I don’t know about you, but second semester is heavily focused on writing in my school district. My tenth graders will take the state standardized writing test in early March, so we are brushing up on all our skills right now. Before I share the two techniques I use to teach “Writing to a Prompt,” I want to give a little disclaimer: No, I don’t love the five-paragraph essay format. No, I don’t think it is the best writing or even strong academic writing that should be done at the upper/collegiate level. Yes, I wish my students had the complete freedom to write freely and in whatever form they please all the time. HOWEVER, I view the five-paragraph essay as a sort of “training wheels” for writing. Although I think there is much more to writing than a formula can teach, I think students are stronger writers when they master that basic format first. I start here for the same reason that we don’t hand fifth graders copies of Pride and Prejudice to introduce them to literature. Sure, the five-paragraph essay may not be the finest form of writing ever produced, but it is a starting point. My aim in ninth and tenth grade, primarily, is to make students CONFIDENT about their writing abilities and to provide them with tools to help them get started communicating effectively through writing. From there – especially in my eleventh grade AP class – students are able to hone their writing skills and become the sophisticated, quality writers that I think are prepared for college and beyond… Furthermore, like it or not,I am teaching in an era of standardized tests; and standardized tests often call for – you guessed it – a standard form of writing. SO, while I do some creative and narrative writing with my underclassmen as well, I mainly focus on teaching them to respond clearly to a prompt with a thesis statement and solid evidence and to organize their essay according to the five-paragraph format. To do that, I use the three strategies outlined below. <<End of soapbox.>>
1. TOFA for breaking down the prompt & composing a thesis statement
One of the easiest ways to fail a standardized writing test is to misread or misinterpret the prompt itself. I realized early on that I had to get students to read the prompt carefully and use it to construct a solid thesis statement before anything else would be effective. To do that, I teach the acronym T.O.F.A. (pronounced toe-fa).
Once students are able to successfully identify these four categories in a prompt – which, depending on the group could take lots and lots of practice – a move on to a brief mini-lesson on the thesis statement.
I teach that a thesis statement should be one sentence in your introduction that CLEARLY responds to the question asked in the prompt and states the main idea of your entire paper. Usually, this is a combination of the Topic and Opinion columns in TOFA + the students ANSWER to whatever is being asked.
2. The Triangle Diagram for organizing and supporting ideas
With a clear understanding of the prompt and the ability to write a solid thesis statement, students are able to move into the pre-writing stage where they organize their main ideas in a five-paragraph format.
I have tried lots of different strategies for teaching this (the web, the four-square diagram, the outline, etc.), by my favorite is the Triangle Diagram:
It is an incredibly simple graphic that helps students to clearly see how their main points and evidence must line up under the umbrella of their thesis statement and all be directly related to, yet also separate from, each other. I usually print LOTS of blank copies of the diagram for students to practice with (directly from the Power Point slide shown below) and encourage students to draw their own diagrams for use on a standardized test etc. (I have students come back year after year after year to tell me how much they like and use this method for organizing their ideas before they start writing.)
I also teach that students should include a transition at least between every triangle in the diagram. That helps keep their papers organized and give their writing a sense of flow.
Finally, once students have a strong outline for their essay, I teach what should be included in each section and have students begin writing a rough draft. Truly, I find that this part comes very easily once they have mastered the structure and focus of their essay using the above.
3. CAPSS for editing and revising
And, last but not least, I use the acronym CAPSS (caps) to encourage students to RE-READ their rough drafts and edit/revise them for purpose, structure, grammar, and mechanics. Since this can be an overwhelming task for some students, I think narrowing it down to these five areas helps to make this final step of the writing process more efficient and effective. (Of course, how specifically you go into detail in each of these areas is up to the teacher and her students individually.)
So, that’s it. The writing process in three easy steps. 😉 There is really nothing novel about these strategies, but they worked well for me and – I think – been useful tools for my students in preparing their writing foundation. Maybe they help some of you too.
*Note* I originally started using these strategies (which are a combination of things I learned from professional development events, my colleagues, and the internet) when I was teaching a lower-level class and working with students that were very weak writers. I have found, however, that the same strategies prove to be helpful to students regardless of their level. I simply do these lessons much faster with my Pre-AP students now and skip to the part of the writing process that involves adding style and sophistication after they have mastered these skills (usually after only just one or two lessons/practice essays). I also go more in-depth with CAPSS for higher-level students and encourage students to “find their own way” if TOFA and the Triangle Diagram seem too elementary for them. So far, I’ve yet to have any student tell me that these things have hurt or hindered their writing in any way. 😉
Download and save the complete Power Point shown above here: Writing to a Prompt PP for Blog
And, while you’re at it, check out a fun writing activity I use once students have grasped the writing process basics here: Writing Prompt Speed Dating
Have a great day!