Teaching Students to Write to Specific Texts

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Different text types call for different types of written responses. Read this lesson to identify and apply knowledge of assessment and instructional practices to promote students' skills in composing pieces to corresponding fiction and nonfiction literature.

Writing Objectives

We can't start training for a race until we know the length, terrain, and structure. We wouldn't prepare for a Spartan race in the same way as a marathon. We need to know the goal before we can map out how to get there. The same goes for writing. While writing preparation for fiction and nonfiction literature might seem the same, there are different scaffolding strategies for each that will ensure student success. Let's take a look at some examples.

Nonfiction

Nonfiction includes anything from history books to newspaper articles. The goal of having students read nonfiction literature is to look for bias and assess factual information.

Summarizing

Before asking students to analyze a nonfiction piece, we need to make sure they understand the information they just read. Have students write summaries of nonfiction pieces to verify and reinforce their comprehension. Have they captured the main points? Can they relate the information in chronological order?

A valuable exercise in writing chronological detail is the PB&J activity. Students write down the directions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When complete, the students read their directions out loud while you perform the physical actions. The goal here is to point out the missing details that are crucial to the process and understanding.

Why am I talking about sandwiches? Before we have students write complex pieces regarding nonfiction literature, we need to ensure they understand the basics. For nonfiction writing, teaching chronology and how to identify main points is key before working through other types of skill-based writing.

Argumentation

Now that our students understand how to summarize, we want them to make arguments and/or decipher arguments within a text. A meaningful way to have students work through argumentation is by writing open responses. Open response prompts ask students to identify and explain arguments and evidence from a passage or short essay.

For example, after reading an article on global warming, a science teacher asks her students to, Describe the causes of global warming and three ways we can slow the process.

An open response is composed of a thesis statement and two to three body paragraphs. Start with the thesis statement. Give students a prompt and have them independently write a thesis statement. Put all statements on the board and then discuss what works, what doesn't, and why.

Next, we need to teach students to defend their claims. We want to get students away from imposing their opinions and also quote dumping random sentences from the text into their responses. Model good writing for your students by having them figure out which quotes defend the thesis statement together. Teach students how to weave quotes into their arguments and make connections within their response through multiple examples.

Research

No matter the grade level or essay objective, it's important to teach students how to conduct meaningful research by properly engaging with nonfiction texts. Here are a few suggestions that can help students succeed:

  • Purpose: Give students a graphic organizer or outline that organizes their research. Have them write down specific questions they wish to research with an overall objective in mind.
  • Sources: Make sure students understand what signifies a trusted source. Working through different types of print sources, websites, and databases as a class is a great way to ensure students are searching accurate information.
  • Citation: Internal citations and works cited pages get students into a world of trouble if not completed correctly or at all. Take the time to work students through the difference between paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting within whichever format your require-MLA, APA, Chicago, etc. Purdue Owl is an excellent and accessible resource for all ages. It's also important to model how to write these paragraphs. Show the students a web page, then paraphrase and cite the information together. This will reinforce best practice, along with limiting the likeliness of plagiarism.

Fiction

Fiction includes anything from short stories and novels to poems and plays. The goal of having students read fiction is to build analytical skills while engaging with the text on a personal and thematic level.

Reflections

Instead of summaries, pose open-ended questions that help students connect to themes. This exercise will give students time to personally engage with the text and reflect on higher level connections.

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