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November 17, 2010 Teaching Writing — Choosing Topics By Ruth Manna
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


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