Saturday, February 22, 2014

Three ways to move beyond "I'm going to tell you about..."

    When I taught seventh grade, I couldn't believe how many students used this phrase as a topic sentence. Was someone teaching this?

    Moving to fourth grade gave me a new perspective. As I worked with younger writers, I saw how "I'm going to tell you about..." develops, and why some teachers may let it slide now and then. Some young writers jump right into the details of a topic, without any introduction or preface.

   Writers with a stronger sense of audience awareness know that they have to do something to introduce the topic. "I'm going to tell you about" is then a logical way of beginning a paragraph. Like many young writers, this structure is terse and to the point. When it first appears in a student's writing, it represents a valid way to solve a problem. As a fourth grade teacher, I feel a grudging respect for what I despised so much in seventh grade.

  While I acknowledge the utility of "I'm going to tell you about," I know that I need to help students move forward. Here are three ways to help students move into more sophisticated expository writing.

1. Use writing frames
I love writing frames because they help students to see the language of academic writing. When students have to write to respond to reading, they often fall into an "I'm going to tell you about" pattern because they have trouble generating the abstract language they need. A writing frame can show students one way to enter a response.

Of course, the risk develops that students will see a writing frame as a simple "fill in the blanks" activity. When I introduced the frame to the right this past week, I had students read it aloud together, inserting the word "blank" at every blank. It was fun. Then we highlighted the topic sentence and talked about how it worked for the paragraph. (This activity is part of January homework and texts if you are interested.)

2. Write topic sentences together
  We are currently working on a month-long (decade-long? It sure feels like it with all of the snow days!) writing project. Students are designing their own island countries, and then writing an expository essay to describe it. So many different skills intersect in this project, from the art of creating the maps to the writing of the essay.

  Often, the writing of an essay becomes independent classwork or even (gasp!) homework. I never send writing home for homework. Sometimes students love to write and want to write at home, which is awesome. But the writing of topic sentences, especially for students in grades 4-7, is too important to send home. Students need lots of models and lots of support for this.

  I model the writing of a topic sentence with sample details. Here is one that we tried on Friday.

  I designed it so that the space for us to write our main idea is above the details. This matches the way that main ideas are usually at the beginnings of paragraphs.

  I read the details aloud to students, and then asked, "What do you think this says about the weather of Delphinium?" I asked students to work with partners to come up with one word to describe the weather--awesome, horrible, dreadful, bananas, delightful, and so forth.

  After this, I called on a few students to share. One said, "The country of Delphinium has interesting weather." This is a very basic topic sentence, but it is a step beyond "I'm going to tell you about.." The next student arranged ideas in a different order: "Delphinium's weather is pretty unusual." Having students come up with one word was very helpful.

  Some students have resisted this--"Isn't that an opinion? A teacher told me I shouldn't write opinions." I'm pretty sure that no teacher has ever said this. After all, writers take positions and then support those positions. A piece of writing that is only facts would be very dry indeed.

  ...And this process takes longer than you may ever dream possible. The more examples, the more opportunities to talk through details, the better. As we research Antarctica, students will use the same process to write about their research. Over time, the topic sentences break out of the "____ is interesting" mold and become more lively.

3. Showcase mentor texts
  Showcasing mentor texts also helps to speed up the process. Choosing texts, however, requires some care. Often the expository picture books that get published and publicized are the ones that mix up the traditional format. Where are the topic sentences? Where are the paragraphs? While these are great to read and share with students, some nice mid-level models are helpful too. The books of Franklyn M. Branley are excellent, as are articles from Ask and Muse.

   While sharing these texts, I like to talk about them in terms of problems and solutions. How did the author deal with the details? Where is the topic sentence in the paragraph? How does the author move from one paragraph to the next? After these discussions, students often start to experiment with their own topic sentences. By the end of fourth grade, a few of them are using pretty strong transitions between paragraphs, and using the topic sentence to move from one idea to the next.

Integrate all of these strategies
   All of these strategies can be used concurrently! Last week we created main ideas in the morning and wrote to a writing frame in the afternoon. Next week we'll look more at mentor texts while students will be creating their own main ideas. The more that students see and talk about main ideas and topic sentences, the more likely they will be to internalize this kind of structure and move beyond "I'm going to tell you about."

-If you're looking for more on main ideas, you may like this: Main Ideas and Details in Nonfiction Text.
-This slideshow about Topics and Main Ideas can help students to understand topics and main ideas in reading.

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