How to Teach Students to Write to Sources: Using Color-Coding to Analyze Writing Prompts

How to use color coding to teach writing to sources

Do your students struggle to write content that actually follows the prompt? If so, you are not alone! It can be frustrating when students don’t comprehend the writing prompt, especially because the state tests are jam-packed with prompts that must be followed. In recent years, the Common Core writing standards have gotten laser-focused on writing to sources rather than process writing.

“Writing to sources” can seem, on the surface, like an easy thing to teach, but it is not! Taking an informational text, analyzing the content, and then crafting a fictional narrative is a very complex skill for children. 

Identifying the Problem: Students Don’t Understand Their Writing Prompts

I’ll never forget the time my lesson assessing this skill flopped. I gave my students an informational text about a national park. Their writing prompt asked them to write a fictional narrative about a family vacation to the park, using details from the text. 

A few kids nailed it, but the vast majority wrote straight facts about the park. They simply missed (or ignored) the entire “fictional narrative” part of the assignment. After letting out a quick sigh of frustration, I began to unpack what went wrong. 

My students had mastered step one, which was to make meaning of the text. They understood the informational text, and most of them did a great job of pulling out meaningful details. Step two is where it went off the rails. 

Step two requires students to analyze and comprehend the writing prompt. In the case of the national park assignment, they needed to take information from one type of text (informational) and use it to write a different type of text (fictional narrative). I knew I needed to shift the way I taught these important writing skills. 

My focus needed to be on helping students learn to dissect and analyze writing prompts. Yes, this skill is crucial to succeeding on their state tests, but it’s also an important step toward higher-level critical thinking. And that, of course, is a skill worth much more than a great test score.

The Solution: Teaching Students to Analyze Writing Prompts 

After coming to this realization, I began developing my Mentor Texts Writing Prompts series. The emphasis throughout this series is on teaching students how to analyze the prompt. Students can’t craft an effective response if they don’t fully understand what is being asked of them. This resource teaches students a color-coding process to help them pick apart the prompt and truly understand what they’re being asked to write about. 

Because the focus is on analysis, we don’t always get to all the stages of the writing process. And that’s okay! I emphasize quality over quantity. There’s no minimum word count, no need to have a multi-part drafting process each time. What I want my students to do is really hone in on analyzing the prompt itself. The most well-written story in the history of all third graders won’t work on the state test if it totally misses the point of the prompt. 

How Color-Coding Helps Students Analyze Writing Prompts

My mentor texts writing prompts revolve around a variety of themes, each one using familiar picture books that are well-loved by students. The color-coding process makes it easy to repeat the process over and over. Color-coding is an especially effective way to engage your visual learners. 

Anecdotally, I’ve seen how effective color-coding can be, but the science backs it up as well. Color activates several different regions of the brain, which improves a person’s ability to recall information. Several peer-reviewed studies have proven that a consistent color-coding system, like the one I use to teach students how to analyze a prompt, can improve memory. 

Here’s how my process works: 

After reading or listening to the picture book, students begin to analyze the prompt. We do this by identifying the three most important pieces of a prompt: 

  • The main topic: What will I be writing about?
  • The type of writing: Will I be writing an informational, narrative, or opinion text?
  • The source: What sources will I need to use?

Students return to the prompt to find the answers to each of these questions. They will then underline in the corresponding color: red for the main topic, blue for the type, and green for the source. We use the same colors every time to keep it consistent. After just a few tries, this becomes second-nature for a lot of my students. Certainly, by the end of the year, they’re pros! 

Next Step: Finding Text Evidence

Once students fully understand the writing prompt, I teach them how to find text evidence. The mentor text writing prompts in my store include the step-by-step process I use to walk my students through this skill. It definitely takes practice, so don’t expect your kiddos to catch on immediately! For my students, this is a year-long process (which is why my bundle includes over 55 writing prompts to last an entire year!). 

If you want to put this process into action, you can download this free sample lesson below. You’ll receive a writing prompt based on the picture book The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi plus a Find Text Evidence student page to try. This particular prompt asks students to switch from a narrative text (The Name Jar) to writing an opinion-based text. You can see how effective it is to hone in on the details of the prompt using color-coding. 

If you like the way the lesson goes with your students, grab the full bundle. You won’t have to plan another writing prompt lesson by yourself again! 

“The Name Jar” Freebie!

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    Then it’s time to write!

    After the students have analyzed the prompt and understand what they need to write about, and after they have pulled text evidence to support their ideas, it’s time to write. From here, I walk students through the drafting, revising, editing, and publishing writing process.

    So as you can see, this is a really easy way to have a consistent writing routine that teaches students to write to sources! The consistency along with the familiar picture books will help students build confidence in their writing. Plus, it’s just really fun! 🙂

    Thoughts? Questions? Leave them in the comments for me!

    Come join us over in the Benchmark Advance Planning, Organization, and Tips Facebook Group, where we share, collaborate, and support one another! Can’t wait to see you there! 

    Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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