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Dr. Louis provides insight into practical, innovative, and effective strategies and best practices for teachers with questions and concerns about steps in JSWP, as well as designing and decoding writing prompts, literary selections, reading and annotating texts, classroom management, parent relationships, leadership, state and national tests, and much more!

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The Best Test

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
January 10, 2024

Dear Dr. Louis,

When teaching summary or text-based, other than modeling, how do we help students select the best CDs from a chapter or article that is summarized? In my experience, students have difficulty picking the most important details to include in a summary. When can we expect students to do this independently? Any tips?

Thank you,

Stephanie N.

‍Dear Stephanie,

Well, this skill is one that demands close reading, so reading comprehension is critical at the beginning -- also, putting a value on the prompt. Teachers need to learn to design effective prompts that guide the students to know what to look for ("the most important details"). Thirdly, discerning evidence is a developed skill; and to master it, the students must practice this skill in each content area.

I also like to teach students what I call "THE BEST TEST" for determining relevant, specific, and appropriate evidence (concrete details):



a.      Read and decode the prompt first.

b.      As you read the text, underline in red the CDs that you think BEST fit the prompt or list them on the "Dialectical Journal" (aka "Detective Journal for Elementary).

Limit selection to only 3-5 words in a row at a time. Find the words and phrases that pop.

c.       After you list the CDs on the "Gathering CDs" graphic organizer, use the process of elimination by asking, "Does this CD really fit the prompt?" Is it one of the BEST?

d.      When you narrow the list to the ones that BEST fit the prompt, the next step is to ask yourself, "Which of these do I understand the BEST or have the most knowledge about or have the most opinion about?" Circle one or more of these.

e.       If you feel comfortable writing on all of the ones you listed originally, then ask yourself, "Which of these would separate me from my classmates? In other words, my classmates will most likely choose this one because it's the easiest. I'm going to choose a different one to stand out as taking a different approach, a different angle. I want to answer with the BEST choice, not the easiest choice."


Summary or Paraphrasing

a.      Separate your text into 3-5 parts, depending on the length. An odd number is BEST.

b.      For 3

                                                             i.     Beginning

                                                           ii.     Middle

                                                         iii.     End

c.     For 5 (longer passages)

                                                             i.     Beginning (1)

                                                           ii.     Beginning (2)

                                                         iii.     Middle (1)

                                                         iv.     Middle (2)

                                                           v.     End

d.      Beginning -- Who was there? Where were they? And what happened? Facts only. No Commentary.

e.     Then go to the Ending -- Who was there? Where were they? And what happened? Facts only. No Commentary.

f.      Now, go to the Middle -- Ask yourself, "What happened in the middle that changed the course of this story or article?" Could be an issue, a conflict, a dilemma -- what we call the Exciting Force in Freytag's Pyramid. Find the BEST part of the middle here there appeared a situation, a shift, a climax.

g.       Try to limit your summary to 3-5 sentences. Then, you'll have to make good choices. Those are the CDs that are the most important.

Of course, when we have more time, a two-day workshop in person, for example, we would be able to hone in on the specifics of each mode, including skills such as this one.

To answer your question about “when can we expect students to do this independently?” Each student is different, and the answer depends upon how much practice they have. Even secondary students struggle with this skill when they do not have teachers’ modeling the skill, collaborating with the students on the skill, paired work, and independent practice. So, that’s a tough one for me to answer because there are too many variables. Formative assessments will help your teachers see each student’s progress. Summative assessments will assist you as you determine PD ideas to increase mastery on a skill such as this.

Hope this helps, Stephanie!


Keep reading and writing!


Dr. Louis

"I Don't Know How to Start!": Teaching Students How to Decode the Prompt

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
November 29, 2023

Good evening, Dr. Louis,

I have attached an example prompt that one of our teachers decoded. Would you please review it and provide some feedback? I have looked it over myself, but I want to be sure that my feedback is in alignment with the expectations of JSWP. How would this decoded prompt score on the Decoding the Prompt Rubric?

Thank you,
Desiree A.

Dear Desiree,

Thank you for reaching out to me. If students don’t know how to decode their writing prompts, then they are doomed from the beginning. “Decoding the Prompt” is one of the most important skills in writing. And, as students move into middle school, high school, and college, the prompts will become more difficult. So, starting now in elementary school makes me happy and proud.

I can tell that the teacher put much effort into this; the main error was the determination of CD, which affected the determination of CM. The score would be 8/12. See the attached rubric.

Here are my recommendations for honing this skill:

  1. THE TITLE. Is it a short story or a novel? If it's a short story, put quotations around the title at the top and in the prompt. If it is a novel, underline both places. Also, include the author. Students need to know how to include authors' names in their responses.
    * Gerald is an awkward giraffe who attends an African dance party.
       Stop there.
    * I caution teachers to avoid providing analysis in the background sentence(s). Sometimes, in our attempt to guide the students, we give them the answers, and then they have nowhere to go, or they simply repeat the prompt.
    * You're looking for students to develop an understanding of tone (humiliation and confidence) to answer the question about the lesson. Don't tell them; let them show you!
    * I especially like your background sentence for its diction and opportunity for a grammar lesson. Let me explain:
            - "awkward" and "attends" - When teachers model good word choice, it helps students learn new vocabulary and how it is placed in a sentence.
            - Proper Nouns - The first sentence also teaches students about the proper noun "African."
            - Grammar and diction should be modeled. Good work!
    * I'm wondering if this writing assignment needs to be two one-chunk paragraphs: 1) At the party with the conflict, and 2) after the party where the lesson is learned.
    * CD = Your teacher wrote, "The lesson that Gerald learns at the end of the story." This is incorrect. Remember, CD is plot summary in Response to Literature. So, what happens in the story.
    * CM - The lesson he learns and the importance of that lesson could be the CS.

Also, the teacher might be trying to do too much in the confinements of a one-chunk paragraph. The teacher might receive better results if she 1) asks for a one-chunk paragraph for only the beginning of the story when Gerald feels humiliated; or 2) asks for two one-chunk paragraphs in which the students show the progression of the story and the lesson learned.

     TS = Gerald doesn’t quite fit in.
     CD = He attends a party, and when he dances, the other animals laugh at him. (plot)
     CM = Tone / He feels sad.
     CM = Tone / He wants to be appreciated for who he is.
     CS =Everyone wants to be liked.


     TS = After the party, Gerald learns an important lesson.
     CD = What actually happens (no commentary – plot summary only)
     CM = Tone –What is Gerald’s attitude now?
     CM= What is the lesson of the story?
     CS = Why is this lesson important for all people to learn?

Another idea: if the teacher doesn’t want the students to write two paragraphs, then she could write the first one as a model, and the students could write the second one. This sample is a good beginning, and I’m so grateful that you are sharing, so we can look at this skill closely.

Keep reading and writing!


Color Vision Impaired Students . . . What Do We Do?

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
October 6, 2023


We have a color vision impaired student . . . I remember that came up once . . . What do we do?

-- Ms. Melissa B.

Dear Melissa,

But what if you have a student who has color vision impairment? --  a not so unusual trait in many people – teachers, too! This is a situation in which a student or teacher is unable to discern color? Once you discover those students in your classroom, or if you have this challenge as well, one way to solve this problem is to label each pen with its color: blue, red, green, or black.

Here’s an interesting story: I met a man who had CVI, color vision impairment, and when I told him that we labeled the pens with the colors, he told me that when he knows that the color is supposed to be blue, for example, “his brain registers blue, and the color blue actually appears.” I thought that was an amazing discovery.

Another way we help students solve this problem is to have them draw symbols in front of each sentence.

On your notes page in your guide, I’d like for you to find Topic Sentence, abbreviated as TS, and draw a star. The star is our symbol for topic sentence, and we ask our students with CVI to either use a labeled pen or draw a star in front of their topic sentence, or both.

For the Concrete Detail, pick up your red pen. The abbreviation is CD. You’ll create a red label for the students’ pens or ask the students to draw a rectangle that looks similar to a concrete block.

For the Commentary, pick up your green pen. The abbreviation is CM. You’ll create a green label for the students’ pens or ask the students to draw a circle in front of their CM sentences. We chose a circle because it symbolizes wholeness and completeness of thought.

And for the Concluding Sentence, abbreviated as CS, you’ll have the students use the blue pen again. I know you were about to pick up your black pen! No, we bookend the body paragraph with blue. For the CS, the symbol is a star plus an exclamation point. It reflects the topic sentence, hence the star. But it also has impact!

For the body paragraph, we use blue, red, and green. Black will come later.

The Thesis Statement: A Promise Between a Writer and Her Reader

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
March 27, 2023


My school uses the Jane Schaffer Writing Program for 7th-8th grades both in history and in English classes. We teach about thesis statements in 7th grade, and other teachers on campus begin teaching them in 6th grade and even 5th grade. With your expertise, what age/grade on average is the developmentally appropriate age/grade to first introduce thesis statements? – Mindy R.

Thank you for sharing any wisdom/expertise with us!

Hi, Mindy,

I have worked with elementary teachers for many years, and I find that third grade is the year that teachers require students to write multi-paragraph essays, which require an introduction and, therefore, a thesis statement (sometimes known as a “controlling idea” in the elementary setting). I instruct third and fourth grade teachers to write a one-sentence introduction that is the thesis statement. When students come to fifth grade, we create an introduction with two sentences: a thematic sentence that provides a broad idea related to the topic and then the thesis statement.

Middle school and high school students learn my ten percent rule: an introduction should be ten percent of an essay. In other words, if a teacher assigns a 2,500 word essay, students should write about a 250-word introduction. The same advice goes for the conclusion.


I start by teaching the framed thesis. A framed thesis names the topic of each paragraph. For example, if my essay is about what I like most about April, then I would name what I like most in my thesis statement.

The month of April is special because it is the time when flowers bloom and the weather warms.

My first body paragraph would be about the colors that come from budding flora. My second body paragraph would be about the weather allowing me to wear lighter clothing. The framed thesis is a good way to start because it helps students organize their essays and begins instruction about structure and logic.

In upper level grades, or after students have mastered the framed thesis, I introduce the open thesis. An open thesis is more thematic. It does not identify the topics but rather guides the essence of the essay.

The month of April makes me feel young again.

I will still discuss the colorful blooms and the warm breeze, but I don’t name them in the thesis. The open thesis leaves a little more to the reader’s imagination.

The more exposure to the thesis statement, the better. Each academic year, literary and nonliterary texts become more sophisticated as do writing prompts. Naturally, then, the thesis statements become more sophisticated. If you have a multi-pronged prompt, you will have a multi-pronged thesis.

Many high school English language arts and social studies teachers like debatable thesis statements. That thesis statement lends itself to the art of teaching argumentation.

As the students get taller in their heads, the thesis becomes more complex. I had a wonderful mentor, who taught high school seniors, tell me years ago that a thesis is a compound-complex thought and, therefore, it should be a compound complex sentence.

The thesis statement is a promise, an agreement, and some would say a contract between a writer and her reader. Every word, every phrase, every sentence, and every paragraph in an essay should strive to support and prove the thesis. The thesis statement is that important!

Keep reading and writing!

Warm regards,

Dr. Louis

The Difference Between Assigning Writing and Teaching Writing

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
September 6, 2022

Dear Dr. Louis, Would you review this prompt and give me feedback? “This week in class we talked about happiness and what things make you happy. Reflect on those things we talked about. Then, in 5 sentences, please summarize your thoughts …

Dear Dr. Louis,

Would you review this prompt and give me feedback? 

"This week in class we talked about happiness and what things make you happy.  Reflect on those things we talked about. Then, in 5 sentences, please summarize your thoughts for this week.  Please use 12-point font, Times New Roman, double space, and YMCA for your heading.”

Tina H.

Sure, Tina. I can see that you learned the parts of the prompt well at our workshop together. I love your "Background Sentence" and "Trigger Sentence." For your "Task," I'd like to see you start your year out using your prompt to support and reinforce the JSWP terminology and elements of good writing, guiding your students to an understanding of your expectations for this and future writing prompts.

First, is the writing assignment a paragraph, a short answer, or bulleted sentences? Each type of writing has rules to follow, so identifying the required structure up front helps the students’ thinking. This request looks like a paragraph to me.

Second, since it’s a summary of what the students have learned, is the JSWP ratio 2+:1 or 3+:0? It looks like you want some commentary, so let’s go with 2+:1.

Let’s give them more guidance since the students are new to your class and new to your expectations. In another email, you indicated that your colleague in the previous year taught them JSWP. Use this opportunity to refresh their knowledge, assess their skills, and address their curiosity that what they learned last year will be built upon this year. Consider the following foundational prompt.

"This week in class we talked about happiness and what things make you happy.  Reflect on those things we talked about. Then, in a well-developed body paragraph,(2+:1), explore what truly makes you happy. For your topic sentence, assert what truly makes you happy. For your 2-3 sentences of concrete details, provide examples and situations that you have experienced or that people have discussed that created this happiness within you. For your commentary sentence, answer this question: What is it about this happiness that separates you from others? And for your concluding sentence, write a sentence about how your happiness might affect others. Please use 12-point font, Times New Roman, double space, and YMCA for your heading."

Once students see this layout -- this foundational prompt -- they'll realize that they must decode a prompt into a logical, organized thought process. Sure, eventually, you wean them off of direct instruction about sentences. How do you do that? After several times prompts with precise instructions, you ask them, "Who or what are you writing about? Circle in blue the subject of the assignment." They should be able to identify the subject/topic of the assignment that would belong in their topic sentence or thesis statement (if you are assigning an essay). 

Next, ask them, "What concrete details will you be searching for that will support your topic sentence?" Let them tell you and underline those in red in the prompt.

Continue with, "What's the ratio of this assignment?" If the assignment is literary, style, or rhetorical analysis, it's 1:2+. If the students are writing an expository (nonfiction), argument, or narrative, it's 2+:1.

Next question, "What type of commentary is the prompt asking you to write? Circle that in green. Words might be "discuss," "explain," "investigate." Ask the students, "What are you going to discuss that comes from your analytical mind, your heart and soul, your gut, your instincts, and your intuition?" The answer should be something like "the importance, the significance, the impact, or the effect of what they have learned.”

So, when you give a prompt such as the original prompt noted again below, you can now ask the students how to unpack or decode it, because you’ve specifically practiced the process with them on several prior occasions:

"This week in class we talked about happiness and what things make you happy.  Reflect on those things we talked about. Then, in 5 sentences, please summarize your thoughts for this week.  Please use the 12- point font, Times New Roman, double space, and YMCA for your heading.”

There's a difference between teaching and assigning writing. You'll be teaching them!

Keep Reading and Writing!

Warm regards,

Dr. Louis

Cherry Blossoms Scatter

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
May 2, 2022

It is precisely because Cherry blossoms scatter That we find them appealing. Does anything endure for long In this world of sorrows? – “Tales of Ise” 125 Mother was sitting at her Singer sewing machine …

It is precisely because

Cherry blossoms scatter

That we find them appealing.

Does anything endure for long

In this world of sorrows?

– “Tales of Ise” 125

Mother was sitting at her Singer sewing machine nestled in the corner of our formal dining room when she called Alicia and me into the room.

“Girrlsss!” Her beckoning, soulful tone filled the hallways of our home.

To our mother’s loving New England voice, I, a ten year-old tomboy, and my sister, a twelve year-old genius and my hero, scampered from our peach-colored bedroom with twin beds placed against a beautiful and broad bay window where lightning bugs visited on warm, southern Texas nights. When we arrived, the reliable whirr of the sewing machine stopped. We hadn’t a clew of what she wanted: perhaps she would assign another Saturday chore of housecleaning, perhaps she would announce an upcoming evening event at which I could wear the new Easter dress that I had been allowed to wear only once, the delicate white fabric scattered with red cherry blossoms. She had not called for Jimmy, our little brother, so maybe it was just a girl thing, something about dinner fixings, a fitting, or maybe—a secret. She continued peering at the unmanifested fabric as she quietly said, “Girls, I need to tell you something. I have leukemia.”

What? What did she say? What . . . did . . . she . . . say? I stood there listening, but I didn’t hear. She didn’t cry, so I wasn’t afraid. She didn’t elaborate, so I didn’t understand. What was she telling me? What had to be for her and what should have been for me, a heart-wrenching revelation, was stated so matter-of-factly, that it felt like she was announcing a typical afternoon appointment or an errand to run, and Alicia and I would be expected to watch over Jimmy. And where was Dad? If this were really important, wouldn’t Dad be with her, with us?

I don’t remember what else she said, really. I only remember that spring was gone, summer had begun, a cool Saturday afternoon aired before me, and I should be out in it, riding my blue bike around the neighborhood or finding the tallest oak tree to climb.

It has been more than fifty years since that day, and I still seek the tallest oaks to climb; but, every once in a while I remember that afternoon. Like last night, after a memorable day at Pacifica Graduate Institute of Dr. Miller taking me “down and into” convex and concave mirrors, leading me forward and backward with images of Caravaggio and Picasso, of altered kaleidoscopes and rippled reflections, as I lay on my twin bed in the solitude of my private chamber, overlooking a garden where hummingbirds visit me on cool Santa Barbara nights, I cried for my mother’s comforting New England voice and the beautiful, scattered cherry blossoms.

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