Tag Archive: Ben Hillman



A review by Jeff Hicks

Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts by Thomas Newkirk. 2014. Heinemann.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades K through 16

Features: Glossary.

Personal Note: There are a few things I need to say about this book before any introduction or summary. At 146 pages, it’s a slim volume, yet it took me a couple weeks to read it. That doesn’t sound like a selling point, but I think it’s a tribute to the depth of Thomas Newkirk’s message. As I read, I found myself in a constant (and fluctuating) state of reflection, confirmation, affirmation, and imagining. These are all positive states to be in! I would have to pause my reading to think about past lessons, to jot down a powerful quote I wanted to remember, to sketch out a lesson idea I wanted to try with my Wednesday fifth graders or my Tuesday eighth graders, or to find my own examples of a specific kind of writing/reading he was describing. Being the old-school guy that I am, I used note cards for scribbling down all my notes and thoughts. I stuffed these into the back of the book and found myself reviewing them before I dove back into the next section. This kind of interaction with a book’s content doesn’t happen with every book I read. I am still carrying—literally and figuratively—this book (and note cards) around with me, talking about it with teacher friends and school board colleagues. And now I’m handing it off to you—figuratively of course. I’m not letting go of my copy just yet.

“Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought…It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.” The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. 1996.

“Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

“Story…sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

“When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

Sixtraitgurus Posts:

April 5, 2012: “Test Drive Jason Chin’s “Hybrid” Book, Coral Reefs

March 28, 2013: “Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build-and-Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”

October 1, 2013: “Reports and Poetry—Inspired by Walt Whitman and Loren Long”

These quotes—connections from previous reading—and STG post references are some of the things I wrote down on my note cards as I read Thomas Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. I was going to include a picture of my cards, but I had problems uploading photos from my old-school phone. (I need to get a new phone, but I’m scared to go into the store—too many questions, choices, and options.)


In Minds Made for Stories, author Thomas Newkirk offers to readers a much-needed philosophical shift and tweak to classroom instructional approaches based on the CCSS’s narrow “…triumvirate of narrative, informational, and argument writing…” (Page 6) To the author, this seemingly tidy packaging of forms or modes is “…a clear instance of a ‘category error’…a classification based on conflicting principles…A category error would be to ask someone if they wanted dessert or ice cream. The answer could obviously be both.”

Mr. Newkirk’s contention is that, yes, narrative is a mode or form, but it is the “mother of all modes.” Narrative can be used by writers to do all sorts of things—entertain, argue, persuade, inform, etc. Narrative can’t and shouldn’t be boxed up and delivered as something taught in the elementary grades, while the boxes of argument and informational writing are reserved for middle and high school. Writing (and reading) instruction needs to be more fluid and nuanced than that. Newkirk spotlights the essential connections between both the acts of reading and writing and the instructional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing. He suggests that readers engaged in sustained reading, as opposed to extractive reading, are staying with the author’s “story,” the “drama” or the “plot,” regardless of the type of text—novel, research piece, opinion or persuasive essay, etc.

“So here is my modest proposition. That narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing. All good writing. We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information (a major problem with some textbooks)—because we are given no frame for comprehension.” (Page 19)

To follow Mr. Newkirk, here is my modest proposition. That this book is an important read for teachers, administrators, and anyone involved in translating standards into classroom practices. I’m going to highlight some of the things I recorded on my note cards—ideas, recommendations, guiding principles, revelations, etc. I will elaborate (offer personal and classroom connections) on some things and simply point out others for you to dwell on—shoot up the flagpole, so to speak. I can’t share everything, so my best suggestion is to just read the book. After all, it’s only 146 pages. You’re on your own for note cards.


“No More Hamburgers”—Something to Ponder…

If writing is (truly) the making of reading, then writing instruction has to help young writers focus on imagining their audiences in the act of reading their writing, in the act of sustained reading. Newkirk describes sustained reading as involving “‘staying with’ the writer as ideas are developed…” Yet, when students are taught to employ rigid formulas, readers are forced into extractive mode, looking for bits of information, thesis in the opening paragraph, first evidence/example in the second paragraph, I’ve reached the fifth paragraph—this must be the conclusion, and so on. You know the “Hamburger” format—top bun is the introduction, bottom bun the conclusion, the meat represents the body of the writing? Now, I know there are many variations on this model, but Newkirk argues that by emphasizing static structures—the “hamburger,” five-paragraph essay, etc.—we have not provided young writers the “…guidance in how writers maintain the loyal attention of readers. We have presented form as a visual structure, not as a series of ‘moves.’” (Page 18) And it is this sense of “movement” through time, provided by the deep structure of narrative that sustains readers and helps them completely commit to the nonfiction text.

*An Example


You may already be familiar with Ben Hillman’s books, including How Big Is It?, How Fast Is It?, How Strong Is It?, How Weird Is It? These books offer teachers and students great examples of 6-7 paragraphs “reports” on, in the case of my example book, really big things. These reports don’t follow a strict “hamburger,” “essay,” or topic sentence-detail-detail-detail-commentary/transition format. In his “report” on page 21, “Dragonfly of the Carboniferous,” he tells readers about the giant insects of the Carboniferous Period (before dinosaurs), focusing on the dragonfly of the time, a beast with a wingspan of over two feet! Because the author is not chained to a rigid structure, he allows us to slip into the “drama” of this insect’s world, filling us in on the conditions necessary for this giant bug’s existence, setting the stage for the dragonfly’s big entrance in paragraph…six! As the title suggests, Mr. Hillman does provide readers with plenty of size specifications—he lets us know exactly how big these things were, with all sorts of numbers and measurements. But he also puts his text side by side with amazing photos/illustrations/artistic renderings of each object immersed in its own revealing “story.” We have become committed and sustained readers.


“Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or nothing.”

Robert Frost

“Only a Magician”—Resolving an Instructional Conflict

Mr. Newkirk makes it clear that if we want our students to be able to write arguments or informational pieces, we do have to teach them the “conventions” of these genres. As teachers, we can’t make the leap of faith that because students have read fiction, and written fictional or autobiographical stories, they must be able to write argument or informational pieces. “Only a magician could think that.” (Page 28) If narrative is indeed the “mother of all modes,” “the deep structure of all good writing,” then the tools of narrative—the drama or trouble, plot—“itches to be scratched,” connection/comparison to human activity and needs, the sense of a real person being there with you from beginning to end—need to be taught as well, and not boxed up as a unit done in grade X or Y. Readers are (or should be) constantly asking What’s the story? Writers need to be there, inviting them in and urging them on with itches and scratches.

*An Example–


The book, The Wolverine Way (Patagonia, 2010), a non-fiction study/back country adventure/natural history by author/wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, got me “itching” first on the book jacket. Wolverines are touted as “Glutton, Demon of Destruction, Symbol of Slaughter, Mightiest of Wilderness Villains, a Reputation Based on Myth and Fancy.” That sounds like trouble brewing! Will his study confirm the mythology or reveal something different? In the book’s prologue, after telling a story (!) about meeting a miner whose face had been disfigured by a wolverine, the author, who was seventeen at the time, makes a promise to himself to “…steer clear of wolverines and never let one up close. That seemed an easy enough vow to keep. Who runs into wolverines?” Major dramatic itch! Like the worst case of poison oak! I was committed now—I couldn’t wait to get scratching.


“Voice”—The Reason to Keep Reading

Mr. Newkirk presents voice as “a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide…The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” (Page 38) Those of us whose teaching is steeped in the six traits know well the importance of voice, especially in nonfiction writing. As writers, if we are going to create a sustained reading experience, we have to let readers know we are there with them and for them. How do we do that? By carefully choosing the right words—active verbs, precise nouns, vivid descriptors. By varying sentence lengths and structures. By becoming enthusiastic “experts” on our topics. When students are confident with their information, their readers will feel it and know they are in good hands.

* Examples–

1) Here’s paragraph #2 (in its entirety) from a ninth grade student’s 5-paragraph essay about To Kill a Mockingbird (the voice of an “expert”?)—

Fairness is one of the many interesting themes in this great book. The main character Atticus shows the importance of fairness by the way he tries to treat others. Other characters demonstrate fairness as well.

2) Here’s a short passage from a sixth grade student’s writing about what it might have been like to be in a Civil War battle—

I glance nervously at the army’s power as they come, as if nothing could stop them. Horses trot, flaring their nostrils as icy cool breath shoots out of their noses. A long line of flashes fly down the line. Men fall on either side of me. Red liquid sprays like mist with every flash.

Are you pulled in by the writer’s “expertise”? Word choices? Drama/story? Do you sense a “guide”? That’s voice!

3) Here’s a sample from a first grader’s description of his cat—

She had black, white, and brown wobbly stripes. She let me pull a little on her tail. That’s not common about cats. She liked me petting her with strokes from her neck down to her tail.

This young writer is an enthusiastic expert on his cat and as readers, we can really feel it.

Read proudly — put the duty of being read invariably on the author. If he is not read, whose fault is it? I am quite ready to be charmed, but I shall not make-believe I am charmed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


“Two Absurdly Simple Rules”

Author Newkirk offers this boiled down advice—

  1. Read as if it is a story.
  2. Write as if it is a story. (Page 43)

These rules, on the surface, do seem simple, but their simplicity is profound. In rule number one, the rule that may seem to run counter to the reading of informational texts, Mr. Newkirk is proposing that readers, regardless of the type of text—novels, arguments, reports, plays—read for the story, the drama, the plot behind the issue that initially prompted the writing.

“Seven Textbook Sins”

The following is a list of textbook writing tendencies that put up barriers to the possibility of sustained reading. This list can be used as a set of warning signs for student writers, cautionary tales of bumps to avoid in their own writing. For student use, they could be rewritten into positive “dos” rather than “don’ts.”

  1. Flatness (“Refusal to create human interest.” Page 56)
  2. Overuse of “To Be” Verbs and Passive Constructions (Page 58)
  3.  Piling On (overwhelming readers with lists, terminology, technical Page 60)
  4. Refusal to Surprise (Page 62)
  5. Lack of a Point of View (The writer, the “guide” is absent. Page 63)
  6. The Refusal of Metaphor and Analogy (Page 65)
  7. Ignoring the Human Need for Alternation (Monotonous tone. Page 67)

* An Example–


I realize that National Geographic magazine is not a textbook in the traditional sense—for good reason. The writing is too strong! Their articles and amazing photography are, in my mind, free of any of the sins listed above. Here’s a taste from an article—“The Age of Disbelief”—in the March 2015 issue, describing why so many people still struggle with believing scientific “truths” supported by evidence.

“The media would also have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that it usually advances incrementally, through steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years. So it has been with the consensus on climate change. That’s not about to go poof with the next thermometer reading.” (Pages 41-44)

Final Thoughts

There is so much more to say about Minds Made for Stories, so the only thing to do is read the book. As I said, for a slim volume, it’s loaded with practical applications to classroom teaching, philosophical fodder for those trying to wrap their heads around Common Core, and it should all keep you excited to be a literacy teacher in today’s world. I will leave you with two more bits from the book, in case you didn’t have enough to ponder.

“If the goal of reading nonfiction is to retain what we read—a reasonable assumption—attention is crucial, for we generally don’t retain things we don’t attend to…No attention, no comprehension.” (Pages 71-72)

“Reading and writing are a form of travel, through time, and writers need to create the conditions for attention…the tools and skills we normally associate with literature are essential to maintaining attention, and enabling comprehension and critical thinking.” (Page 72)


Pictured–author Thomas Newkirk, whose book is featured here. To find out more about Mr. Newkirk and his many other books, please visit:


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki is back after an amazing Australian and New Zealand adventure! I think she has nearly a thousand pictures to share—“Here I am with a kangaroo,” “Here I am with another kangaroo–no, wait, it’s a wallaby,” “Here I am running from one of the world’s ten deadliest snakes,” “Here I am running from one of the world’s five deadliest snakes–no wait, it’s a wallaby…” Just kidding! She will be sharing her thoughts and worldly wisdom about one of her recent reads or just sharing her worldly wisdom on a topic important to you and your students. (And maybe a picture or two.) Meantime, welcome back from spring/Easter break, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at Gurus. Come often, and bring friends. And remember . . . give every child a voice.


If you watched any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, also known as the XXII Olympic Winter Games, you know how important numbers are to the athletes, officials, and spectators, both in terms of understanding the events and determining the outcomes. In fact, each sport has numbers or units peculiar to its type of competition. Here are a few examples from some popular events.

Figure Skating:

2 minutes and 50 seconds—length of the “Short Program”

4-4 ½ minutes—length of the “Long Program”


200 ft. x 100 ft.– Rink dimensions (compared to 200 x 85 in the NHL)

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

3:45.39—gold medal winning time (in minutes)

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

(BTW–The Olympics (not a stunning revelation) is an amazingly rich resource for practical applications of math vocabulary and concepts found in CC math standards: problem solving, place value, decimals, fractions, a range of calculations/computations, terminology, telling time, conversions, Roman numerals, ordinal/cardinal numbers, etc. Wow!)

The book Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives, by Lola Schaefer (one of my favorites from my holiday break reading), has nothing to do with the many different kinds of competition found in the Winter Olympics. But it has everything to do with important numbers in the ultimate competition in the lives of animals—survival!



Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. 2013. Lola Schaefer. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Informational picture/counting book, mixing math and science

Grade Levels: K and up

Features: Back matter—extended information on each featured animal, including scientific name, average–defined/explained mathematically, practice with concept of averaging.

40 pages (including back matter)

Visit lolaschaefer.com to find out more about Lola M. Shaefer and her books.


Each page in Lifetime begins with the phrase “In one lifetime,” matter-of-factly introducing an animal to readers by name, then offering a numerical fact about a specific physical characteristic or behavior. Young readers will want to pay close attention to the mixed-media illustrations—they match the animal’s important number! On one page, for instance, the author informs us that, “In one lifetime, this caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.” Look carefully at the illustration and you will count ten antler sets. We learn that the alligator will lay 550 eggs in its lifetime—Yep! All 550 are there. And the male seahorse, we are informed, will lay 1,000 eggs—have fun counting them! (I didn’t, but I’m sure illustrator Neal did.) Flip to the back of the book and you will find  more detailed information about each of the eleven animals and their important numbers.

The book opens with an informative statement/disclaimer from the author to clarify how she came up with her numbers. She tells us that she based her calculations on the “average adult life span of each wild animal” and researched information on each animal’s behaviors and physical characteristics. I appreciated that author Shaefer let’s us know that even though each animal belonging to a species may be different, because of her in-depth research and her attention to the math, she feels very confident about the accuracy of her averages and approximations—her numbers. In a back section, she informs readers, “Math gives you answers you can’t find any other way. Without math, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.” She speaks confidently to readers with the voice of an “expert,” and her confidence becomes a reader’s confidence in her as an authority.

 In the Classroom

1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You will want to read the back matter, as well, so you are aware of the more detailed content of the informative passages about each of the animals. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud, the illustrations could be shown to students using a document camera. I believe students will call for a second reading, especially if they want to try and count the antlers, spots, flowers, roosting holes, rattles, babies, etc.

2. As You Read (Ideas/Word Choice). Because there are only one or two sentences on each page (and the first sentence always begins with the pattern “In one lifetime…”), the author has to make strong word choices to make sure her message comes through focused and clear. A limited amount of text puts extra pressure on each word choice—choosing the most specific noun, the right adjective (if necessary), and the most precise verb to make sure readers are seeing and feeling the author’s ideas. I suggest doing a second reading of the book to keep track on chart paper of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the author has used on each page. It could be done like this:

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

You could do this in so many ways depending on the age level of your students (and the specific CCSS you may be focusing on). This would give your students a platform for understanding parts of speech and for sentence building in their own writing. An immediate practice for younger students could be to imitate the book’s pattern—In one lifetime—changing  it to In one recess, or In one day, etc. The emphasis would be on communicating an idea in one or two sentences by choosing the most descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Convention Alert!!—this would be an opportunity to talk about commas and why there needs to be one in sentences following this pattern.


In one recess, Cruz blasted the black and green soccer ball against the wall one hundred times.

3. Math One. This book is about animals and some of their important numbers—so let’s not forget about the math opportunities to be found. As you are reading the book, have your students help you keep a chart of the numbers. I suggest writing both the numerals and the number words spelled out. Ask your students to look for patterns, make predictions, etc. Conventions Alert!!—Discuss/practice/apply the conventions for spelling out numbers versus using numerals. (Notice how the author applied the conventions, staying consistent throughout.)

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


4. Math Two. The author has included in the back matter a section called, “What is an average?” Here she defines/explains the word as she has used it—a way to describe a typical or usual amount, and her reasoning for choosing the mathematical average (an expression of central tendency) for the purpose of calculating each animal’s number. To help readers understand, she uses the example of finding the average number of times a person might brush his/her teeth in a week. Younger writers might be interested in writing about themselves and their important number, not focused on a lifetime but based on an hour, day, week, month, year or a particular year in school (e.g. 2nd grade). Their numbers might be about saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lining up, school lunches eaten, tying shoes, hanging up a coat, sharpening a pencil, etc.

In a section called, “I Love Math,” Shaefer explains the importance of applying math to her scientific curiosity to help express what she wanted to say about animals’ lives. For older students, I would ask them to choose a mathematical concept—something from a standard they had been focusing on—and explain it using both words and number examples. Their audience could be another student, a parent, etc. These two sections serve as great examples of a focused message, clear communication through word choice, and being an “expert” on your topic.

5. Math Three. Younger students could use her examples in the “I Love Math” section to write their own “story” or word problems. Student writers would need to be sure to include all the necessary information and word clues to guide readers to the appropriate operation(s) and an opportunity to correctly solve the problem. Convention Alert!!—Writers will need to know the difference between a telling sentence—ending with a period—and a question sentence—ending with a question mark.

 Example (Actual word problem written by a 2nd grader I happen to know.)

Martin has 24 chocolate chip cookies. His best friend Ahmed has 20 oatmeal raisin cookies. How many cookies do they have all together?

6. Average—Without the Math. Though the concept of average is steeped in its mathematical roots, we often use the word as a synonym for usual, typical, normal, regular, or as another way to say mediocre, plain, or unexciting. Choose one of these meanings to launch students into explanatory writing of a different kind. Instead of explaining a concept or procedure, students could take a more personal path and write about—the “average” 6th grader interests, their activities on an average weekend or day off from school, what it means to be an “average” student, the traits of an “average” soccer player compared to a “skilled” player, etc. The writing could even head down the path of persuasive/argument (See STG post from January 31, 2014)—why being called an “average kid” might be a good thing but being called an “average student” might not, for example.

7. Research and Voice. Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

Lola Schaefer says, “I was curious about the lives of animals.” Her curiosity led to research—observation, reading, speaking with/listening to/digging into the work of known experts, etc. Following her lead, have your students select an animal they are curious about to begin “researching.” Depending on the grade level, the research could be done as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. It might involve some computer time, visits to the library, or a field trip to a zoo. As readers, we have confidence in Ms. Shaefer’s writing; her writer’s voice comes through because of her research efforts–she has become an “expert” and writes with that voice, just like your students will need to be for the sake of their readers. Their writing could follow the author’s pattern—finding the animal’s interesting/important number, with the outcome being a few sentences or stretching all the way to a few paragraphs or pages. The length might be connected to the purpose and audience of the writing—a class book written for a younger audience, a science fair-type display for adults, a full-blown research project aimed at convincing lawmakers to help protect a particular animal, etc.

8. Research—Narrative writing. The same research described above could be used to lead students into a piece of narrative/informational writing. In this writing, students would share what they have learned about their animal, including that animal’s significant number, by telling a “story,” fictional but factual story, based on research. The writer’s voice would be that of an expert but because of the created story, more personal, too.

9. Math Four. Since I’ve been so immersed in the Winter Olympics, I can’t help making one more math and writing connection between Lifetime and the Sochi Games. The unit of time in Lola Shaefer’s book is a lifetime—a unit of time varying in length depending on the type of animal and a myriad of other conditions. The events of the Olympics, Winter or Summer, deal with time broken down into units and sub-units so small they’re almost impossible to imagine—tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds. What could possibly happen in such a teeny amount of time? Older students might be interested in writing answers to this question (sentences, paragraphs, poetry) both in terms of Olympic outcomes—medals earned, dreams realized or shattered, etc., and in terms of human events, moments, and emotions.

10. Resources. Here are a few other highly recommended books—directly/indirectly relating to math, math writing, animals, or writing about animals—that you or your students might find useful.



Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices. 1991. Theoni Pappas. San Carlos: Wide World Publishing/Tetras.



How Fast is It? (How Strong is It?, How Big is It?). 2008. Ben Hillman. New York: Scholastic.


Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way. 2006. Betsy Franco. Culver City: Good Year Books.


Mathematicles. 2006. Betsy Franco. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

Vicki will be reviewing Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s.  Don’t forget, we are here for you and your student writers! Are you are  thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.







How close is the connection between the Common Core State Standards for Writing and the Six Traits of Writing? Somewhat close? Pretty close? Try VERY. In fact, virtually every standard references one trait or another. That’s because the traits are simply qualities that make writing work, and making writing work is the primary focus of both the traits and the CC writing standards.

Two traits, Ideas and Organization, stand out particularly strongly within the first three writing standards (those dealing with genre).However, Voice plays an important role in grades 6 through 12, under the guise of “formal style and objective tone” as well as writing effectively to connect with an audience. And Word Choice is repeatedly cited under “precise language” and “domain specific vocabulary.” As you might expect, Word Choice also receives much attention within the Language Standards—along with Conventions and Sentence Fluency.

Over the next several posts, we’ll help you understand these important connections, focusing on the first four traits (Ideas, Organization, Voice, and Word Choice), and sharing some of our favorite literature for teaching traits AND standards-based skills. Here’s something to feel confident about: If you teach the six traits, you ARE teaching standards-based skills, without doubt. (See for yourself by exploring the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own, at www.commoncore.org)

In this post, we’ll focus on the trait of IDEAS, and see just how closely this trait is embedded within the Common Core. Let’s start with a definition . . .


IDEAS: What’s this trait about?

Ideas are everything you think, imagine, remember, know inside and out, and share with readers. Think of the trait of ideas as your reason for writing.  In narrative writing, ideas take the form of a story. In informational writing, your information IS your idea. In argument, ideas comprise your position and all the evidence you can summon to support it—or refute the other guy’s claim. Following are the key elements of this trait:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy or authenticity
  • Strong main idea, position, or storyline
  • Details, details, details
  • Expansion and development

Sound familiar? Of course. You’ll find this language everywhere throughout the Common Core.


QUICK PAUSE for . . . A Close-Up Look at Details

Before going further, let’s explore the concept of detail. Oh, that’s an easy concept, you’re thinking. Actually, for many students, it isn’t. In their writer’s brains, they see the complete picture of their story, information, or argument clearly. They struggle as writers because they don’t have the foggiest idea what we mean by the word “detail”—and consequently, they don’t understand what we mean when we ask them to explain, provide evidence, support their position, expand an idea, “be specific,” or “tell us more.” What on earth are we talking about?? What more could we want to know?? Well . . . we’re talking about details . . . which could take the form of—

  • Sensory details: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings
  • Quotations: what someone else had to say about a topic
  • Observations: firsthand information from the writer’s own experience
  • Facts: names, dates, measurements, data, findings, and other specifics
  • Images: clear descriptive pictures (of a person, a scene, an event) that help readers “see” what a writer is talking about
  • Definitions: explanations of difficult terms or concepts a reader might not know
  • Examples: specifics that support a generality—e.g., kinds of prey animals, people who hold world records, top 10 French foods, qualities of Olympic champions

Detail is the difference between this—

The fireman liked looking at fire.

—and this—

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor, playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 50th Anniversary edition, 1981, p. 3).

If you’re familiar with the CCSS, you already know that details of various kinds are emphasized across all genres. So teaching students ways of creating detail within their writing gives them an important leg up on (1) developing a topic (as the CCSS require), and (2) holding a reader’s interest—something essential to writing success in and beyond school.

Structure of the Traits—versus Structure of the Standards

Here’s an easy way to think about how traits and standards are linked . . .

The Six Trait Model is organized across writing concepts or qualities: ideas, organization, voice, and so on. The CCSS model is organized across three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. The traits are embedded within and are an integral part of each of these genres. Or, to put it another way: Traits are the qualities that make writing strong within any genre.

Words to Look For

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core link directly to the trait of Ideas. You’ll know you’re talking about this foundational trait when you come across any of the following:

argument, accuracy, topic, claim, evidence, opinion, information, events, details, information, reasons, focus, definitions, develop or development, descriptions, knowledge, concrete details, quotations, examples, sensory details, story, point, clarity, clarify, clear writing, coherent writing, summarize or paraphrase information, gather information from credible sources, demonstrate understanding, logical reasoning, valid reasoning

For example,

In kindergarten . . .

W.K.1 (argument) requires students to tell about a topic and state an opinion about that topic.

W.K.2 (informational writing) requires students to name a topic and share information about that topic, through drawing, writing, or dictation.

W.K.3 (narrative) requires students to narrate an event or series of events.

By grade 8 . . .

W.8.1 (argument) requires students to write an argument supported by clear reasoning and evidence, using accurate, credible sources—and to refute counter arguments.

W.8.2 (informational writing) requires students to not only introduce a topic but develop it through facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, examples, and other credible information.

W.8.3 (narrative) requires students to develop events and characters through various literary techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description.

Check out writing standards for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above, and you will see how close the link to Ideas really is. Now, let’s think about the instructional side of things. Following are some of our favorite books for teaching this trait and all the Common Core skills related to it.


GREAT BOOKS for Teaching
Ideas and Related Common Core Skills

Remember that you don’t always have to share a whole book aloud. Often, you can make a terrific point about clarity or detail through one short, well-chosen passage. And if students choose to read the whole book on their own so much the better.


3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .  

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. 1952. HarperCollins. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

E.B. White’s beloved classic is a masterpiece of detail. Consider the opening to Chapter III, “Escape”: “The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows” (p. 13). This passage goes on to tease our senses with other aromas until we feel we’re right there in the barn with Wilbur and his companions. White teaches us that by focusing on one kind of sensory detail (smells), we can create a vivid sensory experience. It’s interesting to know also that White spent considerable time observing spiders in order to write with authenticity. Though this is by no means an informational text, it does—like any powerful narrative—depend on the author’s in-depth knowledge of his topic. Check out Chapter V, “Charlotte,” and see if your students learn anything new about spiders. Make a list of the informational details White weaves into his story. One last thing: Good stories have a message, a main idea. Just what is the message we’re meant to take from White’s unforgettable story?

2. How Fast Is It? by Ben Hillman. 2008. Scholastic. Nonfiction informational essays. Grades 4 through 8. Adults love this book, too—thanks to Hillman’s extraordinary collection of facts.

One of the most important concepts we can teach young writers is how vital it is to have a clear main idea—and to connect important details in some way to that main idea. You could hardly do better than this book for teaching that lesson. Every essay in the book (there are 22, and each runs only a short page) relates to one common theme: speed. We learn just from the table of contents how many things depend on speed to function well—from computers to cheetahs, race horses to light. But what’s particularly fascinating about the book is the research behind it. Hillman has taken time to dig for the right details (meaning they’re intriguing and new to many readers), so he can share information like this: “The cheetah also has extra-light bones to keep it nimble; oversize lungs, liver, and heart to enable sudden bursts of energy; large nasal passages for quickly inhaling large amounts of oxygen . . .” (p. 21). We learn something with almost every line. This book is an invaluable resource for illustrating how powerful detail can be in giving informational writing both believability and voice.

3. Our Planet: Change Is Possible by the MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte. 2008. HarperCollins. Nonfiction persuasive and informational essays. Grades 5 through high school.

Argument can be challenging to teach because it’s hard to get our hands on good examples. This terrific little book abounds with persuasive topics that discuss and promote ways of “going green” in our everyday life through thoughtful choices involving cosmetics, food, television, spare time, social life, health—and more. The arguments consistently promote a eco-conscious lifestyle, and do so in a no-punches-pulled manner that make it easy to see what the writer’s position is: “Avoid skin products made from petroleum. You wouldn’t go to the local gas station and douse yourself in gas, so why would you slather it on in your bathroom?” (p. 13) Arguments are readable, filled with voice, and backed by specific, well-researched data. The writers are also good at exploring alternate points of view and distinguishing myth from fact. The presentation makes this book highly inviting and also makes the information accessible even for younger readers. It’s a winner.

3 of Jeff’s Favorites . . .

1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 1994. St. Martin’s Griffin. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

I recently re-read this classic (originally published in 1908) and was blown away again by both the characters and world Kenneth Grahame imagined for readers. To create both the setting and inhabitants of his story, Grahame has to paint close-up, detailed pictures for the story to come to life for readers. Early in the story, Rat introduces Mole to the wonders of life on the river with a boat ride and picnic: “Leaving the main stream, they now passed into what seemed at first sight like a little land-locked lake. Green turf sloped down to either edge, brown shaky tree-roots gleamed below the surface of the quiet water, while ahead of them the silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir, arm-in-arm with a restless dripping mill-wheel, that held up in its turn a grey-gabled mill-house that filled the air with soothing murmur of sound…It was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both fore-paws and gasp, ‘ O my! O my! O my!’” Mole’s reaction is one shared by readers. We are also immersed in these precise details, stirring each of our senses. O my! is right! Grahame’s story is replete with detailed descriptions of not just the river and surrounding fields and underground burrows. Picnic basket contents are brought to life with figurative language: “…a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried…” Even supporting characters, like the Water Rat, are drawn with the kind of precision that reveals both physical and personality traits: “…his paws were thin and long, his eyes much wrinkled at the corners, and he wore small gold earrings in his neatly-set, well-shaped ears.” It’s clear that Grahame, like E.B. White, knows a great deal about the water, land, and creatures he writes about. Your students will know that, of course, moles, rats, frogs, and badgers don’t actually speak, wear clothes, or drive cars, like the characters in the book. After meeting Mole in the first chapter, have your students do a little digging (pun intended) about real-life moles—what about the character of Mole is authentic or based on factual information? Students may even want to further to find out the story behind the story—where did the author’s original idea come from? As Vicki suggested with Charlotte’s Web, “Good stories have a message, a main idea.” That message is the author’s reason for writing in the first place. What message does Kenneth Grahame want your student readers to take away from his animal story?

2.Wild Delicate Seconds by Charles Finn. 2012. Oregon State University Press. Short, nonfiction informational essays. Intended for high school to adult audiences, but passages could be used across all grade levels and content areas.

Charles Finn describes the contents of his book as a collection of nonfiction micro-essays—one to two pages in length, “…each one a description of a chance encounter I had with a member (or members) of the fraternity of wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home.” Each piece is an exemplar of the many forms details might take in writing: sensory details, quotations, observations, facts, images, definitions, and examples. The author gathered information through close, purposeful observations of each animal, and recorded his descriptions and experiences in journals to be crafted later into these focused essays. From Bumble Bees: “I sit watching the bees, their inner-tube bodies overinflated, their legs like kinked eyelashes hanging down. The white noise of their wings soothe me…” From Water Ouzel (also known as dippers, my favorite bird): “The tiny bird dips and dunks…It is tiring to watch: knee bend, knee bend, knee bend, tail twitch, dunking, tail twitch, kneebendkneebendkneebend…” And from Western Toad (offering a counterpoint to The Wind in the Willow’s automobile loving character, Toad of Toad Hall): “It has eyes cowled like headlights, Popeye forearms, and skin that sags. It could be a burp from a tuba.” Finn’s perspective is that of a scientist/poet/storyteller/teacher and clearly, a lover of wildlife. These micro-essays will have a macro impact on your young writers.

3.They Called Themselves the K.K.K. : The Birth of an American Terrorist Group  by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Nonfiction informational/argument/persuasive. Intended for middle and high school students.

If you think about it, from the perspective of the writer, all writing is persuasive. A writer’s job is to persuade readers, from their first sentences, to begin and then continue reading. And they do this, especially in the informational and argument genres, by beginning with a strong main idea and demonstrating immediately to readers that they are experts on their topics. Susan Campbell Bartoletti convinced me of her expertise from the get-go. Her idea for the book, she explains, came from seeing a statue commemorating Confederate general and the first K.K.K. Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest: “’I asked myself: Where are the statues commemorating the victims of Klan violence?” In her A Note to the Reader, before her book actually begins, she tell readers: “You will read the stories of the Ku Klux Klansmen and their victims from a variety of sources, including congressional testimony, interviews, and historical journals, diaries, and newspapers.” She goes on to let readers know that we will see images, cartoons, drawings, and photos from newspapers and personal collections. The author even offers a warning that to be true to the topic and historical time period, readers may experience crude language and offensive/disturbing images that she has left uncensored. I believe the author’s underlying purpose is to inform readers, and because of her balanced, meticulous research, she absolutely leaves readers well informed, enriched, inspired, and thoroughly persuaded about both “…the difficulty of reform…” and the “…terrible things that happen as people stand up for an ideal and strike out against injustice.” This book is a tremendous resource on a difficult topic.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for ways to link the CCSS with the trait of ORGANIZATION. And within the next few weeks, we’ll also link the writing standards to VOICE and WORD CHOICE, including reviews of favorite books each time. So—welcome to a new school year. Thanks so much for taking time in your busy schedule to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.