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

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A Fifth Grade Narrative
Practice Prompt:

Relevant Setting
Details in
Narrative Writing

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:

Remember a time when you did something that made you feel proud of yourself. Think about what you did and how you felt about it. Try to remember the details clearly in your mind. Then write about what you did, including the sights and sounds of the moment.

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

Four 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 this lesson: Good personal narrative writing relies on the author’s ability to incorporate quality details in a personal, true story. Because a narrative is personal, the author should be showing details about his/her emotions and thoughts, which has been the focus of many of this guide’s previous pre-writing lessons. This particular lesson reminds students that showing skills should also be used to describe the setting of their personal narratives. Setting, it should be stressed, is both the time (of day or year) of a story, as well as the place where a story occurs.

Both time and place can be shown to a reader using the same skills a writer uses to show emotions. Write these two sets of telling sentences where students can see them, discussing the two things that make up a story’s setting: time and place.

Telling sentences for setting (time):
  • It was springtime.
  • It was midnight.
  • It was the day of the writing test.
Telling sentences for setting (place):
  • I was at recess.
  • I was at the beach.
  • I was in a cave.

Remind your students what showing means: building action-verb packed sentences that show relevant details that aren’t revealed in a telling sentence. Showing can improve both a student’s idea development and voice scores on a state writing test sample. Using a telling sentence as an introduction or a conclusion to a part of the narrative also helps students begin to organize their descriptions.

Here are two teacher models of showing paragraphs based on two of the telling sentences above. Share and discuss them with your students.

Showing description: It was the day of the writing test.
It was the day of the writing test. A brand-new stack of sharpened pencils sat on the teacher’s desk. All the writing posters in the room had been carefully covered up with pink butcher paper, but we’d used them so much that I remembered almost everything that was hidden from us. We filed into the classroom from recess, finding a fresh piece of scratch paper on each of our desks. We sat down a little nervously, but the teacher was smiling. “What writing prompt did they give us?” we asked her.
Showing description: I was in a cave.

With each move of my flashlight, shadows danced across this wet, dark place. Cool air rushed in from somewhere, and I felt goose bumps form on my arm. It smelled damp and earthy in here, and somewhere I heard water dripping into a pool of water. The echoes lasted longer than they should have. My hand touched a cold piece of limestone jutting up from the floor. I was in a cave.

Working with a partner, students are to create a showing description based on one of the other telling sentences for setting above (springtime, midnight, recess, beach). If students finish earlier than the rest of the class, they should create a second paragraph based on a different setting.

If there is time, have students share some of their paragraphs whole class or with other partnerships.

Three Days Before Students Write:

This is an optional step of this pre-write, but it’s pretty powerful and it presents a unique way to show that would certainly impress a state scorer considerably if integrated into a student’s writing sample.

This showing technique works particularly well with settings. It’s called “Start with what isn’t there,” and the technique asks students to describe a place by first explaining what isn’t to be found there. This technique can become silly if non-relevant details are chosen: There are no pink elephants at this public beach, for example. But it can be a powerful way to set a mood, which is a sophisticated voice technique: No children and no loud music here. This day at the beach was going to be perfect.

This is a well-written mentor text!

Author Stephen Kramer has used this writing technique in several of his books and essays. If you happen to have a copy of his non-fiction picture book, Caves, you can share the first two pages of the book, which use the technique marvelously. You can compare Kramer’s setting description of a cave to the cave description from yesterday’s showing lesson. What’s remarkable to note in Kramer’s introduction is, first, he tells you what you’d never find in a cave, which sets a definite mood, and then the flashlights come on and he tells you what you would see. It’s a beautiful example of showing a setting in a unique way.

If you don’t have a copy of Caves, you can share and discuss these three pieces of student writing. Point out the technique these three writers have imitated from Kramer’s text. First, they tell you what isn’t there, and then they tell you what is.

WritingFix, by the way, features a larger version of this descriptive lesson, which comes with graphic organizers and more student samples. Click here to access the larger lesson based on the mentor text, Caves.

Students are to get back together with their partners from the previous day, and they are to revise their setting description by starting over from scratch. This time, they need to begin their setting description by sharing two or three things that would not be present in their settings, followed by two or three showing details from their drafts from yesterday.

Students are to work with other partners and compare today’s setting description with the previous day’s description, asking, “Which is better? Which sounds more natural to the reader’s ear?”

Two Days Before Students Write:

First of all, show your fifth grader’s their final practice prompt. This prompt is slightly similar to one of the practice prompts in the fourth grade section of this guide, but this one specifically asks students to include both feelings and setting details.

Remember a time when you did something that made you feel proud of yourself. Think about what you did and how you felt about it. Try to remember the details clearly in your mind. Then write about what you did, including the sights and sounds of the moment.

Students who remember writing about a proud moment in fourth grade can certainly write about the same moment, provided they use new writing skills they’ve learned about with this new draft, or they can focus on something new that has happened since fourth grade that made them proud.

Give students the day to think of three different times when they were proud of themselves. Inform them that they will need to have three possibilities to choose from when they come to class tomorrow so that they can do better pre-writing for the final practice prompt. Allow them time to share ideas with each other. You might create your own personal list of proud moments to share with them; if you do, make sure you show a range of proud moments: there are proud moments where there are lots of spectators (receiving an award, for example), but there are proud moments that involve just you and the world (the time you grew your first pumpkin, or the time you beat level 15 on your video game, for example).

You might show your students a few of the “Sparklers” that come with this lesson; when students read fellow-students’ samples, they can often think of new and better ideas for writing. These “Sparklers” make great discussion tools before students draft and right before they revise; there are more than enough “Sparklers” in the appendix to use during both points in this lesson.

You might give your students an index card at the end of the day and have them list any proud moments they think they could write about well tomorrow. If students can easily list three different instances, they can leave their index cards behind; students who don’t have three ideas should take their index cards home, talk over the prompt with their parents, and come with three ideas the next day.

One Day Before Students Write:

Show students the prompt again and have your writers look at the three options they have brainstormed. Ask, “Which proud moment has the most interesting setting that you could describe and show your reader during the moment you felt proud? I want you to practice showing skills for both your emotion—pride—and your setting with this final practice prompt, so choose the one story idea from your three that will let you do that the best.”

Allow students time to discuss their three options with each other, asking, “Which has the most interesting sounding setting to you?” Remind them that setting can be time or place—or both.

When students have chosen a proud moment that has an interesting setting connected to it, have them work on completing this brainstorming sheet, which asks them to prepare to show ideas for setting and emotion in their writing.

Time for the Rough Draft!

Show students the prompt one last time. Discuss it thoroughly. Teach them to paraphrase each sentence to prove they understand the entire expectation, not just part of it.

Remember a time when you did something that made you feel proud of yourself. Think about what you did and how you felt about it. Try to remember the details clearly in your mind. Then write about what you did, including the sights and sounds of the moment.

Right before they write, you might review 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.

Tell students only the very best ideas from yesterday’s brainstorming sheet should make it to their drafts. Remind them of the start with what isn’t there technique, which can be used to create a strong and unique introduction. Remind students, as they write, to be creating showing sentences throughout the writing for both setting and the emotion.

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 "Proud Moment Prompt" that we can feature at this page to promote furrther discussion from fifth 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.

Narrative Lesson:
What Your Room Shows about You

Overview: Robert McCammon’s novel--Boy's Life--captures the magic of everyday life, filled with adventure, discovery, fear, joy, and heartache. In the first two opening pages of the book, we meet Cory, an eleven-year-old boy, whose character we begin to understand based on the personal treasures he keeps in his room. This lesson has students brainstorm, then record some of their treasures on a writer's notebook page; it, then, encourages students to reflect on their own rooms (and their personal treasures) and write short narrative descriptions which will allow readers to know each writer better by the details he/she chooses to show about his/her room.

The mentor text
for this lesson


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