The embarrassing reason I didn’t finish my grad program

Like a lot of people who become teachers, I really liked school. I liked the predictable routines of reading a chapter, answering the questions and then taking a quiz. In college, I hit a few speed bumps, like papers I wrote at the last minute or an overwhelming volume of completely uninteresting reading but I came out of it unharmed. Even my master’s program was pretty comfortable, with lots of reading and writing, but nothing that really stumped me. Teachers frequently gave us templates for writing essays or reports, or examples from previous classes that gave us guidance as we planned our own writing.

But to advance in my teaching career, I needed to earn more credits after my master’s. I enrolled in a CAGS program (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study) at a local university and had the opportunity to choose my focus (literacy and special education) and select classes to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects. I took lots of classes on literacy development, the assessment of reading difficulties, and different approaches to teaching reading. So far, so good. But then it was time to plan my capstone project: a thesis or an action research project. That’s when I got stumped. 

Why are templates important?


The thesis process at that university goes like this: First, choose your topic and develop an annotated bibliography and proposal. Then, find a professor to serve as your advisor. After that, work with their guidance to complete the research and write the thesis. But when I submitted my annotated bibliography and the roughest sketch of a topic to my program advisor, they said I would need a LOT more before they could connect me with an advisor who knew my subject matter.

And that, dear reader, is when I quit.

I was pregnant with my second child and working full time, and as much as I wanted to finish this degree, I just couldn’t see how. I had spent hours Googling random combinations of words like “graduate thesis education,” “thesis proposal template,” and any other phrase I could think of that might give me some insight into what was missing from my proposal. And asking for help from my program advisor turned out to be a dead end. That person wasn’t in the same field as me and either I didn’t know how to ask or they didn’t know how to tell me what my submission was missing. 

My plan was to take some time off and then try again. And I did the first part, but never the second part. Oops.

Should students get templates for writing essays?

Now imagine that instead of a thirty-something educator, I was a ninth grader, assigned my first high school essay. Or a middle schooler writing my first lab report. All that knowledge I had in my head about reading and education, and all the writing I had done in my life up to that point, didn’t prepare me to write this proposal because I didn’t really know what it was

It reminds me of The Great British Baking Show, where the characters are given just the vaguest outline of a recipe and they are supposed to use their knowledge of baking techniques to reproduce one of the famous hosts’ classic recipes. When you give vague directions, you can’t expect the product to turn out like you imagined. And the same is true of templates for writing essays. The more specific a teacher can be about what he is looking for in an essay, the more opportunities the students will have to succeed with those expectations!

If your middle or high school writer needs to strengthen their academic writing skills, check out our small group offerings. A new session of our paragraph writing course will be offered in Winter 2023. Contact us now to get on the list when enrollment opens.

What is a writing template?

Templates for writing essays are documents that lay out all the parts of the assignment, including models for what should be included in each part. For example, a simple template for a 5-paragraph essay would look like:

  • Introduction – include a thesis statement
  • Body paragraph 1
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Body paragraph 2
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Body paragraph 3
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Conclusion

Most students will need more detailed guidance, and would benefit from a paragraph-writing template. I like to use the TBEAR model for most middle school and high school writing. It looks like this:

  • T – thesis statement: This sentence makes an arguable claim that the writer will support with examples
  • B – brief explanation: A sentence or two (not much more) to give the reader background about the part of the text you will discuss. 
  • E – evidence: This sentence will either directly quote or paraphrase a sentence or phrase from the text that supports the thesis statement. (A good body paragraph usually has 2-3 pairs of evidence and analysis sentences.)
  • A – analysis: In a sentence or two, explain why the evidence above supports your thesis. Make the connection between your thesis and the quote clear.
  • R – relate: Show how your evidence relates to the big ideas of the reading. This could be relating the section you analyzed to the whole book, making a connection to real life or your own experience, or a connection back to the main thesis of the essay, depending on the exact assignment.

Why are templates important in writing?

Often, we show students examples of good writing and hope and expect that they’ll be able to produce something similar. But the problem is that weak writers don’t know enough about good writing to tell the difference between good and bad essays. They don’t know what to imitate because it’s not clear to them what makes the writing good. 

A template for essay writing goes further than just providing examples. Instead of “do what the author did here,” a template makes the instruction explicit. “Just like the example, your essay will have 3 body paragraphs, each with 2 pieces of evidence quoted from the text.” Now that is a direction students can take action on. 

And by writing, students become better writers! Once they have produced some essays, they will become better at recognizing good arguments and understanding the structure of other people’s writing. And that’s why templates are an essential part of good writing instruction for all developing writers.

If your middle school or high school student is struggling with essay writing, let me know. I’m looking forward to offering our paragraph writing class in the winter of 2023. If you are interested, drop your email in the contact form on that page and we’ll update you when the class is scheduled.

How do I help my child write an essay?

In a perfect world, students build their writing skills bit by bit over time, writing good sentences, then good paragraphs, and then combining those paragraphs into an essay. Kids can do this with support starting around third grade but it’s a project that might take weeks in class. 

Unfortunately, teachers don’t always build in all these steps, or not all students in the class are ready to be independent at the same time. Either way, the result is an essay that your child has to write on their own and they have no idea where to start! 

Break it Down, Build it Up

Chunk the assignment

Some teachers think about turning their assignments into a step-by-step checklist, while others write a dense paragraph with all the detailed directions buried inside. If your child gets an assignment that seems like a pile of complex instructions, the first step is to help them break it down and decide where to start.

Turn the teachers directions into a checklist. If the directions for the essay say, “Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence, supporting details, and uses transition words,” turn that into a checklist:

  • Body Paragraph
    • Topic Sentence
    • Supporting Detail 1
    • Supporting Detail 2
    • Supporting Detail 3
    • Transition words

No matter how obvious a detail might seem to you as an adult, like “Make sure your name is on the first page.” or “Number your pages,” include those on your child’s checklist. Those details easily get lost in the shuffle of trying to actually write the content of the paper.

Develop a Plan

Even if your child is full of ideas and could discuss a topic all day, the idea of writing it down in a formal essay can be overwhelming. Start by having your child write down what they know. Everyone has personal preferences for this brainstorming process. Here are some options:

  • Write a formal outline, listing the topic for each paragraph and any known details. (I haaaated this as a student and used to write my paper early just so I could go back and write the outline after and turn it in.)
  • Write each idea on a sticky note or index card so they can be shuffled and grouped differently as the plan develops.
  • Draw a mindmap or web, with the main idea in the center and details in branches around it. You can use a tool like Mindmup to make a digital mindmap or draw one on big paper.

Download my Revision and Editing Checklists to help your child polish their paper.


Write a draft

I grew up writing drafts on paper (dingy manila paper in elementary school and notebook paper in middle and high school) and having to turn in and edit a draft to earn the opportunity to write a typed final draft. While there are arguments on the subject of handwriting vs typing essays, I can’t justify asking kids to spend their time writing and rewriting an essay when the time could be better spent strengthening their ideas!

I recommend having kids start to organize their notes right on the computer screen. It’s so easy to cut and paste sentences and even whole paragraphs that, as long as we keep in mind that this a draft and it will change, putting first drafts on the screen can work great!

Edit and Revise

Editing and Revising are two different, but related, processes. Revise has 2 parts re (again) and vise (look at/see). So to revise a piece of writing is to look at it again and make meaningful changes. This can include adding missing ideas, using more precise and descriptive vocabulary, or rearranging sentences or paragraphs so they are in a logical order. Many students struggle with this process because they think, “I already wrote this. There’s nothing more to say.” It helps to give them choices or a specific action they can take. For example, “This sentence is too short. You could add the word because at the end and explain more about why this event happened.”

Editing is more about the process of correcting errors in the writing. Like many teachers, I use the acronym COPS to remind writers what to look for when they edit. Grab my Editing and Revising checklist for more detailed steps.

  • Capitalization
  • Organization (this includes how the text looks on the page: fonts, sizes, line breaks, indenting, etc.)
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

What’s the point of the assignment?

Remember that your child’s teacher assigns an essay for a reason. Your child may be writing it at home because the teacher believes they can do it independently and show their sklls. The teacher may want to assess their knowledge of some content or build their reading stamina. 

So as much as you want to reduce your child’s frustration or make the essay-writing process easier, make sure your role is to facilitate, not to do the work. Make sure the words on the page, and any final decisions about revisions or editing, belong to your child. You can remove barriers, like unclear directions or not being able to find a starting point, but you have to let them struggle sometimes so they can grow as writers.

Should I Correct My Child’s Spelling?

Wondering how to help your child with spelling?

Helping with homework is a delicate balance. The purpose of homework is practice, so we shouldn’t expect students to do it perfectly all on their own, or else the assignment is just a waste of time. But what help can you give them that keeps them active and learning instead of having you do all the work? 

Here are some tips for helping your child with spelling words at home.

Grade and subject make a difference

Early grades/Spelling homework

When your kids are young and learning to spell, a big part of the point of homework is to practice spelling skills. A good spelling program will have your child practicing spelling words in a pattern they have learned at school, such as all words with silent e, or all words that have -tch at the end of the word. If the spelling list has a lot of different patterns or your child is really struggling with the words that are assigned, it’s worth a conversation with the teacher about ways to make this work more productive for your child.

If the homework is not spelling homework, teachers in first and second grade are used to figuring out spelling mysteries from their students. If your child is struggling to spell a word like because or television, you can encourage them to write the sounds they hear or use the patterns they know. If the uncertainty of an unknown spelling makes your child uncomfortable, it’s OK to give them the spelling of a word, or to help them make a list of words they often forget that they can hang in their homework area or keep in their folder.

What doesn’t work for younger children is telling them to “look it up.” Using a dictionary is an advanced skill that involves a lot of decision-making and executive functioning skills. Kids will learn to use a dictionary to look up definitions long before they can use a dictionary to check spelling.

Bonus tip: If you have a smart speaker at home or your child has access to a tablet or phone, it’s possible to use speech-to-text to help a child with spelling words. For example, Alexa responds to, “Alexa, how do you spell…” My kids love the independence of checking words themselves.

Middle Grades/Written responses

Kids from about third grade up might have to write responses of one or more sentences on their own, eventually expanding to paragraphs or essays as they move into middle school. These writing prompts are a great opportunity to coach your child to revise and edit their writing to fix their spelling. They should learn to use the available resources, like the text they read or the words in the question they are answering, to check their spelling. 

Here are some stages many students move through as they learn to do this independently:

  1. Early on, they might not notice their own spelling errors, so you might underline misspelled words when you proofread their work.
  2. They begin to learn more about what correct spelling looks like. You might tell them “I see 2 misspelled words in this paragraph. Do you know what they might be?”
  3. They also become more aware of their common errors. You can say, “Check the tricky words list in your folder and see if you got those right.”

High school and college

By the time students get to high school, the bulk of their longer writing assignments will probably be typed. They need to learn how to appropriately use spellcheck and spelling suggestions. I once knew a very bright engineering student who accepted all the spelling and grammer suggestions given by Word and ended up with a long, important paper that was almost totally unreadable. Human friends had to go back through the draft and try to undo all the computer’s errors. 

Spellcheck is an incredible tool, but plan to work through it with your teen the first few times and teach them that computers are really good at doing things over and over again, very quickly, but they aren’t smart.

If your teen continues to struggle with spelling, so much that it impacts the quality of their writing, there are some easy-to-use software options that can help.

  • Speech-to-text: Using Google Voice (included with Docs) or a standalone product like Dragon Dictation, writers can speak their draft into their device. Learning to use this effectively, including punctuation and editing, can take some time.
  • Word prediction: Co:Writer is software that I more often recommend for younger students, but it has the helpful feature of customized dictionaries for different subject matter, so writers can have suggestoins from content-specific vocabulary, which is helpful in classes like science or history where words that aren’t common in our everyday speech come up often.
  • Grammarly: Grammarly is a subscription-based spelling and grammar checker that gives some explanation for the changes it recommends, including noting when a change makes the writing less wordy or more readable. This can help writers fine tune their emails and short notes, as well as longer papers.

What if they need more spelling help?

Most students make spelling errors. Whether it’s not knowing whether to write there, their or they’re, or having difficulty with less common words like conscience and photosynthesis, mistakes happen. For the majority of students, learning to be aware of the mistakes they tend to make and learning that good spelling is a part of clear communication is the path to better, more careful spelling. But other students have done the same work as their classmates and continue to make an unusual number of errors in spelling. If you are concerned that your child’s reading and spelling development, reach out to the teacher and consider whether more evaluations would be helpful. Poor spelling can be a sign of a learning disability like dyslexia, or a sign that they haven’t gotten the spelling instruction that they need.

For these struggling students, they may need more explicit instruction in letters and sounds (including rules like using -tch at the end of words with short vowels, like fetch) and spelling rules (like doubling the final consonant before adding -ed, like in the word begged). 

Learning the history of words, whether they come to English by way of French, Greek or another language, can also help students know which pattern to choose. Some students become better spellers when they study a language like Greek or Latin that has a large influence on English.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for ways to help your child with spelling, the key is to help them find resources and learn a process that will help them avoid and correct errors. Find a middle ground between “It’s your homework, look it up” and spelling out the word every time. Giving too much (or too little) help won’t help your child learn to spell better, but giving the right support can help them grow in confidence and independence!

If your child is struggling with spelling and they need more than tips and strategies to help them, contact us today about 1:1 online structured literacy tutoring with our Orton Gillingham tutors.

Should my child handwrite or type their writing work?

When I was a kid, the process for written work at school was very rigid: 

  • You get a blank piece of paper and write your plan for the story.
  • You write a draft on yellow paper.
  • You meet with the teacher to talk about revising and editing.
  • You get the nice white paper and you write a final copy in your best handwriting. 

Even as a student teacher, we worked for weeks with students on the idea of a draft and making our writing better, and we did it the same way. But now it’s decades later, many schools have a computer or iPad for every student, and we’re still using those old ways of organizing the writing process. There are benefits of handwriting vs typing notes or an essay, but there’s a lot to be said for technology, too!

What’s the goal?

Young children

For young children, the keyboard is a much more abstract way of producing words than writing letters with a pencil. The connection between their ideas, their fingers, the keys, and the screen is weaker. Think of it as the idea having to travel further to become part of a story or sentence than if they can write it with a pencil. Before preschoolers and kindergarteners can write and spell, teachers often write down the sentence they dictate. Some students will continue to need this for a few more years, especially if their writing fine motor or spelling skills lag behind grade level expectations. While they build their skills, dictating to a person might help them produce the best quality work.

Middle grades

From third grade to the end of elementary school, typing goes from being a nice-to-have extra to an essential school survival skill. While I haven’t found any specific evidence to back this up, many experts, including occupational therapists, recommend beginning formal typing instruction around third grade. Before that, kids hands are often too small to be positioned comfortably on the keyboard. Besides, in the early grades they need plenty of time to focus on handwriting skills.

Benefits of handwriting vs typing
Boy writing in a notebook at a wooden table

Just like younger students needed adults to dictate to before their handwriting skills were efficient, middle grades students will need to use other strategies while their typing skills become efficient. Often, by the time a beginning typist finds the letters she’s looking for, she has forgotten what word she was trying to spell!

For students that are having a lot of difficulty with fluent handwriting, speech-to-text, like the Voice Typing feature in Google Docs, or the embedded feature in a Chromebook or iPad, can make the difference between writing telegraphic stories in messy pencil and writing long, well-developed compositions. Speech-to-text does bring up the next challenge, which is teaching students to revise their stream of consciousness writing. Speech-to-text lets students write so quickly that they don’t stop to think about where to begin and end sentences. But as a teacher, I would much rather students get some text on the page for us to edit and discuss, than watch them struggle to scratch out a couple of sentences. 

Moving on into middle school, being efficient on the keyboard can make the difference between knocking out a quick paragraph for homework and struggling through a lengthy pencil-and-paper writing and editing process. 

If your child turns in writing that is vague or full of errors, try these free checklists for revising and editing.


High school

By high school, students need efficient typing and computer skills to be able to keep up with the increasing workload. While many teachers make time for handwritten work in class, and there is some evidence that it has benefits, I don’t believe that having students write out longer compositions is the best use of their time. I would rather have students quickly put a draft on the screen and then have additional time to revise with adults and peers and opportunities to make quick changes to the document. There are lots of improvements to writing that will never be made if it means erasing a whole sentence or line on paper. But if the student can quickly type the replacement words, they get a lot more opportunities to think about and improve their writing. 

Final thoughts

For some students, starting typing a little on the young side and getting good at it can save them endless time and frustration as they get older. Students with dysgraphia or difficulty with handwriting will have so many  more chances to write out their ideas if they aren’t limited by their pencil speed! On the other hand, paper and pencils aren’t going away in our world any time soon, and being able to jot a quick note is also a valuable skill. It’s important to think about the purpose of the acitivity and how much writing is expected.

Along with the benefits of writing on screens come challenges. Devices can have many more opportunities for distraction, and technology needs to be explicitly taught if we want children to use it a certain way. Thoughtful computer instruction, including practice typing, should be a part of every elementary student’s learning. That way, they’ll have choices about the best tools for them in middle and high school!

Should my child handwrite or type their writing work?
Handwriting has benefits for building brain connections, but can be time-consuming or frustrating for some children. How do you decide when to focus on typing?
Don’t forget to grab your writing checklists!


How much should my child be writing?

As a parent, trying to figure out if your child is meeting grade-level standards at school is a little like looking through a peephole. You get a tiny, distorted picture of progress from the work your child brings home, paired with grades and feedback from the teacher. But how do you know what “good” writing looks like in, say, third grade?

Signs your child is struggling with writing

Handwriting, Spelling and Mechanics – Oh my!

Messy handwriting – There seems to be this bell-shaped curve with handwriting. Early writers are learning to form the letters. They come out backwards, all different sizes, wobbly and not on the lines. Around the end of first grade, many students hit their groove. They have fully learned letter formation and have developed firm habits about how they write (for better or for worse!) Later, many stop being as careful with their daily handwriting and, while they may be able to write neatly for forms and Christmas cards, their grocery lists are a scrawl that is readable only to them. If your child is young, make sure they have appropriate lined paper, short pencils (not fat ones!) and opportunities for practice and feedback. If they are older and handwriting continues to be a barrier, consider using speech-to-text or typing to help them get their ideas out.

Indecipherable spelling – Early writers use what’s often called “invented spelling.” They go from scribbling random shapes to mixing in some real letters to beginning to represent the sounds in words, like “gmu” for grandma. In kindergarten and first grade, students are encouraged to “write what they hear” but they should be held accountable for including any spelling rules or patterns they have been taught. If your child isn’t writing letters that match the sounds in the word by first grade, or if they continue to use phonetic spelling into third grade (such as misspellings like sed and wuz for common words like “said” and “was,”) they may need some help in writing.

Incomplete thoughts – You may feel like you need a secret decoder ring to read children’s writing sometimes. If your child’s writing is vague, “We went there after the other time…” or if they never pause to end a sentence, “We had popcorn and we saw the previews and the movie came on but it was too loud and we watched the robots and we got pizza that was my favorite part,” they may need some explicit instruction in choosing descriptive words or identifying a complete thought/sentence.

Why there’s no easy answer

Whether a child’s writing is deemed “good” depends completely on the situation. Based on my experience in public schools, there seems to be much less consistency and money invested in writing curriculum than there are in math and English materials and planning. As a result, writing instruction in different schools, or even in neighboring classrooms, can be all over the map. 

Even looking at state learning standards can make the issue cloudier instead of more clear. The Common Core Standards don’t say how long a piece of writing should be in any particular grade. It gives broader goals that, while important and true, don’t give us enough information to evaluate our children and see if they are on track. 

For example, a fourth grader should “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” Cool. But within that, there’s a huge difference between “Koalas are the best animals because they are furry and smell like eucalyptus,” and “The bird in Horton Hatches a Who treated Horton unfairly because she left him to sit on her eggs while she went on vacation.” They both have opinions, reasons, and information, but one shows knowledge about koalas (I made up that eucalyptus thing, but I’m using my imagination here) and the other shows understanding about character relationships and connections to a book. 

How to help child with spelling
Students writing at a table in a classroom

Some schools or individual teachers use rubrics to take some of the guesswork out of evaluating writing. A rubric is a grid that specifies the expected parts of a piece of work and gives a number of points for each item. Sometimes, a rubric can serve as a checklist for completing the assignment:

  • The cover page should have the title, author’s name, and date.

Other times, a rubric can be almost as vague as the Common Core Standards. What is “adequate support,” anyway?

Would an editing checklist help? Download our free writing checklists by signing up right here!


OK, but really, how long should the writing be?

For what it’s worth (I unfortunately don’t have any power over schools’ curriculum), here are some general benchmarks I like to see students meet. When I see these things, I am pretty comfortable that they are on their way to becoming competent writers.

By the end of Kindergarten: 

  • Form all 26 letters (some reversed b/d/p/q m/w g/q is still developmentally very appropriate at this stage)
  • Write words phonetically by sounding them out or spell them correctly by using resources (for example, looking at the school lunch calendar to spell the word school)
  • Produce simple sentences. Many (maybe most) kindergarten graduates can write a sentence of 4-8 words themselves. Others are still using an adult scribe to capture their whole thought before they forget. It won’t be spelled correctly, but it should be a complete thought and most of the words should be there.
  • Express themselves verbally in complete thoughts, given a model. So if you say, “I think we should have spaghetti for dinner because it’s delicious. What do you think?” they can say, “I think we should get pizza because it’s fast.” 

By the end of first grade:

  • Write a series of 3-6 sentences about a single topic. They may begin to have a main idea/topic sentence, like “I’m going to tell you about my dog.” The writing might be repetitive: She has fur. She loves me. She likes walks.
  • Spell words in a way that makes sense, even if they pick the wrong option for some sounds, like writing trane for train

By the end of third grade:

  • Here’s where things start to vary more, both in school expectations and individual development. Sometime between the beginning of second grade and the end of third, children should learn to write a paragraph with a topic sentence and an appropriate number of details. 
  • In a narrative/story, they should have a clear beginning (where a character has a problem), middle, and end (where the problem is solved.) 
  • Most of their writing is often based on personal experience or general knowledge.

By the end of elementary school:

  • Write a paragraph that refers to specific facts from something they have learned and comments on those facts. 
  • Write a narrative that is several paragraphs long and talks about characters’ feelings and motivations. Children should be using conventions like quotation marks and punctuation to make their story clear.

Middle School: 

  • In middle school, students should be writing more and more about what they are learning in class. 
  • They should understand at least 3 kinds of writing (narrative, persuasive and expository) and be able to identify differences between the types.
  • Before high school, students should be able to string together at least 3 good paragraphs, with specific details and quotes from text they ahve read, into a coherent essay. They might need guidance to do this, with graphic organizers or sample papers to get them going.
  • Understand that they are writing for reader and that there are things writers do – like explaining their thoughts in detail – that we might not do in a spoken conversation.

High school:

  • Write a paper of 3-8 pages, with structure and guidance from a teacher.
  • Use specific evidence quoted from multiple sources to support their points in writing.
  • Use “writerly” academic language, including words like however, meanwhile, and on the other hand to show the relationship between their ideas.
  • Understand themselves as writers and use their knowledge to plan their writing process. For example, do they prefer to write a detailed outline or just start with a draft? What tools do they need to organize their notes or to keep their draft on track? How long does it take them to write a page?

But what if they aren’t?

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Especially in a world of texts and emails, being able to write your message effectively can make an enormous difference. 

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Click To Tweet

While every child’s development as a writer will vary, and my list above is only a rough guideline, children also sometimes need more than they are getting in the classroom. Without a strong writing curriculum, many teachers give students “inspiration” and “time to write,” which may not be enough structure for a child who just plain doesn’t know how to write. Other students need direct teaching about spelling or building sentences in order to do it successfully. If you have concerns about your child’s writing progress, or if they are avoiding writing or melting down, ask their teacher about writing expectations for the year. 

If your child is struggling with writing at school, whether it’s expressing themselves completely or spelling so others understand them, we can help! Contact us for a consultation and no-cost demo lesson today.

How much should my child be writing?
Writing expectations change a lot as your child moves through school. How do you know if they are meeting the expectations for their class?

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.