Sunday, November 3, 2013

Writing Frames and Open-Ended Responses

Ah, the joys of open-ended responses. They can be frustrating to students and teachers alike. On the other hand, they can also be exciting and interesting, giving students a chance to show off a little bit of creative thinking. This year, I am working on helping students write the passage-based essays that will be on our new state tests as well as the shorter paragraph responses that are on our current tests. Testing aside, though, the writing of open-ended responses is important for its own sake. Being able to write about a text in an informed way is a necessary skill for a literate individual no matter what the testing environment.

Helping students to write these kinds of responses can be challenging. In fourth grade, students are expected to use formal academic vocabulary. For many of my students, this formal vocabulary is entirely foreign. Writing frames are a great way to build their skills with formal writing.

Introducing writing frames
Writing frames have a long history in teaching writing. (For more research, check out David Wray's list of articles. The one from 2000, "Developing non-fiction writing: beyond writing frames", explains some cautions to keep in mind when using writing frames.) The idea of a frame is simple--you give writers an outline for how to structure a piece of academic writing.

I like to start with frames for writing about our shared activities as a class. Here is a frame that I wrote for students after we attended a concert assembly. When students returned from the assembly, we discussed the frame. What do you notice? What do you think you should put into the blanks? Students then wrote their own paragraphs in their writing journals.

Early experiences with writing frames do go more smoothly when students are writing about experiences instead of texts. When the details are already in their minds, they do not have to juggle going back and forth between text and response.

I've found that writing my own context-sensitive frames works better than using pre-made frames. It's worth the effort to try to write the piece in my head and then figure out where to put the lines for student responses. Notice that my frame to the right uses a colon as punctuation. This is not something that most of my students use or even notice. I included it as an experiment to see which students could find it and how they would incorporate it into their own writing.  Many of my students had problems with the transitional phrase "in addition"--they simply did not know what it meant.

Of course, students had the choice of whether to use the frame or not. Many looked at the frame for some elements and included their own sentences as well. After we wrote the paragraphs, one student (chosen by the popsicle sticks of destiny) filled in the blanks on my frame, while another student looked up the musicians' website and added illustrations. The completed work can then be displayed.

Frames for text-based writing
The next step, of course, is to use frames for text-based writing. There are times when duplicated frames that students can write on directly are useful. I wrote this frame to go along with a story that students read. This prompt was rather difficult, as it asked students to complete two different tasks.

I like to include both easy blanks and more complex blanks in my frames. I do have some students who struggle with writing to the point of tears. The first sentence is such an easy task (just fill in the title of the story) that students can feel some success before diving into the more difficult thinking required by the prompt. When formatting frames, I always use double spacing and picture the handwriting of my student who writes the largest. There are still times when students want to write more than will fit in the blanks, but I show them how to mark with an asterisk * where they want to add more, and use another piece of paper to do so.

Much of the literature on frames advises teachers and students to use frames as rough drafts only and have students rewrite their responses. However, I am trying to do open-ended responses each week. Rewriting the entire response would take approximately 1.2 million years for some students, and I just don't have that kind of time. Instead, I settle for having students read the entire frame aloud to me.

Moving away from frames
Writing with frames goes so smoothly that it is tempting to have kids keep doing it. But of course it is our job to diminish the supports over time so that students write independently. A good first step to doing so is to offer a choice. Last week, students had the choice of using the frame or not in their response. (I did tell them that using the frame meant that they could not get the highest score on the rubric.)

Some students asked, "What if I look at the frame, and use some of it, but write it all myself?" Well, that's just wonderful! Of course that is fine! So I did see many hybrid responses. Interestingly, the readers who did not use the frame had serious trouble with crafting a topic sentence. This shows me that I need to spend time on this in the future. Students who used the frame had no trouble adding "cool" or "interesting" to finish out the topic sentence.

Another way to move students away from a frame is to project the writing frame on the board, but not give students a copy. Some students will look up at the board and use what is given, while others will not.

As the year goes on, I vary what is given to students on the frame. Sometimes it will just be a topic sentence and concluding sentence. Sometimes the frame will include the information and have students fill in the transitions. All of these variations help me to see what kinds of writing techniques are within the grasp of students and which are still developing.

Writing a Genre?
I have a fabulous class this year with some very creative kids. Some have started a Skylanders Club in which they meet to discuss the game at recess. Well, one student asked if he could type up some homework for students in the club. I was amused to notice that his "homework" included a writing frame for other students to complete.

I love it when our classroom genres make it into student writing, because it shows that an essential shift has taken place. The writing frame represents an expert to novice genre. When a student takes it over, that student takes on the role of expert. (How did the kids in the club take the homework idea? Surprisingly well. In fact, they ask if they can do their club homework during quiet time or choice time in the day. It is fantastic.)

-The writing frames used above (and two others) are included in my October Homework Packets.
-Summary frames are included in selected activities in my text structure materials: Chronological Order, Description, Cause and Effect, Problem and Solution, and Compare and Contrast.

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