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Helping Students Write Essays

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In a previous post, Three Good Questions For Teachers To Ask Themselves (& Answer Them Here If You Feel Like It), I shared that one of the areas where I have improved this year is in teaching writing.

There have been a number of reasons for that improvement, including just spending more time on it. There’s one particular area, though, that I think has made a big difference — more explicitly connecting our use of categorization to writing.

I’ve written a lot — both in previous posts and in my books — about our use of inductive data sets in teaching and learning. This tool comes from our work with Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs, and you can read his description of it here.

Briefly, it’s a matter of presenting students with numerous short or longer examples of information on a broader topic (called a “data set”) — let’s say Jamaica — and then students need to categorize the information. My books offer numerous examples of its use with English Language Learners and native-English speakers. This activity, and subsequent ones, promote higher-order thinking skills.

In terms of writing, this categorization activity is easily transferable to writing — the categories can then be converted into paragraphs, and students can also easily cite their source. It’s a very accessible process that students can use in writing whatever they need to in any class — even when they don’t actually have a formal “data set.” Instead, when they’re reading a textbook, for example, they just need convert whatever notes they’ve taken into categories.

You may wonder how I know this idea of categorization has been such an important reason behind my student’s writing improvement. Well, I asked them.

On Friday I asked students to respond to this question:

What are things you’ve learned in this class about writing essays that you think will help you in other classes and in life?

They wrote many of the thoughts you’d expect from any English class — thesis statements, topic sentences, “hooks,” etc. Many, though, wrote these kinds of words at the top of their papers:

I learned that you can do categories first and then write your essay from it is it’s easy.

Organizing the categories first and then writing paragraphs from them.

Making categories out of the data sets helps me write essays because it makes the paragraphs easier to write.

Summarizing categories helps a lot.

It’s always nice to see that what we think we teach is what students actually learn….

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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