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zarabellesmom

Help me teach my 8th grader to write non-fiction.

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Ugh. I love this child. I really really do. BUT... Teaching her to write is like beating my head against a wall. She writes pages and pages of beautiful fiction and constructs lovely poetry. This is actually a recent development. She was determined to be dysgraphic in third grade. After completing all 10 levels of Barton she's actually a pretty decent speller (I never thought I would be able to say that and I'm so proud of her) and she has fairly decent handwriting. She cannot/will not write a report and honestly, I have no idea how to teach her. We had a bargain in November where she would do NaNoWriMo and then after that, she would begin doing some nonfiction writing without complaint. What bologna! She doesn't know how and doesn't want to know how and is passively resistant (meaning wandering off to read a book when she is supposed to be writing and she knows I'm working with her sister and won't catch her). She uses the same method to get out of chores, but that's a struggle for some other day. 

I don't know where to begin. Please help.

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This year I'm a big fan of The Writing Revolution - the new edition, which is $25, not the old edition which is through the roof. It's not a curriculum for the child, it's a guide for the teacher, but it's very thorough and - importantly for your situation! - the method was originally used on kids with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.

I would wander off if I didn't have the first clue how to start too.

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IEW has been helpful with my reluctant writer (we're doing SWI-B).  She's still reluctant, but it gives both of us a clear framework to work in, making it easier to pinpoint what *particular* thing is the sticking point in any given "I can't dooooooo iiiiittttt!" situation, and giving us concrete tools to deal with the trouble.

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12 minutes ago, forty-two said:

IEW has been helpful with my reluctant writer (we're doing SWI-B).  She's still reluctant, but it gives both of us a clear framework to work in, making it easier to pinpoint what *particular* thing is the sticking point in any given "I can't dooooooo iiiiittttt!" situation, and giving us concrete tools to deal with the trouble.

 

Thanks! She's actually completed (a couple of years ago) SWI-A and around half of CC-A before she started driving me crazy with complaints. I didn't find it very helpful for original non-fiction writing but I haven't looked at B to be honest. She can summarize and make basic outlines. It's coming up with original thoughts on a designated subject and structuring them into an organized essay. There wasn't much about that in A, maybe two exercises. Is B any better about that? I don't want to summarize a million narratives. And she's already worked through a couple levels of Fix-It so she's got the dressups and actually uses them pretty naturally in her creative writing.

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33 minutes ago, Tanaqui said:

This year I'm a big fan of The Writing Revolution - the new edition, which is $25, not the old edition which is through the roof. It's not a curriculum for the child, it's a guide for the teacher, but it's very thorough and - importantly for your situation! - the method was originally used on kids with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.

I would wander off if I didn't have the first clue how to start too.

I'll check it out. Honestly, I want to wander off too when it's time to work on writing with her, so I don't really blame her. That said, wandering off isn't going to help us solve the problem.  I was having her read through a lesson in Julie Bogart's Help for High School and after reading through the pages, she said, "I don't know what to do." I sat with her and read the directions to her and lo and behold, she understood what to do. And just to be clear, she's an excellent reader with excellent comprehension. Then she went upstairs to work on the free write and came back 15 minutes later saying she didn't know what to do. Of course, I was in the middle of a Barton lesson with her younger sister so I couldn't really help her at that moment. It's frustrating.

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There are a few ways to go about this. One would be to focus on writing strong paragraphs because the analytical formula is the same when applied to essays or reports, just in a longer version. There is a great resource on Teachers Pay Teachers called Paragraph of the Week and it walks students through brainstorming based on a prompt on Monday, circling the 3 best ideas, ordering these ideas (strongest last, next strongest first, weakest in the middle), writing 6 sentences (including detail and explanation sentences) on Tuesday, intro & conclusion sentences on Wednesday, typing up the paragraph or rewriting it on Thursday, and then editing for content, syntax, and grammar on Friday. This resource is likely to feel young to her as it's written for late elementary, but the basic explicit writing instruction is the same for any age. The format could also easily be expanded to write an essay on any of the topics once her organizational skills are stronger.

Another option would be to use something like Writing Skills by Diana Hanbury King or Verticy by Calvert, which was written for dyslexic/dysgraphic students, and essentially walks students through a similar process by worksheets, eventually working up to paragraphs. Expository writing instruction is likely going to have to be very didactic in very small pieces over and over again to work for her. I totally get it - I have a writer like this too. He made me want to cringe at the beginning of the year, but he is making steady progress now.

Edited by FairProspects

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Essentials in Writing by Matthew Stephens really helped my kids. He walks through, step by step, exactly what to do. For levels 7-12, he starts with sentences, then paragraphs, and then essays and a research paper. Each step has a short, 3-5 minute video where he not only explains but also models the process (complete with mistakes and erasing sometimes, to let kids know that's normal and okay.) 

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26 minutes ago, zarabellesmom said:

 

Thanks! She's actually completed (a couple of years ago) SWI-A and around half of CC-A before she started driving me crazy with complaints. I didn't find it very helpful for original non-fiction writing but I haven't looked at B to be honest. She can summarize and make basic outlines. It's coming up with original thoughts on a designated subject and structuring them into an organized essay. There wasn't much about that in A, maybe two exercises. Is B any better about that? I don't want to summarize a million narratives. And she's already worked through a couple levels of Fix-It so she's got the dressups and actually uses them pretty naturally in her creative writing.

If you've done SWI-A, then you wouldn't do SWI-B, as it would mostly be a repeat.  (As I understand, SWI-A, SWI-B, and SWI-C are all entry-level IEW; A for upper elementary students, B for middle school, and C for high school.  No matter which SWI you start with, you'd only do one of them.) 

If I'm understanding you correctly, she can outline and summarize a given narrative.  But, given a topic, she can't brainstorm original thoughts and/or arrange those original thoughts into a coherent outline and/or write an essay from her outline.  Does she struggle with all those things?  Or just one or two particular bits?  Does she give you an incoherent outline or an unorganized essay, or does she freeze and refuse to work if she can't come up with something coherent/organized?  (My reluctant writer is the latter - anything she turns in is good, but if she can't see how to make something make sense, she'll just give up altogether and resist doing any of it.)

Can she outline two or three related passages, and arrange/condense/expand them into a single summary essay?  (That's kind of similar to an early WWS1 exercise, where you are given a huge outline and pick and choose from the points to write a summary on the topic.)

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How about a slightly different route and begin by having her do a report without writing. Maybe give her a topic, say Brazil, and she has to do the research to come up with ways to present to others things she learned about Brazil-make a dish to eat, show places on a map, make a diorama, whatever (look up "alternatives to book report" for more ideas), Then, maybe move on to a powerpoint presentation where there's a little writing-bullet points and pictures (and visual aids like food or whatnot). Not sure what would be the next progression, but that would be a ways down the road anyway.

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I'm trying to follow the exact problem. Is she able to write a straightforward non-fiction report where she just has to synthesize the information? Or is she not able to write an essay where the thesis is an original opinion that she needs to prove?

If it is the first, I would probably take a sideways approach. Let her do a power point presentation. Creating the slide graphics might seem less daunting originally than focusing on the paragraph. Her oral presentation will ultimately need to be similar to a written report in context or her presentation won't make sense. You can video her giving the presentation and then break down her presentation slide by slide and work with her to "translate" it into a paragraph report structure. 

If it is the second, I wouldn't stress too much about an 8th grader. Some 8th grader's just aren't ready for essay writing. Windows to the World uses short stories for analyzing for essays. Analyzing a short poem is another good source for a simple beginner's essay. I would sit with her while she goes through the process. First analyze it with her. Help her pick her focus. Help her create her thesis. See if she can pick out supporting quotes. Break down the process over days. Have her create her outline one day. The next day review the outline with her and help her improve its focus. Next day have her write her topic paragraph with her thesis statement. Sit with her afterward and evaluate it and let her talk to you about where she sees the next paragraph going. And so on. 

Dont just assign an essay. Break it down into baby step assignments and become hands on in evaluating each step and letting her orally think through the next one so that when she has to write it, she has already really thought it through.

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My oldest and I both credit Writing With Skill for breaking down the process in an easily understandable way for him.  His writing improved immensely due to it, and he was able to write coherent reports easily for the first time.

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I cried many many tears over my 8th grade DS's writing and told my husband in bed at night that I was ruining him. He was very resistant to IEW even though I felt he really needed the organization/structure of that program to guide him. So I was sneaky and watched the TWSS videos and pretended it was so I could use the program with his younger sisters (which I did that too) but in actuality I was also crafting writing assignments for him centered around subjects that really interested him and stirred his passion. 😎  I told him we were using Literary Lesson from the Lord of the Rings for his 9th grade English program, which was very exciting to his 14 year old self. I told him the curriculum was kind of too easy for him because his abilities were higher than that (a little flattery never hurt anybody) and so I wanted to beef up the writing assignments to challenge him more. To my ultra-competitive DS, this was music to his ears and definitely got his buy in. The writing assignments I assigned followed the IEW units but were about the extra literary units in LLftLotR (details from Tolkien's life, how Tolkien used etymology/language, how characters compare to other classic epic heroes, etc., Arthurian legends, etc.). Some were about more straight fact type writing as in a report. Others required a little more analysis and opinion and a thesis so more like formal essay. After that his writing improved and he was willing to do Windows to the World, which really really really helped his writing improve.

Fast forward to this year and he's a junior and he just wrote an essay on Beowulf that made me cry. Happy tears this time, because it was so much better than anything I could have imagined he would ever write when he was in 8th grade and I was in despair about what to do next.

All that to say, don't underestimate the power of a few years worth of maturity. 🙂

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I agree with 8Fillstheheart that it's not clear what the issue is to me. One of my complaints about "reports" for the grade 3-8 crowd is that the purpose, audience, etc. is often lacking from these assignments so they're not clear at all to the student. It sounds like she can summarize something she's read about, yes? Then she's actually doing okay. Can she do the sort of nonfiction assignments that elementary/middle school students often have that aren't thesis papers? For example, could she write a book or movie review of something she's read or watched? Could she write a newspaper article about something? What about if she were assigned to write a "children's book" for younger kids about a nonfiction topic? What if she writes personal nonfiction, such as describing something that happened to her? Sometimes when students are told to write a "report" it's just really confusing what it's even supposed to be. I'm an adult and I don't know what a "report" is for a 7th grader.

One bridge for kids who like to write creatively is to have them write nonfiction forms but for creative topics. For example, a serious newspaper article about a fairy tale, as if it really happened and they're the reporter. Personal essays can also help bridge this gap.

My guess is that she needs help on organization. If you're not going to go the IEW/formula path for this... I find it just takes feedback and handholding. And there's nothing wrong with handholding!

Help for High School is for thesis papers. That's a whole other can of worms. Agreed again with 8 that she's okay if she's only writing her first ones now. That's on track. Most middle schoolers don't need to have mastered them yet. Just try them out if a student is ready. I liked Twisting Arms for this... but there are other resources. Help for High School is good, but it's not right for all kids, especially on the younger end for it.

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For my kids who are great creative writers and balk at academic writing it has much to do with organizing information. I had to spend a lot more time working on structure, necessary elements, tone/voice, and I had to work at helping them find topics which interested them enough that they would more readily engage with the “boring” writing.  When explaining basic essay I used an article for an example of why Twilight Princess was the best Zelda game. Totally engaged them! It was a good example of a basic essay too.

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