home school writing advice, tips, and information

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Stories, or narratives, are the way most humans make sense of the world.

Nonfiction writing, expository texts, are the way most writers make a living and most college students earn a degree.

Then are we wasting time teaching students to write stories?

In my experience, the most memorable information is told through story. Therefore, good writers must know how to write good stories so when they begin to write about information, they will write about the information in a way that is memorable.

Writing stories or narratives requires several key elements to engage the reader:

1. creating a setting – where? when?

2. creating or introducing the characters – who?

3. describing a conflict – what? why?

4. describing the resolution – how?

Once students are proficient at writing a narrative, these skills can be translated into nonfiction or expository writing which requires several key elements to make the information appeal to the reader:

1. explaining context – where? when?

2. introducing the information – what?

3. creating or explaining the relevance – why? who?

4. describing the application – how?

As you can see, the basic formula for writing about a topic is answering questions. What makes a narrative compelling is the reader’s connection with the characters. What makes nonfiction compelling is the reader’s connection to the information. Where these two genres collide and make magic is when these skills are combined and create compelling characters interacting with interesting information.

Take for instance the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder which explains the health care system in a third world country by telling the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his experiences.

Teaching children to write narratives, then teaching children to write nonfiction can progress to making magic with combining the genres.

If the best writing advice is to “write what you know” then narratives is the best place to start for children because they know their stories. As they learn about the world, they can then share their knowledge with others. Finally, when they have experience with information, and they are proficient at writing narratives and expository, they will be able to write what the industry calls creative nonfiction.

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As reviewed in this blog, the most productive way to teach vocabulary is through generative exercises, those exercises which allow students to connect the new word to prior knowledge, previous experiences, and to generate meaningful uses for the word.

I am happy to announce the first in a vocabulary workbook series titled, Writing with Home: Narrative Vocabulary Workbook: Academic Vocabulary Practice. The workbook provides 8 weeks of vocabulary practice focusing specifically on Tier 2 words, or words that are used in more than one academic discipline. The daily exercises will help students master the vocabulary for discussing and analyzing narratives.

The workbook asks students to learn five words each week. Daily activities look like this:

Monday –

  1. Students look up each word in the dictionary, copy the definition, part of speech and a sentence (or create their own). Finally, students draw a picture or symbol to represent what the word means to them.
  2. Students complete the fill in the blank sentences to practice using the words in context. These sentences are read aloud to someone so the student begins to hear (auditory processing) the words used correctly.
  3. Students ensure they know how to spell each word correctly by either completing a spelling test (visual learners), spelling the words out loud (auditory learners) or “writing” the words using letter tiles several times until the spellings become automatic. Word searches are good for practicing spelling too.

Tuesday –

  1. Students generate responses to sentence frames which illustrate they know what the word means. For example, completing the sentence “My favorite song excerpt to sing is ___” can only be completed correctly if the student understands what the word excerpt means. Likewise, the sentence frame also provides the student the opportunity to connect the word to previous knowledge.
  2. Students read aloud their responses with someone and explain their answers if asked.

Wednesday –

  1. Students review word forms of the vocabulary words. Many words can be used as a noun or a verb, or with a slight spelling change, become another part of speech. By reviewing the various word forms students learn about prefixes and suffixes which create new words, and review how the parts of speech have slightly different meanings and uses. For example, most words that end in –ion are nouns. When a student understands this, he is able to begin learning a new word with the knowledge that it is a noun and go from there.
  2. Students fill in blanks in sentences to show they can use the word forms in context correctly.
  3. Students read these sentences aloud.
  4. Students rewrite some of the provided sentences using the other word forms.

Thursday –

  1. Students generate a response to questions which use the vocabulary word in context and require an explanation. For example, a question such as “Is it better for teachers to make their expectations direct or indirect? Why?” requires that students rephrase the question into an assertion using the vocabulary words and then make an argument for their point of view. This exercise again allows students to use the new vocabulary in context, to connect the new vocabulary to their existing knowledge and prior experiences, and to use the academic language in an academic response.
  2. Students share their responses with another.

Friday –

  1. Students are tested on their knowledge of the new words. The quiz can take many forms. Several types of quizzes are provided here such as matching, cloze passages, and generative exercises. If students know all five words, they move on to the next week. If they are still struggling with the words, it is a good idea to review for another week.

You can create your own lists and have students complete the activities for any five words.

The book is available on Amazon.