November 30, 2010

Your Brain on Laptops

Just when I think the world has succumbed to shortness of expression, shortness of time, shortness of breath, and shortness of movie scenes, I am spun around in my little worrisome mind and stumble upon a piece of evidence to the contrary:

An article on a cafe in Brooklyn where the majority of customers write on their laptops - all day!

"Gone were the newspapers and the strollers. Laptops had colonized every flat surface. No one uttered a word; people just stared into screens, expressionless. "

I loved the lighthearted writing style, and yet the message came through that these screen hounds were gurgling over with creativity, or at worst, reading FB messages while avoiding finishing an article. But that is all part of being a writer! My hope for humanity is restored.

Since my last post I've met with 3 current adult clients - and I am touched by how much they open up about their history of anxiety and shame around writing. I can relate, although not with writing. I have shame when it comes to hand-eye coordination. I can hardly throw a ball to a dog, but I can do a mean downward dog in yoga.

So that shame regarding ball sports is what I bring to mind when I meet with my adult clients. I also refrain and reframe my own tendency to get effusive about writing with them, not assuming that they share it.

I have one woman who is "treptified" of writing because she fears a huge red pen will descend upon her press releases and online newsletters that she writes for her job. So the pen I use is purple. We go sentence-by-sentence in her practice pieces, and I haul out Grammar Girl for humor and clarity. She often asks "Why didn't I learn all this in school?" I have a long answer to that, but the short one is that good writing instruction means a fantastic writing mentor, and some one-on-one time, and not all teachers have that gift.

So she buckles down and fires up her brain. We joke about going back to 7th grade English.... All those comma rules! I have narrowed the 16 or so of them down to a highly simplified list:
  • Introductory Words
  • Interrupting Words
  • A Sentence that could be 2
  • Series or Lists
  • Clear Thinking
Since my website is called Reading Writing Thinking, I often read geeky stuff about the brain and attention. Only in the last decade have we really looked at brain health. We took it for granted, just like we took our lungs for granted while smoking in the 50's.
In order to LEARN, we have to have alert and flexible brains.
My favorite layperson-friendly brain expert is Daniel Amen, because his passion bleeds through when he speaks and he has concrete advice.
He is the PBS guy who happens to have one of his four clinics right here in the Seattle area.
I haven't yet coughed up the $4000 to get a thorough brain scan work-up.

November 28, 2010

It's not a screen, a twitter, a video game, or a sound byte TV news clip....It's a BOOK!
See the preview here.

Teachers and parents are assaulted with the competition of novelty: gadgets that pull our kid's attention into a time warp, or anything battery-operated that promises salvation from boredom. What a challenge we have to direct their attention back to the seemingly mundane world of books, where we have to get our entertainment more from the inside out. The time warp of visiting "planet book" is one that paves the way for richer writing.

Teachers have to set strict rules with students about not using characters from video games or plots from TV or movies.

Okay, truth heals, so I will admit that when I am not obsessing about having tiny love handles that menopause is bringing on, I am perseverating about what to do with my clients. My kids. I often refer to "my kids" in passing, when referencing my students, and people think I am a mom. The truth is that I was so set on helping kids that I intentionally skirted past my opportunities to become a mom. I figured I was not patient enough for the task, and that it would prevent me from having the many careers and residencies that I have had.

Voila! I have more of my self to give. And I can dish out detailed parenting advice to my clients, consisting of success stories of other people's kids, not my own. No risk of hypocrisy. And....No regrets about being choicefully childless.

Last week I saw Nora Ephron, best known as the author who wrote the script for 'When Harry Met Sally', since she is on tour for her new book, I Remember Nothing...She is an author I get green with envy over. She uses turns of phrase, plus wittiness laced with such candor you either drop your jaw at what she gets away with, or you laugh out loud. She also sprays some illuminating guideposts about the writing process onto her audience of readers.

So like her, I am searching for the invisible upside to aging that I am not seeing or feeling. Looking in the mirror or at all my post-it notes doesn't help my search. She simply says the only upside is that she is still here.

So I am presently baffled (but have faith that I will come up with something) by what to do with students who insist on detail-arama when summarizing a book. They go on about a character's braid's, or their invisible cloak, their doctor’s mannerisms, science fair project, or even a magical creature's eating habits, but they don't write about the fact that the problem of the book is, for example, that a) Jenny’s friends are envious of her braids, b) the magic cloak helps Jeremy follow the suspect, c) Miranda keeps getting sick, d) after 3 attempts, Billy wins the science fair, or e) a tribe of magical creatures is taking over a kingdom. And these are the students who write simplistic, minimalistic sentences that lack detail, when they are writing descriptive paragraphs of their own lives! It is like detail got vacuumed right out of their page, whereas in the summaries, that is all there is.

I have to remind myself that writing summaries is one of the hardest skills of all the comprehension menu of strategies and skills.

And Story Maps for everything. And practice telling true life events out loud, WITH detail, and then just as a summary. I ask for them to tell me in 3 sentences what they did on Saturday, for example, if I want a summary. Or I ask for 5 Key Words, and then those are what they have to use in their recap.

Too many error messages tonight while trying to get all the links and photos inserted, so I am posting it like this....

November 19, 2010

Jumping Through Hoops

Some of my kids think of writing as just jumping through hoops, with no passion for how writing can elicit thoughts and feelings you did not know you had, until the pen moved, and no thrill for the magic of words, or even the opportunity to express their opinion. (Jumping through hoops is how I approach drudgery tasks like online applications, or taking the garbage and recycling bins up to the top of our steep and long driveway.  Not much passion). 

So I have to be careful when I say things like "use 3 supporting details" because I risk they will see that as just another hoop, instead of a guideline to prevent rambly writing, or dimly supported topic sentences.

I read over 100 postings on several teacher forums this week, about teaching writing.  The gist of the discussions was:
  • Kids need a lot of variety of forms to practice writing
  • It takes an inordinate amount of time and organization to teach writing
  • The good teachers read papers and journals all night and all weekend
 I searched for what to do with the kids who aren't keeping up, yet the answer to the nit picky, struggling writer questions was basically just to have them write more, and more often.  Well, haven't we been there; done that. Funny how our kids don't say, "Oh thanks ________ (insert significant adult's name here)!  I am going to sit over there right now and write up a storm!"  Telling these guys to just write more can be like telling a dieter to just go to the gym more. It's another hoop to resist jumping through! 

Microscopic assignments,  a sentence a day, a comic a day, a line of a song.  Tiny pieces of writing to keep that part of the brain alive.  Word Games. Written notes to said parents or guardians convincing them to let them go ________ or do __________.  I know a parent who is currently holding her ground on letting her 12-year old son get a cell phone, UNLESS he writes a persuasive letter that convinces her otherwise.  I saw his first attempt and it was meek and unconvincing.  "Take 2".  He is attempting a second draft.

A healthy hoop to jump through.

Healthy Thanksgiving Wishes,


November 1, 2010


So..... I come upon another study about the value of one-on-one instruction, in a blog by a local neuropsychologist couple

Eide Neurolearning Blog

The Eides create this blog for parents and practitioners, and I admire them for their Harvard-based intellect and therapeutic compassion.  They assess and work with kids like those that I work with, and we all advocate for kids - pressing schools to customize themselves enough for the nuances that come with the territory.
I have met them at conferences and for coffee, and they are humble yet geeky, quirky, yet cheeky.  Kinda like me.

So this week I hit a wall with my gifted 4th grader who is absolutely struggling to write book summaries.

Okay, I am supposed to insert a cute graphic or another link, if i am to follow blog protocol, but I am going to rebel against the blog experts.

October 13, 2010


I have to figure out how to get my posts in the right order....they have found their own non-sequential way of stacking themselves, much like my budding writers have their sentences all over the place.

One-on-One Time


If I could bottle patience and sell myself a 12-pack I would do it right away. Peddle it to Costco. I feel so frustrated with the slow progress of:

a) Schools, in the systemic changes necessary to meet the individual needs of kids

b) My movement on writing my book and marketing my private practice in an ongoing way

c) Some of my students who seem “flat line” in their reading or writing progress

Other tutors talk about this last one, too. The intensity of intervention that is needed is something the average family does not have the time or money for. So I plug along with my once-a-week sessions packing what I can into that hour and praying that the daily practice happens. Parents are so taxed, often with both of them working, and managing stress in the most creative ways they can, plus doing what they can for their child, that my good ideas often float into the section of the brain called “information overload.”

All the research points to intervention, and specially-designed instruction, and monitoring response to the interventions, with high levels of precision, a wealth of materials, and astute teacher knowledge. Schools don't quite have the resources to meet up with the criteria that the research has revealed the importance of.

Teachers know what they need more of to be good writing instructors: TIME. Just to sit down one-on-one with their students and have the luxury to discuss their writing. The adults I talk to who are good writers, or at least don't resist it (!), can name at least one, if not a few, teachers who took that time, and inspired them to express their insides onto the outside, with words.

At the ADD Conference I attended this weekend I discovered that there is actually a chemical response to one-on-one attention. Dopamine. It is one of the biggest gifts we can give kids, and in schools that can be rare. So it falls upon me to be that attentional facet that showers them with praise and feedback about their writing, and discipline myself to keep the corrections at a minimum.

I encourage so much “self talk” in my students, but in my present impatient state I need my own, when I get blank stares or “I’m done” attitudes about writing that is seriously skeletal. I tell myself that LD writers have years of frustration behind them, look upon writing as something that taxes their brain, and become more overwhelmed by grammar and spelling than I can begin to imagine. So that self-talk helps me focus on them and come up with something wise to guide them into a next step. And they have less life experience, which leaves some assignments impossible to swallow.

A 6th grader was asked to write about what a day in the life of a caveman might be like. This was after a brief reading from a textbook on the introduction of Prehistoric Times. He was just stuck, and had no rubric, or list of words to include, and no one had asked him what the picture in his head was! We started with that, and it took a lot of word-retrieval tooth pulling to get that out of him, then we brainstormed words, then started an organizer, and our time was up.

Time away from the screen, away from consumerism, away from pressure to produce. And a one-on-one hour with an adult. That will create the next generation of writers.

August 2, 2010


Oh no; it is time to pull out my Luddite hat. I shudder at this hint of the future of the written word.

Technological advances usher in the future of reading

8-1-2010: This Seattle Times article portends a new definition of authoring, publishing, and just what a book really is.

"As electronic reading devices evolve and proliferate, books are increasingly able to talk to readers, quiz them on their grasp of the material, play videos to illustrate a point or connect them with a community of fellow readers...... the distinction between professional and amateur writers is rapidly blurring.

I already have students that wear the "minimalist" hat proudly, and I work diligently to help them expand and flesh out the details. This article implies that their models for excellent writing are narrowing.

What I fight against is those minimalist's insistence that the paragraph is fine the way it is. They look at their teachers, and me, like we are dumb, and like can't I figure out, from their 6 sentences, what they did at day camp. They are masters at what I call "throw-it-out-there" sentences. Classic TELL, not SHOW, sentences.

We did some stuff with clay.
We beat the red team after lunch.
The counselor guy told jokes.

and the most painful....

It was really fun.

So I roll up my sleeves, and point out their "SHOW, dont' TELL" tip sheet I have given them in their writing folder (that they bring back and forth to sessions). They walk through the revision process with me, and then I am able to say, "Okay, now we have a mini movie of your day camp in the short paragraph."

All Kinds Of Minds (aka Mel Levine) has a summer blog series and here is a pertinent one:

Unfortunately, there are only TWO tips given, but I have broken it down much more, after realizing that the writing process is ever-so-mystifying to kids. The ones who struggle hardly EVER see a need to revise.

August 3, 2010

The Role of Higher Order Cognition in Revising Written Work

Students may stop at the end of a sentence, reread what they have written, and decide there is a better word to express what they want to say. They may find places where they need to add more description or rearrange sentences.

Revising can happen at any time during the writing process. Some students spontaneously revise while they are writing. In school, students are often asked to reflect on what they’ve written after they finish their first draft – a task that can be challenging for many students. These students often focus on fixing punctuation and spelling rather than enhancing the content.

To revise, students must first detect that there is something to change and then know how to change it. Considerations include audience, grammar rules, appropriate levels of detail, and clarity of expression, just to name a few. Revising written work is a multifaceted challenge, in terms of both academic skills and neurodevelopmental functions.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

This skill of revising – adding content and new ideas to a story or report changing a word, being more descriptive, re-ordering sentences, or inserting a new paragraph – requires students’ language and higher order cognition to be working well. In this post, we’ll focus on the higher order cognition demands – specifically, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Students need to be creative and brainstorm new ideas when revising their writing. They also need to think critically about what information they need to cut and what they need to add – what will make the information most effective for the reader. Writing can be interpreted as a problem-solving task: The topic or assignment is the “problem,” and students need to “solve” the problem by producing a written piece that addresses the topic or assignment. Revising is a critical step in ensuring the quality of the end product, or the effectiveness of the “solution.”

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • comes up with original, engaging ideas to share through their writing
  • is able to evaluate written material for problem areas such as clarity, relevance to the topic at hand, level of detail, logical sequence, etc.
  • includes highly imaginative ideas in their stories
  • chooses words that are appropriate for the targeted reader
  • is capable of identifying problems with a writing passage and taking appropriate steps to resolve problems

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • has trouble choosing a topic to write about or using imagination to generate an engaging story or report
  • asks many questions about what to do to enhance their writing, e.g. which passages need revisions, how to address problems with the written work, etc.
  • generates better written work when allowed to collaborate with a peer or conference with a teacher
  • does not logically think through potential ways of resolving a problem, instead pursuing the first thing that comes to mind

Strategies to help students struggling with revising written work:

  • Have students break the revising process into steps, beginning with going through and marking the places where they need to add or change information. Students can use different colored pencils, pens, or stickers to mark where they need to make changes. For example, green could be where they need to think of some new words, yellow for where they should add more details, blue where they need to move a sentence, etc.
  • When having students work together as peer editors, first model the process and types of question they should ask. Provide students with a list of questions that they can ask the writer and example sentence starters for providing feedback. For example, “I really liked it when you said…”

July 21, 2010

Receptive vs Expressive

Have been trying to post this but the html went all haywire whenever I clicked "publish post."/

A whirlwind trip to a Reading Institute, put on by the U.S. Department of Education, in Anaheim, CA. While it is tempting to write about what I am rediscovering about reading and school reforms, I steer myself toward writing about writing, and “stay on topic” like I tell my students to do! On the contrary, Is it really possible to discuss one without the other?

I always tell teachers and parents that there are plenty of good readers who are not writing-proficient, but there are no good writers who are not proficient readers.

What I took on the plane to read, along with the scandalous US magazine article about Bristol Palin and her bipolar-behaving boyfriend was:

Writing To Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading

This study shows that students’ reading abilities improve by writing about texts they have read.

It also describes the value of (duh) explicit instruction in:

  • spelling
  • text structure
  • writing sentences
  • writing paragraphs
  • the basic processes of composition

The creative writers, bloggers, journalists, and researchers I know, or read regularly, frequently write in response to what they have just read – it is often a ‘thinking aloud’ process that provides a synthesis of the topic, thus entertaining or educating us, the readers.

Kids are more comfortable taking in words, or information, from the page, than putting it down on paper. In fact, most of us are!. The academic terms for these processes are Receptive and Expressive Language Skills. The gap between them is generally wider in kids with learning disabilities. They finally grasp reading, and the transfer to writing takes more time. Many students I work with in reading come back a few years later to work on writing.

Schools have limited time to teach writing in the way that the research says to teach it. The one-on-one time required; the time to read aloud what you have written, then revise, revise, revise, and read aloud again, is very time-intensive.

I believe we were more balanced in teaching the integration of reading and writing in the days of the Little Red Schoolhouse. How do I know this? From my own reading of what education was in the early 20th Century, and my grandmother who taught then. There was a lot of presenting out loud, and speaking clearly, and little wiggle room for unclear writing, since much of it was going to be spoken aloud. Now we have Power Point with fragments embedded in bullet points, and kids do not learn sentence-construction deeply.

July 6, 2010


This is a writer's tool for:
~ brainstorming words to include in a piece
~ searching word lists to find synonyms for "tired" words
~ a reality check for those of us who get repetitive

The visual "cloud" presented is ideal for my visual learners, who see charts, graphs, outlines, and organizers as making a lot more sense than multiple paragraphs. I think of these kinds of minds as defaulting to an architectural world-view. A 5-paragraph essay outline written in pictures, with sentence fragments masquerading as captions, and some boxes with main points inside them is accessible and comfortable. And, I might add, prevents shut-down.


The fireball 15-year old "spectrum" student I worked with today illuminated why writing is so difficult for kids like her. She gets caught up in one or two single sentences in laborious detail, while forgetting about holding the big picture in mind. This is a classic roadblock of certain kinds of brains and I have seen it over and over - the struggle of a mind on the ADHD or Autistic spectrum trying to tell you the essence of a movie they just saw, summarize their trip to the waterpark, or write the theme of a book they just read.

So again, graphic organizers can be the magic ticket. I use many versions of organizers for summarizing with students, and yet it is still necessary to provide "mini lessons" on:

Interesting versus Important

Know what I mean?

June 28, 2010


While surfing on topics related to writing instruction, you've probably encountered the 6 Traits.

These sites have lots of tips about "scoring" writing, which as a parent you may have heard of through your child's teachers. They were originally designed as checklists for state tests, for the scoring committee to rate student papers.

In my opinion, they can get too "busy" and have too much verbiage. These are more useful for district-wide use, and teacher-talk, but if written clearly, can be useful to kids. They provide ladder steps to hold on to while writing a piece, plus a way to "check one's work" when kids think they are done.

These have definitions and examples:

While 6 Trait Rubrics are helpful, I break them down even more, and customize them to each student when needed. For example, I use one with a minimalist student that asks how many "how phrases" they have used in their piece. Another one I have asks if the student has checked each verb to make sure it is the correct tense. I have a checklist for book summaries that has 11 items to score oneself on, such as Did you use a good sentence with the word because in it?

Good writers keep these rubrics inside their mind while writing. Kids need to learn how to think their way through, and ask themselves certain questions while writing.

Am I on track with the prompt? Do I have paragraph breaks at the right places? What do I need to make sure to add? Oh yeah, I am supposed to be supporting my topic sentence, and I got off track.

LD Writers need lots of guidance in clarifying their thinking. They THINK they are writing clearly. Without turning off their creativity faucet, I give them them scoring rubrics (gradient of 1 - 4) or checklists (yes or no) to keep them engaged and reading their own writing with an editor's eye.

June 26, 2010

Receiving feedback: a muscle that develops over time

After getting feedback on my blog about how to improve it I am ready to throw in the towel! Okay, that is my drama queen self talking.

I felt like I had let my audience down. Just like my students, who are crushed when they get such feedback. Like when they find out that they wrote an expository paragraph more like a story. [Oh my. I would never let them get away with that previous "Like..." sentence].

Course correction time: I simply did a search for tips on blog writing. I felt so hemmed in by parameters and "rules", much like my students must feel.

I am taking to heart 60% of the tips, from sites such as these:

I wrote a blog in the same manner I would write a long letter to a friend. I did not include any links. It was not "skim-able." I had no bullets. And for bolded keywords. Sound byte writing is not an aspiration of mine, or a habit I want to slide into, so I may stick to the length.

Those types of lists are just what our kids need, when writing, which I have forever told parents and teachers. I call them checklists, not rubrics, because I want them to follow them all the way through the writing process.

I have developed many of my own, some specific to the needs of the student, and others just deeper than the average rubric. Many rubrics for writing assignments I have seen from teachers look a lot like this:

I drill down with kids and take each box apart, so that they are following a guideline/checklist with details such as:

  • Did I use a strong verb in the concluding sentence? (if it is persuasive)
  • Was I careful to limit my short sentences?
  • Did I have at least two good "because" sentences?
Okay, now I have morphed this blog topic into checklists, which does not quite correlate to the title, about feedback. What I can say is that using these checklists helps the feedback session with a student stay more neutral, and more concrete.

June 19, 2010

Walking My Talk

Do you have children who finish a summary, or report, or creative piece, and are even proud of it, but when you read it you have to work hard to fill in the missing parts? Then when you point out that they used "telling" language, instead of "showing" language, they insist that all that should be there is there. In their minds all the details, or main points, or both, were crystal clear. But transferring it to paper, and stepping into the reader's viewpoint for some of that time, lost their intricacies in translation.

For over a decade I have contributed to listservs about reading and writing, and have decided to practice what i pr(t)each, which is to write frequently, in a way that goes against the culture of txting, sound bytes, and abbreviations. No wonder our kids have writing struggles. Teen communications are in the form of sentence fragments on facebook, which I call "poem wanna-be's." Okay, at least they are writing, some opinionators say. I can't align with that, only because the kids I tutor who have trouble coming up with rich vocabulary are often immersed in simplistic reading material such as books with a lot of slapstick to carry the plot (aka The Wimpy Kid).

The more I dig down with each student, I uncover roadblocks prevent kids from writing well, which the truth of Mel Levine's treatise, which is that writing has the most sub-components of any academic task. This results in overwhelm, shut-down, or just plain avoidance. We forget that novice writers have to hold so many skills - and self-talk - in their heads at once.

When proficient writers produce a piece of writing, they cannot necessarily feel themselves performing such components of the process: moving into the reader's mind, constantly re-reading what they have written, asking themselves if this make sense, practicing verb agreement, staying on the topic and reining in other thoughts, paying attention to possible repetitive language, or repeated points, accessing the imaginary "rolodex" of synonyms in their own mind, and remembering the dozen or more comma rules.

So that is how I came up with Taming the Octopus. Writing and reading are about taking things apart and putting them together, but most of that occurs in the mind. To some children this feels mysterious and invisible, and they think there is a secret to writing that maybe they have not stumbled upon yet. My concrete, spatially-oriented students need explicit instruction in how to use words that make a distinct movie occur for the reader.

I would love to know what topics you want to hear about. I am just getting my feet wet, and hope to get some helpful posts up here, with comments from parents with a wide variety of inquiries about writing instruction.

January 7, 2010

The Perfect Brainstorm - and Low Pressure Writing

Okay, holidays are over and my avoidance of the crazy consumerism aspect of them was fairly successful. Few clients for a couple of weeks, and a trip to see mom in Chicago.

Tackled a steep learning curve of my new smart phone: discovering the frustrations and needless apps available on it. Syncing issues begat problem-solving with online forums, far into the wee hours of the morning on Christmas weekend...angry moments of wanting to go back to landlines for everything.

Yet today I am smoothly into the upsides of owning a smart phone, and only sometimes do I feel dumber than my smarter device.

I have had some high points in my week of seeing students: I had given the assignment to write "low pressure" writing, in a journal entry or two or three, or a thank-you letter to someone for a holiday gift. My only rubric was to say something about the gift, about them, about you, and about the coming year. There were a few very strong letters that got written and sent, and then a copy brought to me. When they know there is no grade, and that it is really going to be sent out into the world, the stakes are comfortably high, without pressure of school performance.

I did a lot of this kind of writing as a child.

Notes to friends. Diary entries to be seen by no one. Thank-you cards to relatives. Convincing posters that I put on my parent's bedroom door. Learning the art of persuasion before puberty!

Many of the struggling writers I work with have hardly ever written anything, except for school! They learn to associate writing with something that needs fixing. Well, famous authors say that their published novel was simply the latest revision, and that revising is ongoing. I don't tell that to my students. Too daunting.

This is akin to reading with those like kids I meet who have never read a book just for fun, but only for school or with a book report attached. They learn to associate reading with a performance expectation, instead of personal and intimate exploration of another world.

Writing is not a formula, although some websites sure make it sound like one. I believe formulas and rules have their place, and color coding saves the day for many of my students, but this one kid, whenever I give him a guideline, he thinks it has to be true across all mediums. We were talking about creating convincing arguments for his letter to a city council member, and then he asked if he had to argue for the importance of peanut butter, in another essay, when describing how to make a peanut butter sandwich.

So this is an interactive website that does not get too over-the-top with formulas, yet it might just overwhelm some ELL students or my students who have output issues.

The Easy Essay

And one of my favorite articles I read over the holidays was about the art of brainstorming, and how to really tap the motherlode of creativity in our cerebellum. These guys make big bucks just attuning with each other and writing notes and post-its that lead up to making millions.

Jump Associates - the perfect brainstorm