The Reluctant Writer’s Key Words

Nov 04, 2022 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

Part 1 of this three-part series described four roadblocks that stand in the way of the reluctant writer. Part 2 will explain Units 1 and 2 of the Structure and Style method, which is a clear and comprehensive approach to teaching writing.

  1. “I don’t know what to write about!”
  2. Writing is complicated.
  3. Practice is not rewarded.
  4. Writing is treated as a separate subject.

The Structure and Style method is a clear and comprehensive approach to teaching writing. Composed of structural models and stylistic techniques that are sequentially and systematically modeled and practiced, this approach successfully removes these roadblocks as students move through nine units of instruction. The first two units consist of four steps you can try with your students right away.

This fable is typical of paragraphs used in Units 1 and 2.


1. Pick three key words.

Read the story to your class all the way through. As you read the text, stop periodically to build your students’ schema by providing background information and defining unknown vocabulary.

Copy the outline format shown in the graphic above on your classroom whiteboard or on paper using a document camera. Go back and read each sentence aloud again with your students, one sentence at a time, calling on students to suggest three key words that unlock the meaning of each sentence. As words are suggested, ask students to underline them in the story. It is important to limit students to no more than three key words; however, numbers, symbols, and abbreviations are not counted as words in our method.

On the whiteboard write the three suggested words on the line next to the Roman numeral I in the order in which they appear in the original sentence, separating each word with a comma like this example: F, fell, well,  escape. Complete the rest of the outline together in the same manner. If your students are catching on, feel free to let them complete the last sentence independently. Some students may be ready earlier in the lesson.

When the outline is finished, have your students fold their papers in half so that they do not see the original paragraph of “The Fox and the Goat.” They should only be able to see their key word outline in Step 2.

We encourage you to practice creating key word outlines with your students using other short texts, such as fables, a paragraph from a science or history lesson, etc. Let your students decide which key words work best for them; there are no right or wrong answers. Debating which key words best capture the meaning of a sentence makes for lively discussion in the class. As long as the words they choose help them in Step 2, the key words they choose will work.

2. Verbally recite complete sentences.

The next step in the process is to tell back the information verbally, creating complete sentences from the key words. Repeating the sentences verbatim is not the goal. Instead, you want your students to use the key words to form complete sentences that make sense. In order to write complete sentences, students must be able to speak in complete sentences. How does this work?

As adults we can easily forget what a complex process writing is for a child. In his talk Nurturing Competent Communicators, IEW founder Andrew Pudewa reminds us that in order for a child to write, he must first think of an idea and then find the words to speak each sentence into existence—aloud or internally—in order to make them concrete. Before he can write a sentence, another complex process, the student must hear what he said. This is easier when the sentence is said out loud rather than thought of silently.

Before moving on to the writing step, students will benefit from opportunities to create several key word outlines from short, easy-to-read paragraphs and to practice choosing words and telling back content until the practice becomes fairly easy. Continue to model the process, allowing those who are ready to work more independently to retell with a partner.

3. Write the paragraph.

After students verbally tell back the content in complete sentences, the next step is to rewrite the paragraph together from the key word outline. The original paragraph should remain hidden from view. Starting with Roman numeral I, ask for volunteers to create a sentence for each line of key words in the outline as you write the sentence on the board in paragraph form. Students may copy from the board as you write. Invite those who are ready to write the last sentence or two independently while you continue to work together with the rest of the class.

Repeat this process with the key word outlines the class has created and retold from other short paragraphs in Steps 1 and 2. When students are ready to write a first draft independently, remember that composition, spelling, and handwriting are different brain functions. Do not expect perfect spelling or neatness. As you help, do not overcorrect or lecture. Instead, encourage your students by praising their efforts. Continued praise helps reluctant writers overcome their resistance.

4. Assign the final copy.

After the students are finished, edit for correct spelling, syntax, and punctuation as appropriate to the age level. You may then have the students neatly copy (or type) a final version. The first draft is not the final draft.

These steps should be repeated until the process has become relatively easy. Don’t hesitate to help, give suggestions, and even dictate sentences if necessary. This practice will eventually lead to mastery of the structure of writing. When you feel the class has confidence and understands the process, proceed to Part 3: Helping Reluctant Writers Write with Style.

This is the second in a three-part series dedicated to “Reaching the Reluctant Writer,” an hour-long workshop taught at conventions and webinars. If you would like to schedule this or another workshop for your faculty, contact the Schools Division or your school’s Educational Consultant.

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