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

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