized as lacking in writing skill, fixing the problem takes time and manpower.

You see, it isn’t a matter of simply filling the gaps and bringing kids up to speed with an extra lesson or two. To really improve an individual student’s writing skill, it takes precious time. A teacher must look at a sample of work, assess the actual breakdown in understanding, and remediate to that exact level and situation.


For every, single student.

While one student may need to remediate all the way back to basic sentence writing, another may need paragraph basic remediation. There is no one size fits all. And, of course, once the remediation is made, there must be continued, frequent practice to retain and build true skill.

There is no quick fix.

There is simply no substitute for one on one instruction for each student at his or her own precise level. Writing education should begin early and occur often for best results. But it is never too late to begin the process.

There is no shame in remediating students to simpler skills and solidifying the experience. The only shame exists in pretending that there is not a national crisis in student communication and refusing to address it with the resources it requires.

More about Nell Scharff Panero’s study can be found in the article The Writing Revolution in The Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Writing is a Process

Writing well is not something that can be achieved overnight. Anyone who has stared at a blank sheet of paper and wondered where to start knows this.

Writing begins before the pen hits paper—or fingers hit the keys as it may be. Writing begins with thought. Thought becomes ideas and then the ideas come to life on the page. The form on the page is only the final step.

It is the careful training of how to transform thought into ideas and then transfer them to ink that takes time...and what makes writing excellent. This is the process that we often refer to as prewriting or outlining. It is also the process that most students avoid because it takes time and doesn’t really seem like “writing”. And it is a major reason why writing is difficult to teach...it is a daunting task to teach our children how to think and form ideas. But if we take the time to teach the process and insist on quality, our children will indeed be great writers!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Put Literature on their Curriculum!

As a voracious reader since elementary school, I have always preferred character driven, relationship laden stories to non fiction or action based thrillers.

Now, more than ever, there seems to be an excellent reason to make literary fiction part of a child’s regular curriculum.

In a 2013 study, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that “reading literary fiction improves theory of mind.” Theory of mind in the world of psychology are the processes involved in a person’s understanding and expression of empathy and sympathy: those life skills missing in
much of today’s world.

The findings of the study, then, suggest that exposure to literature and creative characters who reveal complex emotions and relationships help readers to develop their own expressions, most notably empathy for others’ situations and feelings as well as intuitive sympathetic responses. Readers of literature are better able to understand their own feelings and those of others.

It seems logical.

After all, we have all seen the studies that show that repeated exposure to violent video games can increase a child’s predilection toward aggression and desensitization to it.

How wonderful that we have an equally powerful alternative to help us enliven and enrich positive emotional awareness in our students—and how appropriate that this successful method is traditional and “old school” as many things of high value often are.

Empowering our children with selfawareness, generosity, kindness, and the ability to form healthy and empathetic relationships might be as easy as placing good literature in their hands and on their curriculums!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top 10 Fiction Choices for Teens

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak    (WWII era)

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee    (Great Depression era)

3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell    (American Civil War era)

4. Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi    (Medieval era)

5. Fever 1793 by Laurie Anderson    (1793)

6. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Chlodenko   (Great Depression)

7. Pirates by Celia Rees    (Reign of Pirates era)

8. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne   (WWII era)

9. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys    (WWII era)

10. The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt   (1967) New