Questions & Authors: Teaching organization to young writers

All writing teachers are familiar with the “hamburger paragraph” and other well-intentioned but ultimately faulty  systems to help students organize their writing. And while not all organizational structures are irrelevant, in this installment of Questions & Authors Jennifer Jacobson argues that helping students think of their audience and guiding them to discover writing structures and styles as they read their favorite books, are the foundations of better organized writing. Jennifer is the author of No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades.

We’ve long accepted that learning to read is a developmental process. We know that, year by year, students will grow in their understanding of how print is constructed. They will increase their knowledge and application of reading strategies and comprehension. But when it comes to writing, we often fail to think developmentally. This is particularly true in the teaching of organization, where we provide lists of instructions or formulas to students so they can produce seemingly well-organized products. In many instances, the formulas are bogus, no more than fabrications designed by well-meaning educators to prompt students for a patterned (but often hollow) response.

The hamburger paragraph is one example of well-intentioned but faulty scaffolding. In this popular lesson, we teach students to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, follow with three supporting sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Imagine for a moment trying to write a letter, an essay, or a report this way. All paragraphs would be approximately five sentences long. Transitions from one paragraph to another would be a nightmare: all those conclusions, all those new openings. If you examine professional writing, you’ll discover that sometimes a topic sentence comes in the middle of the paragraph, sometimes at the end. (Years ago, when doing some writing for a textbook company, I had difficulty finding a mentor text that had even a single paragraph modeled after the hamburger.)

But, you say, once we started teaching the hamburger, our students scored higher on the state assessment! I’m not surprised. In some states, teachers who are enlisted to score state assessments have been taught to look for the hamburger structure in student responses. Another name for the hamburger paragraph, then, could be the Big Test Paragraph. 

This is not to say that all of the structures we teach students—the compare-and-contrast essay, the persuasive essay, the rising action to climax in fiction, the haiku, or the sonnet, for example—are not relevant. They certainly are. However, we need to give students knowledge of and experience with different organizational patterns. And before we do that, we need to help them grow in their intrinsic understanding of organization. That is, we need to help them realize that organization serves a particular function, and that they—as writers—have important decisions to make.
How do we accomplish this?

We begin by building a sense of audience. When a writer shifts his purpose from writing for himself to writing with a reader in mind, he becomes increasingly aware of the need for structure. He first recognizes that organization is essential for clarity, and then grows to understand that by manipulating the organization he can better inform, persuade, entertain, or move the reader.

There are a myriad of positive ways that we can help young writers keep audience in mind. As your students leave the rug where you have gathered for your mini-lesson, ask, “What are you going to write about today?” And then, “What do you think the reader would like to know about (your cat, your trip to the Laundromat, your birthday party)?”
During writing conferences we can ask questions that help the writer keep the reader in mind:
• What is the purpose of your piece?
• What is the most important thing you wish to tell the reader?
• Do you have a lead that will hook the reader?
• Are there any places in your work that might confuse the reader? How could you make this part clearer?
• What does the reader learn in the middle of your piece?
• What do you think the reader will want to know at the end?
• How do you think the reader will react to this ending?

I conduct mini-lessons in which I model prewriting with audience in mind. I tell students my topic choice—for example, my dogs—and then ask, “What do you think the reader would like to know about them?” They provide me with a list of questions, which I record on the board. After the questions have been generated, we discuss which ones I should answer in the beginning of the piece (What are your dogs’ names? What do they look like?), those that should be answered in the middle of the piece (What do they like to do? Do they get into trouble?), and the questions that will serve the ending (How do you feel about your dogs?). Then I write a piece that includes the answers to all of the questions. I think out loud, indicating when it’s time to shift to another paragraph (for example, when I’m introducing a new idea about my subject).

Of course, the very best way to help students develop a sense of audience is to give them one (the teacher alone does not serve as an effective audience). Daily sharing of writing in the author’s chair; peer conferencing; and publishing student work in newsletters, podcasts, and collective anthologies all go a long way toward helping students keep listeners and readers in mind.

After they have developed a sense of audience, students need to understand that writers make choices about how to organize their work. When reading a mentor text to primary students, I often ask, “How did the author choose to organize this piece?” Many of the stories I read are chronological, so students say, “She told the story in the order it happened.” But I’m careful to read fiction and nonfiction that are organized around other structures as well. We read Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (2005), an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood that is organized as an alphabet book; The Great Blue House by Kate Banks (2005), which is organized according to the seasons; Previously by Allan Ahlberg (2008), a story told backward; Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta (2006), which alternates between present and past; and many other books that allow us to examine different structural bones.

Once young students become familiar with the many organizational possibilities that exist, they often adapt them for their own purposes. As I mentioned in my book No More “I’m Done”: Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades, it is a great feeling when a young student says, “Look! I’m using the Now and Ben pattern, only my book is Me as a Baby, Me Now.” Choosing their own organizational structure is a far more sophisticated approach than following a list of instructions.

Students can also examine the ways in which authors begin and end their pieces. In the not-so-distant past, I recommended providing students with a list of strategies that authors use. I now realize that an even more productive exercise is to invite students to conduct their own investigations of the techniques, and to provide their own names for these strategies. One group of students discovered that many writers begin a piece with a sentence that tells when:

• “When Owen’s granny heard he was a baby . . .” (Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse and Jacqueline Briggs Martin [2006])
• “Not so long ago, before she could even speak words . . .” (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems [2004])
• “When I was younger it was plain to me . . .” (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant [2008])

We know that with discovery comes ownership—not something that students are likely to forget.

Only when students truly understand the need and function for organization should we have them experiment with structures that are particularly useful to writers. I often begin by showing students the “pattern of three” that appears in some works of fiction: 1) a character wants something and tries to get it but fails, 2) he tries again and fails again, and 3) he tries a third time and either gets what he wants or changes his mind. Although fiction can be difficult, it is usually the genre children know best; therefore, they are able to apply a good deal of background knowledge. In addition, the pattern of three is a common organizational structure: the five-paragraph essay and the traditional persuasive essay are two familiar examples. Both essays begin with an introductory paragraph (equivalent to the opening of a story in which we are introduced to a character and what he wants), followed by three supporting paragraphs (the three tries), and a conclusion (the story’s resolution). Once students have developed a solid understanding of one of these formats, it’s easy to introduce the others.

When it comes to teaching writing, there is a constant tension between allowing students to practice the craft and rushing them to create a product that looks accomplished. With subjects such as mathematics or music, we accept that mastery will take hours and hours of exposure. Writing, on the other hand, we too often treat as a fill-in-the-blank exercise.  Providing formulas too early not only stunts writing growth, it also interferes with the development of ideas, voice, and sentence fluency. Instead, we must encourage students to identify themselves as writers and to know that writers first ask themselves “What do I want to write about?” and then “How will I organize this piece?” Teaching students this foundational concept of the writing process will serve them well.

2 comments October 27th, 2010

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