Declutter your brain to improve your writing skills?

Christopher Paolini was 15 when he started writing Eragon, the first book in his bestselling fantasy series.

About 3/4 of employers are looking for candidates with strong written communication skills.

Harvard Business School describes how reading good writing actually impacts the circuits of our brains.

It’s easy to see how strong writing skills can open doors for people, even those who don’t plan to write for a living. But did you know that writing can help a student learn more right now? Reflective writing is a tool for laying out and examining one’s thinking. It can be helpful early in the learning process for capturing our thoughts and questions. Writing is also beneficial along the way as we start to make connections between ideas we are learning and things we have learned before. And after we master an area of learning, writing about it can help us clarify and solidify our knowledge. For this reason, writing skills are essential learning skills.

I would go so far as to say that writing can do for your thinking what a closet cleanout can do for your wardrobe.

Photo of a cluttered clothing closet with many items hanging close together. There are hat boxes on the shelf above, and other items hanging on the walls to the side.

No, wait, hear me out!

Why a closet cleanout?

I compare writing to learn to cleaning out your closet because they both involve taking things that already belong to you (sweaters or thoughts about Shakespeare), examining them, discarding the ones that don’t really work, and putting it all back together more neatly. And both processes can help you notice which things hanging around your closet/brain are useful, which need mending, and which are ready to be replaced with something new.

Oh, and both tasks can be totally overwhelming! So it helps to have help. If I don’t plan carefully, a closet cleanout could result in me turning the whole house upside down. I do my best cleaning when I have a partner, or when someone gives me a checklist to follow. One way to quickly improve writing is to give students some tools or structure. Knowing how to do the task makes it a lot easier to focus on what to write.

Examining your “wardrobe” of ideas

We think of learning as the process of taking in information. But learning is not passive. We use our existing knowledge to understand new ideas and form links between concepts. If we just keep adding new facts without organizing and connecting them, they aren’t very useful. It’s like your closet: Some old favorite items get worn all the time, but things can get shoved to the back, or buried under your winter coat. If you take some time and look at all of it, you may find some surprises!

By helping students develop strong writing skills, we give them tools to get their own thinking organized independently in the future.

One writing activity that can help us to clarify our understanding, or find out what we think about a topic, is a freewrite. In freewriting, you set a timer or other goal and write everything you can about the topic at hand. It may be short phrases instead of sentences. It may be repetitive. It may be missing details. Part of it might be a sketch or a diagram. But the purpose of a freewrite is to brainstorm all the things that are floating around your brain about the topic, and get them all together in one place.

I find that students can be rather stingy with their ideas in a freewrite. At first, they avoid writing things that aren’t “good.” I encourage them to write down all the bad ideas first, as quickly as possible, to get them out of the way and make room for the good ideas. We don’t have to worry about running out of ideas when freewriting. Learning when to write quickly and when to write slowly and carefully is an important writing skill that helps students prepare for a variety of writing tasks.

By laying out all the ideas in nice neat piles (I mean, paragraphs), you can see what still fits, what you have too much of, and what you might need to put on the shopping list.

Some things don’t fit

One hard truth of cleaning out the closet is that sometimes we have to let go of clothes that don’t fit right, even if we love the items!

The same is true for writing. Writing ideas about a topic makes it easier to see which ideas don’t fit in. Students might see that some details don’t fit the topic. Others might turn out to be ideas that are too small to get their own sentences. Some ideas can be combined into more complex sentences, and other ideas can be discarded. Knowing when to edit out weak ideas is one of the writing skills that takes time to develop. Deleting sentences they worked hard on can be difficult for students, but with practice they will see that it helps the best sentences stand out.

Some things are nice, but not useful

Getting rid of the clothes you like but don’t wear can be the stressful part of a closet cleanout.

In writing, getting rid of useless but lovely ideas is hard work! Maybe it’s something you thought was true, but when you look at it with the other facts, it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’s an idea for another time and place, better suited to a letter to the editor than a history essay. Or maybe you just don’t need to write that one idea 4 different ways. Just like your closet, your writing will work better if it’s not full of duplicates. (Except sweatshirts. One can never have too many hoodies!)

Go shopping!

There comes a point in most closet cleanouts where you say, “If those clothes won’t work, then what am I going to wear tomorrow?” If you are writing to clarify your thinking, you have to collect enough information to work with. If you try to write about something and realize you can’t explain it, it’s time to go back to your notes, or the original text, or your teacher, and learn more. For some students, audiobooks and text-to-speech technology can make this much easier. If your students need it, it is quick to set up tools to help.

It’s easy to think we understand what we’re learning when we are listening to someone else explain it. It all sounds great, and we don’t feel confused. When we sit down and try to write the explanation ourselves, we can see gaps in our understanding that we still need to fill. We fill the gaps with more learning. When you reread, or seek out new sources, you can ask more specific questions based on what you already know. You shop for more information discerningly, looking for new ideas that match, or complement, your knowledge wardrobe.

Putting together outfits

One really cool thing about a closet cleanout is it’s a chance to see different pieces of clothing together. Maybe you’ll get inspired to wear a different outfit!

In writing, placing ideas next to each other can reveal discoveries, metaphors, and sometimes glaring errors. Laying out our ideas, even in a quick, informal way, lets writers try out different combinations and connections. One way to create this type of writing opportunity for students is to use an open-ended writing prompt as a warm-up or closing activity.

Before a group discussion, writing can help students rehearse ideas and come up with examples to share later. After a discussion, students can capture their best ideas, including those they didn’t get a turn to say out loud. They can also adopt ideas they hear in the discussion and connect them to their own in new ways. Each type of writing has its own goals, and its own “rules” for structure. Students benefit from lots of practice with different writing skills within different parts of their day.

Why we write

We often think of a writing assignment as an alternative to a quiz or test, a way for teachers to collect information about what students know and evaluate them. But that’s not all it can be! Writing can be a valuable learning activity any time. Instead of thinking of writing as a final product, consider it a form of thinking. And, hopefully, we are thinking and learning every day, not just when it’s time to write an essay.

Writing for different purposes, throughout the learning process, can be instrumental in helping students develop bigger ideas and explain them more fully. For all those reasons, being able to write efficiently can make students better learners.

Want some checklists to help your child revise and edit their writing at home? I have those! Request them below.

The best “recipe” for writing assignment help

Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you have taught a child to do something, only to watch the skills fall apart when they try it independently. I see this with writing instruction quite often. Students that could plug away and create a paragraph in class one day seem to forget everything when they tackle their music history homework the next night.

Often, we teach children to follow a process for writing, like: brainstorm, draft, revise, publish. We might even give them checklists or writing graphic organizers to do all the steps without skipping anything. But if what we have taught is “follow the list,” they may be lost if the list isn’t there. As an online writing tutor, the best solution I have found for that problem is an approach called self-regulated strategy development.

What is SRSD?

Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, is an approach to writing instruction that was developed by Karen Harris and Steve Graham way back in the 90s. Originally, it was used with students with learning disabilities, and with struggling students. These days, many teachers are using these approaches with their whole classes, with impressive results.

There have been many research studies and articles and more articles written about using the SRSD writing approach with different students in different settings for different purposes.

Here is why I like it: I often teach students writing in individual tutoring sessions. I rely on them to tell me what they are working on in class, or what their teacher has said about writing expectations. If I layer on another graphic organizer, and it doesn’t match what the teacher wants, the student can end up more confused than before. The same can happen when different teachers, or different grade levels, use different graphic organizers.

Instead of handing them a tool and reminding them to use it, SRSD involves teaching the students why the tool is useful, describing how it works, modeling the process, supporting students as they practice until, finally, they move on to independent use of the strategies. In other words, over time, students need less help from me, and write better on their own.

Using a systematic approach to writing tutoring, like SRSD, helps students in a few ways.

  1. Motivation – with a coaching approach, we aim to build student’s self-efficacy, their belief in their own capability.
  2. Skill – Kids who aren’t skilled writers have trouble recognizing (and imitating!) good writing. They don’t know what to look for, or how to do it themselves, until they get some expereince and practice.
  3. Independence – One probelm with a graphic organizer is that if it has 3 spaces for important details, but the topic has 4 important details, the student has to decide. Do I squeeze the 4th idea on the side? Do I leave out one important detail? Do I smush them both into one box and hope I remember they don’t go together? With SRSD, students internalize a flexible approach to planning. At first, they may follow the steps very closely, but with practice they can learn to vary their plan to make the writing better.

How do we use it?

The cool thing about SRSD is it doesn’t require specialized materials or a specific workbook. We can use SRSD techniques to produce writing for any class. While it might vary from teacher to teacher, here’s my approach.

  1. Show them the process of putting together a paragraph using the SRSD tool you choose. I usually start with [TBEAR] for middle and high school, and [TREE] for younger students. I ask for their input, but I give as many prompts and suggestions as I need to to keep this process quick. I need students to see how quickly we can get from the dreaded blank page to something.
  2. Over the course of our meetings, we usually divide the time between writing and reading. First we read and talk about some mildly challenging, interesting reading. Some students come to me specifically because they have difficult schoolwork, so sometimes we reread or discuss their assigned reading.
  3. As we read, we use a few different comprehension strategies for making sense of the text. These vary by student and change over time, but one key step is asking students to predict what they think will happen in what they are about to read, or what a certain section will be about. Student-generated questions are also a very useful tool for developing an understanding of difficult reading.
  4. After we have read the text and I have modeled some ways to take notes (highlighting, notes in the margin, post-it notes, etc.), we practice writing about the reading, using the tool we have been practicing.
  5. Over a series of sessions, the student needs fewer and fewer reminders and reminders from me. They begin to talk themselves through the process of using the tool. That’s the “self-regulated” part and it can make the differnece between a child staring at a blank page helplessly and the same child finding a starting point and beginning to plan their writing.
  6. At a certain point, students don’t really need me to be there while they write their paragraphs. At that exciting point in their writing development, sometimes we change our schedule from weekly meetings to less frequent check-ins. Some students come back to see me again when they face a new writing challenge, like college application essays or college level classes. Others ask to meet when they have a first draft to show me, and I can give them feedback that they implement on their own. SRSD fosters independence because it includes steps to take when stuck. It’s pretty cool to see students take on the role of their own writing coach!

Does it take a long time?

That depends. Sorry.

I have taught a class of 3rd graders with dyslexia and other learning disabilities to use SRSD. They completed their first independent paragraph after maybe 2 or 3 hours of class time, over a week or so.

When I introduce SRSD strategies to some middle and high school writers, they take to them much more quickly. By the end of our first or second session, I provide the SRSD strategy and remind them of the steps, and they generate a whole paragraph on their own.

Other students, especially those who have complex learning needs – multiple learning disabilities, speech and language deficits, ADHD, autism, etc. – may need more practice with a higher level of support. And SRSD is an approach that allows flexible planning! It’s not a curriculum to follow page by page, so if we’re ready to try a new tool after 2 lessons, we do! If the student needs extra practice to gain confidence, it’s as simple as choosing a new article or short story together, and working through the read-discuss-plan-write sequence a few more times, until the student is taking the lead.

Who can help?

Teachers

Our local school has made SRSD their common approach to writing through the elementary grades. As a result, my son has been learning to write using specific details from his reading and a consistent paragraph structure since first grade. As he grows, the class’s approach to writing grows, too. But they started with a foundation of the basics, and they have common background to build on.

I highly recommend training in the SRSD approach for any teachers, K-12, who are in any way responsible for their students’ writing development. While there are lots of comprehensive profesxional development options available, these tools are simple to understand and teachers and students can get better at them together! No need to wait.

Tutors

If you are a parent seeking a writing tutor near you who can help your child develop their writing with SRSD, it can be challenging to know where to look. Although a tutor may not advertise that self-regulated strategy development is what they use, you can look for some key points in their description:

  • scaffolding/gradual release of responsibility/independence/self-efficacy – a good writing tutor understands that when they succeed, they are out of a job! The goal of writing tutoring is to help students master the writing skills that they will use to succeed on their own.
  • evidence-based – there has been a lot of discussion of the Science of Reading in recent years, much of it spurred by Emily Hanford’s reporting [link] about the state of literacy instruction around the United States. While the Science of Writing isn’t as widely mentioned, it exists. An experienced tutor gathers data from observing their own students, but they should also teach in a way that aligns with what we know from research. Ask them for some links and recommendations if you want to learn more about how they approach writing.

Parents

If tutoring is not in the budget right now, or if you need help on tonight’s assignment, you can help your child learn this, too! If you can follow a recipe, or build Ikea furniture, or follow driving directions, you can talk your kids through this process. Remember, it’s all about helping them to help themselves. You will model that naturally as you read a step, puzzle over it, and then figure it out together!

There are many free examples and tools online if you hunt around, but many of them are explained only briefly, and some are not clear enough for non-teachers. That’s why I put together my online course, the Academic Writing Lifeline for Parents. This course is designed to help you get your child past the confusion and fear of a writing assignment, and into a step-by-step process that will show them the light at the end of the writing tunnel.

To get you started as you help your child with writing at home, grab my free Revision and Editing checklists to walk you and your child through improving their writing one step at a time.

Finish more writing homework in less time

Sometimes it seems like writing homework can take an infinite amount of time! Unlike a math worksheet, which is pretty clearly either done or not done, writing can be an endless process of adding, rereading, fixing, and revising. It seems like we could just keep working on it until the moment it is due. No wonder adolescents sometimes wait until the last minute to start a writing assignment, or to ask you for writing assignment help! It feels like a life sentence!

Watch the clock (and the calendar!)

One of the best ways to free up more time from school writing assignments is to measure the time it really takes. I get stuck in the belief that something is going to take forever. Like this blog post, for example. I’ve been staring at it for a while. I like to set a timer for a short, focused, period of work. For me, I use a 25-minute timer from pomofocus.io. But for younger students, or sometimes older students when they are really struggling, I use a shorter timer. Ten minutes is enough time to plan the basic outline of a paragraph! A 5-minute stretch could be enough to write a main idea sentence or brainstorm examples.

I am always stunned to see that the task I have been putting off really only takes X minutes. If your child enjoys a timed challenge, set a goal and start a writing sprint of 15 minutes, or set a brainstorming timer. If setting a timer is stressful, try this: Set a ridiculously long timer. Marvel at how little of it you actually use to finish the thing. Wow, just 45 minutes? We thought it would be two hours!

The calendar can give you important information about how to get your writing assignment done, too. The common wisdom is to split a big task up and do bits of it over time. I hate that advice because it makes me feel like this writing assignment is just part of my life now, instead of a project with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Instead, I recommend some short, focused sprints, starting when you get the writing assignment and scheduled regularly (at least one or two a week, even if you have all semester to finish!). Even if you have 10 days to write a short paper and you think you could do it in about an hour and a half, total, two or three 30 minute time blocks are probably more efficient than 9 ten-minute stretches. Likewise, writing the whole thing 2 hours before the deadline is probably too concentrated.

Experiment with the length of a writing task or session. Does your child come up with the best ideas in short bursts? At random moments while she’s doing something else? When she sits and works through the ideas for a while?

Re-purpose

Once in a while, a students gets assigned a paper or essay that is truly open-ended. Students are asked to pick a topic from a list, or generate their own topic. More often, a writing assignment comes at the end of a unit of study in school. Students are often asked to write about what they have discussed in class.

So class notes, study guides, annotations in a book, and other incidental info from the class can be very helpful sources of information. Anything that was a topic discussed in class might end up belonging in your child’s essay. Have your child look through their book, notes, and completed classwork. You may find your child has already developed some of the ideas they will need to write, and they can focus on consolidating those ideas into a paragraph.

Know when to fold ‘em

Kenny Rogers said it best in his song, “The Gambler:” You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Writing is open-ended and it feels like you could go on forever tweaking it and improving it bit by bit. But at some point, you have to call a piece of writing DONE. To figure out when an assignment is done, check the teacher’s instructions. Look for:

  • word count – is it long enough?
  • sentence count – does it include enough ideas?
  • example count – does it cite enough examples or facts?
  • on topic – does it stick to one main idea throughout?
  • complete explanation – does the writing explain why each example is relevant to the topic

At a certain point near the end of the writing process, we reach a point of diminishing returns. We have looked at the same piece of writing so many times that it loses its meaning. At that point, the value of any words or ideas that your child manages to squeeze out of his fatigued brain may not be as beneficial as another hour of sleep will be.

Sometimes, students stay on a piece of writing too long out of anxiety. They don’t feel good about what they wrote so far. They also don’t know what else to do to improve it, so they just try to add more. This can be more words, more examples, more adjectives. Sometimes it’s related to making the writing long enough but sometimes it’s just not knowing when to stop! Help them figure out what the teacher expects by looking at the details of the assignment.

Another option for students who fuss with an assignment for too long out of anxiety is for them to arrange with the teacher to turn it in early. Some teachers are willing or able to review a draft and give feedback for revising if the student turns it in early enough. If that’s not available, students could give themselves a “do” date that is early enough for them to send the draft to a parent, tutor or trusted friend for an review.

Either way, help your child wrap up their writing when the time comes, so they can turn their attention to other parts of life. This might mean setting a “family deadline” for a long writing piece before dinner on the day before it is due. It also might mean checking in as the clock ticks down in the evening to make sure your child is aware that bedtime is approaching. Time management relies on executive functioning skills that even the smartest and most capable teens are still developing. Your check-ins (or neutral tools like timers, if your child is bothered by in-person interruptions) are helping them to become more aware of the passage of time, which is knowledge they need as they learn to plan their own work time!

Conclusion

If writing homework is taking too long, here’s my plan of attack:

  1. Figure out what the assignment means and what the teacher expects.
  2. Make it concrete by using the calendar, and a timer, to keep track of how long it takes.
  3. Make a plan for what “done” will look like, and what time that has to happen for the assignment to be on time, and for the student to be rested and ready for tomorrow.

And when the writing is done, make sure your child leaves some time to revise and edit. Grab my FREE revising and editing checklists below.

Writing Homework: Paragraph Ideas

There are few things I dread more than staring at a blanking page with a flashing cursor. There are just too many possibilities. Too many decisions. Too much potential. Too many ways it could go wrong. When your child has writing homework, getting some stuff on that blank page as quickly as possible can jumpstart their writing and build some momentum.

The other problem I see often is writing that gets started quickly and finished quickly. So quickly that it is brief and leaves the reader with many questions. That can be challenging too, because once some students believe they are done, there is little we can do to change their minds! So if you are trying to help your child find enough ideas for their writing, or ideas to expand their writing, read on!

I like to do this before they have tried to write a draft. If they tend towards short or undetailed writing, it helps to do this process before they write.

Here’s what I tell my students.

Content, not filler

Start by listing as many different ideas as you can about your topic.

If you have to identify a character’s traits, think of every word that might describe the character, or something she did. Hint: Google a list of character traits and see what sounds good.

If you’re writing about the causes of the Civil War think about each group involved (Union army, Confederate army, enslaved people, Abraham Lincoln) and try to list causes from different perspectives.

The important thing at this stage is to write down a lot of very, very bad ideas. Go for quantity here. You want as many ideas as you can because when you throw out the stinkers you will hopefully find some treasure! This also stops writers from using the first couple of ideas that come to mind, when there might be a much better idea in there somewhere.

If you are a parent helping a child with this process, you can help by offering to write notes while they brainstorm. You can also seed the list with some ideas of your own (but try to give your child time to come up with some the best ideas for themselves).

The list can be typed or written, but my brain has better storms on paper. Your mileage may vary. Post-it notes are nice for students who need help chunking information into individual facts or ideas, or for students who like to physically move information around to organize it.

Where do ideas come from?

Use the text you’re writing about (book, story, poem, movie, etc) to come up with ideas. If you’ve been taking notes while you read, flip through the text and read those notes. Anything important?

If you come up empty handed, how about your class notes? Did the teacher mention this topic? What seemed important?

Dangerous places to get ideas

The internet is also called “the information superhighway.” And just like an interstate highway, it can take you just about anywhere you choose to go. There is an unimaginable amount of information out there, including pages for people just like you who need more ideas for a paragraph. Stay away from:

Essay mills. There are lots of essay services that will sell you a finished essay for a price. Some even offer “free” help in the form of things you can download. This is a dangerous road to go down. It leads to plagiarism. Remember, if you can find these essays online, so can your teachers. Instead of spending your time looking for a way to not do the writing, just keep reading and we’ll help you get started!

AI. There are lots of options for artificial intelligence that will do your writing for you. Magical, right? Except, have you ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? ChatGPT can do some impressive things, from rhyming to generating sentences, or even a whole outline! But it also “hallucinates,” a term for when AI makes things up (including references with links that don’t go anywhere!) in response to a question.

ChatGPT or other AI writing tools can be useful brainstorming tools, though. I like to ask AI for a “list of essay topics about” whatever I’m thinking about. Or you can ask for examples, like “sentences using prepositional phrases” or something else you need ideas for. But please, please, rewrite any ideas you get from AI in your own words, and fact check any information it gives you.

Narrow it down

If you followed my plan, you now have a list of more ideas for a paragraph than you can possibly use. Now it’s time to narrow it down.

The first part of this is pretty easy. Remember those really bad ideas I told you to write down? If they are still the worst ones, cross them out!

Get your list down to 2-3 main ideas or pieces of evidence that you are going to use in your writing assignment. Sometimes your best ideas will jump right out at you. Other times, you will need to closely compare 2 ideas (which one has more evidence?). You might also combine two related but wimpy ideas into one MEGA-IDEA (what do they have in common?).

Then take your best ideas and organize them into a paragraph. You can use a simple paragraph structure, like:

  • Main idea, 3 important details, conclusion
  • TBEAR for writing with text evidence

Keep it up!

Once you have picked out your best ideas and identified the main idea that connects them, you are more than halfway there. If your paragraph still looks too short, read each idea in your paragraph. After each one, ask yourself “So what?” or “And then what?” to see where you might be able to expand or add detail.

Once you’ve got your ideas organized into a paragraph, don’t forget to revise and edit. Download my revision and editing checklists below.

How long is a paragraph?

Here’s the scenario. It’s a regular weekday evening until your child says, “They said I have to write a paragraph for homework.” This is new territory. Sure, you’ve written paragraphs, and so has she, but you’ve never seen your child do it. All her writing has happened in the classroom, until now! Buckle up! With your support, she can write this paragraph! ….but how long is a paragraph supposed to be?

How long should it be?

Many things can affect the length of a paragraph: the writer’s age, audience, topic, purpose, context, and the teacher’s preference. Here are my general guidelines:

Grades 3-5: 5-7 sentences. Often a predictable structure like main idea, 3 details, and a conclusion.

Grades 6-8: 6-8 sentences. Often asking for evidence from a text, source or learning.

High school: 6-10 sentences. Almost always using some kind of evidence. Often asking students to compare or reconcile multiple perspectives or sources. Assignments increasingly call for multiple paragraphs, or even pages, on a topic.

Purposes for writing

Text Analysis

  • This type of writing is a staple of middle and high school ELA classes. Assignments calling for close reading, or analyzing details from the text, are common as homework assignments as well as on-demand writing assessments. They are often used to respond to assigned reading.
  • Teachers are often looking for specific points they have taught, such as properly introducing a quote or using transition phrases. Because of that requirement, they are often formal writing.

Reflection

  • Reflection writing seems to be universally challenging for young writers. To reflect, kids need to be able to think about two things at the same time: their experience and their thinking about their experience. That’s not easy.
  • Adolescent writers tend to go wrong in two main ways: not personal enough, or not relevant enough to the text. In either case, it helps to plan out the major ideas before writing. Make sure to match each detail of the experience (I saw, I heard, I felt, I read…) with a reflective statement (phrases like: made me think about, I realized, grow/change/different/learn).

Knowledge reporting

  • Call this expository writing, or a research report, or an essay question on a science test. The goal for students to report what they know in an organized and detailed way.
  • A question that asks us to describe, compare, identify, or list some information fits well with that classic “main idea and 3 important details” paragraph students learn early on.
  • If the question asks “why” or “how” something happens, you might need a different paragraph format, like the TBEAR.

Why writing matters

Writing has become a greater focus across the whole curriculum in recent years. This is reflected in the Common Core State Standards, which are the basis for many states’ standards. These standards call for more writing, and writing in more settings, for more purposes. And with good reason!

Reading a student’s writing can show a teacher how much they know about the topic, what vocabulary they are able to use, how they manage the complexities of sentence structure, spelling, and attention to mechanics like capitalization and punctuation. A single piece of writing can tell the teacher many different things about his students, so writing is a valuable use of instructional time.

As students grow older and their thoughts become more complex, their writing will become longer and more complex, too. A paragraph is the basic building block of all kinds of writing!

But even better, I think, is what the writing process does for the writer. When we write about our thinking, we are forced to clarify our thoughts and put them into words. We have to get very specific about the relationships between ideas (cause and effect? what happened first?) and we have to choose precise vocabulary that conveys our ideas. We ask students to write because writing helps them consolidate what they have learned and organize the information in their minds.

So as challenging as this writing assignment may be, learning to take on different kinds of writing prompts will set your child up for success in school and beyond!

To help your child revise and edit their paragraph, once they get it on paper, grab my free Editing and Revising checklists!

Make a paragraph longer in 30 minutes with better writing skills

Affiliate Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something from a link in this post, we may get a small commission on your purchase.

Dr. Seuss told the story of the home-invading Cat in the Hat in just 1,626 words. So how can the English teacher expect a 300-word essay on something as brief and simple as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech? If you find your child staring at a blank screen when they have writing homework, or if you know the pain of eking out a paragraph one sentence fragment at a time, you may be wondering what to do to make a paragraph longer. Let’s help your child boost their writing skills and make their paragraph longer, and more complete!

Why it’s hard to make a paragraph longer

Many of us know all the tricks. You can use a slightly bigger font (12.5? 13?), add adjectives (very, really, and unfortunately are three common and particularly tired ones) and replace words with longer synonyms (use becomes utilize, tried is now endeavored). Once in college, a guy tried to impress me (yikes!) by telling me you can just make the punctuation font larger. Professors can spot an essay with large print or wide spacing, but are they measuring your punctuation!?

OK, but all these goofy hacks don’t make a paragraph better, only very slightly longer. They ignore the fact that (hopefully!) the teacher is reading this paragraph and looking for important ideas or particular writing skills. The real problem when writing is too short is that it doesn’t have enough ideas in it!

Teachers give a word count with a writing assignment because, in their assessment, that is the number of words needed to express the ideas that they want to see students write about. It’s actually a giant clue from the teacher about the kind of writing they want to see. “Write a paragraph about the causes of the Civil War” will get a very different kind of answer from “Write a 5-8 page report about the causes of the Civil War.”

What may start as a quest to make a paragraph longer will hopefully lead to making a paragraph more interesting, more detailed, and more clear.

Who cares if it’s 300 words exactly?

Let me tell you a secret. If you turn in a crisp paragraph with a clear thesis statement and relevant examples, explained thoroughly, the teacher is not going to take points off your 300-word assignment if it has 275 or 325 words.

If you turn in a paragraph that has the same idea three times, or if your details aren’t related to each other, the teacher isn’t going to use your word count to decide the grade, either. When a paragraph is too short, it’s usually because the student ran out of ideas.

That means that instead of focusing your attention on adding word and visual tricks to make your writing longer and longer, you need to focus on your writing skills and the content if you want to make your paragraph longer.

Writing skills to make a paragraph longer

OK, OK, so any way we measure it, your paragraph isn’t long enough yet. Check and make sure it has all its parts:

  • Main idea/topic sentence
  • Examples/supporting details
  • Quotes or examples from the reading, if needed
  • Your own words about the topic (not just quotes, in other words)
  • A conclusion that reminds readers of your main point

Once you have the basic parts in place, you can make your paragraph longer by adding more (related, important) ideas to your paragraph. Here’s how.

Ask yourself “Why?”

Many sentences can be improved by adding a “because.” It is also a great way to put more of your own words into a paragraph that has too many quotes. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” OK, sure. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” because he was struggling to understand the meaning of life. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Other sentence extenders

One of my favorite writing exercises is called “because, but, so.” I got it from the excellent book The Writing Revolution and I use it with students from grade 2 up through high school. You can try this to figure out the right way to expand an idea in your paragraph.

First, pick, or write, a short sentence about the topic.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative because the founding fathers wanted a system of checks and balances among the powers.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative but many decisionmakers disagree about exactly which powers should be held by which branch, which leads to conflict.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative so no one person or group has the power to make decisions affecting the whole country on their own.

Would you look at that?!

Each of those extended sentencers is at least DOUBLE the length of the basic sentence. So make your paragraph longer by finding several places to add because, but, so, or another conjunction, to more fully explain your ideas.

Still not happy with your paragraph?

If this kind of writing is new to you, or if you find that you think you’re writing everything, only to get feedback that your writing is unclear or disorganized, I have a tool for you.

My Editing and Revising checklists will take you through the steps of clarifying and expanding your thoughts, and catching spelling and punctuation errors, too. Oh! And they’re free. Grab them below!

Best Apps for Time Management

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved the independent work folders my second grade teacher used because they meant I always had something to do while I was waiting for the people around me to finish their work. I remember thinking very clearly, at the age of seven, “I’m going to use folders like this in my classroom.” In the years that followed, I tried many planners, lists, folders, and eventually technology to give me that same sense of organization and productivity. But what does this have to do with my favorite apps for time management?

I love a good productivity tool. I crave lists and organizing structures. In fact, I like the system-creating part so much more than I like the actual doing part. Oops. So if an app is going to help me be more productive, it has to be simple to use, integrate smoothly with my other tools, and avoid stealing my limited attention. I’ve tried them all, so if you’re looking to get yourself more organized or if you’re looking for the best apps for time management for students, I’ve got you covered!

My favorite apps for time management

Keeping track of time – clocks and calendars

Calendar: Google Calendar  is my go-to app for time management for students, and for myself. For students, plugging in their recurring commitments (lessons, practices, games, family commitments) gives them a visual of how much time remains for their work. The thought “That paper isn’t due for a week!” is easier to defeat when they can see that 4 of those 7 days have after-school activities. 

Clocks and Timers: I use my cell phone clock for just about everything. Alarms remind me to get up, pick up the kids, take things out of the oven, and leave for events. For my kids, asking the smart speaker to set a timer is the simplest way for them to remind themselves. My son sets one for his after school break to remind him to start his homework. Set recurring alarms for daily events, or set them as needed for anything you might forget to do (or forget to stop doing!)

Work time: When I am having trouble getting started on a task, or when something feels like it’s going to take forever to finish, I use the Pomodoro Technique [https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique] to manage periods of work and breaks. The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes of work, then a 5 minute break timer, and repeating these intervals until the work is done or you get to a “long break,” which for me is either lunch or the end of the work day. I usually use the web-based timer at pomofocus.io. Forest is a cool app for Apple and Android that represents each Pomodoro/task as a tree. To care for your trees, you have to finish your task!

Keeping track of tasks

The simplest way to keep track of what needs to be done is a list on a whiteboard. If the person you’re trying to help with time management is a child or teen, hanging a whiteboard in their workspace (or in a common family space) is a very simple way to make tasks – homework or chores – visible.

For a more high-tech solution, I recommend Google Keep for anyone with to-do’s in just one or two domains. You can have a single “Homework” list and add and delete things. A new note for each homework task works, too. But if there are more than you can see on the screen, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. You can copy cards, set reminders, and archive notes you don’t need anymore.

For complex organization needs, like keeping track of tasks for a whole business or a family, I recommend Trello. I think if you’re looking for best apps for time management for students, Trello is probably too powerful and complex for what students need. But for parents, teachers, and professionals, I think it’s amazing. I use Trello because the app syncs with the web version, I can add collaborators to individual cards or boards, and it can sync with Google Calendar. With templates for things like my blog, and I can duplicate a whole board, or a template card, for a new task. I am also still adding to my systems for automating reminders so nothing falls through the cracks.



Keep track of care and feeding of humans

As I sat down to write this section, I realized I never finalized my grocery order for the week, which is bad news bears because I’m working with a narrow window for picking groceries up this afternoon. And my family is weirdly obsessed with eating several times a day. So I know a lot about the struggle of making sure I and everyone in the house get enough food, water and sleep. And I also know how hard it is to keep track of those things on a busy day (especially for certain kinds of brains)!

The best apps for time management around taking care of your body and brain depend on which things you are responsible for. For a student who needs to remember to drink water and stop for lunch, an app like Habitica might be the solution you’re looking for. Habitica is an app that gamifies completing routine tasks. You pick the task and how often you want to do it, and the app prompts you to get it done, then gives you points for doing it! To keep your avatar alive and healthy, you have to show up consistently and do your habits.

Habitica works for many adults, too, but for me, there are just too many things I’m juggling in an average week and I quickly got overwhelmed by wanting to put everything in the app. 

For me, Trello is still the best solution to all those family management tasks. I have a template for a weekly meal plan and when I’m organized enough to plan meals, I can drag and drop our favorite meals onto the weekly list. I use my grocery store’s app to fill my cart and comparison shop, then pick up my groceries curbside. A timer reminds me when I need to leave my desk and cook dinner. 

I also know a family that loves the Paprika app. You can import recipes from anywhere online, or type in your own. Paprika can sync between devices (although you have to pay for each different platform you use), track your pantry, and help build your shopping list. It has worked well for the family’s main shopper and cook to share their knowledge and some responsibility with others in the house.

Keep it simple!

You must remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that!” It’s tempting to go for a high-tech solution, one more app on your phone or iPad, to help you become more productive. But sometimes the best “apps” for time management for students are actually low-tech things like whiteboards, or features on a device that you already have, but can use more effectively. Sometimes the best time management technique is not wasting a ton of time looking for the perfect solution, but instead using the tools you have to quickly implement a solution that’s good enough.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list, set a timer and get something done!



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.

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 2

In my last post, I showed you how to create a Google calendar for the purpose of using it to keep track of homework. In this post, I’ll show you how to set up that calendar and record homework.

Open Google calendar. Click anywhere on today’s date, and a small box pops up so you can create a new event. I like to set these up so they match the student’s class schedule, so type “1 – Math” if the first period class is math. Then click “Edit Event.”

On the “Edit Event” screen, you have 2 areas to edit.

  1. Click the box that says “All day.” That takes away the time options, and also causes this event to show up at the top of the calendar, which is what we want. Next to it, click “Repeat” and from the “Repeats” dropdown, select “Every weekday (Monday to Friday).”
  2. Pick a color for that class. I use the same color coding system as I do for notebooks and folders, so I checked red for math. This adds an extra layer of visual cueing to the planner.
  3. Click Save.

When you’ve added repeating, all-day events for each academic class, your calendar will look like this.

That is the one-time setup part. Now you have your planner ready for the year or semester.

Using Your New Planner

Now it’s time to record an assignment. To write down tonight’s homework, click on the math line for today’s date, and click the “Edit Event” button.

Here is the Edit Event screen. It looks just like the screen where you created the event, right up until the last step. For a homework assignment, you should edit:

  1. The name of the assignment. You can do this right in the box with the subject name, so it’s visible when you look at the whole calendar.
  2. The location and/or description. This can be physical (homework folder), virtual (www.homework.com), or geographic (library). The description box is great for adding details like “only odd numbered questions” or “answer in full sentences” that don’t fit on that top line.
  3. Attach a file, if the teacher has sent a worksheet, or if you have a Google doc with your notes. If you’re working on a device that takes photos, you can also attach a picture you have saved that shows the page number, or the details written down in your notebook. (It’s best to ask permission from teachers/administration if you would like to take photos in the classroom so that your intentions are clear.)

When you click save, you will have to answer one more question. Because this is a repeating event, the calendar wants to know whether to edit just this one (1/30/17), all future events (from today on) or every repeating event. For homework, click “Only this event.”

That’s it! You have saved tonight’s homework to your homework calendar. When you sit down tonight, log in to your computer or pull up Google calendar on your phone to see the assignment, and get to work!