Writing with a Plan: Using the Four-Square Writing Method

The Four Square Writing Method is a great way to help students plan and organize their ideas. This post includes links and ideas for primary and upper elementary.
Do you enjoy solving puzzles? Whether you're working a math problem, trying to understand a concept in science, or trying to solve a mystery, your brain sort of works in the same way. We use equations, graphic organizers, and even drawings to make sense of the information we're looking at, right? Well, the Four Square Writing Method is a great way for students in the primary and intermediate grades to map out their thinking and better plan their writing just like other graphic organizers and drawings help us clarify other concepts. Today, I thought I'd share a few ways I've made use of the four-square writing method to help my kids improve their writing.

INTRODUCTION

Before you can use Four Square with your students, they have to learn how the framework works. With my students, I've used a gradual release model through writer's workshop to demonstrate the format in action before having my kids use it themselves. There are really great powerpoint presentations that other teachers have shared on the web. THIS LINK is to one I've used often to introduce how four square works. I love the simple examples for writing just a paragraph and the more elaborate examples for writing informational essays. THIS PRESENTATION shows an essay example for various writing formats including:
  • descriptive
  • informational
  • persuasive
  • and narrative

GETTING STARTED

The first step I take when I'm using four square is to build background on the assigned topic. Students are much more able to write freely if they have a word bank, a list of ideas or related topics, and a model to imitate. One of the biggest complaints from kids who struggle with writing is the dreaded "I don't know what to write about!" I would argue that we hear this more if/when students haven't had adequate "think" time. Simple things that can alleviate writing stress are examples to follow and a word bank of related words to support spelling.

Plan a Brave Moments writing piece with this organizer featured on Comprehension Connection using Brave Irene as a mentor text.
With this example, I use the book, Brave Irene by William Steig as the mentor text. It is very descriptive, and William Steig's carefully mapped out plot helps students get a sense of story structure first before beginning their own stories.

When I'm ready to begin writing, I use this organizer to build ideas. Each student comes up with four examples of times when they had to be brave. The four examples here are getting shots, going through a car accident, riding a rollercoaster, or going through a bad storm. Other topics could include seeing a snake, going in a dark room, riding a bike the first time, flying, or being the new kid.

Once topic ideas are chosen, then I have my kids think of related words. This helps the kids think of ideas as well as words they may want to include.

FOUR SQUARE IN ACTION

Once students are ready with ideas, then it's time to dig out the four square maps. When your students are new to Four Square, it takes close monitoring to insure that they have a complete plan before they move to drafting. If your students are like mine, they'll try shortcuts. Once the routine is established though, they will see how much it helps them. 

Four Square Writing helps young writers plan and organize their ideas. In this example, primary students plan a paragraph about going to the doctor with Brave Irene as a mentor text.
For students in first and second, the teacher may use the plan for outlining just one paragraph versus a full story with more detail. The example to the left is a primary example (in my words). When modeling, I'd suggest projecting the four square form or printing the form as a poster.

When you're ready to get your kids started, you might give your kids a list of connecting words as a support. I've created THIS LIST to share with you. I organized it to follow the four square plan, and even kids in upper elementary may find it helpful. Additionally, little ones may need the boxes numbered to help them organize their thinking.

IN THE UPPER GRADES

In upper elementary, we move from writing paragraphs to writing papers. Instead of each block being used for a sentence, we look at each block as a paragraph. We want students to continue using connecting words, but we want more variety in the word choice. We also want elaboration on each event or paragraph topic. As students in upper elementary make use of the Four Square plan, it's important to use bulleted lists versus full sentences. 

Another key point to share with your students is that a complete plan leads to better writing. I do not let my students move to the drafting stage until I've seen a complete writing plan. As they work on them, I float and confer with the kids to help them talk out their ideas. If writing blocks happen, talking it out makes a huge difference.  To see how I used Four Square with Brave Irene for upper elementary, check out the Facebook Live below:

BRAVE IRENE

If you're working on brave moments, you might need additional book choices to extend your theme. These books with courage/bravery as a message work well.Brave Irene really is a must have mentor text.  It's important for teachers to help students make the reading-writing connection, and using great literature as exemplars helps you do this. With mentor texts like this one, I begin by using it to teach comprehension skills such as characterization, plot development, and author's craft. As we work on comprehension skills, kids notice things like word choice and organization. 

In addition to Brave Irene, you might pull in other books where the main character shows bravery or courage. Some of my favorites with this theme include Wilma Unlimited, Bully, Henry's Freedom Box, Scaredy Squirrel, Sheila Rae, The Brave, Thunder Cake, The Story of Ruby Bridges, Amazing Grace, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. You might share some of these and have your students come up with challenges or situations where courage is needed.
Image result for writers are readers

PROFESSIONAL READING

If you like the organization of this unit, you might check out this wonderful book by Lester Laminack. Last spring, our literacy coaching team did a book study on it, and I loved how Laminack tied reading and writing together for better instruction. Because writing takes time to develop, it seems we short change it. What we fail to realize is that looking at texts from a writer's lens helps us deepen reading comprehension.  
This post features Brave Irene as a mentor text and demonstrates how to use the Four Square Method for planning and organization. Check out the tips and links to help you with writing instruction.

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