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Prewriting

By: Judy Zorfass, Tracy Gray, PowerUp WHAT WORKS

An effective way to begin the writing process is to focus on prewriting, which involves organizing ideas, setting goals, and exploring topics. Learn about technology-enhanced strategies to help students create a "road map" that can guide them through the writing process.

Introduction

Have you ever settled down to write something and found yourself grappling with the writing process? For some — and especially for students who struggle with writing — it can be a real challenge, and "I don’t know where to begin" can become a common refrain.

An effective way to begin the writing process is to focus on prewriting, which involves organizing ideas, setting goals, and exploring topics. This takes time and it is important not to rush this important first step. If students plan their writing carefully during this prewriting stage, they will create for themselves a helpful "road map" that can guide them through the writing process.

To be college and career ready, students must be effective writers — that is, writers who are able to clearly communicate their ideas. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) emphasize that it is important to teach students to write in all subjects, to use writing as a way to teach content, and to integrate technology into the process:

Technology-enhanced teaching strategies

There are many ways to help your struggling students (including those with language learning disabilities) through the prewriting process. In particular, these students can benefit from frequent and varied opportunities to generate ideas, organize and sequence those ideas, and then further expand their initial thinking. Use online tools to help them with brainstorming. Encourage them to do a "data dump" — that is, write down a topic heading followed by any words that come to mind (without any attempt to categorize the words or ideas). You can also introduce mind mapping, which helps students to display key points and concepts, and the relationships between key ideas, in order to see the "big picture." Other prewriting activities include writing lists, free writing, and sharing student-made videos, podcasts, or drawings on the class website.

It is also important to help students understand what it means to write for a variety of genres. Have students analyze mentor texts on computers, tablets, and eBooks. This is a good way to introduce a writing genre and identify the key characteristics of that genre. Use real-world, authentic scenarios to help students relate to different genres. For example, you could have students develop topics for writing persuasive letters (to the school principal, the PTA, their U.S. Representative, and so on) about an issue that matters to them (see Checkpoints 8.1: Heighten salience of goals).

Ongoing assessment is a key element of teaching prewriting. Provide direct instruction and model strategies that can help students develop digital writing portfolios during the prewriting stage. Run short, informal conferences with students asking questions such as "How did you choose your topic?" and "Who is your audience?" Give feedback to students and show them how to give feedback to others during peer editing, which can build skills in sharing information.

Having students write blogs and wikis is a wonderful way to encourage them to collaboratively generate and share ideas. See the short video below, Blogs and Wikis, for good teaching ideas.

In the classroom

Mrs. Cleary challenges her 24 fourth-grade students to “think and work like scientists.” The class includes several students with language and writing difficulties, as well as diverse learning styles and needs.

Her lesson objective is to have her students write about the experimental process using a lab report template, and to practice using previously learned prewriting strategies. This objective aligns with the following ELA Common Core State Standards:

Mrs. Cleary makes use of the available technology in her classroom. For this lesson, she will use an interactive whiteboard and a document camera to demonstrate and model prewriting strategies for science writing. Students will use online note cards that hold previously written information about experiment notes and observations. Tablets will also be available so that students can work with classmates to write, find images, and create documents. Mrs. Cleary will demonstrate how to use an online tool (Pixlr) to create images.

To assess her students, Mrs. Clearly will review the completed lab report templates and observe students during peer collaboration.

Mrs. Cleary reviews the objective of her lesson in order to create her lesson plan. Her lesson plan is divided into three stages — before prewriting, during prewriting, and after prewriting — and is outlined below.

More teacher resources on prewriting

This article draws from the PowerUp WHAT WORKS website, particularly the Prewriting Instructional Strategy Guide. PowerUp is a free, teacher-friendly website that requires no log-in or registration. The Instructional Strategy Guide includes a brief overview defines prewriting skills along with an accompanying slide show; a list of the relevant ELA Common Core State Standards; evidence-based teaching strategies to differentiate instruction using technology; a case story; short videos; and links to resources that will help you use technology to support your teaching. You might also want to check out the section on formative assessment. If you are responsible for professional development, the PD Support Materials provide helpful ideas and materials for using the prewriting resources. Want more information? See www.PowerUpWhatWorks.org.

Judy Zorfass, Tracy Gray, PowerUp WHAT WORKS (2014)

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