Thoughtful Learning Blog

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

Debunking Myths About Student Writers

We feel strongly that certain myths about writing must be dispelled to allow genuine learning to take place. This post identifies and counters eight of the most common myths about writing in middle school. In truth, the myths extend to writing in elementary school, high school, and beyond.

Myth 1: Students need a textbook.

Textbooks by their very nature are prescriptive. That is, they are designed so that a language arts curriculum is essentially built around them. As you know, textbook series are accompanied by volumes of supplementary materials that essentially tie teachers and students into the “system” more than they help students develop as independent thinkers and writers.

We believe that students must have a chance to develop their own ideas, to think and write for themselves. Teachers and students—with the aid of a few references (see below)—should help each other develop and refine their ideas in writing. This makes for meaningful learning.

Essential writing references: Internet access, a collection of writing models, a library of reading materials, and a writing handbook.

Myth 2: Students dislike writing.

Students don’t necessarily dislike writing; they just dislike writing about subjects that have little meaning to them. Students learn to enjoy writing when they develop their own ideas. This doesn’t mean that teachers should forgo assigning compositions. It simply means that writing assignments should have enough breadth and scope to allow students to select specific topics that interest them

In addition, students will learn to enjoy writing if they are encouraged to write freely about their own experience. Young learners love to write about themselves in journals, social posts, blogs, narratives, and personal essays. And of course, many students enjoy creative forms of writing—stories, plays, poems—as well.

Persuasive Writing Prompts
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Whether you are working on a persuasive unit or preparing your students for assessment, these writing prompts can serve as a starting point for building persuasive (argument) essays. Encourage students to use the PAST strategy to analyze the prompts.

Beginning Persuasive Prompts (Grades 4–5)

Share these prompts with students who are beginning to write essays.

1. What Season Is Best?

Some people love hot summers at the beach or pool. Others love cold winters with sleds and snowmen. Maybe you like crackling fall leaves or tender spring flowers. Write an essay that names your favorite season and gives reasons why it is best.

2. My Pet of Choice

If you could have any pet, what pet would you choose? Dog? Cat? Snake? Tarantula? Write a letter to your parent or guardian naming the pet you would most like to have and giving reasons why you should get to have this pet.

3. Time for a Vacation

What vacation would you like most? Hiking in a state park? Visiting Grandma? Going to an amusement park? Write an essay to your parent or guardian naming what would be a perfect vacation and giving reasons you would like to take it.

Explanatory Writing Prompts
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When you want your students to practice explanatory writing, present them with one or more of the following prompts, grouped by difficulty. You can also introduce students to the PAST strategy to help them understand what each explanatory prompt is asking them to do.

Beginning Explanatory Prompts (Grades 4–5)

The following explanatory prompts are meant for students who are moving from paragraph writing to essay writing. 

1. Defining Friendship

Everyone needs friends. What qualities make someone a good friend? How can you be a friend for someone who needs one? Write an essay that explains ways to be a good friend.

2. A Job for Me

People do all kinds of jobs. Some people build. Others serve. Some teach. Others sell. Some people work on ships at sea, and others in skyscrapers in cities. What kind of job would you like to do? As a future worker, write an essay that names a job you would like, describes the work, and tells why you would like it.

3. An Admirable Person

We all have people we admire. They might be family members or friends. They might be singers, dancers, or actors. They might even be fictional characters. Whom do you admire most? Write an essay that names a person you admire and describes the qualities that make you like the person.

Student sharing writing with a teacher
Copyright Thoughtful Learning

Writing assessment doesn't exactly have a warm and fuzzy reputation. You probably labor for hours through stacks of essays, marking and grading and wondering if you are "doing it right." Your students meanwhile anxiously wait to see how much red ink their essays will be "bleeding."

Such feelings don’t have to define your writing classroom. You can apply a few simple dos and don'ts to develop a classroom culture that views writing assessment with a growth mindset.

DO set expectations.

Effective writing assessment begins with clear expectations. Students need to know what strong writing looks like and how their writing will be assessed. To set expectations, introduce your students to the traits of effective writing. With younger students, you can use a simplified version of the traits called the qualities of writing.

Imagine trying to build a two-story tenement building on a one-story community-theater stage—all on a tight budget in two weeks. That's a problem a friend and I recently faced. First we planned our work: I designed a structure with shortened stories, and my friend turned my pencil sketches into 3D CAD drawings. Then we worked our plan, framing walls and floors, removing low-hanging lights, and installing pool noodles around rafters to keep actors from hitting their heads.

When we finished, the director was thrilled. The show even had a couple linebackers singing songs from the second-story windows. That's the power of problem solving.

Did you notice the dynamic between my friend and me? I love to think creatively, and he loves to think analytically. I came up with the broad strokes of the design, and he made sure all the details worked. Left alone, I would have come up with a grand vision and been unable to bring it to life. Left alone, my friend would not have known where to begin.

Critical and creative thinking have to work together to solve problems.

Illustration of an artist
© Thoughtful Learning

None other than John Dewey, one of the most influential voices in the history of modern education, suggested that art should be the center of education, rather than a “nice embellishment.” Why did Dewey place so much value on the discipline of art? And why did he feel that the artistic process is so essential to learning?

In Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, authors Dan Kirby and Carol Kuykendall answer these questions. They explain that developing a piece of art requires close observation, attention to detail, sensitivity to pattern and form, and selectivity. In addition, the authors refer to an artist’s unique ability to get up close to his or her work, of opening up the senses, and of doing and undoing elements, time and time again.

One Artist’s Process

An artist named Judy Sebranek knows all about this process. She says getting started on a piece of art “involves all my senses, moving my muscles, sorting through gobs of visual material, and drawing on my experiences.”  Eventually she asks herself, “‘What do I want to express?’ If I figure that out, then the detailed work begins.” Here is a more thorough explanation of her process:

Teacher showing paper to teenage girl during examination in classroom
Tyler Olson/

Why do the new standards place so much emphasis on multi-paragraph writing? Because multi-paragraph writing helps students develop fluency in building arguments, explaining ideas, and telling stories—thinking skills they need for college and career.

Yet we often struggle to get more than a paragraph at a time out of our students. A recent study found that fewer than 1 in 10 writing assignments in urban middle schools produce multi-paragraph responses, and just 16 percent include evidence drawn from sources. The middle school assessments for the Common Core require this rigor, but how can we create a writing program that fosters this kind of writing and thinking?

Step 1: Make Time for Writing

Make Time for Writing

The first barrier to rigor in writing instruction is time. Multi-paragraph writing requires time. Students can't write at length and think deeply if they write for only five minutes at a time. Just as we have traditionally carved out time for reading, we must also do so for writing.

Writing is like weight lifting. The only way to build writing muscles is to do it routinely and purposefully. The very act of crafting words develops thinking skills. And just as every weight lifter is consciously working to get stronger, every writer should be consciously writing to get smarter.

Illustration of student with pen in ear
© Thoughtful Learning

With the new school year beginning, make it your goal to help your student writers accomplish and/or experience the following things.

We’d like students to . . .

  • Establish a regular writing routine to develop their writing fluency.
  • Know that improvement is a certainty if they make a sincere effort.
  • Feel good about writing because it gives them an opportunity to explore and shape their own thinking.
  • Understand the value of pushing their thinking to the brink of confusion, if need be, to form their best ideas.
  • Write about topics that truly interest them.
  • Participate in a writing workshop with students and teachers writing and learning together.
  • Interact comfortably with one another about their writing.
Broken Chain

We ask students to develop arguments, problem-solution essays, and literary analyses because we believe they promote higher levels of thinking. However, by making these assignments, we may be restricting their thinking.

Isn’t building an argument, in essence, an exercise in following a formula—making a claim, backing it up, countering the opposition, and so on? Of course, there is thinking going on during the writing, but not the kind that is truly mind-expanding. Instead, the writer focuses on making sure that all of the parts of the argument are stated effectively and arranged in the best way. The same is true with a problem-solution essay. What’s so intellectually stimulating about stating a problem, providing background information, discussing possible solutions, and highlighting the best one? As Thomas Newkirk says in Critical Thinking and Writing: Reclaiming the Essay, “When essays become formulaic, they hinder rather than foster critical thinking.”

Of course, students need to learn how to build academic essays. But really, how many problem-solution essays do students have to write before they get it? The same holds true for building arguments or shaping explanatory essays. In today’s English or composition classes, such essays are often assigned because of state standards and/or to help students prepare for district or state writing tests. But a steady diet of this stuff can be mind-numbing. How much enjoyment and intellectual stimulation do students really get from composing yet another process or comparison essay? It’s like facing a diet of the same things meal after meal. Tuna casserole again?

Summer Reading

At a recent family get-together, a cousin and I were talking about her oldest daughter, Kaitlin, a sophomore-to-be in high school. My cousin mentioned that Katlin had a required reading list for the summer as preparation for Honors English. Frankenstein and Brave New World were two of the titles she mentioned. She then asked me what I thought about the choices. I said that Katlin might be in for a challenging summer. And I left it at that.

Here’s what I really thought: Trying to slog through these novels by herself, in summer no less, may completely frustrate Katlin. Classic literature is best appreciated as a group endeavor, headed by someone who knows his or her literature. By summer’s end, Katlin will have had it up to here with Literature (with a capital L) and, worse yet, the turnoff may affect her feelings about any type of reading, including pleasure reading.

The exchange brought to mind an old blog post entitled  “The Tale of Two Tables” in which the writer, Donalyn Miller, had encountered a high school boy at a bookstore who was ready to buy Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Miller asked the boy why he wanted to read that particular book. He responded that he had to read four novels from a prescribed list during the summer, and The Awakening was the shortest one of the bunch. He also added that he was going to be tested on his reading in the fall.