Writing Part 4: How to get kids to stay on topic

by C. Elkins, OK Math and Reading Lady

I support you, OK teachers!!! I walked with you in 1990 and in 2007-2008. I feel your frustrations and have been contacting OK representatives and senators this past year on your behalf. Last in pay, overcrowded classes, lack of supplies, on and on – I experienced it myself and see it everyday when I visit classes. I am proud of you, your goals, and your actions to affect change.  I am with you all the way!!!

Today’s post will focus on moving children toward more independent writing. A strategy I love to use addresses the following writing points:

  1. Composing sentences
  2. Staying on the chosen topic
  3. Practicing temporary spelling strategies (sounding out, stretching sounds, clapping syllables, thinking of words that rhyme, using related known words)
  4. Applying conventions of print (spacing within and between words, left to right, return sweep, etc.)
  5. Using class word wall (or individual word book)
  6. Proofreading and fluency

I have used this strategy and have felt successful with it. After students have seen me model writing in various forms (example: class news or other shared writing experiences), I usually follow these steps:

  • Provide an index card to each student.
  • Each student will write just one sentence on their card, and add their name. I tell students the sentence can be about anything of interest to them: a pet, a brother or sister, a favorite food, a book, an activity, etc. I write one as well.
  • I collect all of the cards and save them (more about this . . . keep reading).
  • Gather all of the students together. Provide access to a chart / easel or other writing material which can easily be seen by everyone. I prefer chart paper because saving the writing is important for future writing experiences.
  • Have these things handy: strategy chart (see part 1 or part 3 for FREE copy), markers, word wall.
  • I want to model this strategy, so I write my sentence on the chart. When I am done writing, I announce, “Here’s my sentence . . . I have a grandson.”and then I lay the marker down and proclaim I am done. I get weird looks from students because they certainly don’t expect the teacher to write just one sentence. It’s perfect when the students give me a puzzled look and say, “But Mrs. Elkins, you did tell us anything about your grandson!” Then the magic happens!!
  • I say something like, “You are right, I didn’t tell anything about him. Hmmm. I’m trying to think of other things I could say. What are some details you think I could add? Do you have questions for me?” Then students have plenty of questions to help me expand my topic such as: What is his name? How old is he? What does he like to do? Does he have a favorite food? Where does he live? Does he go to school? etc., etc.
  • I take one question at a time and then model how to put the information into a sentence (I can’t just write “Anderson” or “five.”) I use plenty of think-alouds about capital letters, spacing, use of temporary spelling strategies, sentence construction, etc. Each time I finish someone’s question, I announce: “I answered that question, so I know it’s time to put a period.” . . . next question please.
  • Students get to practice asking questions. They get guidance from me when needed on how to form a question. They get to practice listening so they don’t ask the same question as their classmate. They get to practice staying on topic because if they ask off-topic questions, I just redirect while I point to the first sentence: “All questions have to be about my grandson.”
  • I constantly proofread my sentences — during construction, after construction, and after the writing is finished. “A good reader reads their own writing to make sure it says what you want it to say – and to check that you didn’t leave out any words.”

After modeling with my sentence, the next session I pick a sentence from one of the index cards in the class. I typically get sentences such as these:  I like pizza. I love my baby brother. I got a new video game. I have a dog. I have a silver dollar. These are perfect for lessons on expanding the topic!!

Here are some examples from recent whole class lessons in various first grade classes (I took pictures!). In some cases I did the writing while students helped with spelling (read ahead for tips on use of temporary spelling). In other cases, the student came to do the writing. Because they need guidance in which type words to sound out, which to clap the syllables, which ones to relate to known words, and which ones to check the word wall, I am there to suggest which strategy to try.

Translation: I love pizza. I love cheese. I love regular crust. I love Little Ceasars. I eat half of the pizza. I love spinach.

This boy’s sentence was: I love pezu.  You can see he used temporary spelling in this sentence and included all of the sounds heard in the word pizza (good first step)! Then after writing this sentence, he asked for questions from his classmates. They were: What’s your favorite kind of pizza? What kind of crust do you like? What place do you go to get  your pizza? How much do you eat? What else do you like on your pizza? He knew the words I, love, the. He found eat and little on the word wall. We helped him stretch out the words cheese, half, and crust. I asked if they could hear the little word “us” inside of crust. We clapped syllables for the words regular, Ceasars, and spinach. This means we clapped and spelled one syllable at a time (reg-u-lr), (se-zers) and (spin-ich . . . this is how he originally wrote it, but he asked me afterwards if it was spelled correctly and he went back and changed it to spinach).

At the end of his writing, I asked him to pick out 2 words he wasn’t sure he spelled correctly. He selected pezu and spinich.  I selected one of them for him to practice. I usually look for a word that is almost under control and doesn’t need a lot of “learning” to get it into long term memory. My goal here is for him to practice one of the words and add it to his individual word book. I selected pizza because this was an important word to him and one I knew he was likely to write over and over again. I wrote it once and then asked him to write it 3 more times (and add to his word book for future reference). You can see he turned his z the correct way after my modeling. 

Translation:  I have a silver dollar. It’s made of metal. I keep it in my special purse. It’s worth $1. I am going to save it for a toy.

This girl at first couldn’t think of anything else she could say about her silver dollar until the students began asking her questions (What is is made of? Where do you keep it? How much is it? What are you going to do with it?) She knew the words have, it’s made, of, it, in, my, am, to, for. We helped her stretch out sounds for keep, purse, worth, and save. For toy we thought of known words that rhyme: boy, joyFor multi-syllabic words, we clapped them out and then analyzed each syllable (metal, special, going). For metal, we clapped the first syllable met as I said, “It’s like get, pet, and let.” We stretched out spesh in the first syllable of special. I noticed she puts the vowel at the end of metal (tlu) and special (lo) when stretching out the /ul/ sounds. This gives me a future mini lesson idea about words ending with /l/ sounds. I also noticed she is not including a vowel with r controlled sounds in dollar, purse or worth . . . so more work on that will be needed. Since keep is a common sight word, I chose to have her work on this word for more permanence. I praised her by saying, “Look how you knew all of the right sounds in the word keep. The tricky part is knowing there is a k instead of a c. Practice this word and then put it in your word book.”

After doing 2-3 of these as a whole class lesson, students are often ready to give it a try in their own journal. I usually give them their index card back and ask them to write it in their journal . . . then “think of questions your classmates might ask you for ideas on what else you can write about your topic. Each question in your head is a sentence and needs to end with a period.”

I circulated around giving suggestions about spelling strategies to try.  I don’t spell for them because “my brain would be doing all of the work.” I ask students to select one or two words they aren’t sure about and I will help with that word (after they have tried it). I might draw a sound box at the bottom of their page to help them sound out a word, I might draw lines indicating how many letters are in the word they need, or I might help them clap out a multi-syllablic word. I don’t want to point out all of the misspellings – that will kill the progress we are making. But I do point out the positives. Success breeds success!! Here are a couple of independent writing examples.

Translation:  My bulldog is sweet. Her name is Cache. She likes people. She has brown and blackish. She has polkadots on her ear it’s beautiful.

Translation:  My favorite kind of dog is the golden retriever. He likes to play a lot. He always goes outside.

I was very pleased about the use of ending punctuation, the attention to staying on the topic, and the hidden ability to spell (by now knowing what to do and where to look for help). Thank you Cache first grade teachers for allowing me to share these writing samples here. Your students were awesome!

I will address temporary spelling (research and my opinion) and mini-lesson ideas in the next posts since this one is already long enough. STAY TUNED!!! Please share your favorite writing strategies and successes.

2 thoughts on “Writing Part 4: How to get kids to stay on topic

  1. Thank you for these helpful tips and strategies. I can’t wait to implement them in My classroom. Also, thank you for your support of the walkout!!!

  2. Hi Kristen! I’m glad these strategies seem helpful. Let me know the results when you have a chance to give them a try. I predict your students will find success!

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