I have spent years watching students attempt to start a written assignment with an introductory sentence and observing the frustration they experienced because they could not generate that first important sentence.

One day, while working with a student named Jaimie, I drew a circle and wrote the topic of the essay in the center of the circle. Then I encouraged Jamie to come up with as many words as possible about the topic. “Just tell me what pops into your head!” I coaxed.

After we had a circle full of words, I faced another challenge: Turning those words into sentences, then paragraphs, etc. So, I took scrap pieces of lined paper and handed Jaime one piece. “Pick a word”… This is how the Clustering Writing activity started.

I realized that students get overwhelmed with the big picture idea of writing a whole essay. The sense of overwhelm at the task seemed to stop many students cold. However, if I broke the task into chunks by having them write first one word at a time, then one sentence, then one paragraph until all the pieces were written, students could successfully put them together.

Each step of the way, they experienced success through what they accomplished. Instead of looking at a paragraph as so little done, they would look at a paragraph as one more chunk done!

My daughter was struggling with the effort of writing a scholarship application essay during her Junior year in high school. I had been using the clustering strategy with students with special needs for years. I had not tried it with an Honors level student. I showed her the technique and suggested she try it. This strategy worked so well for her she has continued to use it for all her writing assignments.

Research Background for Clustering

Graphic organizers have been applied across a range of curriculum subject areas. Although reading is by far the most well studied application, science, social studies, language arts, and math are additional content areas represented in the research base on graphic organizers.

In these subject areas, graphic organizers demonstrate benefits that extend beyond their well-established effects on reading comprehension.  Operations such as mapping cause and effect, note taking, comparing and contrasting concepts, organizing problems and solutions, and relating information to main ideas or themes can be broadly beneficial.

DownloadA graphical illustration of the clustering process

Ummm, Studying? What's That?For more information about study strategies for your student, see Susan Fitzell’s book, Ummm, Studying? What’s That?. Available in both print and electronic versions!

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