Teaching Writing — Choosing Topics

By Ruth Manna on November 17, 2010
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5



This week I visited a classroom in a rural school up near the Vermont-Massachusetts border. While I was there, I struck up a conversation with an 8-year-old boy, Tommy (not his real name), about his writing. He started out by showing me a poem he was working on about the wind. The subject, the wind, and the way he had written the poem didn’t sound like an 8-year-old boy. But hidden in the poem was a gold nugget, the word coyote.


Bird's eye view

    “Tommy, how do you decide what to write?” I asked.
    “Our teacher tells us what to write about,” he replied.
    “Do you have any coyotes in your yard?” I asked.
    “No,” said Tommy, “But my grandpa does.”
Tommy talked for ten minutes, all about his grandpa, Papa. Papa has rigged up a seat in a tree so he can shoot deer with a bow and arrows. He almost always misses, and the deer get away. It’s a lot harder using a bow and arrows than a gun. Once I found Tommy’s “on switch,” he talked and talked. His talk was full of interesting, authentic ideas and rich vocabulary.
    As his storytelling wound down, I said, “This sounds like a story to me. Do you have a piece of paper?”
    I explained that I’d help him start a list of topics. His story about Papa and hunting would be at the top of his list. This list would be just for him in case he had spare time for writing. Then I showed Tommy how to set up a list, scribed for him, and tucked the paper into the back of his writing folder. Boy writing

Tips for Writing Teachers

1.    Allow students freedom to generate their own topics. That’s what is meant by authentic writing. There’s a place for prompts as assessment tools, but in general, let students come up with their own topics. 

2.    Have conversations with students to develop their story ideas. Yes, I spent time with Tommy one on one, but other students at Tommy’s table overheard and learned, too. We could have had the same conversation in a small group. Or in a large group while Tommy modeled how to develop a topic for his classmates.

3.    Keep a list of possible topics, and add to the list as a student talks. Anytime you overhear a conversation that sounds promising, say, “That talking sounds like a story,” and get the student to record the idea immediately on his list.

4.    Allow time for thinking and drawing in preparation for writing. All writers need a chance to think first about what they’re going to say. (I’ve been thinking about this post all weekend, for instance.) The time writers spend thinking is legitimate writing time and needs to be respected. Imagine how you'd feel if you were given a blank piece of paper and told to write a poem about the wind. You'd need time. For some students, sketching part of a story first brings it to life.

5.    Talk about a piece after a student has written a first draft and after you’ve read it. A writing conference is a conversation in which you react to the story, not the mechanics. Ask how the work is progressing, and give the student a chance to talk about his writing first. You might mention how a story made you feel: surprised, delighted, or puzzled.

6.    A conference might include “I wish . . . ” statements and suggestions for adding on or elaborating. For example:
•    “I wish you’d say more about how your grandpa climbed into that tree.”
•    “What does the seat your grandpa rigged up look like? I wish I could get a mental image of it.”
•    “I notice you used the verb went five times. I wish you’d use other, more powerful verbs. What else could you say?”

7.    A few days later, not at the first conference, make a couple of suggestions for grammar or punctuation changes. More than two or three suggestions may overwhelm a young writer. Keep criticism light, specific, and short. There will be other opportunities. Your positive comments will encourage students to write, and you’ll help them grow as writers through their next pieces.

Suggested Reading

Georgia heard

Awakening the Heart by Georgia Heard

Bird by bird[1]  

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


Carl anderson

How's It Going? by Carl Anderson

Small moments

Small Moments: Personal Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and Abby Oxenhorn

Writing down the bones

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Writing through childhood

Writing Through Childhood by Shelley Harwayne

Ralph fletcher

Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi


Thanks so much once again. I think I'll try the graphic organizer with our next paper :)

Hi Amanda, I like your idea about having students use different colors. If you look at what I wrote to Melissa (above) my students use highlighters to make sure everything on a graphic organizer gets into their draft. When students use graphic organizers like beginning, middle, and end, I have them write words and phrases under each. Then they need to go back and number them, because they don't necessarily think sequentially (neither do I) so they need to rearrange ideas. One problem with a web is the words and phrases are going every which way. For some second graders this is very confusing. They have to turn their paper to read it. So I prefer a graphic organizer that is linear and sequential. I like to see the completed graphic organizer before a student starts a draft. At that point I have them go back and fill in more details. I want to see all the important elements of their story included in their graphic organizer.

Yes, webs can get messy! I started having my kids write them in colors - 1 color for all the beginning ideas, another color for the first detail cluster, etc. That seemed to help them have organization when it was time to turn their brainstorm into paragraphs. The graphic organizers sound like a good idea that I will have to try! Do you have your students make their brainstorms very detailed or just have them put the bones there and then let them fill in the meat when they write their rough draft? Thanks for your thoughts!

Hi Amanda, Thanks for writing. In my experience, webs don't work. The way they are set up doesn't promote organization, because they are too random. Instead, I use a simple graphic organizer that's divided into three boxes, beginning, middle, and end. Or I use a graphic organizer that has characters, setting, and plot, or one about problem, solution. Graphic organizers that are linear, like those I just mentioned, do work. For certain assignments I might use a specific graphic organizer I make up for that one writing assignment. I model using graphic organizers on an overhead projector or Smartboard. I spend a lot of time in conversation too, with groups, but mostly with individual students about their ideas. I help them along by chatting and feeding them alternate ideas, ways they can add-on, etc. I write my suggestions on Post-it notes and give them to my students. These conversations about writing are an important part of the writing process.

I'd love to hear/see how a brainstorm develops for the story. Do you have the students do a web or do you find something else to be more effective??

Thanks I will give it a try. Melissa

Melissa, It's hard for students to get the great ideas they have on their graphic organizers into sentence form in a story. I have tried having students use highlighters and highlight an idea on their graphic organizer once they have put that idea into a sentence. The goal is that all ideas would be highlighted. My students really liked using highlighters. It made them feel very grown up. For students who need help getting started, I've scribed for them for the first sentence or two and then said to the student, "Now you have a go!" When I see a student who is really stuck, I try to engage that student in conversation to identify the source of the problem. When a student says, "I'm thinking," I respect that. Writing is hard work, at least for me, so I want to appreciate that it's challenging for my students too. For a student who is really resistant and oppositional, I have a little laminated card that specifies a certain number of sentences that must be written that day, like four sentences. There are boxes on the card that must be checked off as each sentence is completed.

Thanks for the ideas. I feel that writing is an area that can always use further developing. I am having a problem, maybe you can help... I have students that are having trouble getting words on paper. They use graphic organizers and feel them up but actually putting words down is like pulling teeth from an infant. Any ideas. Oh by the way I teach 3rd grade.

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