Planning for Success: Four Prewriting Activities That Can Jumpstart Student Writing

As a student, I hated being required to show my work in math class. If I could produce the correct answer at the end, why should it matter how I came to it? Of course, now that I am a teacher, I understand that while seeing the students’ processes does help teachers, it is not the main reason that many require students to show their work. For many teachers having students show their work is less about observing the process students use and more about instructing students in the correct process to go through. 

In a wonderful post in Edutopia, Todd Finley of the Todd’s Brain blog discusses the Principle of Least Effort, or the idea that our brains are designed to avoid cognitively hard tasks unless they are absolutely necessary. The reason for this is that we have a finite limit to our attention. In the natural world that we evolved in, paying attention was often the dividing line between survival and death, so we are designed to avoid attention intensive activities whenever possible to ensure that our attentive resources are usually available. This means that all people, not just students, tend to rush through tasks that demand a lot of attention, so they can get back to a state where their attention is no longer monopolized. In a math class, this often plays out in students hurrying through complicated math problems without showing work. This is a problem for two reasons. First, rushed work tends to have more errors, and second, brains can hold no more than four variables at once and many math problems have more than four variables, which means that if those problems stay solely in student heads, they will never see the whole picture. By requiring students to show work, it both slows them down and it gives them a place where they can see all–not just four–of the variables, and that gives them a much better chance of succeeding.

While not as loudly criticized by students, I have found prewriting to quietly be the “showing your work” of the English classroom. It is a device designed to slow students down and allow them to see all of the key variables at once, but students are often highly resistant to it because it looks like extra work to them. Further, like showing work, prewriting becomes more and more important as tasks get more complex. While showing one’s work is important in algebra, it is essential in calculus. The same is true for writing. Students can probably do a basic plot summary without a bunch of planning, but writing a research paper without serious prewriting is a recipe for a disaster because of the number of factors involved.

And since I want my students to write complex, compelling pieces every time, I now do a lot of pre-writing in my classroom. Here are four of my favorites for four different genres of writing:

Literary Essay Prewriting Activity

I find the two areas where students struggle the most when writing literary essays are coming up with a strong argument and finding well-chosen quotes. With that in mind, prewriting in my classes for a summative literary essay begins the day we start the unit. I do this through having students do regular “Theme Trackers” (see below) as they read.

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With Theme Trackers, each student is responsible for finding quotes that connect to a major theme throughout the book. After each time I ask student to find quotes, we then collect all of the new quotes for each key theme and add them to big pieces of butcher paper that turn into whole quote walls by the end of each book. I have found these massive collections of quotes to be useful for seeding class discussions/activities and indispensable for helping the students to write complex, interesting essays. When students can see a whole book’s worth of quotations in one spot, it is amazing how much more clarity and depth their arguments regularly have and how much better their quotes are because they get to be choosy about which to include.

Research Paper Prewriting Activity

Whether you look at exposes in the New York Times or features in the New Yorker, professional examples of research papers are almost always built with a narrative structure. This makes sense since we as humans are designed to love stories and abhor random details that don’t apply to us. If you want to pass along researched information, the story is a smart bet on the most effective way to do it, which is why I teach narrative and research as symbiotic genres in my classes. This genre combination approach can be tricky for students at first though, so the strong use of prewriting makes all the difference in their ability to do it well.

To start, I have the students gather all of their researched information on notecards. Once the students have their research gathered in a pile of cards, I go to the library and give students this prewriting model…

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…and blank prewriting sheet…

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…and they spread their cards out on big library tables and construct stories with the research that they eventually fill the blank outline. This takes nearly a class period to do right, but once they do this, even 7-10 page research papers will fly out of their fingers at a rate that will surprise even them, and the results tend to be engaging think-pieces as opposed to a dull assortment of random facts.

Personal Essay Prewriting Activity

I have my juniors write first attempts at college essays a year early to practice the strange, but very important, genre that is the personal essay. When I do this, I first show them a lot of exemplars. Some of my favorites are these three from the New York Times. Each of them showcase wonderful answers to what I think are the three keys questions any college essay should answer:

  • What drives you at your core?
  • What will you bring to the university?
  • How are you different than the other people who are also applying?

As a class we go through how each essay writer answers those three questions and discuss whether the students like or don’t like how each applicant did it. I then give the students this College Essay Planning Sheet (see below too) where they need to think through their answers to those three questions and figure out what the admissions officer might be looking for before they allowed to go to the Common App and chose their prompt.

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In many ways what I’m asking them to do here is backwards planning–thinking of goals and audience before content–in the style that is suggested for teachers. And much like teachers, they are consistently able to produce much better content when they have already thought through the outcomes they want and the audience they are reaching out to.

Narrative Prewriting Activity

When students write narratives, I always have them draw a map first. To make this map, I have them come to class with a general topic that they might want to tell a narrative about and then take ten or fifteen minutes to draw a map of the location of that story that is labeled with as many details and stories as they can think of. Here is an example of this that I got from Jack Gantos.

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The idea here is that by ignoring structure, wording, audience, etc, and focusing on just the details, students can rapidly develop a treasure trove of details that they can insert into the story later. The reason to do this first is that when they have to worry about all of the other parts of writing the story (structure, wording, audience, etc.), the details won’t come nearly as freely or easily because they won’t have transported themselves back to the world of the story.

Even though it comes first, prewriting is too often an afterthought in the classroom. I know I have been guilty of this many times, but every time I get serious about prewriting and use it right, I am always amazed at how much easier the whole rest of the writing process is for me and my students. I hope the resources above can help you to the same results, and as always, reach out if you want any more specifics.

Yours in Teaching,

MattScreen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.21.22 PM


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