I was in a fifth-grade classroom today, and the teacher handed me an essay a student had written. The essay was well structured, but it was definitely short. Given the direction to have it be at least one page, the student had given himself extra spaces between paragraphs and extra-wide margins. I’m not sure I’d actually call it a page of writing.
“He just won’t write much,” the teacher said. “He definitely knows how.”
Looking at the writing and talking to the student, I’m wondering if he knows how. Yes, it could be an issue of won’t, but it could also be an issue of can’t yet. That interaction inspired this collection of ideas for concrete strategies to teach elaboration.
Visual Aids for Elaboration
Originally, I co-created this chart with a fifth-grade class to emphasize fluency with them through the use of transition words. I read them an opinion article from Newsela, and I had them snap their fingers any time they heard a transition word. The article was relatively short, but they found a lot of phrases! Although I see this as a great way to improve fluency, using phrases such as additionally, as a result, some may say, actually, and it is true are concrete ways to incorporate additional facts, ideas, and thinking. For some students, that is exactly what they need in order to write more.
This is a picture of a chart I’ve used in third, fourth, and fifth grades. It lists explicit strategies for elaboration on the orange sticky notes, but it also offers ways to incorporate those strategies into text. Eventually, I want the students to have other phrases at their disposal to use for strategy incorporation, but some students need the scaffold before they are ready for independence.
A simpler chart that hangs on the wall in one of our fifth-grade classrooms lists only ways to elaborate with some specific phrases for including thinking. I share this chart because I cannot tell you how much the students in that classroom looked at that chart, and no, it wasn’t because it was next to the clock! It’s a perfect example of not all charts having to be perfect or beautiful. Charts are there to support learning. If students are using them to improve their writing with increasing independence, then they are perfect and beautiful.
By the time students are in the second part of an opinion unit, whether they are in third, fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, they can almost always explain why elaboration matters.
“It helps to prove our point,” one student said, boiling the reason for elaboration down to a concise and meaningful sentence.
Most students, including the young man with wide margins and extra spaces, can also list some strategies for how to elaborate on or develop a piece. How to do it is where the path is less clear. Therefore, any techniques we can offer through mentor texts, charts, or checklists are important to provide to students as they learn the important skill of developing an argument.