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 shame....no 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.