The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
Just inserting an additional layer of complexity can do wonders to the simplest tasks. Even the most mundane assignments receive a breath of fresh air if given a little twist. Writing answers to questions is a staple of classroom assessments. Whether it be short responses to chapter review questions or longer compositions written in paragraph form, writing happens on a regular basis. Why not, then, make it a little bit more interesting by adding some spice?
Teachers can provide parameters for students’ writing in various levels of difficulty. For example, students might use a word that begins with a certain letter in their response. Rather than simply answering a question as they see fit, students now need to craft it so that it includes a specific word or term. Taking that to the next level, students can use that generated word in a particular position in a sentence. This not only encourages students to respond to questions with complete thoughts, it now asks them to manipulate grammar. Finally, sometimes longer responses are required. Short answer questions can use paragraphs that are similarly manipulated by placing the generated sentence in a certain position within the answer.
Why It Works
Students that write well at the sentence and paragraph levels typically show that strength when composing longer pieces. As they progress through school and into college, assessments shift away from multiple-choice exams and toward essays. While some students are ready for the change in testing modality, others are woefully unprepared. An unfortunate reality of elementary and middle school education is that, while reading and mathematics are practiced on a daily basis, regular writing instruction is sometimes more sporadic.
This type of exercise supports students’ writing fluency by allowing them to start with short pieces. Beginning at the word or even letter level, students are encouraged to dive into writing focused on simple answers and responses. This allows them to expand their sentences and increase their fluency when using written language and mechanics to convey information. Much like how students must become familiar with basic multiplication facts before trying out 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication, generative writing provides engaging practice with sentence formation.
Structuring generative writing sequentially as a series of increasingly difficult challenges also supports students in their nascent writing development. Some students might already have the level of proficiency needed to write paragraphs with carefully placed sentences. Others, though, will find even the formation of complete sentences to be a Herculean effort. These skill levels can shift from task to task and even question to question. Giving students various levels of complexity provides natural support for the needs of a diverse classroom.
Generative writing can work as a stand-alone assignment or be integrated into a traditional worksheet or set of chapter review questions. Here are a few things to examine before implementing it.
1. Think about the age level, writing experience, and overall confidence of your students before designing your task. Younger or less fluent writers will be sufficiently challenged by including a word beginning with a certain letter in their responses. As students age and gain proficiency, additional layers of challenge can be added.
2. Determine how optional the generative writing challenges will be. Will they be required as a part of the task or will students have the choice to engage if desired? If required, will students be able to determine the level of challenge they undertake or will that too be mandated? The tighter the restrictions on the generative elements, the more the task becomes more about manipulating grammar and less about the content.
3. Along with the level of autonomy given to students, think about how you will grade their writing. If required, how much of the assignment’s score will be determined by their adherence to the generative guidelines? If they are proposed as discretionary challenges, will students be able to earn bonus points for completing them? If so, how much?
4. This type of task alternative would be greatly aided by a visual example. Instead of simply listing the requirements and assuming students know how to meet them, create an exemplar for students to refer to if they face any confusion.
5. Students will take pride in the ingenuity of their responses and how they created sentences to meet the guidelines. Set aside a few moments for students to share what they wrote and how they met the task demands.
6. If space is available, create a celebratory board to display great examples of students’ generative writing. As clear as your examples might seem, some students have an easier time making sense of their peers’ work than yours. Knowing that there is a space dedicated to showing off successful attempts might also serve to motivate reluctant writers. Those that would not have tried something so nuanced might well give it a try if it means making it onto the celebratory board.
Ms. Hawkins’ second grade students needed a little something to help them with their writing. In one of their literacy stations, she had students writing short summaries about what they were reading. While they had no difficulty completing the task, her students’ responses were becoming dull and formulaic. They typically wrote with simple sentences that followed the same pattern day after day. Knowing how competitive her students were, she added a word challenge to the writing center. Because she had added a new component, she reviewed the expectations for the writing station before releasing the students.
“Class, we are about to begin our literacy stations,” Ms. Hawkins began. “We have enough time for two rotations before recess and then a third after lunch. Before I let you begin, though, I wanted to talk about a new challenge I’ve added to the writing station. As always, you’ll spend time writing about your reading. You can either write about what you are reading at the library station, about our story for the week, or even your library book. Don’t forget to include the title of the book and to follow the capitalization rules we’ve been learning about.
“What’s new at the writing station is a word challenge. You’ll find the instructions for the word challenge at the station and an example on the wall underneath the picture alphabet. It’s not something you have to do but I know some of you might think it’s kind of fun. If you do complete any of the challenges, keep track of how many you complete each day. Each challenge is worth a point and you can only complete each challenge once a day for a maximum of five points a day. On Friday we’ll share how many points we have and see which station group has the most.
“You have your vocabulary words written down in your journals. If you use one in a sentence correctly and underline the vocabulary word, you can get one point. We add to our high frequency word wall almost every day. If you can write a sentence using three of those words and put a box around each of them, you can earn another point. The third challenge is kind of tough. You have to write a sentence using exactly eight words. Put a star at the beginning of this sentence so I can easily find it.
“The fourth challenge is not as easy as it seems. You need to write a sentence with four words or less to earn another point but the sentence has to be a complete thought. Circle this sentence when you’ve written it. Finally, you can earn another point by using a conjunction in a sentence. If you need help with conjunctions, take a look at the notes you glued into your journals last week. Make sure to highlight the conjunction with a highlighter from the supply caddie. And in case you are wondering, you cannot combine any of the challenges. Each one must be its own sentence and must be about the book you are reading.”
For beginning writers, just spelling words correctly can be a challenge. While the traditional forms of generative writing might be beyond their ability, it can be modified to accommodate even the earliest writers. Instead of directing where words are written or which ones to include, primary students can challenge themselves by using certain letters. They can try to write words that include the letter of the day, such as m, or that follow certain spelling patterns, such as -at. Whatever phonics rule students are working on, they can apply that to generative writing at the word level rather than the sentence level.
Even older writers can be sufficiently challenged by focusing on increasingly intricate word formation. They can work to include words that follow certain patterns, such as including a minimum number of letters or a specific letter in a certain position. Students can create words that have beginning or ending blends, digraphs or diphthongs, or even a minimum number of vowels. As students stretch themselves to create complex words, their mastery of the English language will greatly improve.
When focusing on writing sentences and paragraphs, another type of emphasis can be on the types of sentences that students write. To add to their writer’s toolkit, students can work to include various sentence types in addition to the traditional declarative sentences that end in a period. They can also write exclamatory sentences, interrogative sentences (i.e., questions), and imperative sentences (i.e., commands). Every little challenge that students complete will add to their repertoire as their writing maturity grows.
Students that are advanced in their writing can take their skill to the next level by including certain sentence patterns in their paragraphs. If they don’t think about it, most students tend to migrate toward simple sentences that include a subject and a verb plus other syntactical flotsam. They can be pushed, though, to vary their writing by including different sentence patterns. There is not a general consensus as to how many patterns actually exist, since some point to general patterns while others get extremely technical as to the placement and types of words. In general, though, students can work to include not only simple sentences but also compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences into their writing.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
This strategy works well with collaborative writing tools such as Google Docs. Instead of circling or boxing certain sentences, they can change the font color of each challenge to signify which challenge is being met. Additionally, the highlighter tool can be used in the same way.
Another option would be to use an entirely different medium such as Flipgrid.com Students can work individually or collaboratively to meet the expectations of the generative writing assignment. Instead writing, however, students can post videos in response to teacher questions. This oral language development task would work in the same way as the generative writing task, in that each response should contain certain words or meet certain parameters.