Are you a homeschooling parent teaching your child to write? Maybe you’re a classroom teacher launching a writing workshop. Or maybe, like me, you want to supplement your child’s school education. No matter who you are, this lesson is for you — I’m sharing a prewriting strategy for kids: make an expert list!
Teaching writing can be daunting, can’t it? The idea of handing our kids a blank notebook and expecting them to accomplish something may feel like we’re taking a pretty big chance. How will they know what to write about? How will we know what to teach them? How will we even know what to say?
I think this is the reason some people set the blank notebook aside and pull out a series of sentence starters and other writing prompts. But while writing prompts can be useful, they should be only a small piece of writing instruction.
When I think of writing prompts, I think of being inside a box. You can only stretch so far. Here’s a great quote from Ruth Culham in 6+1 Traits of Writing: Primary Grades (p.48):
“Some teachers give students a topic and a sentence starter, such as “Pets” and “My favorite pet is a (an) ____ because _____,” with the hope that the writer’s ability to come up with and flesh out topics independently will grow over time.
Let’s be clear right from the start: if you want children to learn to write, you need to give them pencils and let them write.
When we don’t give students the opportunity to make their own writing decisions — to think for themselves — we limit their ability to become independent.”
Well, that all sounds great, but let’s get to real life here. Expecting kids to come up with their own topics day after day feels a bit much. What are we to do when we hear the familiar complaint:
“I can’t think of anything to write about!”
We teach them. We equip them with a strategy that allows them to be independent thinkers.
Simple Writing Lesson #1: Make an expert list.
A pre-writing strategy
(Note: I used this lesson with my six-year-old daughter who just finished kindergarten. The lesson can easily be adapted for students in any grade.)
When to use it:
When you want to help your student find her own topics for writing.
How to teach it:
1) Prepare your materials. Your child should have a pencil and her writing notebook. You’ll also need two copies of blank lined paper, or this printable:
2) Talk about what good writers do when they need writing ideas.
“Sometimes, good writers aren’t sure what to write about. It helps them to make a list of topics. One thing that can help writers is to think of things they are expert at. Do you know what that means? Today I’m going to make an expert list. It will be a list of things, people, or places that I know a lot about. Hmmm….”
3) Model your thought process as you write your own expert list. Here’s what it sounded like as I wrote mine:
“Let me think about things that I know a lot about… I know a lot about blogging. I know a lot about each of my kids. I know about you and each of your brothers. I know a lot about Daddy.”
(Here she suggested: “You know about yourself.”)
“Yes, that’s a great idea! I’m definitely an expert on myself. Let’s see… I used to be a teacher. I know a lot about that. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of canning, so I guess I’m an expert at canning. And I know I do a lot of cleaning. I like to bake bread… and I’m also an expert on things I love, like chocolate! I do a lot of grocery shopping – that’s another thing. What about places? What places am I an expert at? Well, I grew up in Virginia, so I’ll write that.”
(My daughter said, “You exercise a lot.”)
“Sure, I’m an expert at exercising. What else do I know about? I know a lot about our house. I’ll write that.”
(“You bake stuff – like cookies and things.”)
“I’ll write baking stuff.”
4) Guide your student as she writes her own expert list. Here’s what it sounded like at our house:
“Now it’s your turn to write an expert list.”
“Well, I can’t do that, because I don’t know what to write.”
“Let’s think about things you’re an expert at – things you know a lot about.”
“I’m an expert at swimming.” (She just finished beginner swimming lessons. :)) “I like to work in the garden, so I know about gardening…. I don’t know what else.”
“On my list I wrote about people that I know very well. Can you think of people that you know a lot about?”
“Grandma and Grandpa… And I know about school!”
“What’s something that you really love to do? You’re an expert at things you love.”
“Reading! And I know about God.”
“Those are great ideas! They’ll give you lots to write about. Can you think of people that live right in this house?”
“Mom and Dad. M—-, me, I—-, J—-. “
“What about places you’ve been? Did we go anywhere this summer that you know a lot about?”
“We went to West Virginia.”
5) Wrap up the lesson.
While we could have worked together to write a much longer expert list, my daughter was squirming. I knew that continuing would only frustrate her – and that we can add more to this list any time in the future.
“You have got some great things on your expert list. We’re going to tape it to the back of your writing notebook so you can always see it for new ideas. And if you add new ideas on another page, we can just tape the top so that it flips up!”
This is the first of a 12-part series. Be sure to join This Reading Mama and me for the rest of our Simple Writing Lessons for Primary Grades!