We believe that immersing our students in reading texts like writers will help them innately develop the knowledge and language to talk well about writing. This type of immersion work will help them internalize the craft that they’re being exposed to, sometimes without them even knowing a name for the work they’re doing. That’s why we build days devoted to reading like a writer, and first teaching our kids what reading like a writer looks like, into each of our units of study across the year. The effects of this immersion work is energizing for us as teachers; it’s almost like magic, watching kids become stronger writers because they spend time reading like writers.
Imagine a partnership rereading the lead of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, a favorite mentor text to use during our personal narrative unit in September. The partnership’s job is to notice golden lines—words or phrases or sentences that stand out to them, that they wish they’d written—and then name the writing work that Jane Yolen is doing in those lines so that they can do the work in their own writing. Usually at this point in the year, our students’ talk sounds something like, “She used a lot of detail,” or, “She used good details.”
Neither of those statements is exactly false, but because we believe that talking well about writing will carry over to writing well, situations like this one have taught us that for our kids to talk well about writing—their own, a mentor’s, their peers’—they need to have some knowledge and language on which to stand.
We decided that we needed to make some time to teach into what is meant by “detail” to support our students in naming the writing work in a more specific way so that they’re more likely to try it in their own writing.
To support our kids in their thinking about different writing craft and the reasons writers use it, we create a class chart that grows over time. Our chart focuses on narrative craft moves and has three categories: craft moves, why writers use them, and examples. Here’s an example of how the (still-in-progress) chart looked one year.
A closer look at the tiny actions row:
Why Writers Use It
Choosing the Craft Moves for the Chart
We intentionally try to avoid using the word detail when we talk about writing with our kids, and instead use the term craft moves. Our decision to do this is mostly because we think detail is a broad category. It’s sort of like the umbrella that covers a lot of different writing work—and the more specific we can get kids to be about the work they’re doing or they notice others doing, the more intentional they become and the more transferrable the work is to their own writing.
We choose craft moves for the chart that we hope students will use so that their pieces are well balanced and elaborated upon. We also think about what students will be able to see in mentor texts that we’re studying. When we’re in a narrative unit, for example, we can count on the authors we study as mentors having their characters talk, think, and do things, and placing their characters in a time and place. We put those attributes on our chart: dialogue, inner thought, tiny actions, and setting.
We choose to focus on tiny actions rather than just “actions” because we see that our students are proficient at naming big actions in their writing, and a major focus during our first narrative unit is to help them shift from writing summaries of small moments to writing the stories in the moment, like they’re happening now. We’ve found that the term tiny actions helps a lot of students make that shift. Rather than writing, “I got on my bike,” for example, a student might break that down into bit-by-bit actions and write, “I put my hands on the handlebars, swung my left leg over the seat, put my foot on the pedal, and sat back onto the seat.” Focusing on tiny actions helps students write like it’s actually happening now, rather than telling about something that happened in the past.
We also know that writers often include sets of three, that something about three things feels good to the reader. (Once this was pointed out to us, it was impossible not to notice it as we read.) Sets of three also help students who struggle with elaboration stretch their writing a bit more; if they can write one action for a character, they can likely group that action with two others so that it becomes a set of three in their writing. On our chart, we include three types of sets of three:
- sets of three actions (My mom walks over to the counter, rests her hands, and searches for a lighter.)
- repetition (I played like I was Alex Morgan, I played like I was Carli Lloyd, I played like I was Lauren Holiday; or Crunch, crunch, crunch.)
- description (I was happy and sweaty and hot.)
The craft moves on our chart are by no means exhaustive of what a narrative writer might do, but they’re a starting point and give concrete examples and common language for our class to use as we talk about writing and write our own pieces.
Coauthoring the Chart with the Class
1. We first make sure that the chart is in a place that’s easily accessible (students can see or take from it easily) and visible during minilessons. We use sticky notes on the chart so that students can peel parts off and use them at their seats as a scaffold as they’re working on different craft moves.
2. Reveal the chart to the class with the craft moves already posted, and make these craft moves ones that are relevant to the writing units you do. For us, these are craft moves that we return to over and over again during our narrative units throughout the year, so they’re relevant in many different units of study. We can imagine similar charts with different craft moves and examples to support the writing in informational or opinion genres.
3. Once you’ve decided on the order in which you’ll move through the craft elements, look at student writing for the examples, and write their examples word for word on the sticky notes in the “examples” column. You can use their notebooks, on-demand writing pieces, and published work to find examples. We always make sure to give credit to the writer, with his or her initials after the example. This can be helpful later for students wanting to have a peer conference to get support on a specific craft move. If a student is working on adding more inner thought, for example, he might check this chart to see who in the class has experience using inner thought, and ask for a conference with one of those peers. The examples can be part of a sentence or phrase or might be a few sentences long.
4. Focus on one craft move at a time. We often use the connection, midworkshop interruption, or share of a writing workshop to introduce a single craft move. Our process for introducing a craft move is to name it, read the examples, ask partners to discuss why writers might choose to use this craft move (using the examples read aloud to support this talk), and then share what was discussed or overheard and make a list of these purposes on the sticky note in the “why writers use it” column.
5. This chart should grow and change with the students. This might mean adding to or changing the craft moves as the year goes on, adding to the reasons a writer might use the craft moves, or adding more sophisticated examples of the craft moves from the students’ writing to reflect their growth as writers. We also often leave blank sticky notes in the examples column for students to add more examples from their own writing to the chart.
Using the Chart as a Writing Tool
When our students are giving one another feedback about their writing, we teach them to first name what they notice in their peers’ writing and then say why it’s important. If students are struggling with either first noticing and naming a craft move or saying why that craft move is important, they can turn and look at the chart—maybe looking down the first column for a craft move that matches something their partner did or using the second column to see why a writer might use the craft move that they’ve already identified in their partner’s writing.
Encourage students to use the chart as they write independently or during peer conferences. The examples on the chart are like mini mentor texts, angled toward really specific work we’re doing in our writing. Making a big deal about students borrowing the examples from the chart to have next to them as they write or consulting the chart when looking for a classmate who might be able to provide support will help students see possibilities in using the chart as a tool to improve their own writing.
Another reason we love to use mostly student examples on the chart, as opposed to examples from literature, is that it might give a name to something that the students were doing without even realizing it. It shows them that, yes, you can do this, and you might have already been doing it without even knowing! Spotlighting it and naming it in the way that is done on the chart is supportive not only to the students who are using the chart for their own work, but also to the students whose examples are there; our experience is that writers are much more likely to continue doing something once they’ve been made famous for it.
We think that a chart like this helps make writing craft more concrete and purposeful to our students. What we’ve found is that talking about writing craft in a more specific way (which usually requires teaching students language to use to do so), followed by returning to published mentor texts and naming the work that those published authors are doing, leads to more intentional work in the writers in our classroom and more specific talk around the work they’re doing. No longer are they trying to “use more detail”; they might “reveal the characters’ feelings by using inner thought.” Being specific in the language that we’re using as writers, as well as why we’re using specific craft moves, leads to stronger writers and stronger writing.