Writing mini lessons? Today, I’m reflecting on the larger writing process that I teach with freshmen and sophomores. I’ve realized that within my writing units, I primarily teach five writing mini lessons.
I teach writing throughout the entire semester with various writing projects after reading or an important discussion. Sure, we complete formal, researched papers. I do frontload information and provide expectations ahead of writing. Still, as I encourage my writers I’ve realized that I use min-writing lessons at different times throughout the semester. I don’t present these lessons in a particular order, but by the end of the semester, I’ve normally taught these.
Not only do the writing mini lessons boost student understanding allow me to differentiate, but they also ease my grading. Students experience targeted practice and therefore, better writing. My grading is easier. Overall, these writing mini lessons benefit everyone.
Writing can overwhelm students. Since I provide feedback ahead of the final draft, I take into consideration the “overwhelm” that some students can face. Since writing is a personal endeavor, students can easily become defensive about corrections. I feel that one of my jobs is to support the writer while showing the writer ways to improve the message.
With the “one” focus, students can easily tackle one area for improvement, see success, get excited, and move to working on more areas. As I work with a student, I give one piece of feedback and ask the student to return. You can read more ideas about feedback, but basically, I ask students to look at one area for improvement. For instance:
- Sentence variety.
- Topic sentences.
- Integration of sources.
And on! If I feel that a students is particularly overwhelmed, I will focus that student on one sentence. I keep the power of one in mind, and when students sense accomplishment, they almost always begin working on other areas. That goal of ONE is a favorite of my mini-writing lessons.
Another writing mini lesson focuses on verbs. With rough drafts, students typically fill their papers with linking verbs and basic verbs (have, does). A rough draft shouldn’t be perfect, so I always emphasize that these verbs are perfect for the rough draft. After students work through their papers a few times, focus on verbs.
Teach students to leverage the power of verbs. Verbs drive a sentence, and verbs can provide an image that adjectives and adverbs can’t. Start by showing students linking verbs. (Sometimes, they don’t realize all of the linking verbs.) Then, we look at predicate adjectives and decide if there is a verb form. Finally, we dive deep into the sentence and find the meaning. Together, we find a verb that portrays the message of the sentence.
Students might not be aware that linking verbs actually lead to simple sentences such as subject, linking verb, predicate adjective. Lightbulbs normally go off when students realize that the predicate adjective often has a verb form (vocabulary lesson!) that can easily improve the sentence.
Another approach for improving verbs is simpler: ask students to highlight every verb in the paper. Force students to resist plugging the verbs into the thesaurus and replacing the verb. Encourage students to brainstorm and work; they can recall verbs that will fit appropriately into their papers. When we work on verbs this way, I typically create a large web and encourage students to add to it.
After we improve verbs, I then focus on sentence structure.
Sentence Structure Focus
Connecting grammar and writing may take different forms, but sentence structure absolutely connects the two ideas. Sentence structure and all that it encompasses (punctuation, clauses, conjunctions) can overwhelm students. When I begin these writing mini lessons, I have provided direct instruction over simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.
When we directly connect this grammar concept to writing, I review different sentence types and then ask students to look at one paragraph of their paper. I’ve found that looking at the entire paper overwhelms students. When we look at one paragraph, students find success, and then they are able to transfer the idea to the rest of their paper.
Often, simple and compound sentences fill the paragraph. Would the addition of a conjunctive adverb or subordinating conjunction show more meaning, and in the process, provide a natural transition? Sometimes, combining sentences can add emphasis to a simple but little-known fact. Other times, using certain types of sentences can convey a larger meaning.
A simple exercise to illustrate the power of connecting grammar to writing is to ask students to provide you with a simple sentence. Model the different approaches students can take with such a sentence. For example: Plastics are harmful to the ocean.
That is a simple sentence, and it is a complete sentence! As a simple sentence, could you change it? The linking verb “are” could become “harm.” Plastics harm the ocean. Then, model h0w to turn the sentence into other types of sentences:
Compound: Plastics harm the ocean, and the public must become aware of the sad situation.
Complex: Although the situation is dire, humans must combat the harm of plastics in the ocean.
Compound-complex: Plastics harm the ocean; however, when the public reuses containers and bags, people produce less plastic waste.
Playing with types of sentences is a powerful grammar and writing lesson. There is no correct answer, but many correct answers. Showing students sentence structures and their possibilities empowers young writers.
Overused Words Focus
Things, stuff, a lot, many: vague words can ruin a paper.
Again, I start by recognizing that overused words are common in a rough draft, but these words don’t add to a paper. I complete a vocabulary lesson to support students and provide examples. Often, students possess words that will improve their papers, but they need help drawing out those words.
The vocabulary lesson can be anything, really. . . but most often, I use a list of words associated with their papers. For instance, if students are writing about teenagers and sleep, we might look into words that they already know and branch from there. Students can brainstorm: naps, bedtime, exhaustion, focus, deprivation, chronic, difficulty, tiredness, fatigue, and moods.
That’s ten words, and students can use those words in a variety of forms. So, empower students by tapping into their prior knowledge. Then, show students how to branch those words into other ideas. Is a lack of sleep harmful? Do teenagers resist bedtime? Can sleepiness contribute to chronic conditions?
Create an anchor chart with students based on the assignment. Another option is to brainstorm words that will help students cite information and incorporate it seamlessly into their papers. “The author said. . . ” Start a list with students, and show students what they already know. What did the author do? Illustrated, demonstrated, proved, expounded, outlined, showcased, clarified: students know those words, and they can choose which verb best fits into their paper.
With a bit of help and brainstorming, you can eliminate overused words from student papers. Working on overused words and building vocabulary through modeling proper thesaurus use and activating prior knowledge are great mini-writing lessons.
Focus in a paper begins before students write their first draft. Students might have dozens of ideas about a topic! They get excited and want to put all of those ideas in a paper, or they might not realize that numerous ideas won’t work in a paper.
Help students focus by working with them before they write. Narrowing a focus before writing alleviates many focus problems before they even exist.
Students and I use a graphic organizer for mapping out their ideas. I allow students to choose the graphic organizer that makes sense to them. With graphic organizers, I provide images to utilize the benefits of metaphors from brain-based learning. To emphasize the meaning, I carry those metaphors into conferencing sessions. (I also consider student conferences mini-writing lessons.)
For instance, if students look at their writing as a road, I will tell them that I need more directions, that I need a yield sign or green light. Sometimes when I ask students to add transitions, they simply stick standard transitions into sentences. Instead, I want them to give me alerts ahead of the half-mile turn; I want to know in advance where their point is turning.
Other students might need a more abstract graphic organizer that prompts them to consider the color of their message or the graduation song for their conclusion. (I really will do anything to help students analyze their papers!) These silly techniques get students talking and brainstorming, and when we are finalizing papers, I am sure to return to the graphic organizer that shaped their organization at the beginning of the process. Using a metaphor, a bigger picture that students already understand, provides a starting point with students for focus.
As you conference and work with students, you will develop your own method of talking about papers. I am comfortable with using a road or a song as a talking point, but I’m confident you’ll develop an idea that works for you and your students.
Referencing the graphic organizer that meant something to them at the start of the writing process helps with organization throughout the paper. Plus, students can think of every idea for that paper at the start of the process. They can look back and realize why they eliminated certain points when they ultimately narrowed their focus.
My writing bundle contains various writing lessons with ample tools to support student writers. That bundle carries over the messages that I wrote in this post.