One thing that continues to challenge me as a writing teacher is helping my students push themselves outside of their comfort zone. As my fourth graders began to write in sentences in kindergarten and first grade, they practiced writing "simple" sentences.
I like ice cream.
The Packers are awesome.
Snakes have lots of scales.
After teaching older students for 24 years, I still see many many students who are trapped in that mindset when they write. They do string sentences together but they are often choppy, simplistic sentences. No matter how much I model and talk about using compound sentences and other more sophisticated strategies, some students simply don't seem to be making the connection.
I had had some great success with my writing dialogue task cards where we practiced as a whole class, then partners worked on some, then we shared, then we worked in small groups, and so on. (Blog post HERE if you are interested) so I thought to myself, "Self, let's try a similar set of cards to teach students how to improve their sentences." After all, we had a BLAST working with dialogue and students were creative and didn't even feel like they were working. The best part? The skills actually TRANSFERRED to the realistic fiction we were writing!
So...I started thinking about the types of sentences I wanted my students to write. I wanted them to start combining small sentences into more complex sentences--with conjunctions, with commas in a list, and in other ways. I wanted them to get more sensory details and emotions into their writing. I wanted them to see that you can add phrases and words to the beginning, middle, and end of sentences to make them more interesting for the reader. I wanted students to see how easy it can be to improve basic sentences--and I wanted them to do it before we started writing our feature articles. (You may have noticed, fourth graders are somewhat reluctant to revise their work once it is written--so we need to make sure it is as good as possible the first time!)
I started with a series of minilessons where I projected a card on the screen with my document camera and we looked at the simple sentences and the "hint" about how to improve them. This one asks them to add more details. Some cards ask students to combine sentences. Some ask students to add emotion to the sentence. Others tell students to add words at the beginning. You get the drift...I picked three very different cards for three minilessons and we really worked on those explicit techniques for improving writing.
As you can see, there is a huge variety of cards to choose from. I deliberately chose three very different ones for my whole class lessons.
After each minilesson, I asked students to work in partners and trios to practice with new cards. I projected some on the screen for them to try and then in later lessons, I passed cards out to each group to try. We then rotated the cards from group to group. Students LOVE these "quick writes" because they only need to write a few sentences, and the quick time frame keeps them focused.
In three separate 20 minute lessons, I was able to teach about different ways to improve sentences, how to use commas to separate a list AND when using an introductory clause. We learned about compound sentences. We talked about adjectives and descriptive phrases. We talked about "showing" not "telling". And guess what? I am starting to see the payoff in their daily writing!
Want to see the cards I put together? Click the image below...