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How to Teach Your Students to Stay on Topic in Their Writing Using Writer’s Workshop

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In my last blog post on writing instruction, I asked you to share what your students struggle with the most. The results are in, and overwhelmingly it was teaching your students to stay on topic in their writing. This can be really frustrating to grade and be a lot more time-consuming as you work on trying to piece the writing together to figure out what feedback to provide.

Staying on topic can make or break a writing piece, so it’s something I focus on a lot with students. Since this is a shared frustration, I’m going to share the tips I use to help students stay on topic.

The key to staying on topic is planning

Teaching students how to plan is the best way to overcome the problem of not staying on topic in their writing. Unfortunately, you can’t just give students an organizer, teach them how to use it, and have them magically stay on topic. So, I use a three-part system. You can grab a free copy of my writer’s workshop planning template here.

The first part is the mini-lesson where you model for the students what they will do. I create a simple two-column notes table where I have them list categories and all their elaborations (facts, definitions, examples, and quotes). We organize by category and use the information from their brainstorming, and I model for them how to walk through the process.

The problem is that some students put the wrong information in the wrong boxes, so you end up with the same problem. So, here is my three-step system.

1. Brainstorming

This looks a little different depending on the writing piece. To show how the system works, I’m going to use an example of an opinion piece on “Which would help your community the most: a fire station or a new hospital?”

Our brainstorming includes an area for their ideas and evidence from the text since they need to use that skill in opinion writing. From this point, they have many ideas they will need to categorize.  

2. Classify

I’m going to focus on why a hospital would help the community the most for my example. When we get to this stage, the student will already have brainstormed why they believe the hospital is the most helpful from their own ideas and the reading passage. Now, I need to show students how to classify correctly.

We need to come up with different categories for the information we have. We go through every detail, and we look for patterns. For example, the details may line up with helping more patients, having newer technology, or helping the local economy. So, we brainstorm where the details belong in the categories. That’s the hardest part.

When students do this on their own, I like to have them work with a partner or small group. This allows them to get ideas and sort through categories together instead of feeling stuck on their own.

Now we go back to our previous brainstorming, put the information into the right category, and cross it off. If students are using a quote from the text, I have them copy over the quote and cite their source. Once we have the information on the planner, we organize our paragraphs. Each category is a different paragraph.

3. Check and Revise

This step is the secret sauce to helping students stay on topic for each paragraph.

The final step is having students work with a partner or small groups to read through each elaboration to ensure it’s in the right place. This shouldn’t be where a student sits down with another student’s paper and moves things around for them. Instead, this should be a discussion. The person who has the planning paper will share it with their partner. Then, they will work together to see if anything is in the wrong place.

Having students do these revisions together makes all the difference.

Body paragraphs

When we get to the body paragraphs, I model for my students by creating a topic sentence for the paragraph and then using the information from the section for the remainder of the paragraph. When I use pieces of information from the planner, I cross them out and label in the paragraph what section they came from. This might seem like overkill, but it helps them see that everything is in the right place.

What if your students are still struggling?

If students are still not staying on topic in their writing pieces, there are a few more things you can do.

Intervention

You can teach using a writing intervention that shows how to take pieces of a paragraph and arrange them in a way that is on topic, flows, and makes sense. This allows them to take pieces of other people’s work and use their critical thinking skills to see where those pieces go. It’s a good exercise for struggling students.

Color coding paragraphs

Some students benefit from color-coding paragraphs instead of just labeling them as numbers. It can be helpful for them to color code everything that goes together for one paragraph in the same color. Then when it’s time to write, they can easily see what information goes together.

Use student exemplars 

Using exemplars can be helpful for students to see how the organization looks in a writing piece. For example, you could use a writing piece with a lower score and a higher score. Then, when you compare the two, help them see how they compare in staying on topic and how it affects the score of the paper.

I don’t use actual student writing samples because I don’t want to embarrass any students. So instead, I use exemplars I’ve created to show the difference. This allows me to show them exactly what I want them to see.

This can be time-consuming to put together, so if you’re really interested in this and want the guidance for students, interventions, and exemplars and don’t want to do the work yourself, check out my program Simplify Writing. It includes the entire system, including your lesson plans and the rubrics you need to grade them.

If your students struggle with paragraph writing, you can also take advantage of this free resource on paragraph writing with your students. It’s a piece of one of my intervention units and includes some great organizers for color coding and understanding the parts of a paragraph.

If you would like to hear more about lessons you can use to overcome students’ struggles, let me know in the comments what topics you want me to discuss next.

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April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 

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