The secret to helping students write better

The problem with a lot of the so-called writing instruction students encounter at school is that it doesn’t actually teach writing. Teachers say things like “Write an outline that shows the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Write one like this story you just read.”

But the problem is poor writers aren’t able to evaluate their own writing the way a good writer, like a teacher, could do. So a poor writer might think she has a topic sentence or a concluding paragraph in her writing. But when the teacher reads it, it’s clear that there isn’t enough information.

So even though teachers might show models of good writing and encourage students to used transition sentences like this author or use dialogue like that author, poor writers don’t have the ability to evaluate what they read or what they’ve written and decide if they’ve met the requirements. Poor writers don’t need more practice with their current skills. Teachers need to teach students to write better!

It just makes sense that what poor writers need is explicit instruction on how to write. A little league coach doesn’t say go out there and hit the ball like Manny Ramirez. A coach says, “Stand with your feet together. Hold the bat over your shoulder. Watch for the pitch. When you see the pitch come over the plate, swing your bat. Make sure you take a big step forward as you swing.” That level of explicit detail is missing from a lot of writing instruction, but it’s just what students need.

Poor writers need clear, predictable structures that they can use to complete writing assignments. It might seem boring to have them follow that formula for paragraph after paragraph but it’s just what a poor writer needs to write a decent essay. For a lot of us, it comes naturally to have a topic sentence that introduces what we’re going to write about in a paragraph. A poor writer may not intuitively include a sentence like that at the beginning of their paragraph. Therefore teaching them that a good paragraph starts with a topic sentence and that a topic sentence goes something like… helps them to organize their writing in a way other people can understand it.

Just like there are steps for solving a math equation, there are steps for putting together a paragraph in many different genres of writing. There are formulas for writing a persuasive paragraph. I like to use the POW+TREE structure. For elementary students learning expository writing, I use POW+TIDE. Most of these structures focus on organizing at the paragraph level, because once a student knows how to write a good paragraph, it’s easier for them to string those paragraphs together to write an essay or even a longer research paper.

Besides paragraph level structure, students also need to learn to write good sentences. For many students, controlling the grammatical structures in a long sentence and making sure the subjects and the verbs agree with each other can be and a very abstract topic. Some schools still give formal grammar instruction that teaches the names of all the parts of speech but even then students may not be able to put them together in a grammatical way in their own writing.

One way I help students learn to write more complex sentences is by teaching them the strategy of sentence combining and sentence decombining. By having students start with simple sentences like “Bob has a red shirt. Jim has a red shirt.” and combining them to make “Bob and Jim have red shirts,” students learn how to combine the building blocks of simple sentences to make more complex ones. On the flip side, I teach them how to take complex sentences and separate them out into their component parts. Like a mechanic taking apart an engine, students understand better how a sentence is assembled once they have taken it apart. 

Editing is another frequently challenging area of writing for students. Although many of them can tell me that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, they have difficulty seeing these things in the middle of a paragraph and correcting them. It’s the same for run-on sentences. They may understand what a run-on or a fragment is, but when it comes to identifying them in their own writing they have a lot of difficulty. One of the main strategies I recommend for this is not a popular one with students. One of the best ways to catch errors in your writing is to read it out loud.

Another strategy, which I teach to students who make mechanical errors, is COPS. Students learn to read a whole paragraph checking each sentence for capital letters, then read it again checking for overall appearance, which includes neatness and letter formation. The third time they read the paragraph they look for punctuation at the end of every sentence. And finally they read the paragraph from the last word backwards until they get to the first word to see whether all the words are spelled correctly. While it is time-consuming, this focused structure helps them make sure that they have not overlooked any errors.

This process of learning the building blocks of writing can be a time-consuming one and it can be frustrating for students, especially those who have been getting by without this knowledge for years of school. But for many students in middle school and high school they find that they can’t get by with what they knew about writing anymore. The assignments get complex and longer. Teachers are no longer as forgiving about mistakes in spelling grammar and organization. Many classmates have internalized features of good writing and seem to be getting good grades effort effortlessly. Students might feel frustrated or cheated, but really the problem is just that they haven’t learned the rules for this kind of writing yet. An academic writing is a rule-based process that can be taught!

If your child struggles with writing and needs some strategies that work, contact me today for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Students continue to struggle with writing when all they get is practice because they are practicing the wrong things!

The Problem with Spelling Tests

I was doing a little bit of research about spelling instruction to prepare for this post and I found this piece on Psychology Today by Dr. J. Richard Gentry that made me want to scream!  In this short article, he criticizes a school district in Ohio, based only on what he saw in a brief news story, because they abandoned the practice of weekly spelling tests. So what’s wrong with the humble spelling test?

Gentry equates eliminating the weekly spelling test with eliminating spelling instruction. He mentions but dismisses the district’s claim that test scores have risen since they changed their spelling practice.

But why does Gentry oppose this change? Because in the video he saw, the fifth grade students were spelling words like “yes, rest, past, like” which he calls second-grade spelling words. He’s right. I would expect fifth graders to have mastered these words and to be working on spelling patterns like adding prefixes to words or creating different forms of a word, like connecting pretend and pretentious. He has dyslexia and argues that he would not be successful without the spelling instruction he got, and notes that poor spelling can have lifelong negative effects for people.

He’s not wrong about the perils of being a poor speller, but his conclusion that the only way to do it is to give a weekly spelling test is wrong and dangerous. This is a seven-year-old article, so I can’t provide my own analysis of the clip, which appears to no longer be available.

Gentry seems to believe the same thing that many elementary school teachers believe, something I disagree with strongly: Having kids memorize a list of words and testing them at the end of the week will cause them to become better spellers. It’s like memorizing lists of ingredients to become a better cook.

Children learn to become good spellers by working with words. They need to think about the sounds in the words, identify how those sounds are spelled, and practice writing the example words and other words with the same pattern. To give children the practice they need, I prefer a word study approach like the one used in the Words Their Way curriculum. Teachers using Words Their Way begin by assessing students and counting not how many words they get right but which patterns they are spelling correctly and which they still need to learn. For example, a student might be able to spell short vowel sounds but not use the silent e rule to spell long vowels like make and pine. Armed with that information, a teacher chooses which developmentally-appropriate rule to teach and chooses a set of words to practice it. Students cut apart the words, printed on slips of paper and physically manipulate them, sorting them into groups that share the same feature and comparing them to words that do not. Throughout the week, students use the words for reading, writing and spelling, alone and with partners and groups. And at the end of the week? They get a new set of words.

But what about the spelling test? That comes at the end of the unit. After the students have studied the whole group of patterns, like all the short vowel sounds, for example, they take a unit assessment in which they spell words from their lists, or words with the same patterns that were not on their lists. This is important because it assesses whether children just memorized the words or learned the rule or pattern that enables them to spell those words for life.

Unfortunately, I see that system being gutted and used the same way my old second grade spelling book was used. Teachers are using the sorting routines but then just rattling off those words on Friday and grading how many the kids get right. So you know what the kids do? They go home and memorize the words on flashcards and have their parents quiz them, just like we did with the old spelling tests.

When nothing changes, nothing changes. And until teachers really understand and embrace what it means to learn spelling through phonics and analysis, poor spellers will continue to be poor spellers. Unless we tell kids why bread and meat are both spelled with the ea vowel digraph and help them practice when to use which sound, they will be relying on visual memory or just plain guessing when they spell those words.

So while I wholeheartedly agree that spelling instruction is critical to helping children become both good writers and good readers, a weekly spelling test and assignments like “write your words three times” are a colossal waste of powerful learning time for many students who struggle to spell.

If your child needs help with spelling, I can help. Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to find out how I can help with reading, writing and spelling.

Spelling tests are a waste of time and do not make kids better spellers.

I hate mind-mapping for planning writing! (But I love teaching it!)

I keep reading about how much people love mind-mapping for planning writing. People talk about how freeing it is to sit down in front of a web of ideas instead of a stark, blank, page. They talk about how it speeds their writing process, reduces their anxiety, makes them better writers. They describe amazing feats, like ebooks or term papers finished in record time.

I’m jealous of those people because looking at a blank map and trying to imagine my ideas in that two-dimensional space is enough to give me hives. I’m a list-maker, a table-filler. I am much more comfortable when I sketch a chart of main ideas and sources to support them, or a bulleted list of sketchy details. It doesn’t work like magic for me, but it is reliable and comfortable. So that’s what I usually model as my students are brainstorming instead of mind-mapping for planning writing.

But last summer, I realized that I was doing all the work on the bulleted list I made for one student. Not only was I typing all the ideas he gave (which I do a lot for my online students, as most school-age kids aren’t fluent on the keyboard yet), but I was also retrieving all the ideas from the list as he needed them in his paragraph. I realized my list was doing absolutely nothing to make him an independent writer.

What a waste of lesson time!

So I researched a couple of free tools for mind-mapping that are compatible with Google Drive, which is where we do all our shared writing.

I found Connected Mind. That offered incredible flexibility in shape, color, font, and in the direction, length and shape of connections between nodes. It is a tool that could make gorgeous, detailed maps that would look terrific in a presentation or as an end product in their own right. For planning writing, my student and I both found it overwhelming and distracting. I felt like I needed to write out a draft on paper to make sure I got the map just right. It totally defeated the purpose of a quick mind map.

The second tool we tried was Mind Mup.  It’s a winner!

  • It has a simple interface with a limited number of options for type of node, size and color
  • It automatically arranges your nodes by spacing them evenly and rearranging them as you add more.
  • You can add images from Google Drive
  • Nodes can be rearranged by dragging and dropping

The amazing thing about mind-mapping as a teaching tool has been “walking through” the map with the student to check for logical connections and missing details. This process can be more difficult and time consuming when a student has already written a whole paragraph about an idea. They believe they have fully explained themselves and sometimes can’t see a gap in logic or detail that is glaring to you as a reader. With the mind map, it’s easier to get the student to explain the thought process between nodes, and to suggest what might be missing. While building a mind map can take some serious time, it’s worth it to see the student’s writing plan come together. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?”

Learning how to use mind-mapping to plan writing has been eye-opening for me as a tutor. I became a tutor because I realized that the one-size-fits-all approach of schools doesn’t meet the needs of all students. By using mind-mapping, I can better support my students who are visual thinkers and save them a lot of time and frustration! So even though I’m not using mind-mapping for my own writing, I make a point of showing it to my students and practicing it as one way to organize and improve their writing.

Mind-mapping for planning writing isn’t for me, but it might be for you!

What Will Your Child Learn This Summer?

Are you looking back on your child’s school year and wishing things could be easier for them?

What if:What do you think would make your child's school year better?

  • Sunday night was a time for family dinner instead of scrambling to finish the weekend’s homework?
  • Essay assignments didn’t end in tears or frustration?
  • You didn’t have to spend as much time on homework as your child does?
  • Your child’s grades improved?
  • Your child went to school without feeling worried or afraid of what the day would bring?
  • You didn’t spend mornings looking for missing papers, lost library books, and pieces of clothing?
This summer, let’s work together to help your child get organized and prepared for school.

Does your child know HOW to study? I can teach them!I can help them:

  • Experiment with a planner or agenda book system to find one that actually make sense to them!
  • Learn note taking and study strategies that make it easy to get ready for tests.
  • Take the mystery and uncertainty out of planning and writing essays.
  • Make a plan for homework and stick to it to get a great start on the year!
  • Build vocabulary and reading strategies to help them read with confidence.

Contact me today for a no-cost 30-minute consultation to find out how I can help your child make next year the best school year yet!

 

Google Docs for Struggling Students

Google for Education has become a popular and affordable way for school districts to give all their students access to file storage, productivity tools (through G Suite) and collaboration capabilities, using Chromebooks, tablets, or traditional desktop computers. But how can Google Docs be used to help students that struggle in writing, like those with specific learning disabilities in writing or spelling, or students with dysgraphia? And what can it do for students who struggle with attention and executive functioning, like students with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders?

My Experience with Google for Education

When my school converted all of us to Google Drive, there was resistance and skepticism from lots of the staff. People were comfortable with Microsoft Office, and did not want to learn a new system. But once we got it in the hands of the students, it was clear that it was an amazing tool for learning.

Elementary students quickly learned to share documents with each other and collaborate in real time. (Of course, they used their powers for good as well as evil, and I had to explain to several kids that there is a permanent record of whatever you put in an email or Google document, and that it is a school tool, and not personal or private.)

Kids who constantly lose their papers now have an un-lose-able record of their written work. And if you accidentally delete a document, or clear your page? IT’S NOT GONE!! You can revert to a previous version of a document, or recover it from the trash can. It has been a game-changer for the students I work with!

Supporting Struggling Writers Using Google Docs

Writing can be frustrating for students unless they have the right support.

For students who struggle with writing, a lot of the features embedded in Google Docs are great for providing accommodations or scaffolding their learning. Here are some of my favorite features of Google Drive (and Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets) as a teacher of students with learning disabilities and executive functioning challenges.

Sharing

I either create a template for an assignment and share it with the students, or I have them share the document immediately when they create it, so I can check in while they work (and they can’t accidentally delete).

Who does it benefit: Students with ADHD can have frequent, subtle, check-ins without a teacher standing over them in the classroom. Students with auditory processing challenges or memory deficits get instructions in written form. Students with dysgraphia and other writing disabilities get a format to follow with features like a word bank or sentence stems, if needed.

Bonus: I get digital copies, instead of a pile of paper in my inbox!

Collaboration

Students can work at the same time on a shared document, on their own devices. Structured carefully, this type of assignment can engage more students simultaneously than other types of group work where I read, she records, and he presents our findings at the end of the class.

Who does it benefit: Students who need more processing time can benefit from starting with a silent work period, where everyone works on their own part of the document. Students who are easily distracted have less wait time and are more able to stay engaged in the lesson. Students with lower writing achievement have peer models in their group who are demonstrating how to tackle an assignment, both through group discussion and by typing in the shared document.

Comments

When I move the mouse cursor to the right margin of a document, a little comment icon pops up. When I click it, the line of text is highlighted, and I can type a comment. I use comments for revision suggestions. I find that when I give my comments in writing, students can reread them, reply to my comment, or make the change and click “Resolve” to make the comment go away. I can also write a lot more than I could with a pen in the margin of a draft. (Plus, my handwriting stinks, so typed comments are better for everyone!)

Who benefits?: Struggling writers of all kinds benefit from written feedback. Getting comments digitally means students can take as much time as they need and refer to the comments as they may corrections. I can also give feedback in real time from my own computer while students are writing. Students are able to revise their writing while it’s fresh in their minds.

Add-Ons

Click “Add-Ons” in the menu at the top of Google docs, then click “Get Add-Ons” to see the library of tools available for mind-mapping, spelling and grammar support, document templates, and many more! Two of my favorites are:

Change Case – This add-on lets you change the capitalization on a selection of text. You can choose “sentence case” which capitalizes just hte first word of each sentence, all capitals, all lowercase, or “title case,” which capitalizes the important words in a title. This is a great tool for students who don’t consistently capitalize while they are writing.

Highlight Tool – With this add-on, you can create different colored highlighters and label them, then use them to highlight the text in your document. You can “collect highlights” at the end and gather all your highlighted bits into one table. I use this to help students revise their work as well as to choose examples in text they are reading. For example, they can highlight all their topic sentences in green, and visually make sure that each paragraph is well structured.

Speech-to-text

Google Docs has voice recognition (called Voice Typing) available to anyone with a microphone using the Chrome browser on a Chromebook or computer. You speak your sentences (and a variety of punctuation and formatting commands) and they appear on the screen. Students need practice and support to use this feature effectively, but it has been a huge benefit to my students with poor spelling or with executive functioning weaknesses.

Text-to-Speech

This is not a native feature of Google Docs, but there are a range of free Chrome extensions that will read your writing to you. Select and Speak is my favorite, right now.

Read and Write for Google, by TextHelp, is another amazing suite of tools that works with Google Drive. It is available with a paid subscription. In addition to text-to-speech, it offers word prediction, and a range of tools for highlighting and extracting notes, and developing vocabulary lists. At the time of this writing, it is being offered free to teachers who register using their school email addresses.

The Takeaway

With all the free tools available as part of Google Docs, it’s a great starting point for students who need writing support. It is an easy way to introduce assistive technology for students with poor handwriting, dysgraphia, specific learning disabilities in reading or writing, or ADHD or other executive functioning deficits.

If your child needs help getting started with assistive technology, or developing his or her writing skills, contact me for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Your Computer is Listening! Getting Started with Google Voice Typing

This post includes affiliate links.

Voice recognition, or speech-to-text, technology on my smartphone may be the feature I use most. That includes the Facebook and weather apps. That’s because I’m not terrific at typing on the small on-screen keyboard, especially when I’m doing other things, like walking from the car to the store, or stirring a pot of soup. It’s a convenient technology for many users, but for users with disabilities, it can make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of their written work.

For years, using speech-to-text meant training Dragon Naturally Speaking or another program to recognize your voice. This was a time-consuming process that was difficult for poor readers (who couldn’t read the text they were supposed to use for training), individuals with unclear speech, and people with short attention spans or limited stamina for work. But now, Google Voice Typing is available within Google Docs, on any computer with a microphone. It doesn’t require any training, and you can start almost instantly!

Who can benefit?

Me, for one. When my son was an infant, I often used Voice Typing to write short compositions for the class I was taking while he slept in my arms.

I know a few adults (including at least one with ADD) who use it to overcome the barrier of getting their ideas from their mind onto the screen. I’ve recommended it to my dad, who is a novelist and also a two-finger typist.

And it’s great for kids, too. I know a few fourth, fifth and sixth graders with learning disabilities using it regularly. I’ve even tried it with kids as young as first grade, with mixed results. For some, it was too distracting and frustrating, but others took off with it after a little practice.

Getting started

  1. Open Google Docs in the Chrome browser on any computer or Chromebook.
  2. Make sure a microphone is attached/installed. This can be the device’s internal microphone, or one you plug in to the microphone port. You can use something simple and cheap, like a cell phone headset, or a fancy noise-cancelling microphone.
  3. In the Tools menu, click “Voice Typing”
       4. The microphone icon pops up on the left-hand side of your document. 5. The first time you click on the microphone, Google Docs will ask for your permission to access the microphone. You must click “Allow” to continue.

 

6. When the microphone has been activated, the icon looks like the image on the left. As you speak, you will be able to see that it is picking up your voice (on the right).

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. It may take a moment, but the words will start to appear on the screen. If you get an error message saying the microphone doesn’t hear your voice, or if the icon stops moving while you are talking, click the microphone off and on again to reactivate it.

That’s it! You are Voice Typing!

What are the pitfalls?

  • Background noise: Your accuracy may be lower in a noisy room, or the microphone may pick up the speech of those around you. This happens a lot when I am coaching a student as they learn Voice Typing. As I say, “Now start speaking your sentence,” they hit the microphone button, and we have to stop and backspace because the screen has some mix of my directions and their composition.
  • Wrong word errors: Voice Typing seems to use context to understand your words. That means if you speak…one…word…at…a…time, your accuracy won’t be as good as if…you speak in phrases…but a little slower…than your natural speech. Sometimes, if you’re not monitoring while you write, you might get to the end of a paragraph or page and find so many errors that you can’t tell what you meant.
  • Random capitalization: Voice Typing knows the basics: capital letter for the beginning of sentences or proper nouns. Sometimes if you try too hard to emphasize a word to get the microphone to pick it up, Google decides it Must be important and Gives it Capital Letters. These random capitals need to be fixed in the editing process.
  • Voice commands: Voice Typing understands a range of voice commands, including punctuation (question mark), formatting (new line), and many other more sophisticated ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have a voice command for quotation marks, which is a barrier for students writing fiction or narratives.

What are the alternatives?

There is built in speech recognition in Android and iOS devices. Newer versions of Windows (beginning with Windows 7, at least) have speech recognition capability. There are commercial apps and software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The right choice for you will depend on exactly what you plan to use it for, and what your preference for device and work environment is.

My recommendation is to start with something free, like the voice recognition that comes with your device, or with Google Docs. For many users, this gives the features they need. Heavy users of speech-to-text technology, or those with specialized needs due to industry-specific vocabulary (like scientists, for example) might need to pay for a program to get the functions they need.

Have fun with it, and tell Google I said hi!

Use Google Voice Typing speech-to-text tool on any computer with the Chrome browser.