Yesterday I discussed the first BIG change I show my students in the Revising phase of the writing process: Titles. Today (Day 4 in the first week of school) I'm going to focus on helping students Revise for a clear Main Idea.
Keeping the Reader in Mind
In my experiences, young writers struggle for many reasons, but one struggle that consistently appears is the lack of audience awareness. Young writers forget about their readers. For our first piece, I'm not as concerned with who we're writing to as I am about simply asking students to keep their readers in mind.
Good readers know that good writing is based on a single idea, and I want my students to know this, too. Let's face it, stories without a clear Main Idea leave readers confused. As writers, revising for a clear Main Idea is probably the single most important thing we can do. Once we have our Main Idea clarified for our readers, we can work on Revising our supporting details (which we'll save for our second piece).
Our next step in the Revising process is clarifying our Main Idea for our readers. I start out the day's lesson by teaching students about Main Idea. I ask them, "What is your main idea?" Some know the answer to this question, but many don't. To help them figure it out, I ask this question instead:
I then ask students, "Is your Main Idea:
- A complete thought; a complete sentence?
- Something that is important to you?
- Something that is important to others?"
To help students see how this Revising strategy works, I go back and spend a few minutes re-reading my draft. I like to underline the sentence where I believe my Main Idea is stated. In my own writing, I often find my Main Idea in my beginning or ending paragraphs. I explain to my students that good writers often place their Main Idea in the beginning or ending paragraphs because those are places where readers often pay the most attention.
Before I go any further, I ask myself this question:
What is the one most important thing I want my readers to know?
Then, in the margin of my draft, I answer this question by writing it in a complete sentence like this:
The one most important thing I want my readers to know is that while cliff jumping at the lake, I sustained the worst injury of my life.
Because I've already underlined the Main Idea as the ending sentence in my first paragraph, this may seem a bit redundant. However, I need to make sure that I'm clear about my Main Idea so that my readers will be clear about my Main Idea as well. Plus, I'm modeling for my students the importance of reading like a reader AND reading like a writer.
Next, I go back to the criteria I listed earlier and assess my Main Idea in a Think-Aloud with my students. It will go something like this, "Yes, my Main Idea is in a complete sentence. Yes, my Main Idea is important to me. I know this because I've taken the time to write this story, and I'm spending extra time making sure this Main Idea is clear to my readers by including it somewhere in my story.
It's also important to me because I have strong feelings about it. This realization reminds me about the criteria we used earlier in the week when we selected a good topic to write about (see Helping Kids Choose Topics Worth Writing About). And, finally, I know my Main Idea is important to my readers because I know many of them will be able to connect with my Main Idea, and I know that good readers are able to connect to what they're reading."
For some students, this may seem like a lot of information, so I'll write down the key points I've made about my writing on the board for them. Once I have my Main Idea work figured out, I can begin Revising for Details. For this first piece, I'm simply going to cut out anything that doesn't fit with my Main Idea.
After my lesson, students will have 15-20 minutes of work time to practice Revising for a clear Main Idea. This may seem like a lot of time, but I want them to literally re-read their drafts to themselves to find where they may have included a Main Idea in their stories. I also want them to go through the Revising steps I've just modeled for them.
During this time I can give 2-3 minute writing conferences with students who may be struggling. In this first piece, I'll often find that many students either don't have enough going on in their stories to have developed a Main Idea, or they will have so much going on, the Main Idea is unclear or hidden.
This conferencing time allows me the opportunity to help them work through these issues. Simply re-reading parts of their pieces to them, asking them what their Topic is, or asking them what the ONE most important thing they want readers to know solves the trick. Again, with this first piece, all I'm asking them to do is try their best. If they don't master Revising for a clear Main Idea, we'll have ample opportunities for more practice in our writing pieces throughout the year.
After work time, we will do some sharing and assess the Main Ideas that are shared. This is a perfect time for me to do any re-teaching. More importantly, this time allows us to have a "real" discussion about writing that "real" writers have everyday, which is a key component of writers workshop. "Talking" during the writing process allows us to have authentic, engaging conversations where "real" learning takes place.
Tomorrow...from BIG changes in Revising to making corrections in Editing.
For more on Main Idea see The Five Big Questions and The Writing Strategy Organizer in The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide: Practical Lesson for All Grade Levels.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.