If you think about why we READ books, magazines, newspapers—really, anything other than a grocery list—it’s because we want to learn something. We want to understand something we didn’t grasp before, or we want to know more about something, know it more deeply. Whether reading fiction or nonfiction, we’re looking for an argument or a message—something that makes us say, “Aha.” In short, we’re looking for insights.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned elementary and middle school teachers who want their students to write well ignore this point. Instead, they provide students with formulas which result in—you guessed it—formulaic writing. Students follow their directions perfectly and end up writing things that are perfectly dull. For reasons which I have never understood, many teachers have relied on this dictum: “First, tell ‘em what you’re gonna say, then tell ‘em, then tell’ em what you told ‘em.” You can spot the results a mile away. They include phrases such as “I’m going to,” and “My first reason is, my second reason is…” then a conclusion that repeats the thesis, often verbatim.
It’s truly a wonder I’m not bald.
I want to tell these people: You are not helping! Your students might be able to write basic, boring paragraphs and essays, but now I have to undo all of their robotic habits and teach them how to write something that people would actually want to read. Why don’t you just do that in the first place???
There, I’ve said it.
Now, how can I help? Let’s return to the primary goal of any decent piece of writing: to express an insight. How can you elicit insights from, say, a 3rd-grader? Believe it or not, it’s not that difficult. The first step is clarifying that this is what good writers do: they convey arguments, messages, and lessons. So readers should look for these arguments, messages, and lessons. For instance, you could say to your students: “Let’s think about the story we read yesterday. What lesson did we learn from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? What was the author trying to tell us?”
As much as students can understand what they read, they should be able to express that understanding orally and in writing. If you ask them inference questions while reading, they will draw inferences that ultimately add up to insights about the text. However, if you limit yourself to the bottom level of Bloom’s Taxonomy with literal comprehension questions such as, “What is the setting?” and “Who are the main characters?” then you should not blame students for failing to draw inferences. The main idea or argument is an ACCUMULATION of inferences. So you have to start with one inference at a time, brick by brick, until you have a recognizable structure, something that makes you say, “Aha!” or at a minimum, “I know what that thing is.”
One way to steer students toward insights is to ask them questions that—wait for it—elicit insights. My “Punchy Insights Poster” on the TLC “Writing 101” page does just that. I encourage students to respond to one of the questions below in their conclusion:
Depending on what grade you teach, you might want to modify this poster. Some teachers have re-worded it as a series of sentence starters—such as, “The author of this story wants us to remember _______.” Others have kept the questions but altered the vocabulary. It might also help to post sample insights about texts that students have read. Like this: “In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss wants us to remember that Christmas is about more than just gifts and presents.”
Active reading leads to more effective writing. The drive to find insights when reading increases the likelihood that students will convey such insights in their own writing. And it’s crucial that we point out to students that THIS IS THE GOAL OF GOOD WRITING. Revealing insights is what you want to do when you write.
As we prepare instruction to illustrate this point, we must be thoughtful about which texts we point students toward, to ensure that they’ll care about the texts. Ralph Fletcher offers this wise reminder in What a Writer Needs: “You don’t learn to write by going through a series of preset writing exercises. You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you.” When we help students connect with readings or subjects that truly matter to them, they’ll find the insights they need to write about.
*This entry was adapted from The Literacy Cookbook (available for order HERE).
 Seuss, Dr. (1957). How the Grinch stole Christmas! New York, NY: Random House.
 Fletcher, R. (1993). What a writer needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, p. 4.