This year, avoid summaries where students copy one paragraph of the article. Steer clear of stories that ramble on for ten pages and descriptive paragraphs with the word "big" used ten times. Instead, utilize exceptional books, interactive stories and easy organizational tools to make writing fun.
These strategies for teaching fourth grade writing include using picture books to teach summarizing and story writing skills, highlighting and note taking for expository writing, using graphic organizers to plan writing and peer editing and rubrics to fine tune writing.
The Big Picture
Sometimes, students don't realize what a story sounds like. By the time students are in fourth grade, it's plausible they've read quite a few picture books. Yet, have they ever examined the elements of a picture book? How does the story start? What is dialogue? Who are the characters? What is the problem in the story and how is it resolved? These are all questions that should be asked prior to reading a picture book. As the teacher reads the tale, he or she should stop every two pages and try to answer at least one of the above questions.
Picture books are also wonderful for teaching kids to summarize. Pick shorter children's books with a clear protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, climax and resolution. After each page, write down the main events. After reading, students can write a summary.
Describe it: Use Sensory Details
Many times, students will learn how to write a descriptive paragraph and then to write a story. These two topics are not separate entities but rather should be incorporated. Learning to use sensory details in a narrative is a vital part of the writing process.
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg is a great book to teach description. Two curious ants go inside a home and get left behind. Through exploring the house, they come across items like toasters, sugar and a garbage disposal. Yet, the author never says the location of the ants. Rather, he describes the toaster so vividly that the reader knows it is a toaster.
Elbert's Bad Word by Audrey Wood is another good book to teach "show not tell." Elbert, a little boy, says a bad word. We never know what the bad word is, yet, the reader knows it is a curse word based on the descriptive language.
After reading these books, students can practice describing an item, setting or character in detail. Later, this description can be used in a narrative.
Make a Plan: Graphic Organizers
The types of graphic organizers are limitless. Some graphic organizers can look boring. Thus, instead of a basic story map, have kids draw a mountain or a roller coaster track. At the bottom, have them jot down a few notes about their setting and main characters. The conflict should be written at the bottom of the mountain or coaster. Then, have them write about five main events on the mountain slope. At the peak of the mountain should be the climax. On the other side of the mountain is resolution and falling action.
Sandwich graphic organizers will be a hit with any fourth grade class. Kids can construct a favorite sandwich out of construction paper. They need to have two pieces of bread and three fillings. The bread of the sandwich can be used to note a topic sentence and conclusion sentence. The filling can be the backdrop for three supporting details. Staple the sandwiches together and kids can use it to write an informational paragraph. This graphic organizer can also be used to help kids write a nonfiction or expository summary.
Using graphic organizers for writing is essential for prewriting, organizing ideas and brainstorming. A simple cluster map is perfect for brainstorming. Use one for each character in a story. Have children make one large circle in the center and five to six small circles stemming from the center circle. In the center circle, write the name of the character and whether or not it is a protagonist or antagonist. In the surrounding circles, students should write down character traits such as physical appearance, personality traits, and other important ideas about that person.
Instead of circle clusters, kids can make flowers with a main idea in the center and supporting ideas on the petals. Using a spider to plan a story about Halloween is also a fun idea. The setting can be on the body of the spider with the sensory details on its legs. Another idea for example, is to plan an informational report about the sun on a sun graphic organizer. The possibilities for kids to make unique graphic organizers are endless.
Fun Graphic Organizer Examples
Checklists and Rubrics
Rubrics and checklists are a helpful way to help students gauge if they are going in the right direction. For a summary of expository, a rubric should include the following:
- Each paragraph is indented
- Sentences start differently
- Punctuation is used
- Transition words (next, also, finally) are used
- Proper spelling is exhibited
- The summary begins with a topic sentence/main idea
- Sentences vary in length and structure
For a narrative, a rubric would be very different. It would include a checklist similar to this:
- Story begins in an interesting manner
- Story has a setting and main characters
- There is a conflict and rising action
- Descriptive words are used
- Writer uses quotation marks when a character is talking.
- Proper spelling and punctuation is used
- There is a climax and resolution
Rubrics are often used for grading writing. If students become accustomed to using a rubric while writing, then they will start recognizing how their stories and summaries are graded. Often times, rubrics use a point system. A four may be given for excellent work, a three for good work, a two for satisfactory work and a one if their work needs improvement. When creating a rubric, it is important to keep it simple and focus on the key elements you want students to master.
Rubrics can be used with peer editing. Peer editing can be done in pairs or in a group. In pairs, students can exchange papers and use a pen to circle possible misspelled words and look for errors in punctuation. At the end of the work, peer editors can write down three praises and three suggestions to help improve their partner's writing.
In a group, students can read their stories orally. This needs to be done in an environment where respect and trust has been formed. As students read their writings aloud, they may notice places where they need to make changes. Each student in the group should write down praises and suggestions too.
Peer editing needs to be modeled. Doing a lesson on peer editing will be helpful.
In summary, students will enjoy writing more if it is fun. Using these writing strategies will help your fourth grade students understand the writing process and provide them with the tools to become successful novice writers.
Sources and Photo Credits
Van Allsburg, Chris. Two Bad Ants. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children: New York, 1988.
Wood, Audrey. Elbert's Bad Word. Harcourt Brace: Singapore, 1988.
Author's classroom experience
Photos taken by author