Teaching Writing: Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian, cleric, and human rights activist, once said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” This famous analogy can help teachers in many ways: when they are stressed, when they have a seemingly impossible amount of work to do, and even when they are faced with the daunting task of helping their students become strong writers.

Writing is a multi-faceted art, and teaching students how to write, mainly, how to write well, is quite a challenge.

One piece at a time

One successful strategy I’ve employed in my classroom is focusing on just one small aspect of writing at a time. Yes, it takes time, but it also gives students the time they need to master a writing concept. I don’t teach, nor do I grade, the entire elephant at a time. I only focus on one bite at a time, and it works.

When I do this, I teach just one concept, and then I assign a small writing assignment. I start this process at the beginning of the year during our short story unit when I teach students how to correctly embed quotes in their writing. For each short story we read, I assign a short three-sentence prompt. For example, the prompt might be as follows: How does the author include foreshadowing to create a suspenseful mood? Click HERE to sign up for the free download!

Provide immediate feedback

For their response, students answer the prompt and give relevant information in their topic sentence, include a properly embedded and cited quote for their second sentence, and finish the prompt with one sentence of commentary. I grade the paper as a 10 or a 5. A 10 signifies that a student has mastered the concept I just taught, and a five means they attempted it but fell short.

Since the student response is so short, I can quickly assess my students’ writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. As my students work on their responses, I circulate throughout the room and grade each response as students finish. If they didn’t quite show me that they understand the concept, I point out to them in a one-on-one setting at their table what they did well, what they need to work on, and how they can fix it. Also, since the 10 or 5 grade is so harsh, I give my students unlimited opportunities to revise their work throughout the week until they get a 10. I’ve done this for a few years now, and the vast majority of my students revise their papers to 10s.
Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers
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Practice makes perfect

I typically repeat this process 2-3 times with short responses before moving on to a more substantial writing assignment. By the time my students have completed a few different three-sentence writing responses, they are ready to demonstrate mastery in a full-length essay. When I grade the essay, I take a look at other writing concepts, but I really focus my efforts on assessing the concept I just taught. If I recently covered properly embedding and citing quotes, that is the concept in which I want my students to do well.

When I finish a unit with my students, I move onto a new writing concept with them. Each new writing concept builds on the previous concept.

Another writing concept that I single out and focus on is commentary writing. After reading my students’ commentary from their previous passages, I’ve noticed that so many of them write “this quote shows” or “in this quote” at the beginning of their commentary sentences. To help my students move away from this, I teach my students how to write about quotes. I urge them to refer back to a word or phrase from the quote rather than saying “this shows.” And we repeat the same process, but this time with new writing assignments. 

With each new writing concept I teach, I add that concept to my list of elements to grade in student writing. I find this strategy is more comfortable to manage for my students; it does not overwhelm them. Also, this helps me with my grading time. Rather than marking up every single error in an essay, I focus my efforts on just one concept at a time. In doing so, I can provide all 170 of my students with meaningful feedback that helps them become stronger writers.

This strategy might take a bit longer to get to all of the writing concepts I want to cover with my students, but this slow and steady strategy sticks. My students become stronger, more confident writers one bite at a time.

More Writing Resources:

Paragraph of the Week by Presto Plans
Word Choice by Room 213
Sentence Fluency by Stacey Lloyd
Free Writing Anchor Chart by Tracee Orman

Breaking down writing instruction to build strong writers

4 Creative Reading Activities to Spark Engagement

Creative Reading:
it's what happens when the reader takes the reins.

Hey, y'all! It's Danielle from Nouvelle ELA here. We spend a LOT of time reading books and watching TV and movies in our household, and one game we love to play is “what if”. What if the ending had been different? The characters had had a stronger motivation? The main conflict had been more believable? This is what I call creative reading.

In fact, in pretty much every episode of the YA CafĂ© Podcast, we ask ourselves and our listeners how the story would have turned out differently if the characters or plot points would have been tweaked just a little bit. What if Leah hadn’t been turned into a love interest in the movie Love, Simon? What if Bri had had more people in her corner in On the Come Up? What if the main character has been transgender in Death Prefers Blondes?

Strong readers do this all the time. Readers and viewers who do this have two experiences: the experience of seeing the story as the creator intended it, and then the joy that comes after, the joy of molding the story to be your own. If you’ve ever written fanfiction, then you know about that: the freedom you have to explore more of the world and more from the characters you already love.

Our students deserve creative reading, too. We can share opportunities and guidance in imagining alternatives for each page of a novel. Reading is about absorbing someone else’s choices for a set of characters and events; creative reading is about reshaping a story to imagine possibilities. Creative Reading is about transformation.

Practicing creative reading means taking ownership of material. When you imagine alternatives, you're writing your own story. It builds student confidence, endurance, and a love for reading, while still providing space to play.

Here are some ways to give your students space to read creatively:

1. Share a songfic or filk.

One of the most commercial types of creative reading and fanfiction in general is songfic. This is any time that someone takes a work of fiction and shapes a song around it. Generally, they aren’t just telling the story we all know and love, but pushing it to the next level somehow. Maybe they’re telling a story about what comes after or sharing the story we already know from a new perspective.

Here’s an example of a songfic from Katniss’ perspective in The Hunger Games. This is a parody video, but it also shows some creative reading. The song is parodying Katniss’ indecision between Gale and Peeta, but also ridiculing the fact that she thinks about that at all in a time of war. The creator then speculates about the sort of advice Katniss would receive from Rue.

I also consider Ed Sheeran’s song “I See Fire” a songfic of Tolkien’s characters and situations. Yes, that song was used in The Hobbit movie, but you can definitely see evidence of creative reading – Sheeran is imagining a character’s thoughts from first-person, whereas the original text was in third. Sharing songs with students is such an easy way to show them that creative reading is everywhere!

Some books leave us free and some books make us free. 
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

2. Have students write songs.

Still in the musical vein, you can have students write songs about a book they’ve read or one of your class novels. You can even narrow down the topic. I’ve had students write songs about the symbolism they found during our reading of The Pearl. Generally, students find it much easier to rewrite the words of an existing song than coming up with a tune on their own.

This is a great form of creative reading because it also uses multiple intelligences. Students are not only processing their understanding of a novel; they are sharing insight via a new medium.

When we read, our mind begins unraveling new ideas. 
– Terry Heick

3. Use Creative Reading Task Cards

I developed Creative Reading Task Cards to give students some structure as they practice this skill. Each card asks one focus question about plot, character, conflict, theme, and setting.

You can use this concept as part of independent reading, literature circles, or with a whole-class novel. Students can sit in quiet reflection and think about different options for the story, or they can use the prompts to guide a discussion. Strong readers know what it’s like to get so engaged in a “what if” conversation with a friend that just builds and builds until we have a brand new, big and beautiful story. We can offer students the same opportunity.

Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere. 
– Mary Schmich

4. Let your students write fanfiction.

When it comes to fanfiction, the sky’s the limit. You could take anything you’ve read in class – any story, poem, or novel – and ask students to keep writing. Ask them to write a deleted scene or even completely reimagine an existing scene. Ask them to map the existing text on a new setting. What if Wonder had taken place fifty years into the future? What if Harry Potter took place at an American high school?

Imagine the Possibilities

Some students need permission to imagine. They don’t know the “secret”—that strong readers already do this. You can model one a task as a think-aloud to show students how to begin. Assure them there’s no right answer and encourage them to experiment with different ideas.

Creative reading also strengthens the foundation for analysis. This means it's beneficial to a student’s long-term achievement. Once they can imagine different possibilities for how the story could have been written, students can analyze the author’s purpose in making the choices they did.

If you have questions about creative reading or want to share how you use this concept in your classroom, let me know in comments or reach out on Instagram @nouvelle_ela. Happy teaching!

Other resources you will love!

Creative Activities for ANY Novel by Tracee Orman
Writing Prompts for Independent Reading by Room 213

Teaching with Mentor Texts in High School

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes. Reading workshop

Teaching with Mentor Texts in High School

I first heard of mentor texts from my friend who is an amazing fourth grade teacher. At the time, I figured they were just for younger kids. Then, I was lucky enough to attend two PD sessions with the oh-so-inspirational Penny Kittle and discovered that they were invaluable tools for high school teachers too. 

Mentor texts are models of effective writing that we show our students. They can be longer, like a short story or article used as an exemplar for a type of writing assignment, or shorter ones (sentences or longer passages) used to illustrate certain skills or techniques. 

It took me a while to get the hang of using mentor passages, but once I found my stride, I was off and running. Now, they are a staple in my classroom.

Let me tell you why and how. And, if you stick with me, I'll give you some fabulous freebies too.

1. Why Use Mentor Texts?
The why is pretty simple: mentor passages help us show our students how to write well. They don't have to guess how to craft an effective sentence because they have the blueprint right in front of them. Think of real life. If you want to improve your golf swing, which would you rather: the instructor stand there and tell you what to do, or grab that club and show you? Or, better yet, would you rather watch someone set up that IKEA dresser, or read the directions and figure it out yourself? I think we all know the answer to that! The next step would be very important, though. After seeing how it's done, you have to try it yourself.

So let's put this in English class terms: if you want your kids to learn to use a semi-colon, instead of giving them a lesson and a handout of exercises, you provide sentences where the semi-colon is used properly, and ask students to figure out the rule for its use.

“I pictured her tragically; it never once occurred to me to picture her as the tragedy.” ~Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything

“True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice on the matter.” 
~John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

“That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.” ~Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

Students are given the sentences and time to reflect individually. Then, they work with a partner to write a rule for semi-colon use. After that, they write their own sentences that contain a semi-colon.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes. Reading workshop; readers workshopWhy is this better than the traditional method? First of all, it creates an active learning situation for the students. They are responsible to figure out the rule and have to act as detectives, rather than just passively receive the information.

Mentor texts also offer a way to make a clear connection between reading and writing - and an excellent way to combine the two in our time-strapped teaching lives. Reading and writing shouldn't be two separate entities, and if you choose your texts carefully, you can teach lessons in analysis and writing all at the same time (I'll give you some specifics below).

Finally, if you choose sentences and passages from engaging novels, another bonus of mentor texts is that you can inspire kids to pick those novels up and read. For that reason, I try to choose ones that might draw them into the story and want to know more. 

2. How do I find & Organize Mentor Texts?
You don't need to spend hours and hours on your computer, hunting and pecking. There is a much more enjoyable way to find texts to share with your students: read. Read books that your students will be interested in. Read with post-it notes and pens, and when you see a well-crafted sentence or passage, mark it.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

But how do you keep it all organized and easily accessible?

I've been doing this for several years now and have learned to be a little more intentional with my post-its. First of all, I've moved up to the larger ones, ones that I can write on as I read. I'll note the features of the passage (metaphor, use of dialogue, semi-colon, etc). Then, I stick the post it right on the quote. In the picture below, I've found a quote that I can use to illustrate a couple of comma rules, something I want to do early in the upcoming semester.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

Don't stop there, however. You need to make a plan for how to use them. This year, in my quest to be much more organized, I've started a Mentor Tracker file on Google Drive.  At the end of the day (or week), I'll transfer the info on my post-its to the table so I can have a collection of quotations, organized and ready to go. It's still a work in progress, but you can grab it here and edit to suit what you're doing with your students. 

My richest resource for mentor texts, however, are the novels my students are reading - because I can use them without doing any work myself. For example, if I'm teaching them about variety in sentence length, they will be tasked with the job of looking for examples in their novel and using them as models for their own writing. The same goes with literary analysis. If I'm showing them different techniques authors use to develop character, I ask them to examine the ways that the writers do so in their novels.

It's so easy to make that link -- and it's easier for the teacher, because you don't have to spend hours looking for mentor texts. It puts more responsibility on the students to do the thinking and the work, and it is an activity that blends reading and writing skills, as they have to be able to identify the technique in the novel (reading) and use it in their own writing.

3. How Do I Use Mentor Texts?
First of all, I think about the skills that I want my students to work on, and then I plan mini-lessons, based on the mentor texts, to help kids build those skills. Next, I follow this procedure:

  • Give students the mentor text and ask them to note the writer's moves (you can pose a broad question like this to see what the kids notice, or you can ask them to look for something specific).

  • Discuss their observations

  • Give a mini-lesson on the topic

  • Use students' novels to reinforce the lesson

  • Ask students to imitate the mentor to practice the skill 

Read on to get more detail and a freebie!

I do a lot of double-dipping and even triple-dipping, using the texts to demonstrate multiple elements. For example, next week I'll be teaching my students how to write an engaging opening to a narrative. To illustrate the ways that writers draw their readers in to the story, I'll read the openings of several YA novels. This will serve two purposes: I can book talk the selections AND illustrate a skill I want my students to experiment with.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

The mentor text pictured above is the opening from Goodbye Days, by Jeff Zentner. I will tell my students a little about the book: it's from the point of view of a teen whose three best friends have died in a car crash - and he thinks he is responsible for their death because he sent the driver a text.

I'll read the opening to them and invite them to note the moves Zentner makes to draw his reader in. I want the kids to notice that he grabs the reader's attention by starting with a shocking fact. Hopefully, they will also point out that he uses a conversational tone that will appeal to many readers. If they don't, I'll start asking questions: How would you describe his tone? What words or phrases contribute to it? What's the effect of this tone?

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

After this discussion, I'll give a short mini-lesson on the techniques writers sometimes use to open their stories. During this lesson, students will re-read the openings of the novels they are reading and discuss the techniques used with a partner. With this step, they are analyzing and evaluating the author's choices.

But wait! There's more...

After we discuss the passage as an opening, I'll use it to teach some comma rules. Students will be instructed to look at it again, this time paying attention to how he uses commas - or not - around character's names. In my experience, most students will notice exactly what I want them to, so they learn the comma rules, but they do so in a way that's far more active and engaging than just reading about them and doing exercises. 

Next, I'll ask them to use one or more of the passages I've shown them as inspiration for their own writing. With the comma rules, we will just spend a few minutes writing sentences that contain names as necessary parts of the sentence, as appositives, and as nouns of address. Then, students will be asked to write an opening chapter to a part of their lives, using what they learned from our discussion of all of the mentor texts. They can mimic them exactly, or they can just try one of the techniques. 

Mentor Texts in High School
In the above example, I'm giving students a specific task that is inspired by the mentor texts. However, if I'm focusing on a particular skill like diction or idea development, for example, students are often directed to look at the writing they already have - prompts and drafts - to find places where they could revise it based on what they just learned from the mentor text. 

If you'd like to use mentor texts in your classroom, and want a little help, check these out:

Writing Workshop Bundle

You can also read about differentiation with workshop here.

Thanks so much for reading!

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