Five strategies for teaching author's purpose

Teaching author's purpose

It's relatively easy to teach students to do a plot diagram or to spew back definitions. In fact most students, by the time they get to high school, are pretty adept at identifying certain literary techniques. But getting them to analyze those techniques is a little more difficult, isn't it? That's why I build in lots of opportunities for them to scaffold the skills they need to get there, and I've built up quite a few favorites that I use every semester. I'd love to help you with this too, so I'm sharing five strategies for teaching author's purpose.

1. Start with activities where students practice their own craft

The best way to be able to recognize when an author is doing something with intent is when you've had experience doing it yourself. So I spend a lot of time in the early weeks of each semester doing activities and short assignments where students need to create meaning through word choice, sentence structure, etc. 

For example, the last few weeks of this new semester, we have been exploring the power of word choice. My students learned about tired words, strong verbs, imagery, and figurative language. Then, we turned our attention to how these things can be used to create setting and to establish a perspective from which a story is told.
  teaching author's purpose 
I assigned each group a setting, and gave them a piece of chart paper with a colored piece of paper in the middle There, they brainstormed words and images that an objective third person narrator might use to describe it. 

Then, each student got a card with a different “perspective” on it. They had to choose a spot on the chart paper to start brainstorming words/images to describe the setting from that person’s perspective.  A teacher on duty, for example, might describe the cafeteria very differently than an extroverted - or introverted - student might. 

When they finished they had to guess what was on each person’s card. We followed it up with a gallery walk so each group could see the other groups’ work. They had a lot of fun doing the activity, and they also learned how certain words and phrases can be used deliberately to create meaning. In other words, they were learning first hand about author's purpose. 

If you’d like to snag this free activity to use with your students, click here.

2. Use pre-reading activities to help students understand author's purpose

Pre-reading activities are an important strategy for teaching author's purpose. Before I do anything with analysis of a class novel or play, I start by getting the students to explore some of the major themes and ideas in the text, even before they begin to read. This will help them make connections to their own lives as they are reading. 

To me, that is the key for engagement  - and without engagement, getting students to do the harder tasks, like examining author craft, is a hard sell. Pre-reading is a strategy that taps into students' prior knowledge and interests so they can make connections when they are reading. 

It's also a way to prepare them so they can look for clues to character and thematic development as they work through a text. By exploring some of the ideas and themes they will encounter in the text, they will be better able to see how the writer is trying to capture this idea or theme while they are reading.

So before I start a full class text, I brainstorm a list of ideas and topics in the text that I think students will connect with. Literature is filled with universal themes, so this part is never too difficult. For example, if your novel centers on the American Dream or on discrimination, get students to think about and discuss these topics as they relate to themselves and the world around them. 

Then, when they start to read, you can ask them to look for ways that the author is developing a theme around the topic. 

👉🏻 You can read about a pre-reading activity I did with a full class text here. Or click here to see how I used the same activity to make connections between different texts. 

The end result of these activities is that my students are ready to begin reading the novel knowing that it will connect to ideas that they can relate to. They will be able to look for theses ideas as they read because I’ve already told them they are there - and they have completed an activity that has hopefully sparked their interest in the topic. 

And once you have sparked their interest, you are ready to start scaffolding the skills they need to understand author's purpose.

3. Use short mentor passages that model author's purpose

If you haven't tried using short mentor texts in your classroom, whether you do independent reading or full class novels, I urge you to give them a try. 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. I tend to use the latter most often, so I can give short, focused mini-lessons. 

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 like how they use dialogue to create character, or the em dash and ellipsis to create voice).
  • Discuss their observations
  • Give a mini-lesson on the topic
  • Use the students' novels to reinforce the lesson
  • Ask students to imitate the mentor to practice the skill
teaching author's purpose

If you'd like more detail on how I use mentor passages to teach author's purpose, you can check out my short (and free!) masterclass on reading workshop. Even if you don't plan to do a workshop approach, you can learn about using short texts to teach students how to analyze author craft. You can sign up here - at no cost and go straight to Module Two: Planning Your Lessons to watch the video where I illustrate the process.

4. Scaffold the skills students need with short assignments

The biggest mistake I made early in my career was giving my students too much to do at once. They were overwhelmed, got frustrated, and produced mediocre work.

  strategies for teaching author's purpose 
Once I started giving them smaller "bites" and scaffolding the skills they needed for success, their engagement and quality of work skyrocketed! I never assign a literary analysis essay until they have had lots of practice with (and feedback on) several short paragraphs. 

For example, my students who were working on perspective and narration last week will be doing their first analytical paragraph next week. I teach them the process and model it with a sample paragraph that they color code to see all of the "parts" of the paragraph. Then, they write a draft their own, based on the novel they are reading. 

On revision day, they color code their drafts so they can ensure that they have all the parts I'm expecting. You can read more detail about this process here.    

5. Fill your classroom with reminders about author's purpose

I’m a huge believer in the power of the habit. The more a person practices something, the more it gets embedded in the brain. That’s why I put a lot of energy into building the habit of using the right terms when I’m teaching students to analyze author's purpose. 

And that means that even when students are doing a quick response, a turn-and-talk, or a small group discussion, I want them to frame their comments in a way that strengthens their analytical muscles. 

If students get used to chatting about their text using language that focuses on analysis, then they will create a habit that will help them when it comes time for major assessments. 

There are several ways that I reinforce this process so as to build the habits they need for analyzing text, like modelling the language of analysis during discussions, providing sentence starters, and using visual reminders around the classroom, like anchor charts and posters. You can get more details about each of these here. 

So there you go. I've given you five strategies for teaching author's purpose. I really hope you've found something that can make your teaching life a little easier!

👉🏻 Interested in more strategies for teaching students about author's purpose? Check out more posts from ROOM 213: 

• Motivate Students by Making Learning Visible 

• Get Students Ready to Analyze Lit 

• Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis 

• Reading and Writing Units

• Active Learning Activities & Exercises 

My friends in the Coffee Shop have some engaging resources for teaching author's purpose too: 

Presto Plans: Author Purpose Interactive Reading Challenge

Mrs. Orman: Interactive Reading Notebook: author choices

Independent Reading for Middle and High School

Independent Reading that WORKS in Middle and High School

Independent Reading can be a great gift to students - a quiet moment in their day and the development of a lifelong love of reading. Imagine: a quiet classroom where everyone has escaped into their own novels. That’s the dream, right? 

When I first tried independent reading in my classroom, it was more like giggles and snickers every few minutes as Tommy tickled Jessenia or when Shane farted. Ughhhh.

So how do you move from chaos to responsible freedom?

Tips for Independent Reading

If you’re struggling with issues of accountability or student behavior during reading time, here are some tips to get everyone on the same page (see what I did there?):

  1. Start small and build up. In the first couple weeks of trying (or retrying!) independent reading, start small. You can start with 5-minute increments. Ideally, these won’t be at the beginning or at the end of class, since kids can be so squirrely during those times. Instead, try using this block as a break between other activities.

  2. Model reading. If they’re reading, we’re reading. It can be so tempting to grade papers during this time or catch up on emails. Instead, let’s model a settled focus.

  3. Talk right after reading. After reading time is over, start a conversation! I use my Reading Response task cards in a Think-Pair-Share style. Students could get prompts like “Imagine the last scene you read set in a different location” or “How would the main character in your novel respond to ___?” 

Should you grade independent reading?

You may also be wondering how to grade independent reading and how to hold students accountable if you don’t grade.

I personally don’t like grading reading because I wouldn’t want to be graded.

When I’ve been required to grade reading (ugh!), I’ve had students create their own reading guides. This is a choice board that they complete over the course of their novel. I check progress four or five times throughout the novel. I love that this activity provides some structure for independent reading, especially for middle school. One thing I don’t love about this approach is that students are adrift if they want to abandon a book and start another.

Alternative activities for independent reading 

  1. Book Conferences - once or twice per quarter, have students sign up to chat with you for five minutes about a book they’re reading/have read. You can easily find the synopsis on GoodReads and then ask them to tell you about elements of literature. I like to ask questions that lead them to their next book choice, like “Oh, I see this book had dragons! Do you want to read another fantasy book?” or “Oh, I see this author is well-known for summer romances. What else would you like to read by them?”

  2. Reading Response task cards - These cards emphasize creative reading, which gives students ownership over the text. In short conversations with partners or in journal entries, they can imagine how it would have changed the text if one element (plot, setting, characters, conflict, theme) had been different in some way. This is a great activity to get kids speaking and listening.

  3. Book Talks - Students can prepare a book talk for their book. This guided worksheet will help them brainstorm. You can grade these talks if you want or just let them be practice for larger presentations. I like to have students give book talks to small groups of 4-5 students. Everyone does this at the same time, so it takes 20-25 minutes to get through all of the presentations. This approach gets students to build their speaking skills in front of a smaller, less intimidating audience than the whole class.

What are your favorite activities for independent reading? Be sure to grab the Book Talk freebie!

Happy teaching!

More posts and resources from Coffee Shop teachers:

Our Favorite Secondary ELA Resources for the Second Semester

With the second semester upon us, it is time to energize our teaching practices and focus on higher-level ELA standards and skills. Here is a look at some of our favorite teaching resources for the second semester.

Asset-Based Profile Activity

Nouvelle ELA: I read Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain in early 2020, and it totally transformed the way I want to start off the semester. Now, I’ll start with this Asset-Based Profile activity. Students begin by reading a story about three gamers. They assess each gamer’s soft skills (creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, etc.). Then, they move on to examine their own character traits. I will have students present their profiles to help build classroom community. If you want to know more about this activity, check out this blog post about using Asset-Based Profiles to help students value their soft skills.

The Reading Challenge Program

Presto Plans: I like to start off the New Year by focusing on improving student reading skills and analysis. I like to integrate The Reading Challenge Program into my curriculum. In these challenges, students work together each week to solve mysteries, get secret codes, find mystery words, or escape a risky situation all by using their reading and analysis skills! The program comes with instructional slides, escape-room style challenges, and engaging narrative backstories that your students will love. These challenges make me feel confident that my students will be invested in reading instruction that is rigorous, standards-based, and engaging.

Motivational Monday Writing Prompts

Tracee Orman: The start of a new semester is a great opportunity to introduce or continue using a weekly routine that will get you through the second half of the year. My Motivational Monday writing prompts pack is perfect for inspiring and challenging students. I’m always amazed by their responses and how much they open up in their writing.

Synthesis Argument Writing Unit

The Daring English Teacher: One teaching resource that I love to use at the start of the second semester is my synthesis argument writing unit. Begin able to synthesize information across a variety of resources is such a critical skill that students need in today’s society. With this synthesis argument unit, students will read several articles about a source and write an argument essay about the topic. You can read more about this critical skill in this blog post about assigning synthesis writing. You can also download a free synthesis writing fact sheet.

Active Learning for Reading and Writing

ROOM 213: I put a lot of time and energy into engaging my students in active learning in the early part of the semester, so they know our class is a place of collaboration and critical thinking. I have a collection of over thirty activities that I use for this, ones that can be applied to any text and used at any time in the semester. You can check out my collection of active learning exercises here. Or click here to get a free activity and a preview of the other ones.

Narrative Writing

Addie Williams: One of the first things I like to do with my students at the start of a new semester is to have them do some personal narrative writing. It’s a great way to get to know them a little bit more and to get an early look at their writing skills. I like to assess writing skills early on, so that I know where I need to focus my energies and what specific skills we can work on as a class. I use my Narrative Writing resource to help students brainstorm, plan, and organize their personal narrative. It has everything you need to get started right away!

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