blog stats

Pre-Writing to Help Students Practice for a Writing Exam
teaching useful processing skills while students learn to perform for on-demand prompt writing

Navigating WritingFix:

WritingFix Homepage

Pre-Writing Homepage

Narrative Homepage

Nevada Writing Exam Homepage


On-line Publishing:

Publish your students' Prompts in Reverse Stories at our Ning!
(You must be a member of our "Writing Lesson of the Month" ning to post.)

A Fifth Grade Narrative
Practice Prompt:

Exploring Writing Prompts
in Reverse

Ralph Fletcher

This activity was designed for Nevada 5th graders preparing for Nevada's Writing Test, which happens halfway through their fifth grade year.

Nevada's New Narrative Resource:

Coming to Northern Nevada teachers April 1!

How this Exercise Assists Nevada Students in Preparing for their Writing Exam:

Nevada fifth graders take their writing exam halfway through the school year, and the prompt they are given is designed to inspire narrative (descriptive) writing from the students. During three 45-minute sessions, our Nevada writers brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit a piece of writing that can fit on this answer sheet.

The writing is scored based on these traits: idea development, organization, voice, and conventions. Clicking the links will allow you to open/print the rubrics.

While we don't believe three 45-minute sessions based on an on-demand prompt produces the most authentic writing from our students, we respect that our students must be tested. We also believe they must begin preparing for their fifth grade test much earlier than fifth grade. In fourth grade and again in fifth grade, we suggest students be given three on-demand practice prompts and that teachers learn to score these prompts in a way similar to that of the test. Between these prompts, teachers should be presenting crafted lessons that teach authentic narrative writing skills.

This exercise was designed to serve as a pre-writing activity for one of our three designated fifth grade practice prompts. The prompt is:

It's always a pleasure to give and receive gifts. Sometimes the gift is a present. Sometimes the gift is something someone does for you or someone else. What is the best gift you have ever given or received? Tell about a time you gave or received a gift and why that gift was important to you.

In Nevada, we suggest to teachers that this prompt be given in October of our students' fifth grade year. To see all of our fifth grade prompts, click here.

Three Days Before Students Write:

A Rationale: The great writing teacher and author, Donald Graves, once suggested that when the writing process is truly being honored, 85% of a students' time could easily be spent in the pre-writing step. Although our writing test doesn't allow for this length of pre-writing, the more opportunities students have before the test to pre-write well, the more skilled they will be when given limited pre-writing time in the future.

Pre-writing is not just about filling out a graphic organizer; it also includes asking students to simply think, then talk with others about what they've thought about.

Beginning the Lesson: For this pre-writing activity, we will begin by analyzing a chapter from Ralph Fletcher’s autobiography, which is also cited in this guide’s fourth grade section, though a different chapter is used with the fourth graders. One of the best features of Marshfield Dreams is the brevity of its chapters. Many of them, the chapter called "First Pen" for example, have pretty close to the same amount of text a student might be asked to produce on the day of the writing test. These shorter chapters from Marshfield Dreams are nice mentor texts for helping students see a well-written, short piece of narrative writing that would look and sound good for a state writing test. The activity here, which uses the "First Pen" chapter, could be easily replicated with different, short chapters from the same book.

Begin this pre-writing lesson by passing out Xeroxed copies of the "First Pen" chapter to your students. Read it aloud or have students read it silently. Discuss it for comprehension, which we call “reading the text like a reader.”

After “reading like a reader,” it’s time to “read like a writer.” Ask students to independently read it a second time, this time looking for specific writing skills they see Fletcher include in his writing; the type of skills they are looking for are ones they suspect their teacher would point out and say, "Now here’s something a good writer does!" Ask them to avoid using trait names; when discussing with a partner, if they say, "It has good organization," ask them, "What specific skill does the writer use that proves that to you?"

Create small groups and have students report to each other on the initial skills they each saw. The group's task is to combine their thoughts about the text to create a list of three very specific skills they can pinpoint in the text by underlining words or phrases or single sentences that represent those skills; stress to them they are to locate skills they believe are “imitate-able,” which means the students can explain the writing technique in such a way that they can say, "I can do that too”; if, for example, students spot Fletcher's use of "vivid or memorable details,” verify that this skill is imitate-able. A more ambiguous skill, like "it sounded real," is harder to imitate without pinpointing specific things that added to that impression.

Have student groups write the three skills they have chosen (and can point out in the text) somewhere on the Xeroxed chapter. Put the chapter and the skill lists away for the day.

Two Days Before Students Write:

Bring out the Xeroxes of the "First Pen" chapter. Have students remind themselves of the skills they found in the text on the previous day by reading the short chapter again and relocating the places in the text where the skills were seen.

Ask students to put on their imagination hats. Say, "I want you to pretend that Ralph Fletcher actually wrote this small piece of writing for his state writing test when he was your age. What prompt do you think he was given?" Show students several examples of Nevada test writing prompts, asking them to study the language and the number of sentences. Here are three example prompts from past Nevada writing tests:

  • "We all have to make many decisions in our lives. Think about a decision you had to make and what happened afterwards. Tell about the time you made the decision. Explain what led up to the decision. Tell what happened as a result of the decision."
  • "Good teachers are hard to forget. Think of a teacher you have had that you will remember for a long, long time. Was it a teacher at school, at home, or for activities or sports? Think about all the ways that person is special. Explain this teacher so clearly that your reader will know just what made him or her such a good teacher. You may use a real or made-up name."
  • "Think about a time when something special or unusual happened at school. It could be a time when something unexpected happened in your classroom. Or it could be any event at school that you remember well. Write about what happened and why it was special or unusual."

Ask student groups to brainstorm what prompt Ralph Fletcher might have been given that made him write the short piece of writing they have read. Remind students that test prompts are purposely written so generally that any student could write to them; "Write about a time you received a pen as a present" is too specific for this chapter, because many students have never had that experience.

If students are stuck, here are a few topic ideas that might be relevant to the "First Pen" chapter: a time you received a gift; a time you surprised yourself; a time you used your imagination. Remind student groups that their prompts should have two or three sentences in them, just like the examples did.

Have student groups share their prompts with the whole class, and then have the class vote on the writing prompt that sounds most like a test prompt.

One Day Before Students Write:

Tell students that—amazingly (wink, wink!) —some of the prompts they wrote yesterday are very similar to the actual practice prompt they will be writing to soon. Reveal the practice prompt to them for the first time:

It's always a pleasure to give and receive gifts. Sometimes the gift is a present. Sometimes the gift is something someone does for you or someone else. What is the best gift you have ever given or received? Tell about a time you gave or received a gift and why that gift was important to you.

Today, you want your students to look at the work of some fourth graders who wrote to this prompt, and you want to compare their use of writing skills to the skills Ralph Fletcher used. Explain that these fourth graders purposely tried to imitate some of Mr. Fletcher’s skills from the “First Pen” chapter when they wrote their own narratives about receiving gifts.

Before passing out these two fourth grade samples at right, it might be a good idea to read the “First Pen” chapter one more time. As they re-read, remind them to look closely at the skills they listed as Fletcher’s most “imitate-able” skills.

After discussing where Lauren and John “borrowed” writing skills from the original chapter, challenge your fifth graders with this: “We change a lot as writers between fourth and fifth grade, and for fourth graders, these two writers did a pretty good job with this. Think like fifth graders for me now. What do you know to do as good writers that maybe these fourth graders didn’t know to do yet?” Make a list or chart of their responses, and keep the chart handy for tomorrow when the students write their rough drafts.

On the Day the Students Write:

First of all, show them the prompt again. Discuss it thoroughly.

It's always a pleasure to give and receive gifts. Sometimes the gift is a present. Sometimes the gift is something someone does for you or someone else. What is the best gift you have ever given or received? Tell about a time you gave or received a gift and why that gift was important to you.

Be sure your students understand they are supposed to write not only about the gift, but also—and just as important—they are to share reasons why the gift was important. Most fifth graders will immediately think about gifts as concrete items, but the third sentence of the prompt is giving them the option of to explore an abstract gift. Talk about what abstract means in terms of gifts. Explain how it’s fine to write about a great Christmas or birthday gift, but if everyone does that, the scorers could very well become bored when they read their 30 th sample on that kind of gift. When a prompt gives you an option—like an abstract gift, in this case—that you don’t think many others will write about, it’s good to consider that option, if you have a story that fits that idea; pursuing unique topics is a great way to help your writing feel “fresh” among a sea of students who are writing about the same topic.

You might show students one or all of the “Sparkler” samples included in this lesson’s appendix. The Interactive Task and Challenge boxes below each “Sparkler” contain great advice that can help your students create a stronger rough draft. The “Sparklers” also are a great tool to show to and discuss with your students right before they begin revising.

As your students draft, have them keep a copy of both Ralph Fletcher’s “First Pen” chapter and the two fourth grade samples nearby. Remind them that it’s okay to imitate something another writer did skill-wise as they create their own drafts.

Revising & Editing & Assessing:

A day after they write their rough drafts, have all students analyze their use of narrative skills using our narrative writing Post-it® Note-sized templates.

The important thing to note on this tool is that it asks for students to rank the skills in their own (or a partner’s) writing, not rate the skills. When you rate skills, you can assign the same score to different skills; you could, for example, give all the skills a score of ‘4,’ which many kids end up doing because that’s an easy way to fill out the Post-it-sized note. Ranking requires the students to decide on their absolute strongest skill from the list, and to give that skill a ‘5’; the next strongest skill receives a ‘4,’ then a ‘3,’ etc. Ranking is harder because it requires the students to apply their knowledge of these skills to their writing, then to analyze them by comparing them to each other.

Our Common Core State Standards require us to start pushing our students to analyze and evaluate what they’re reading and writing, and these Post-it® Note-sized templates are a small tool that—when modeled well and monitored carefully during the first few uses—can begin to help your students learn to independently create revision plans that match their own drafts’ strengths and weaknesses.

When using these Post-it® Note-sized templates for response and revision, most students will claim that ranking the skills in someone else’s draft (instead of their own) is easier, so it might be a good exercise to have them first work with partners to rank the skills in any of the student samples that comes with this practice prompt.

With a ranking of their own skills on a Post-it, students can then be challenged to look at the one or two lowest-ranked skills and use them to create a revision plan. This, too, needs to be modeled well.

Ask students to carefully copy their final drafts, checking for conventions, onto the answer sheet. If you’re planning to use our set of annotated samples to assist you in scoring your students’ practice prompt writing, use that as an incentive to encourage more careful editing. When students know they’ll be given a score that will help them understand their chances of passing the upcoming state test, they are often more willing to check conventions a second or third time.

For editing, you might teach your students to find a corner and read aloud their own papers to themselves before turning them in; many careless conventional errors are often discovered by students doing this.

You might also teach them to read their drafts backwards, starting with the last word and going backwards through each sentence. This is good for students to learn to do, especially if they are prone to making careless spelling errors as they copy a rough draft onto a final draft page, as they will be expected to do when they take their actual test.

Publish Your Students' Sparklers for this Prompt:
We're seeking new student samples to post here!

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use WritingFix lessons and prompts. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually! We're currently seeking additional student sparklers for the "Amazement Prompt" that we can feature at this page to promote furrther discussion from fourth graders using this lesson for state exam writing practice.  Help us obtain up to three from your students, and we'll send you a free copy of the NNWP's "Show Me the Story" Narrrative Writing Print Resource

You can post your students' finished stories at this posting page set-up for this on-line lesson.


Extending the Learning with a Narrative Follow-up:
A lesson we suggest fifth grade teachers use between this practice prompt and the next.

Overview: This is a revision lesson that again introduces Ralph Fletcher’s writing style to student writers. After students write a rough draft about a time they eat (or saw someone else eat) something unusual, they analyze Fletcher’s “Eating the World” chapter from Marshfield Dreams. Students rewrite their rough drafts, trying to add skills that would impress Ralph Fletcher, if he knew they had been studying his writing style.

The mentor text
for this lesson


WritingFix Homepage WritingFix's Pre-Writing Homepage  Narrative Homepage 
Nevada's Writing Exam Homepage  Publish Students' Writing Inspired by this Prompt 
© WritingFix. All rights reserved.