Your fourth grader and writing under the Common Core Standards

Compelling stories and research reports with multimedia components… fourth grade opens up a whole new writing world.

By Jessica Kelmon

Don’t tell your fourth grader, but one of the main points of the Common Core Standards — rigor — is clearly demonstrated in this year’s writing standards. Starting now, taking notes will be a mainstay of your child’s education. Your child’s stories — the ones she writes, not reads — will have developed characters who show their feelings and react to what happens. And perhaps most important, all year long your child will be expected to use the new ideas she’s learning to use to analyze books — like structure, logic, details, evidence — in her own daily writing.

Building 4th grade study skills

Last year your child dabbled in taking notes, but this year note taking becomes an important skill. Under the Common Core Standards, fourth graders are expected to use books, periodicals, websites, and other digital sources (like a library database) to conduct research projects — both on their own and as part of group work with peers. Your child should keep track of all the sources she checks — noting what she learns, the name of the source and page number or url so she can find it again and create a source list or bibliography later. A big step in your child’s research process this year is taking the time to write what she learns in her own words, then review and categorize her new knowledge. Which information is about the animal’s habitat? How about the animal’s lifespan? And what about the animal’s diet? Sorting evidence into categories will help her with the planning, writing, and revising stages of her project.

Is all research and note taking confined to nonfiction sources? Nope. Taking notes while reading fiction will help your child when it comes time to analyze what she's read or to give an in-depth description of a character, setting, or story event drawing on specific details.

bttr, better, best!

Last year’s prewriting step — planning — becomes ever more essential in your fourth grader’s multistep writing process. Before your child sits down to write, he should use his organized notes to help create the structure of whatever he’s writing. While planning, your child may brainstorm ideas for a story or decide how to organize facts into a cohesive set of points. The more knowledge your child builds during the prewriting stage, the easier it will be to write. Encourage reading and rereading, taking notes, finding additional sources, discussing aloud how new knowledge fits in with what your child knew before, and visually organizing what he plans to write about. After the first draft is written, the teacher and possibly other students will offer feedback: asking questions to elicit new details or clarify an argument or suggest new sources of information. They should check that there’s a clear introduction and conclusion, and that the order of points or events makes sense. Your child will then do a revision (or two), adding, reordering, and refining his writing to show true, deep understanding.

After making revisions, your child does a final edit — focusing on spelling, grammar, punctuation, and strengthening word choices. These steps — planning, writing a first draft, revising, and editing the final piece — help fourth graders understand that research, organizing, clarifying ideas, and improving grammar and presentation are all essential to strong writing.

4th grade opinion pieces

Under the Common Core Standards, written (and oral) opinions always need to be supported by evidence. Your child’s persuasive writing should start by clearly introducing your child’s opinion on a topic. To support her opinion, she'll need to present her argument, which is a list of reasons why she holds that opinion. Each of her reasons needs to be supported by facts and details (a.k.a. evidence). After presenting all of her research-supported reasons, she should close her argument with a concluding statement or paragraph that sums up how her evidence supports her opinion.

Check out this example of good fourth grade opinion writing:
• "Zoos should close"

4th grade informative writing

The purpose of informative writing is to convey facts and ideas clearly. This year, your child’s informative writing gets more organized — think formatting (like headers) and illustrations and even multimedia components to support specific points — all in an effort to make your child's writing more clear. To begin, your child should introduce her topic then use facts, definitions, details, quotes, examples, and other information to develop his topic into a few clear, well thought-out paragraphs. Your fourth grader should use advanced linking words (e.g. also, another, for example, because) to form compound and complex sentences connecting his research and ideas to the point he’s making. Finally, to wrap it up, your child should have a conclusion — either a statement or, if necessary, a section labeled conclusion.

Check out these three real examples of good fourth grade informational writing:
• "John Cabot and the Rediscovery of North America"
• "Big Book of Evolution"
• "Book report: A Tale of Despereaux"

4th grade narrative writing

A narrative means writing a story, and this year your child will be expected to use storytelling techniques, descriptive details, and clear sequences to tell compelling tales. Whether inspired by a favorite book, real events, or your child’s imagination, your child’s story should use dialogue, descriptive words, and transitional language. Look for precise language and sensory details that bring characters to life. Finally, your child should begin to keep pacing and sequence of events in mind — the events should unfold naturally, bringing the story to a natural conclusion. Are surprise endings okay? Sure… so long as the details and events plausibly lead there.

Check out this related worksheet:
• Putting sentences in order

What’s a “range of writing” mean?

Introduced in third grade, this fourth grade writing standard means more writing more often — whether it’s in 15-minute spurts or multi-week projects. However, this year you’ll want to think about the ways your child’s growing analytical reading skills can inform his writing skills. For instance, when you read a fiction book with your child, ask questions like What is that character feeling? Which words make you think that? Now see how your child can use those ideas in his own writing. You’ll want to take a similar approach to nonfiction writing. When reading nonfiction, ask What is the author trying to say? Or What reasons does she give to support her points? By asking these same questions during reading time, then again when your fourth grader is writing, you’ll help your child apply his growing reading skills to his own writing.

Check out this related worksheet:
• Finding key points

Gettin’ good at grammar

You may want to review all those parts of speech your child learned last year — because fourth grade grammar is expected to be quite accurate. Your child should gain command of relative pronouns (e.g. who, whose, whom, which, that), relative adverbs (e.g. where, when, why), adjective ordering (e.g. short dark hair and small red bag), descriptive prepositional phrases (e.g. in the air, down the block, on the grass), progressive past, present, and future verbs (e.g. I was walking, I am walking, I will be walking), and verbs used with other verbs to express mood or tense (aka modal auxiliaries, e.g. can, may, must, should, would). Your child needs to master the distinctions between frequently confused words like to, too, and two and there, their, and they’re. Last year’s compound and complex sentences continue this year, but with the added twist that your fourth grader should be able to recognize and correct run-ons and fragments.

Check out this related worksheet:
• Prepositions

Perfecting spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary

Building on your child’s arsenal of spelling and root word skills, the big hurdles this year all involve using language precisely.

This means:

  • Recognizing and explaining common idioms (e.g. bending over backwards)
  • Distinguishing between similes and metaphors (e.g. quiet as a mouse and the sun is a yellow beach ball).
  • Identifying and using synonyms and antonyms
  • Using increasingly specific words in writing (e.g. glamorous instead of pretty, pre-dawn instead of morning, quizzed instead of asked)

Your fourth grader should now be using relevant academic words in informational writing and research reports. Although accurate spelling should be the norm in fourth grade, when faced with spelling more academic words, your child should use a dictionary and thesaurus (print and digital versions). After so much grammar work last year, your child will get to focus on details this year, like capitalizing the right words, putting a comma before connecting conjuctions in compound sentences (e.g. I said yes, and then he said no.), and using commas and quotation marks to show text quotes or dialogue. Finally, encourage your child to have fun with her new language prowess by helping her choose words and punctuation for effect — for example, an exclamation point to show a character’s surprise! 

Check out these related worksheets:
4th grade weekly spelling lists
Its or it's?
Punctuating a paragraph

And it’s live!

The sweet final step: publishing! Once the research, planning, writing, revisions, and edits are done, your fourth grader is ready to publish. The Common Core Standards specify using “technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing.” The format is open — printing or electronic publishing on a blog, website, or even an app — but the standards clearly state that your fourth grader should be able to type up to a full page in one sitting. While teachers should be there to help, your child should be doing the work. Students will also be expected to interact with peers about each other’s work. What might that look like? Your child might read his classmates’ published work online and comment on it, or cite a peer’s work when answering a question in class.

What ever happened to cursive?

Traditionally, by the end of fourth grade kids have been expected to write legibly in cursive and use computers as a writing tool. The Common Core Standards cover using technology and typing: namely, independently typing a full page of content in one sitting. Since not all writing is expected to be typed, it’s logical to conclude that your fourth grader’s penmanship should be up to snuff. But there is no mention of cursive, though some states have opted to include it as part of their additions to the Common Core, and some teachers are still big believers in the importance of this age-old skill. So, it’s a great question for your child’s teacher: Will students be learning cursive in class? If not, will there be any focus on legible penmanship? If the answer is no, it’s a craft you may want to work on with your child at home.

Updated November 2013 to align with the Common Core Standards 

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.org.