Tag Archive: Common Core Standards

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now


Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. 2011. Sandpiper—HMH: Boston.

Genre: Novel

Ages: Grades 6-9

Review by Jeff Hicks


I know it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the absolute truth. As I read Okay for Now (a National Book Award Finalist), there were many moments where I laughed and/or I cried—out-loud, mirthful laughter and salty, stream down my face tears of sadness or for those moments of celebration when basic human goodness prevailed. In between those moments, I was nervous, scared, amazed, relieved, and always driven to keep reading. Seriously. I’m hoping you recognize Gary D. Schmidt as the author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both Newberry Honor Books and excellent reads on their own. (If his name and work is new to you, Okay for Now is a great place to start.) Okay for Now is described as a “companion book” to The Wednesday Wars—not exactly a sequel or prequel but a chance for Doug Swieteck (a friend of Holling Hoodhood, the main character from The Wednesday Wars), to tell his important story. (Both books are stand-alones, so you don’t have to read one before the other.) The book begins in 1968—Apollo space missions, the Vietnam War, political and social unrest/protest—and Doug’s family is moving from New York City to the “metropolis” of Marysville, a much smaller town in upstate New York. That means leaving friends and his Yankee hero, Joe Pepitone, behind and enrolling in a new school for his eighth grade year. Doug refers to his new home in “stupid” Marysville as “the Dump”—and he carries this attitude with him as he begins to explore his new surroundings. He also carries some heavy emotional baggage—a verbally and physically abusive father, one brother serving in Vietnam, another brother at home who wastes no time before stirring up trouble, his struggles with reading, and a couple rather heavy personal secrets. Doug’s first encounters with Marysville residents are less than cordial, but he manages to befriend Lil Spicer, whose dad owns the local deli. Doug and Lil’s paths continue to intersect at, strangely for Doug, the open-on-Saturdays-only public library. It is here that Doug continues to be pulled each Saturday, for friendship, for the amazing birds of John James Audubon, and for the mission he needs to help him shed some of the baggage clouding his life.


Inside Your Classroom

  1. Background. For me, the background of this book is my childhood—Doug Swieteck and I grew up in the same time period. Though our family life was very different, the big events and issues of Doug’s time—the Vietnam War, Apollo space missions, baseball (Doug follows the New York Yankees), and the post-British invasion (music, not military)-pre-Woodstock world—are very familiar to me. You and/or your students may know someone who served or is currently serving in the military, in Vietnam, or more recently in Iraq/Afghanistan. This personal connection, with attention to its sensitive nature, could serve as a launching point for preliminary discussions of wartime, its impact on society, and its affect on both those who serve and their families. The Apollo space program is another topic worthy of discussion prior to reading. The missions leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing—Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man…”—were events focused on in school and talked about at home. The book begins with references to the New York Yankees and specifically to two famous players of the time, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark. Do any of your students follow professional baseball (or other sports)? What are their favorite teams? Who are their favorite players? What would it mean to them if they had an opportunity (like Doug does) to meet and play catch with their sports heroes?

(Note: It only takes a quick Internet search to locate information, images, and videos that could provide the necessary front-loading for students. I’ll return to these topics later when I discuss research/writing opportunities. )

  1. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll definitely need to preview this book prior to sharing it with students. Doug’s home life—abusive father, a bullying older brother and another brother who returns physically and emotionally scarred from duty in Vietnam—is something you’ll want to be prepared for before students begin to experience the book. These plot elements, handled honestly and respectfully, are absolutely central to the story and to Doug’s development as a character; they will surely elicit important questions and discussions.                                                  (Note/Warning): It’s important to know that there is a moment later in the book where the extent of physical abuse Doug has suffered at the hands of his father is revealed. It is a bit shocking, but by this time, readers know Doug well and can see that he’ll get through it with the help of his friends and the support of a wonderful teacher. You know your students best—you may decide that it’s not a book for all. I believe that Doug’s story will resonate with your students and with your guidance, the discussions and work will be meaningful.)


Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of one of John James Audubon’s Birds of America illustrations. (The color example included above, is “The Black-Backed Gull,” Plate CCCLI, introduced in chapter four.) These are also central to the story/author’s message and essential for students to see. A quick Internet search will provide you with color images of these illustrations to project in your classroom. If possible, you could save each image in a folder for student access or provide them with a link to each illustration, posted on your teacher/school website. You could even go old school and display copies of the images on a bulletin board, adding a new image each time a chapter begins.

  1. Illustrations/Organizational structure. As I just described, each chapter of the book opens with one of the illustrations from Audubon’s, Birds of America. Though this is not a “picture book,” these illustrations are both road signs directing readers through the story, and windows into Doug’s way of thinking about the world. Their inclusion serves the important organizational purpose of previewing/reviewing plot elements and mirroring for readers Doug’s growing interest in Audubon’s art and his own drawing. I suggest showing students the illustration that opens chapter one, The Arctic Tern, Plate CCL, and ask them to do a quick write of their response to the image—what they see, feel, imagine, etc. These responses could be shared first with a partner or small group, then with the class. The question, “What in the illustration leads you to this thinking?” will help them find “support” for their ideas by returning to the source—the image—for evidence.


Doug’s response to The Arctic Tern when he first sees it in the Marysville library gives readers some insight into what he’s feeling about his current life situation in his new town.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

            He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea…His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit…The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.

            This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.

            It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.

            The most beautiful. (Page 19)

How does this compare with your students’ responses? What do they know about Doug so far that might help explain his thinking? Why do you think he is so compelled to attempt to draw the bird? After finishing a chapter, go back to the illustration to connect any additional information they may have gleaned to their previous thinking. You don’t have to have students repeat this entire process for each chapter. They could keep a personal Audubon Bird “journal” to respond, reflect, make predictions, connect the dots of Doug’s life, chart the changes in the way Doug looks at his world, etc. This journal could be used as a resource for a more formal literary analysis focusing on the arc of Doug’s character growth.

  1. Details—“The Stats.” To quote Vicki from her recent post about Sneed Collard’s book, Fire Birds, “Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more.” This is true in both fiction and non-fiction writing. In Okay for Now, the author has created a character, Doug, who is a detail guy. (Which means the author is a detail guy.) Doug pays close attention to the world around him. Whether it’s absorbing baseball statistics and trivia, searching for places to hide his sacred Joe Pepitone jacket from his menacing brother, checking even the slightest facial cue to know what kind of mood his father is in, or the way Audubon has drawn feathers on one of his birds, Doug is a noticer. In his first interaction with Lil Spicer, before he knows her at all, he notices her smile: “She smiled—and it wasn’t the kind of smile that said I love you—and she skipped up the six marble steps toward the marble entrance.” (Page 17) The details the author has Doug notice help readers clearly see and feel the people, places, and happenings in his life. The details invite readers inside the writer’s ideas. As insiders, we want to keep reading, and that’s a good thing. Ask your students to look for examples where they feel invited inside the story, like the one above. Post some of these examples on a bulletin board to remind students to invite their readers inside every time they write. Keep an eye out as you read for moments where Doug gives readers what he calls the stats—you’ll see some examples on pages 14, 49, 104, 168, etc. Here are the stats—things he notices—from the kitchen of one of the people he delivers items from Spicer’s Delicatessen to (yes, he gets a job from Lil’s father).

The floor was white and yellow tile—twenty-four tiles

                        wide, eighteen tiles long.

            One rack with sixteen copper pots and pans hanging over

                        a woodblock table.

            Four yellow stools around the woodblock table.

            Twelve glass cupboards—all white inside. You could

                        have put my mother’s dishes into any one of these

                        and you would have had plenty of room left over.

            And the dishes! All white and yellow. And the glasses!

                        Who knows how many? All matching. Not a sin-

                        gle one chipped. (Page 49)

Precise numbers, colors, specific descriptors, feelings—this almost poetic inventory creates a strong image of this kitchen and how sharply it contrasts with his own. I would have students imitate this form—“the stats”—to practice their own skills as noticers. They could do “the stats” from their class time with you, to create a picture of what their room at home looks like, to review or summarize a chapter from this book, to recount their lunch break, to summarize research, as a form of poetry, etc. It’s all about the details!


  1. Research. The CCSS have got everyone talking about the balance of “fiction vs. non-fiction” reading. The standards also have us talking about writing—“narrative vs. informational/expository/argument.” The conversation often gets heated, but I’m glad we’re talking, especially about writing. Okay for Now is, of course, a fictional narrative. As I was reading, though, I couldn’t help but connect the fictional people and events to my very real, non-fiction life. And my reader’s brain kept prodding me with questions that required me to delve into the non-fiction information world to find answers. Here are just a few of the things I felt would be worthy of some further reading and “research”:

The Vietnam War

-Soldiers returning home


-Treatment of veterans

-Comparison to World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan

Space Exploration

-Apollo missions

-Landing on the moon

-Manned, unmanned missions

-“The Space Race”

Sports Stars/Heroes

-Joe Pepitone, Horace Clark

-Sports stars as role models

-Sports memorabilia


-Compared to today—salaries, television, social media

John James Audubon

-Bird research


-Etching, watercolor

-Audubon Society

-Endangered Species


-Importance of art

Broadway Plays

-New York City

-Adapting novels to plays

-Acting as a profession

-Role of producer

-Stagecraft—sets, lighting, costumes, etc.


-Books vs. “electronic” reading

-Importance in communities today vs. years ago

-Funding advocacy

Rights of the Disabled

-Handicap access—ramps, elevators, etc.

Community Activism

-Preserving history, landmarks, traditions

Any one of these ideas (there are many more possibilities) could become, with some questioning/stretching/narrowing/personalizing, a topic for further student reading (non-fiction) and research-based informational writing. Several from this list could become topics turned into written arguments or debate topics—for/against—attempting to inform and persuade readers.

Not to belabor the obvious point, but the reading of quality “fiction” can lead to the reading of quality “non-fiction.” The opposite is also true. We learn anytime we read. And when students are exposed to a variety of models of quality writing—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.—commingled with a variety of writing opportunities, their writing improves.

  1. Impact of the book. “Everyone has a bag of rocks to carry.” I can’t remember who first put this notion inside my head, bit it stuck. I tried to think about this with every student in my class. Sometimes it’s clear what kinds of rocks someone is carrying—learning difficulties, hunger, difficult home lives. Other times, you don’t know the bag’s contents, but you know it’s a heavy load. To paraphrase a bit from Vicki’s Fire Birds post (STG January 26, 2015—be sure to read it!), “Good writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding or appreciation of a topic.” If anything, experiencing this book might help students be more aware of the rocks people are carrying, and to look more compassionately at classmates, family members, and people in general. New York Times op/ed writer Nicholas Kristof has suggested that there is something he calls a “compassion gap” in America and has questioned how we can help develop a greater sense of compassion in our citizens. Meeting Doug Swieteck—his family, friends, mentors, teachers—and his bag of rocks, in the book Okay for Now, is a place to start.

About the author . . .


For more information about author Gary D. Schmidt and his books, visit http://www.hmhbooks.com/schmidt/

One intriguing (at least to me or anyone with Hicks as a last name) tidbit about Mr. Schmidt is that he was born in Hicksville, New York. Totally amazing, right?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m working on a couple things—a review of Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, and some commentary on Thomas Newkirk’s thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.



Core of the Common Core, Part 3


by Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks

Conclusions & Conventions

FEATURE 7: Conclusions

In writing, only one thing trumps a good lead, and that is a killer conclusion—Ahab going down with the ship, or Atticus Finch, waiting for Jem to wake up in the morning, or this famous, often quoted one-liner:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Now that’s satisfying—mostly because we’ve waited so long to hear Rhett utter those words. But imagine if Margaret Mitchell, in a moment of insanity, had written, “And then Scarlett woke up—and it was all a dream!” Cancel those movie rights. Hell hath no fury like a reader lacking resolution.

According to the CCSS, endings need to wrap things up without offending readers’ sense of logic. Surprises are fine—but lunacy doesn’t work.

 the tale of despereaux

Happily ever after? Not always . . .

Writers have to use their heads. In The Tale of Despereaux (2003) by Kate DiCamillo, for example, the author addresses the “happily ever after” question head on, assuring us that her ending will not be the ultimate cliché we expect from fables and fairy tales:

And what of Despereaux? Did he live happily ever after? Well, he did not marry the princess, if that’s what you mean by happily ever after. Even in a world as strange as this one, a mouse and a princess cannot marry.

But reader, they can be friends.

And they were. Together they had many adventures. Those adventures, however, are another story, and this story, I’m afraid, must now draw to a close. (267)

 Notice the silver lining amidst all that disappointment. The good, the bad, and . . . well, you know. That’s one kind of ending. What other sorts are there?

  1. Coming full circle—In this sort of ending, the writer finds a way to tie the ending to the beginning. Readers love this. (For a masterful example of this concept, check out Barry Lane’s very funny book The Tortoise and the Hare . . . continued.)
  2. End of the journey—This satisfying sort of conclusion marks the end of a search, the solution to a problem, the solving of a mystery, or something similar. Margaret Mitchell’s fitting ending to her Civil War love story is one example.
  3. The prediction—Forecasting what will (or could) happen can be a powerful way to close an informational piece or argument because readers love looking into the crystal ball.
  4. The solution—The writer poses a problem early on, and then offers one or more solutions, usually wrapping up with the best.
  5. The fitting quotation—A quotation that perfectly encapsulates the writer’s message or argument can provide a highly provocative, memorable ending.
  6. The epilogue—It might be fun to see Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird), Huckleberry Finn, or Scarlett O’Hara twenty years down the road, embarking on new adventures or (in some cases) suffering the consequences of unfortunate choices.

Deadliest of them all

A good ending follows from and builds upon what has come before—but it does not repeat. The deadliest ending of them all is the one that takes us back over the trail just traveled. You know how it goes. It begins with those dreaded words In conclusion . . . And the author goes on (relentlessly) to list the three main points or arguments just made. Enough! We get it. Formula writers are hard to stop.

Instead of releasing energy like a leaky balloon, informational or argumentative endings should build in momentum until they explode with a mind blowing revelation or irrefutable last line. They should leave us saying, Of course! Why did I not see this before??!!

In “Room 9, Car 1430” (1985), author Ursula K. LeGuin argues that we should love trains more than airplanes because they allow us to travel—well, reflectively. To gaze out the window at beautiful scenery, to ride in comfort with space for our legs and reading materials, to eat at tables with linens and flowers “instead of being strapped into a seat with a plastic latter of stuff slapped down in front of you, like a kid in a high chair.” I’m already convinced, but she’s just getting started . . .

Writing as she crosses the Cascades, LeGuin delineates the advantages of train travel—all the while acknowledging that sometimes (as when heading to a funeral) speed is of the essence. You have to give opposing voices their due. She saves her strongest argument for last, bringing everything together with these spirited lines: “The plane, with its tremendous inefficiency as a passenger vehicle, is the anachronism. It is out of date. An administration seeking a sound economy would (like Japan and most European countries) be refunding its passenger train system, enlarging and improving it. Not wrecking it through underfunding and then, like a spoiled kid with a toy he doesn’t understand, trashing it.”

You feel the energy building in LeGuin’s argument, like a train charging down the track. She can’t inflame us like that and then tack on this limp ending: “So in conclusion then, the three advantages of train travel . . .” That’s how arguments are lost. And this is a writer who has never set out to lose an argument. If formula were a dragon, she would be St. George.


More endings to avoid at all costs

One good revision tip is to occasionally begin revising in the middle—instead of automatically starting with the first sentence you write. Revision is hard work, and if you begin to tire halfway through, the ending will always suffer. Begin in the middle, though, and you’ll still have enough steam left at the end to avoid easy-out endings like these:

  • And then I woke up and it was all a dream.
  • There’s more to tell, but that’s all I have time for right now.
  • I hope you enjoyed my story (paper, essay, etc.) and learned a lot.
  • So, cats or dogs—there are good things about both! Which one would YOU choose?
  • More research needs to be done in this vital area.
  • Perhaps the future will reveal answers to these important questions.
  • This remains a source of continual mystery for mankind.

Favorites from literature One of the best ways to learn how to write a good ending is to study what other writers have done. Become a collector and encourage students to do the same. Here are just a handful of my favorites. As you read through them, you might ask yourself what these (or favorites of your own) have in common. Is it something about the writing itself? Or is it the feelings they conjure up within you, the reader?

  • The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.    ~George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.      ~Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture to his horse a private one. He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker. Somewhere in the high country that once was Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit.    ~Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit
  • He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.      ~George Orwell, 1984
  • However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.     ~Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  •  At the moment, the pig palace stands empty. People ask, “Will you get another pig?” This I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.     ~Sy Montgomery, The Good, Good Pig
  •  Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.      ~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  •  We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.     ~Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style
  •  And what dance would you do if you were a seahorse? Not just any dance. Heads together, tails entwined, you would dance the tango.     ~Twig C. George, Seahorses
  •  I buried her with her halter and two of the three ribbons she had won. Later that night I went back to her grave—“Ginweed,” I said, “we had a heck of a good time together,” and I walked away from the grassless patch of earth.   ~8th grade student, writing about the 4-H calf he had raised
  •  Fox and I still visit the pond, but it’ll never be like them three years when she was mine.    ~8th grade student, writing about his dog and the pond they both loved

Questions to ask

Following are some questions for writers to ask as they write a conclusion:

  • What’s the most burning question in readers’ minds right now?
  • Is there one significant detail I haven’t shared yet?
  • What’s the irrefutable clincher to this argument?
  • What do readers think will happen—and should that happen, or should I surprise them?
  • What do I want readers to leave thinking about?
  • What do I want readers to believe after reading this?
  • What’s the most obvious ending—and how can I avoid it?
  • Should I have stopped a paragraph—or a whole page—ago?

TEACHING Conclusions

Here are six things you can do to help students write strong endings of their own:

  1. Brainstorm endings to avoid. Then I woke up and it was all a dream seems an obvious cliché to teachers, but students use it all the time. Make a list of “easy out” endings, the ones writers use when they run out of time, energy, or patience. Keep the list posted as a reminder not to get lazy at the end; the conclusion is the writer’s best chance to make a powerful statement.
  2. Collect endings that work. In this post, I’m sharing only a handful. You and your students can collect dozens more. Look beyond books. Good endings come in periodicals, newspapers—even ads. Expand your discussion to talk about TV or film endings, too. (Remember the Breaking Bad finale?) Students who are visual appreciate connecting with endings they can see and hear, not just take in through words.
  3. What makes good endings work? Talk about this with students. Good endings have things in common: They make us (as readers) reflect or remember, suggest new possibilities, strengthen a conclusion the writer hopes we’ve reached (or will reach), give us something to ponder, answer a pressing question, satisfy curiosity, shock or surprise us—and more. Discuss the role of a good ending, and keep this discussion going as you add to your collection of favorites.
  4. Have a bad endings contest. Students love this. Choose a well-known story—it can be anything from a fable or fairy tale to a popular film or television show. Have students rewrite the ending in a way that definitely does NOT work—and talk about why. Maybe the wicked stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” opens a counseling service. Maybe Walter White pens the pilot for a sitcom.
  5. Revise. Provide students with an unfinished story, informational piece, or argument (just chop off the final paragraph or two—whatever amount of text you think constitutes the ending). You can use anything from a news story to a short story, op ed piece, or essay. Then follow these steps: (1) Provide students with the story/article minus the ending. (2) Discuss expectations—how do they think it will end, might end, should end? (3) Have students write an ending that they believe fits, and finally, (4) Provide the actual ending and do a critique—does it work? Why or why not? How does it compare with what students wrote?
  6. Follow some good advice. Some of the best advice on endings EVER comes from Roy Peter Clark in his excellent (highly recommended!) book Writing Tools (2006, 192). It is, fittingly, the conclusion to his chapter/essay titled “Write toward an ending.” He says, “I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal ballad. Don’t bury your ending. Put your hand over the last paragraph. Ask yourself, ‘What would happen if this ended here?’ Move up another paragraph and ask the same question until you find the natural stopping place.”

writing tools

FEATURE 8: Conventions—and Presentation

On 9/16/14 (Stop the Sea of Red Ink!), I wrote extensively about teaching conventions. Check that post for many details on teaching students to be strong editors.

Meanwhile, let’s look briefly at CCSS expectations for conventions, and then close with some ideas for teaching both conventions and presentation.

What does the CCSS demand?

The CCSS expectations relating to conventions are somewhat lacking in detail—presumably to grant teachers freedom to teach conventions as they see fit. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Correct spelling
  • Correct use of punctuation
  • Correct use of pronouns
  • Correct use of intensive pronouns (myself, herself, etc.)
  • No unnecessary shifts in number or person
  • No vague pronoun references
  • Recognition and avoidance of non-standard usage

At upper levels, especially grades 11 and 12, they add the following:

  • Understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and can be contested.
  • Skill in using relevant resources, such as a thesaurus or dictionary.
  • Skill in varying sentence patterns to increase readability and improve style.

Notes on these last three bullets

These last three bullets—those pertaining to upper grade students—are particularly interesting. The first two call for thinking skills and application of those skills, things that can only be measured through elaborately and carefully designed performance assessment. (This has serious, not-to-be-ignored implications for testing.) The third one has nothing to do with conventions—though as I’ll point out, it is vital just the same.

 Bullet 1: I cheered when I read about the understanding of conventional evolution. This, to my mind, is more significant than all the other conventions-related standards combined. It is, however, difficult to imagine how this would be measured—certainly not through multiple choice, fill-in, short answer, or true and false questions: e.g., True or false: Language is evolving.  No—typical assessment strategies won’t work here. We need observation of behavior over time by highly skilled, qualified persons who are sensitive to the ways in which language shifts—and who can recognize the signs of change in writing. Such assessment is not only monumentally difficult, but poses potential hazards for young writers even when well done. What if their writing reflects no homage to recent fluctuations? Does that mean it’s below standard? On the other hand, if a student begins sentences with And, favors fragments, uses double punctuation (?!),or uses words like hashtag, selfie, crowdfunding, and wackadoo, is this a sign he/she is linguistically evolved? And what of the person scoring this student’s work? How does he/she feel about our ever evolving language? Not everyone is a fan of change.

We must be careful to distinguish between standards, those things we have a right to expect and sufficient skill to assess—and goals or wishes, things we hope for, measurable or not. Despite this complex and treacherous web we’ve woven for ourselves, I applaud the CCSS for encouraging students to recognize language as vital and in flux. As Patricia T. O’Conner says in her engaging book Woe Is I, the “quirks, the surprises, the ever-changing nature of English—these are the differences between a living language and a dead one.”

Bullet 2: Again—effective use of resources is an admirable goal, but one difficult to assess with any validity under timed or controlled conditions. Writers who make extensive and efficient use of resources under normal writing conditions may not have the time or opportunity, under the constraints typical of most writing assessments, to show what they can do when unfettered. Nevertheless, quality writing and research demand that students become proficient with a wide range of resources, from print to Internet. This means that use of resources must be taught, even if not assessed.

Bullet 3: Varied sentence patterns: Well—music to my ears. Fans of 6-trait writing will recognize this description as belonging to our old friend Sentence Fluency, aka Trait #5. You might have thought this trait was missing from the CCSS, but it was only hiding out among the conventions. Fluency does indeed enhance both clarity and style—and can surely be assessed, as we have shown for 30 years now. Dust off your old 6-trait writing guide (or better yet, 6th edition of Creating Writers) for numerous ideas on how to teach this important trait.

CW6 Cover

Just how important IS fluency? A study conducted by the Oregon Department of Education in the 1980s showed that in fact, sentence fluency was the most important single indicator of how professional readers would score a paper. Does that surprise you? Well—it surprised me. I would have voted for voice or conventions. But, no. As it turns out, one of the best ways to entertain, educate, or convince readers is to give them sentences that

  • Vary in style
  • Vary in length
  • Begin with meaningful transitional words or phrases
  • Flow smoothly and rhythmically, inviting oral reading

Good to know. (Important to teach.)

The MOST Common Conventional Errors

You cannot teach everything relating to conventions. You couldn’t even if you had years to prepare, so be smart. Focus on the trouble spots. Following are 15 of the most common errors students (and in fact, pretty much all writers) make. If your students can avoid these, they’ll have a distinct advantage in any assessment:

  • Incorrect double pronoun: Example: Did anyone leave their books behind? Instead, write: Did anyone leave his or her books behind? English, unfortunately, has no universal pronoun to replace their—and these days, “his books” is considered sexist. Who knows? Their—once acceptable—may make a comeback, but it’s not there yet, so it’s best avoided as a replacement for “his or her.”
  • Incorrect pronoun as a sentence subject: Example: Me and him have been friends forever. Instead, write: He and I have been friends forever. You wouldn’t say Me has been his friend forever or Him has been my friend forever, so Me and him makes no sense.
  • Use of good instead of well: Example: You did good, kid! Instead, write: You did well. “You did good” is popular usage these days, but it is not standard and is unacceptable in any formal context—such as a CCSS writing assessment.
  • Incorrect use of intensive or reflective pronouns (the “selfie” gang): Such pronouns can be used reflectively: Louise prepared herself for the relatives. Or they can be used intensively: Louise herself finished off the spaghetti. They should not be used to replace other pronouns, such as I or me, in a vain attempt to make a sentence more elegant. Examples: NOT Jack and myself loved the movie, BUT Jack and I loved the movie. NOT It’s a party for Bill and myself, BUT It’s a party for Bill and me.
  • Vague pronoun reference: Example: Just before Wiley pounced on Catfish, he let out a mighty roar. Who let out the mighty roar? Wiley or Catfish? Instead, write one of the following: Just before pouncing on Catfish, Wiley let out a mighty roar. OR, Just before Wiley pounced on him, Catfish let out a mighty roar.
  • Missing commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause: This one befuddles everyone (mostly thanks to excessively formal terminology), but it’s really simple. Instead of “nonrestrictive,” think “nonessential.” In other words, it’s a clause that adds an interesting tidbit of information, but it isn’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence. When that’s the case, it should be set off by commas. Otherwise, it should not. Consider the difference between these two sentences: 1) The firefighter who rescued the child was given a medal. 2) The firefighter, who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, was given a medal. The expression who rescued the child is restrictive; it is essential to the full meaning of the sentence because presumably, the rescue was the reason he was awarded the medal. The expression who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday is incidental, not essential to the meaning of the sentence—but more of an “oh by the way” comment. Therefore, it requires commas. Commas used in this way are a sort of “parentheses light.”
  • Comma splice: A splice puts two things—like strips of film—together. Unfortunately, commas do not perform this task well, and a comma cannot join two sentences (independent clauses). Example: Jim hated dogs they always seemed to bite him. Instead, write: Jim hated dogs; they always seemed to bite him. OR Jim hated dogs. They always seemed to bite him. OR Because they always seemed to bite him, Jim hated dogs.
  • Confusion of it’s and its: Here’s another easy one that pops up all the time. Remember it this way: it’s (with the apostrophe) is a contraction. All the time. No exceptions. It can stand for it is or it has: It’s raining. OR, It’s been days since we talked! Unless you mean “it is” or “it has,” write its: NOT Its too late for apologies, BUT It’s too late for apologies. NOT A turtle never sleeps on it’s back, BUT A turtle never sleeps on its back.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in tense: Moving suddenly from past to present or the reverse can create confusion for readers. Tenses should remain constant unless there’s a logical reason for the shift. Example: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she starts laughing. Instead, write: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she started laughing. Example: I am running down the path when I spotted a coyote. Instead, write: I am running down the path when I spot a coyote. OR, I was running down the path when I spotted a coyote.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in person: This often comes from an almost obsessive avoidance of the pronoun “I,” as if it’s rude to refer to one’s own feelings or thoughts, and more polite to shift the attention to you. The resulting sentences, though, can be awkward. Example: I was almost to the finish line when you could feel your legs cramping. Why would I get cramps when YOU are the one running? This makes no sense. Instead, write: I was almost to the finish line when I could feel my legs cramping. Example: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and you couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it. Instead, write: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and we couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it.
  • Inappropriate tense: For some reason, this error has become widespread in novels. Doesn’t anyone use past perfect anymore? Example: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian jumped. This doesn’t work because Ian has already jumped by the time Jill gets there; one thing happens before the other, and the verb tenses need to show this. Instead, write: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian had jumped. Example: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty ate it. This sounds as if she ate it right in front of him—it’s not likely that’s what the writer means. Instead, write: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty had eaten it. She’s not sadistic; she just has the munchies.
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement: Several things can trigger this mistake. One is beginning a sentence with “There.” Example: There is many reasons I struggle with geography. For some reason, “is” often feels right following “There.” But in this case, the plural “reasons” calls for a plural verb, so write: There are many reasons I struggle with geography. Another culprit is a complex subject. Example: The box of sausages are packed tightly. It’s box, not sausages, that is the sentence subject. Instead, write: The box of sausages is packed tightly. Similarly, compound sentence subjects can cause confusion—especially if they are separated by a few words. Example: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus is the main attraction at the aquarium. Despite the wordiness, the simple subject is still seahorses and octopus, a plural. Instead, write: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus are the main attractions at the aquarium.
  • Wrong verb form following the word “or”: When a subject includes the word “or,” the verb matches the word following “or.” Example: Brussels sprouts or asparagus are on the menu tonight. Instead, write: Brussels sprouts or asparagus is on the menu tonight. Example: Ben or Rudy are scheduled to sing tonight. Since Rudy (the subject following or) is singular, you want to write this instead: Ben or Rudy is scheduled to sing tonight. (By the way, do not look for your grammar checker to catch this one. Most won’t!)
  • Misplaced or dangling modifiers: Misplaced modifiers are great for comic relief, but they can create confusion. Example: We saw the dolphins leaping and diving through our binoculars. How Disney! Instead, write: Through our binoculars, we saw the dolphins leaping and diving. Example: After drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult. Hold on. Is the snow drifting—or are we drifting? Instead, write: After drifting down for hours, the snow would make the drive difficult. OR, After it had been drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult.
  • Confusion of there, they’re, and their: This is an easy mistake to make, even for editors. After all, the words sound identical. The first is an adverb, usually signifying place (There it is!) or existence (There’s an old saying). The second is a contraction, short for they are: They’re here! And the last is a possessive: It’s their idea, not mine.

10 Things You Can Do to Teach Conventions Effectively

  1. Go through your students’ papers quickly, just skimming for recurring errors. Don’t correct anything. Instead, make a list of the 10 to 20 most frequently occurring errors. Then focus on those in your instruction. It’s likely that many of the 15 common errors listed above will appear on your list, too.
  2. Resist the urge to correct students’ writing line by line. It does almost no good whatsoever, and you’ll waste valuable time you could spend hunting through literature for good examples of usage or punctuation to share with students. This doesn’t mean you should ignore errors altogether. Instead . . .
  3. Do any of the following: 1) Pull an occasional example (anonymously, of course) from a student paper and ask the class to describe and correct it. Team editing feels SO much safer and more manageable than individual editing. 2) Within individual student papers, mark no more than one or two errors at a time, thinking of this as coaching more than editing. Most students will not internalize more than one editorial correction at a time anyway, so hard as it may be, put the pen down. And 3) Work on conventions—briefly!—in one-on-one conferences. You might ask a student to edit a sentence or a short paragraph with your assistance and support (NOT watching while you do it—you already know how to edit). Base the length of the task on the student’s skill level, and don’t demand perfection. The goal is improvement, and every error spotted merits approval and applause. Instead of punishing errors, reward editing.
  4. If students plan to publish a piece formally, require editing—but allow help. Students should be able to turn to partners, small groups, resource books and the computer for assistance—along with you, of course! And they should be given time, plenty of it.
  5. To teach punctuation, try removing it from a passage. Ask students to edit the passage, filling in what’s missing. This is much more difficult than you might think—but it forces students to use their understanding of how punctuation works rather than relying on hit-and-miss memorization of rules. Give this one a try yourself (I’ll post the author’s original at the end). Notice that I have provided additional space between lines and have included NO capital letters because that makes it too easy to tell where sentences begin and end. You need to use logic—and (here’s a tip to give students), it’s easier if you read aloud:

within hours the log erupts into flames by the next morning the fire has consumed a couple of acres

of forest then dry winds spring up whipping the flames out of control firefighters can do nothing as they

watch the inferno devours hundreds then thousands of acres the fire rages for days then weeks it reduces

green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal thick smoke chokes local communities ash falls on cities and

towns a thousand miles away

6. Make sure students join you in the hunt—for errors or for good examples of conventional correctness or change. Discuss them—and sometimes post them for easy reference.

7. Share your own writing and asking for help any time you are working on a piece, no matter how short.

8. Have students routinely edit publications from your school (They’ll find more mistakes than you think).

9. Provide (and asking students to provide) real-world examples of sentences that need editorial help. Here are some I collected just in the last week—and there were many more, but I neglected to write all of them down. All of these are from adult writers and speakers, some of them newscasters or government figures:

  • Me and him haven’t agreed on a single vote.
  • That was Charlie and my’s house for five years. (If you can come up with a way to make this structure more awkward, I’d like to hear it.)
  • I’d do it this way if I was you. (But since I isn’t, I won’t.)
  • Him and myself really loved that film. (So—him loved the film. And yourself loved it, too.)
  • There was way less people at the mall than expected. (Two problems here. Can you spot both?)
  • The team played so good on Sunday!

woe is I   deluxe transitive vampire  eats shoots and leaves

Tip 10:

Have some good resource books at the ready. I particularly like Woe Is I by Patricia T. OConner, an excellent resource on current grammar—highly readable. If you’re looking for a quick guide to grammatical terminology that most definitely won’t put you to sleep, check out The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a writer who truly appreciates grammar and has a delightful time teaching it to the rest of us—her book is anything but tedious. Same goes for Lynne Truss’s now classic book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Speaking of classics . . . If you’d like a stellar book to use in teaching grammar, usage, and punctuation to students, look no further than Jeff Anderson’s brilliant Mechanically Inclined. Once you begin reading (and using) this book with your students, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

mechanically inclined


Presentation is the partner of conventions. Basically, it’s packaging—everything from the cover (if a document has one) to the page size, use of color, graphics, inclusion of features like a table of contents or index, choice of fonts, and more.

I don’t advocate scoring or assessing presentation because it’s an element of design. People give awards—like the Caldecott—for artistic achievement, but recognition of that kind of excellence is a special form of assessment that requires a specialist’s eye and background. If you have designed publications yourself, that’s different. But it’s still important to recognize that designing documents in a classroom (or even a state-of-the-art home office) is one heck of a lot different from working at a publishing house with incredible resources at your fingertips.

I do, however, believe in teaching elements of design or presentation because when students take pride in how a document looks, that may spark additional attention to other areas, such as research, wording, or organizational structure. Further, good presentation makes documents easier to read—and readability makes readers feel good.

Word Processing Is Essential

Instruction in presentation works best, of course, if students are word processing documents. If they are hand writing their text, then presentation tends to focus on legibility. Be careful with this. Over-attention to handwriting leaves students with the unfortunate impression that presentation is mostly about neatness, and that’s like thinking that good parenting is mostly about dusting. Handwriting has nothing whatsoever to do with the logical or inventive thinking that marks strong writing. Do I think handwriting should be taught? Yes. Oh yes, I do. I am all for people writing legibly. But pretending that writing legibly is the same as thinking logically is misleading and frankly, irritating.

So let’s begin with a caveat: Everything in this section is intended for computer generated print. It presumes that the writer has control over things like font selection and size or insertion of illustrations.

Here are six very simple things you can teach to dramatically improve presentation. Every one of these can be taught through example—and best of all, you can have students find the examples themselves:

  1.  Encourage paragraphing. I am looking now at a text I like very much, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. It’s riveting—if you’re into evolution. But the very first time I opened it, I put it right back down, thinking, “Maybe later.” The text is so dense. Tiny letters fill every page. True, there are illustrations, but not enough to give tired reader’s eyes a rest. And margins are minimalized. I understand why. The book runs over 600 pages. Heck, the index alone runs 30. The editor was probably going insane trying to hold it to that length. But I’m reading it a chapter at a time so it doesn’t wear me out—and I find myself longing for white space the way some people crave chocolate. An easy way to create white space is to include more paragraphs—and even create additional space between them. Space is restful. We could use more of it. (Chocolate too. Just saying.)
  2. Help students choose fonts with care. Fonts should be readable. If students want to experiment with fonts, headings or subheadings are a good place to get fancy. Otherwise, stick with plain and simple—and make it large enough for the average person to read without magnification. On the other hand, TOO BIG isn’t good, either. Extremely large print is nearly as difficult to read as small print. The other thing to look out for is the circus effect—more than two fonts on a page. This creates a busy look that might work for a poster or greeting card, but does not create the right impression for a report, editorial, or other serious document. A good way to teach font selection is by having students peruse publications of many kinds and choose their top five fonts. (Not everyone in the class will agree on this, of course.) Then get specific about the qualities that aid readability or visual appeal. Talk about when/why it’s OK to get more creative (e.g., for a picture book cover or birth announcement). Most publications these days identify the fonts used, making this discussion fun and easy.
  3. Teach the art of listing. Lists are very hard to read in paragraph form. See Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, pages 2-3, for an eloquent example of an exception to this rule. Usually, a list is understood and absorbed much more quickly (and thoroughly) if it’s numbered (like the one you’re reading now) or bulleted. Items on a list can be expanded later. For example, a writer might quickly document three consequences of drought in a bulleted list—then go on to expand each of the three. This brings us to another easy-to-teach feature of presentation . . .
  4. Teach subheadings. They’re enormously helpful. If I could give an award for best text feature, I’d give it to the humble sub-head. It’s a form of transition—only compact and enormously revealing. This is what this section is all about, it tells us. What could be more helpful than that? It not only identifies what’s coming up, like a good road sign, but also makes it easy for us, as readers, to go back later and check something or re-read. Sub-heads are usually bold-faced or written in a larger or different font, or sometimes all three. They need to stand out.
  5. Encourage illustrations. Some. In the right spots. Again, ask students to teach themselves how this works by looking at examples. Sometimes a diagram of a shark or map of Central America is just the thing. But too many illustrations quickly turn into clutter. An illustration—by which I mean a drawing, photograph, chart, map, graph, cartoon, or any similar insertion—should be immediately and obviously helpful. It should answer a question (or questions) in the reader’s mind. If it feels more like an assignment—Here, memorize this—it’s overkill, and it’s better to omit it.
  6. Encourage appreciation of great covers. Or other artistic displays, for that matter. You might have a contest in which students nominate and vote for favorite book covers, internal illustrations, newspaper layout designs, brochure designs, posters, print advertisements, or any similar category of your choice.

Here’s the original from that punctuation activity. It’s from Sneed Collard’s wonderful new book, Fire Birds, just released (2015, p. 5). Notice how Collard’s careful use of commas makes this passage easy to read:

Within hours, the log erupts into flames. By the next morning, the fire has consumed a couple of acres of forest. Then dry winds spring up, whipping the flames out of control. Firefighters can do nothing. As they watch, the inferno devours hundreds, then thousands of acres. The fire rages for days, then weeks. It reduces green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal. Thick smoke chokes local communities. Ash falls on cities and towns a thousand miles away.

Look for a review of Fire Birds later in 2015.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

After the holiday break, I’ll review Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, along with Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills while making important links to the six traits. Until then, have a wonderful holiday.

Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . To book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.



For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding posts, please check out . . .

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:


Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.


Getting to the Core of the Common Core


Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

Maybe you’re one of those people to whom the Common Core Standards for writing seem just second nature, almost intuitive. You’re not worried about upcoming assessments. Old ground, right? If that’s the case, this post is not meant for you.

If, on the other hand, you read through the writing standards and feel yourself glazing over, thinking, How on earth will I remember all this? Where do I begin? then this IS your post. Welcome!


A Caveat

We won’t try to touch on everything in the world of writing (which may come as a relief). Not even the standards themselves can begin to do that because writing is too big—by far. But climbing any mountain goes better if you can get a good toehold, and that’s what this post is meant to give you.


Two Things to Notice

If you haven’t done so, read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. As you read, you’ll notice two things:

  1. The standards echo the 6 traits at almost every turn. Have you been teaching the 6 traits in your writing classroom? If so, you’ve already been teaching much of what is covered in the standards, especially with regard to the following traits: ideas (think CCSS detail and support), organization (think lead or introduction, transitions and coherence, ending or conclusion), word choice (think phrasing but also use of proper terminology), and conventions/presentation (think editing and publishing). And here’s the frosting on the cake: The standards also emphasize revision. Big time. In fact, we know that some portions of the upcoming writing assessments will require students to revise passages by rewording sentences, taking out unneeded sentences or words, rephrasing, and so on. This is incredibly good news for 6-trait fans because the 6 traits are all about revision. Every trait opens a writer’s eyes to new revision strategies: writing a new lead, adding detail, improving transitions, finding a better way to say it, being more concise, and so on. So, 6-trait teachers, you’re already a step up. You may also notice that . . .
  2. There’s a lot of redundancy in the CCSS as you move genre to genre. Initially, this may seem confusing, but it makes perfect sense once we remind ourselves that certain features—such as word choice—are important regardless of genre or purpose. Whether one is writing a story about a mouse who falls in love with a princess, a textbook on economics, or an argument supporting GMO labeling, words matter. The kind of language a writer uses shifts, of course, to suit the audience and purpose. As a teacher, you can use this overlap to your advantage. You can teach specific features of writing, helping students understand how those features shape themselves to meet the needs of audience, genre, and purpose—and you don’t need to teach them three times. You just need to show how they shift to suit the situation.


The Top 8

So then—just what are these overlapping features that are vital in narrative, informational writing, and argument? Here’s my version of the top 8:

  • Purpose & Audience
  • Introduction/Lead
  • Detail
  • Structure
  • Transitions (also called connections or connecting words)
  • Wording
  • Conclusions
  • Conventions

If your students can demonstrate strength across these 8 features, they can handle almost any writing assessment anyone can throw at them, whether the scoring criteria are based on the 6 traits, the Common Core Standards for writing, a combination of the two, or any criteria developed by a college, business, or other institution. That sounds like a mighty claim, but it isn’t. It’s just common sense. That’s because the 8 things listed here are just features of good writing, no more, no less. That’s what the standards are all about—good writing. It’s what the 6 traits are about, too. Let’s consider these features one by one. I’ll deal with 1 through 4 in this post—and 5 through 8 in the next.

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

One of my favorite writers, Garrison Keillor, wrote an article a few years ago on the art of letter writing. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. At one point, he tells us,

The toughest letter to crank out is one that’s meant to impress, as we all know from writing job applications; if it’s hard work to slip off a letter to a friend, maybe you’re trying too hard to be terrific. A letter is only a report to someone who already likes you for reasons other than your brilliance. Take it easy. (“How to Write a Letter” in We Are Still Married, 1989, 139).

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

  1. Small children
  2. Law students
  3. Publishers
  4. People like you and me—especially shy people

This is an easy question, but a slightly tougher one is, How do we know? We know because good writing is always filled with clues about the writer’s intent. Phrases like “meant to impress” and “reasons other than your brilliance” tell us the audience is adult. At the same time, the casualness of “toughest letter to crank out” suggests an easy armchair chat, not a formal lecture or business letter. And why would a letter to a friend be “hard work”? Well, perhaps the writer is shy. I read this and say to myself, Me. You’re talking to me.

Good writers have a sense of audience and purpose. This isn’t the easiest thing to teach, partly because in school audience and purpose are defined for us: I’m writing to my teacher and my purpose is to fulfill the assignment. Pretending to write to a broader audience for an imagined purpose feels forced and artificial—but it’s important to widen our students’ horizons. One very real way to do just that is to read excerpts (about the length of the Keillor one) to students and to ask them, “Who’s the audience for this?” And also, “What’s the writer’s purpose?” At this point, students may well ask . . .


What kinds of purposes are there?

If you’ve never thought about this question before, it helps to have some hints. Begin with the fact that the CCSS for writing are divided into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. Admittedly, there are many forms within each genre. Narrative, for example, could include travel literature, novels, picture books, journals, news stories, biographies, film scripts—and so forth. And each of these fulfills a slightly different purpose. In the spirit of this post, however, let’s keep things simple. Here are some suggested purposes that fit within each of the primary genres (you can probably add to my lists—and you should):

Narrative writing is meant to tell a story, explain what happened, share an experience, make a point (or points) about life, portray the human condition, define a character or slice of history, show how a problem was resolved, unveil a mystery, or entertain us.

Informational writing is meant to explain, teach, reveal findings, explore a topic, answer questions, offer assistance, provide key details, enlighten us, encourage further research, summarize discoveries or data, or help us understand the world.

Argument is meant to persuade us, help us think through multiple sides of an issue, urge action, encourage a new or modified perspective, search for truth, explain a particular point of view, compare positions, alert us to potential consequences, or guide us to a sound decision.

These genres are not mutually exclusive, though we sometimes teach them as if they were. Narrative, for example, can be educational. The humblest of mystery novels often teaches us more than we realize about police procedure or courtroom protocol. Seabiscuit is essentially a story about one of history’s most incredible race horses. But no one can read Seabiscuit without learning about life in the 1930s or the incredible hazards of being a jockey. Similarly, both informational writing and argument can be highly entertaining (Keillor’s expository piece on letter writing is a case in point), and both can and often do include narrative examples. Indeed, most good writing is a blend of multiple genres.

Just the same, helping students understand the central purposes behind these three primary genres gives them a vital perspective on both their own writing—and on the reading they do. You can teach this by sharing examples aloud or in writing. Take your examples from a wide range of genres: newspapers, cookbooks, travel brochures, novels, picture books, textbooks, encyclopedias, podcasts, wikis, and more. Here are just a handful to give you an idea—note that I have not included the source with the sample. That would make things too easy. (I will tell you later.) As you read each one, ask yourself, What is the author’s purpose? Is this narrative, informational writing, or argument? And, Who is the author’s intended audience?

Example 1

Reading [Pennsylvania] began to go through a precipitous decline in the 1970s, which began with the collapse of the railroad. In the mid-‘80s, several key factors in manufacturing began to falter. In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the wake of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the steel and textile industries began to significantly erode and jobs were sent overseas.

Example 2

It is a way of living that infuses you with health and energy, so you can feel great, look your best and do everything you’ve always wanted to do. It’s a way of eating that treats meals as celebrations, that encourages you to indulge in the healthy pleasures of delicious, super-flavorful foods. It’s a way to lose weight quickly and permanently while, perhaps for the first time in your life, you will truly cherish your meals.

Example 3

The funny way I talk is not so much like fat pigs in cartoons as I just get stuck on a sound and try to push the word out. Sometimes it comes out after a little pushing but other times I turn red in the face and lose my breath and get dizzy circles going around in my head.

Did you have a definite—and different—impression for each one? That’s how you want your students to feel. After you discuss samples with them, reveal the sources so they can compare their thinking to each author’s actual intent.

Example 1 is aimed at an adult audience: play goers, in particular. It comes from an interview with the playwright Lynn Nottage in Prologue, a magazine published by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The purpose of the interview was to help set the background for Nottage’s play “Sweat,” a story that portrays the decline of American manufacturing, and its impact on American citizens. This excerpt is largely informational (though an underlying purpose is also to persuade people to buy a ticket!).

Example 2 is from The New Sonoma Diet by Dr. Connie Guttersen (2010, 2). This is certainly aimed at adults, particularly those who wish to lose weight. As a fan of the book, I can tell you it’s highly entertaining—but clearly this piece is part of an argument, one that runs the whole course of the book: This diet works. How do we recognize this as persuasive writing, though? Again, look for the clues. First, it makes claims—you’ll look and feel great. You’ll enjoy food more than ever. But note the language—words like infuses, celebrations, indulge, pleasures, super-flavorful, cherish. These are emotional, feel-good words. They’re meant to make you feel that this way of eating is enjoyable—heck, it’s like being at a party! Did they work? Regardless, the real question is, Would your students recognize this as persuasive writing?

Example 3 is from the very moving young adult novel Paperboy by Vince Vawter (2013, 1). The hero of this story is eleven, so we might imagine the book aimed at students about eight to twelve, though it holds much appeal even for adults. And although it is primarily a narrative, we do learn (beginning with this early passage) a great deal about coping with stuttering. Again, the question is, How do we know this is narrative writing—versus, say, a passage from a medical book? It’s personal, intimate, revealing. Instead of data and medical terminology, we have expressions like “fat pigs in cartoons” and “stuck on a sound.”

Examples like these should sound very different to your students, and evoke very different responses. Share one or two each day and talk about how you know the purpose—and the audience. What are the clues? Is it the tone? Wording? Content? As your students write, ask them to think about purpose and audience. How do they shape or modify things like language, content, or voice to suit the audience—and the purpose for writing?

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

Of all the things we write, in all the forms we write, nothing is more important than a strong lead. As the name suggests, a lead pulls us into a piece of writing. But it does so much more. It lays the groundwork for what will come, sometimes giving us background, sometimes raising questions we cannot wait to have answered: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake” (from Holes by Louis Sachar, 2000). No lake? Why on earth not?

Leads can be ominous. They can instill a sense of dread: “My eyes were closed in prayer when the trucks pulled up. I heard them before I saw them” (from Running for My Life by Lopez Lamong, 2012, 1).

It’s said that E. B. White wrote several leads before crafting the world renowned masterpiece that would rival Hitchcock for suspense: “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother, as they were setting the table for breakfast” (Charlotte’s Web, 1952).

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

Leads can also create a sense of enchantment—like this one that provides the setting for an informational text on tree kangaroos:

It feels like we’ve walked into a living fairy tale. Our heads are literally in the clouds. Though we’re just a few degrees south of the equator, we are bathed in cool mist. We’re 10,000 feet up in the mountains. Here the trees are cloaked in clouds. The ground is carpeted with thick green moss. In the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea, ferns grow into trees—trees like those the dinosaurs knew. Moss and ferns, vines and orchids, hang from branches like the beards of wise old wizards. (Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery, 2006, 7).

Reading this, I feel my heart rate slow. It’s not just about setting, I realize. It’s about mood.

A good narrative lead may give us a hint about the plot—like this one from Edgar Allan Poe: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (from “The Cask of Amontillado”). We can’t shake the sense of dread Poe instills with words like thousand injuries, borne, ventured upon insult, vowed revenge. This is not going to end well. And we can’t turn the pages fast enough.

An informational lead tells us just enough about the topic to make us want more—and may also suggest a theme that will give the whole piece coherence: “Over the years, I learned that rats and humans have much in common” (from Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin, 2006, 7). The notion of a connection between rats and humans is intriguing and repulsive at the same time. Either way, it gives me a kind of hook on which to hang all the other details Marrin will share in this book.

An argumentative lead sets up an issue—and if it’s done well, it can get us intellectually and emotionally hooked: “Most stories about the destruction of a planet involve a villain with an evil plot. But this is the story of how the earth could be destroyed by well-meaning people who fail to solve a problem simply because their calculations are wrong” (from World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, 2011, xi).

World without Fish

It’s easy to get the idea that good leads are one-line zingers. They can be. But some leads (like that by Sy Montgomery) can run several sentences. They can even run several paragraphs—or more. Which brings me to an important point. Teach your students to develop an ear for leads by asking, “Where do you hear (or feel) the lead end?” The discussions generated by this question are fascinating. And to illustrate, let me share the next few sentences of Kurlansky’s lead—which is, I think, one of the best in the world of persuasive writing:

Most of the fish we commonly eat, most of the fish we know, could be gone in the next fifty years. This includes salmon, tuna, cod, swordfish, and anchovies. If this happens, many other fish that depend on these fish will also be in trouble. So will seabirds that eat fish, such as seagulls and cormorants. So will mammals that eat fish, such as whales, porpoises, and seals. And insects that depend on seabirds, such as beetles and lizards. Slowly—or maybe not so slowly—in less time than the several billion years it took to create it—life on planet Earth could completely unravel. (Kurlansky, xi)

This is, in its own way, as chilling as anything out of Poe. And surely it compels us to at least hear the man out.

Teaching Leads

Here are five things you can do to teach your students to write effective leads:

  1. Model. Choose a topic and in front of your students, write several leads you might use to begin. Don’t worry about making a Pulitzer worthy effort. Just write what comes to you. Let it flow. Draft at least three possibilities (any of which can be revised later). Then, ask students to pick their favorite and tell you why.
  2. Have students write multiple leads. Take a tip from E. B. White, and ask students to write more than one lead for a given piece and to share them in small groups, asking peers for their responses. Discuss the process. What did everyone learn from this? Is the final lead usually the best one?
  3. Read favorites aloud. Collect leads and share them aloud with students. Be sure to pull leads from multiple genres—not just mystery novels or picture books (though they’re often my favorites, too). Post these so that students can re-read them and think about them.
  4. Ask students to do the searching. Have students track down their own favorites by browsing through literature—as well as newspapers, periodicals, business writing, or the web.
  5. Revise. Find a lead you don’t like so much (or make one up—e.g., Grizzly bears are among the largest land animals . . . In this paper, I will explain why eating organic food is so important . . . ) and ask students to revise it, working in pairs. Post the top three revisions.

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

Teachers have a long-standing tradition of writing “Tell me more!” in the margins of their students’ work. Unfortunately, students often do not have the slightest idea what this means. “I told you everything already!” is a typical response. What do we teachers want, anyhow? Detail! That’s what! So—what is that? It’s the difference between “Camels are amazing!” and this:

It can drink salt water, or go for seven months without drinking at all. Then it can drink up to one quarter of its 1,200-pound weight at a time—twenty-seven gallons. (That would be like you drinking fifty-six cartons of milk!) It can carry 100 pounds of cargo up to thirty miles a day. It can swim, it can wrestle, and it can outrun a horse. (Sy Montgomery in Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, 2009, 45)

Detail takes many forms—facts, anecdotes, description, quotations, explanations, and more. In narrative writing, sensory detail (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, tastes) may be used to enhance a setting, as in this passage (the original lead, by the way) from Charlotte’s Web:

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 . . . It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. (E. B. White, 1952, 13)

I cannot read this without wishing myself right there in the barn. That’s good description.

Harris and Me

In his hilarious autobiography Harris and Me, Gary Paulsen uses sensory detail to introduce us to a most distinctive character—Louie, the hired hand on a farm where Gary will spend the summer. Though this passage is more visual than White’s, it too evokes a potpourri of smells:

At the end of the table sat an old man in a wool coat—though it was summer and hot in the kitchen from the wood stove on which the pancakes were cooking—a man so incredibly dirty that it was hard to find a patch of skin on his face or neck not covered with soil or grease. He wore a matted beard—stuck with bits of dirt and sawdust and what looked like (and I found later to be) dried manure and dribbled spit and tobacco juice. All this around two piercingly blue gun-barrel eyes and a toothless mouth. . . . . Louie. (1993, 14-15)

Students sometimes think that “sensory detail” means including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings, a veritable carnival of impressions. This approach is overwhelming. Sensory detail works best when writers focus on one or two senses at a time. We don’t need to breathe in the scent of the pickles and hot dogs as we taste the sweetness of the lemonade while basking in the warmth of the sun and feeling the roughness of the picnic table as we listen to the distant rock music and gleeful shouts of children all the while watching the fluffy clouds and swaying tree tops. Stop it.

In informational writing or argument, description often plays a key role. But within these genres, detail must also include examples (as in the previous passage on camels) and support. As they read, readers are constantly searching for new information (something they didn’t know already) and assessing the validity of the writer’s claims. Without detail, information dissolves into generalities, and arguments deflate.

The Animal Dialogues

My litmus test for good informational detail is pretty simple: Do I learn anything from the passage? Here’s a short example from Craig Childs’ essay on the praying mantis:

A Choeradodis mantid is hooded like a cobra, its mantle green, veined, and shiny like a leaf so it will not be distinguishable by those who might prey on it—the mantle also prevents a bird or reptile from being attracted by suspicious movements as this mantid consumes its prey. Central American Acanthops looks like roughened bark and dry leaves, the macelike head sharply pointed, the eyes formed into spikes. They kill whatever they can. Females are well known for twisting around and devouring males in the middle of copulation. A male missing its head and eaten down to the abdomen will continue insemination unfazed, its nerve trunk still delivering the last message sent by its lost speck of a brain. (The Animal Dialogues, 2007, 238-239)

Well, now. If you didn’t learn anything from that passage, you’ve spent a lot more time studying praying mantises than I.

Argument must also be informative. But in addition, it has to be convincing. Argument depends on evidence, a very special kind of detail that demands firsthand knowledge, meticulous observation, and often, research as well. Our Planet by the MySpace community (and Jeca Taudte) is essentially an argument in favor of making little everyday changes in our lives to combat global warming—things like carrying your own bags to the grocery store or sending e-cards. The book begins with an argument supporting the realities and dangers of global warming. Note the sense of urgency in the following text—one thing that differentiates it from purely informational writing:

Today, as the scientific case for global climate change grows, the facts don’t lie:

  • Since 1979 more than one-fifth of the polar ice cap has melted.
  • Eleven of the twelve warmest years on record were from 1995 to 2006.
  • The number of large wildfires in the western United States has quadrupled in the last 35 years as the average “fire season” has grown two months longer.

The authors go on to tell us that by the end of this century, global sea levels could rise by three feet, and up to one quarter of all existing species could be at risk for extinction if temperatures rise as little as 4.5 degrees (2008, 4).

Our Planet

Is this enough support to make for a strong argument? It’s compelling because the information is specific and detailed. Facts are cited. But we need to know where the information came from. The sources for this data (The Climate Group, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA’s Earth Observatory, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and more) are listed in the bibliography. They’re just not connected, fact by fact, directly to the discussion. Likely the CCSS writers would prefer they were. Nevertheless, knowing that the information is drawn from credible sources makes it far more convincing.


Teaching Detail

Here are six things you can do to teach your students to use detail wisely and well:

  1. Explore the nature of detail. As noted earlier, detail comes in many forms, from charts and graphs to descriptions, quotations or explanations. Begin by brainstorming a list. See how many kinds of detail you can name right out of your heads. Then follow up by searching through writing samples for as many different kinds of examples as you can find. This exercise helps students know what is meant by the comment “Tell me more!”
  2. Branch out! Students often have experience using descriptive detail, but are reluctant or unprepared to use such forms as quotations, facts, examples, and so on. Here’s an excerpt from a student’s argument on violence in films: “Films today are filled with brutality and blood spilling. People die every few minutes—or are horribly maimed or tortured.” The writer offers no detail to back this up. Ask students how a quotation, fact, or example could make this claim more convincing. Can they come up with one possibility of each?
  3. Discuss the importance of evidence. Proof is the queen of detail. It shows, more than any other form of detail, that the writer knows what he/she is talking about. And it is the sine qua non of argument. No evidence? No argument. What constitutes evidence, though? Essentially, it’s provable information. Provable through documentation, firsthand experience or research, or the testimony of experts. In writing an argument, it’s not a bad idea to picture yourself as a defense attorney representing your special client: the truth of your claim.
  4. Become observers. Evidence may come from research—but descriptive detail comes primarily from being a good observer of the world. So practice this. Have students describe something within your classroom, school, or campus. Encourage reflection, extended observation, note taking. See who can notice the most—and capture it on paper. Got something interesting or exotic—say, a rat, hamster, or terrarium—to use as a subject? Splendid! If not, you can write about your shoe, your hand, the view out the window—anything. One kindergarten/first grade teacher I knew invited new moms to visit with their babies. Students wrote expensively and in elaborate detail about their small visitors.
  5. Revise. Imagine if the Craig Childs passage on the praying mantis had been written this way: “The praying mantis is a colorful insect. It can blend into its surroundings. It often kills other insects.” Begin with a passage like this one (on any topic with which your students are familiar—or one they can readily research) and ask students to expand it through detail.
  6. Collect and post favorites. When you come across a passage in which the detail captures your imagination, save it and share it with students. Tell them what you like about it. Author Gary Provost talks about once buying a book because of a single line in which the writer referred to an “alcoholic bull-dog” rather than simply an “alcoholic dog” (100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, 1985, 79). The specific detail convinced Provost that the writer had actually seen the dog. That gave the book authenticity, he said. Detail is powerful.

FEATURE 4: Structure

Hemingway once famously said that “prose is architecture.” No wonder organization is so tough to master. If you think about it, it’s a lot easier to choose a paint color than to build the house in the first place.

What is structure anyway? It’s the skeleton, the framework, the blueprint, the map—or choose your own metaphor. It’s the famous “middle” we tell students about but almost never describe. It’s that mysterious something that takes us from lead to conclusion. And it needs to be well-constructed or readers won’t be able to follow the story, discussion, or argument.

Here are some generic structures—just intended to help you think about the concept of “structure” in more productive ways than “the middle” or “the skeleton.” These are NOT intended as formulas because every piece of writing (except those that follow a boilerplate) has, and needs to have, its own design. They’re simply possibilities:

Main Point or Argument & Support

This is a good method of organizing an informational piece or an argument where one primary idea, point, or position is the focus.

Revealing the Solution

This design works well when there is a mystery to unravel or question to solve.  Clues or bits of evidence lead up to a conclusion. Though it’s often used in narrative writing, research can also reveal “mysteries,” so this is an effective organizational structure for sharing new or startling information.

Comparison and Contrast

Here’s an excellent method of organizing information when you wish to show how things are alike or different: e.g., How much like humans are gorillas? You can present similarities first—then differences. Or, decide which is more important (similarities or differences) and lead up to that—like a punchline. Comparison/contrast is useful in both informational writing and argument.

Question and Answer

If you have a lot of information, but no one point is more important than the others, it may be useful to simply pose five or six key questions (or more) and answer them systematically. This design is useful for both informational writing and argument.


Sometimes—as in Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing—an author doesn’t have three or four points to make. He has 100. In that case, it helps to group details, putting those that fit together into one section or chapter. In Gary’s case, for example, he has a chapter on overcoming writer’s block, another on writing strong leads, one on 12 ways to improve style, another on 11 ways to make people like your writing, and so on. Grouping is enhanced with the use of sub-headings.

Step by Step

This is a viable organizational pattern for informational pieces that show how to do something: How to ski, how to housebreak a puppy, etc. It can also be useful in arguments showing how events led up to (or could lead to) a particular outcome—desirable or not.

Chronological Order

Histories and other stories are often organized in this simple pattern of what happened first, next, after that, and so on. Chronological order doesn’t always flow to A to Z, though. Writers sometimes play with time, beginning at the end, using previews or flashbacks, or moving across major expanses of time.

Visual Patterns

In visual organization, the writer may begin with a large overall impression and proceed to small details, or start with a close-up (food on the plate, a dead body) and expand outward. This approach is useful in any writing (any genre) where a visual impression is significant (the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird or Carl Sagan’s description of the Cosmos).

Point and Counterpoint

An argument is far more convincing when both sides (or multiple sides, for that matter) of an argument are presented.

Recurring Theme

Recurring events—wars, floods, economic challenges, presidents, major films—sometimes offer a common thread that binds together various periods of time.  In My Life in Dog Years, Gary Paulsen recounts periods in his life corresponding to dogs he has owned and loved.

OK, so can we just teach these patterns? No! Let me say that again. NO! That doesn’t work—at all. Being aware of various patterns is helpful, yes. If you were going to design your own house, looking through a book of blueprints would be enormously helpful because it would acquaint you with possibilities. But you’d still want to come up with your own design. And that’s the way people write, too. Further, design needs to flow out of ideas—not the other way around. This is one reason (one of many) that the infamous 5-paragraph essay is so hopelessly inadequate. I used to call it Jell-O organization because you begin with the mold and pour in the contents to fit. Works quite well with Jell-O, but is less successful with writing.

Planning Your Writing

How do design and idea work together then? Shouldn’t writers plan at all? Sure. You just don’t want to get locked in with outlines or other rigid forms. Do a sketch, make a list, make a T-chart (comparison list), or have in mind a general organizational design you will follow. Just don’t get too attached to it. Always start with an idea—and in particular, with a question to answer: e.g., How can we simplify the CCSS for writing teachers? Let your central idea drive the design. Organization is organic, and grows, shrinks, or reshapes itself to fit the message. I plan by listing my main points, and that list becomes my first draft. The beauty of lists lies in their simplicity; you can add or delete, move things around, combine elements—whatever. Here’s another tip: Write a draft lead as soon as you finish your first list—but don’t revise it until after you’ve finished the piece. By then the process of writing will have worked its magic and reshaped your thinking, and you’ll know better how to orient your readers.


Drama: A Different Organizational Design

Moonshot by Brian Floca (2009) is so beautifully written and illustrated you can pour over it for hours—whether you’re eight or eighty-eight. What struck me on the first reading (in addition to the brilliant illustrations) was the voice, word choice, and sentence fluency. The rhythm and sound are lyrical. Almost poetic. I didn’t even think about the organization until I was looking for it (good organization is never obvious)—and then it hit me. It’s ingenious. It doesn’t hammer home three key points and it isn’t divided into chapters or sections. It’s a drama—and it’s centered around three dangerous events: launching Apollo 11 into space, landing on the moon, and returning to Earth. Three acts—like a play. It’s much more than an adventure story, though. It’s an informational masterpiece with story as its organizational framework. If you want a lesson on combining genres, here it is.

Here is the general flow of the book, seen through a dramatic lens:

Act 1

This act sets the stage for all that will follow, and without ever weighting down the text, Floca manages to provide us with expansive information. The book opens with a view of the moon, the mysterious, alluring destination. Then Floca introduces us to the astronauts, to Apollo itself (we see it’s 30 stories tall!) and to Launch Control in Houston. The drama begins with the countdown!

Act 2

This act is all about action—countdown, liftoff, landing. First, Americans throughout the country watch, holding their breath. From inside Apollo, the astronauts feel the ZERO moment approach. Then . . . Apollo is launched. We are in space—verbally, and graphically. During the book’s only quiet moment, we sneak a peek inside Apollo where astronauts struggle with life sans gravity. How do they eat, sleep, use the toilet? Throughout, Floca continues the contrast between life in the spacecraft and life back on Earth, especially for astronauts’ families. Drama builds with a huge close-up of the moon and a search for the landing spot. Then, they’re on the surface! And in a stunning moment . . . Earth, distant, beautiful, far away, as the moon once was.

Act 3

In Act 3, the action winds down as the astronauts return. To color, light, sound, air, safety, all that is familiar. This final act moves quickly, but the tension is sustained, for nothing is sure until they are truly home.


PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

Floca masterfully avoids common pitfalls of organization, and that’s why I chose his remarkable book as an example. Here are some pitfalls to look out for when organizing any text:

  •   Pitfall 1: Beginning in the wrong spot. Floca could have started with the astronauts as children, imagining what they
    would grow up to be. Wisdom tells us not to back up too far from where the action starts—and this pertains to
    informational writing and argument, too. Too much background gives the reader’s mind time to wander.
  • Pitfall 2: Including too many details. What if Floca took us through all the technical tweaks, failures, adjustments, and modifications? Would anyone finish the book? Readers generally want to get on with it. The mind craves the significant, the bizarre, the surprising—the dramatic. Leaving the mundane on the cutting room floor is crucial to good organization.
  • Pitfall 3: Following a formula. Floca’s organization combines chronology with visual order and comparison/contrast. It’s impossible to imagine emulating this organizational pattern because it’s unique to Floca’s book. That’s as it should be. There’s no boilerplate for an original vision.
  •  Pitfall 4: Forgetting the problems. Organization revolves around problems. There’s always a puzzle to solve, a difficulty to overcome. This is true regardless of genre. If there’s no problem, there’s no drama. No high point. Nothing to build to—or wind down from. In Floca’s book, we are constantly aware that someone could die. People could be stranded on the moon—if they get there. Families could lose loved ones. Without this tension, the poetry of the book would be far less compelling.
  •  Pitfall 5: Omitting transitions. It’s vital to link scenes, events, happenings, details. Otherwise, we readers are as adrift as astronauts without a spaceship! Floca is a master of transitional phrases, so that even when he moves from Earth to space and back again, he transports us on words that provide direction: Here below, here in Florida, Near the rocket, after an orbit around the Earth, Onboard, Here where everything floats, At the Moon, Onboard Eagle, Far from home. Though we fly from Earth to the moon and back, we never lose our way.
  •  Pitfall 6: Ending with a fizzle. Floca’s ending could hardly be better. People went to the moon. They could have died. But—they didn’t. Hallelujah! Best of all, he links the lead and conclusion. We begin with the distant view of the moon, and wind up with that distant view of Earth. Every great trip is like that: It begins with a vision of the destination, ends with a longing for home.

Teaching Structure

Here are six things you can do to help your students build structure into their writing:

  1. Trace the journey. Trace the organizational journey of any writer, lead to conclusion, as I did with Brian Floca’s book Moonshot. Abandon all your expectations. Go where the writer leads you. But at the end, talk about what worked well. Where did you feel guided—or lost? It’s not necessary to list everything that happens—that’s too tedious. But hit the high moments or main points or arguments. Tip: Use picture books for this. You can read the whole book in one sitting, and students can recall the content and keep a “vision” of the book’s map in their heads.
  2. Discuss design possibilities. Use the list of organizational designs (comparison/contrast, main point and detail) provided earlier as a discussion point. These are not meant as cut-out patterns or models to follow, but as design possibilities. Imagine you are writing the history of your community or family, the biography of a war hero or cancer survivor, a how-to book on planning a family gathering or choosing a rescue pet. What sort of organizational structure (or combination of structures) might work?
  3. Start with a list of details. One of the best, most successful organizational strategies I have EVER used with students involved the simple task of providing small groups with a list of random details on a topic (e.g., gorillas, soccer, fad diets) and asking them to do three things: (1) Get rid of any details that are not significant or interesting, (2) Group remaining details under sub-headings, and (3) Write the lead sentence for each segment/chapter indicated by your groupings. Results are genuinely amazing—and this activity works across genres.
  4. Identify the high point. Anyone can spot a lead or conclusion. Identifying the high point is much more difficult—and far more critical. Students need to know that narratives are not lists of things that happened. Informational pieces are not lists of details. Arguments are not lists of reasons for believing something. Every piece of writing (every successful piece, anyway) has a high point, a dramatic or significant moment, a turning point, a discovery, an epiphany, a revelation, a problem solved, a difficulty survived or overcome. Organization must revolve around this dramatic moment as surely as our planets revolve around the sun. Have students identify that dramatic moment (sometimes there’s more than one) in every piece they read.
  5. Take a guided tour. Organizing information is like taking readers on a guided tour of your topic. So try that. Imagine, for example, conducting a guided tour of your school for someone who’s never been there. Where would your students begin? Where would they go next, and after that? Where would they end? Why? You might actually physically do the tour—or just brainstorm it. List your stops and imagine yourself giving a short description of highlights at each one. What would you emphasize? What would you leave out? What overall impression would you create? Now imagine the stops on your tour as paragraphs or chapters within a text.
  6. Stress simplicity. As often as not, organization suffers from overload. Student writers begin a piece too early—too far in front of that turning point or dramatic revelation/discovery—include too much information, or go on long after the piece has ended (at least in the mind of the reader). Every style book on earth will tell you that organization is about order and grouping. Well, duh. But that’s a small part of it. Trust me—long before you order and group, you need to cut, cut, cut. You can’t tell everything, and even if you could, no one wants to read it. Cut. Then cut some more. Students who begin with a manageable list of details will have much more success in ordering them well. Organization begins with condensing.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next time around, we’ll address Features 5 through 8: transitions, wording, conclusions, and conventions. We’ll define each feature and—as with this post—include some instructional suggestions. In the weeks to come, we’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, as well as Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills. You won’t want to miss either one.

We know you are busy, so thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150


Looking for writing lessons? These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind:

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:


Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

  • Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

CCSS Writing Assessment: 10 Tips for Getting Ready



The CCSS Writing Assessment is coming—likely in 2014 or 2015. While tests are still under development, we know that students will be asked to write—perhaps across multiple class periods (especially if research is involved). They may also be asked to revise existing text. We can probably anticipate some integration of reading and writing, too. For instance, students might be asked to read and analyze a text, such as the Declaration of Independence, or a passage from Shakespeare, and then construct an essay based on that analysis. Such writing could even incorporate the use of other media—e.g., students might be asked to analyze the meaning of Macbeth’s soliloquy, then listen to a performance of that soliloquy and discuss ways in which the actor uses inflection or body language to bring out his interpretation of the text. Clearly, such complex tasks will require more than 25 minutes of impromptu writing time. In contrast with typical writing assessments of the past, students are likely to need time for reading, reflection, research—and perhaps watching a performance or similar presentation. This is a whole new world of writing, one calling for synthesis of multiple skills. Complex assessment calls for complex instruction. Here are some suggestions to help you lay a foundation.



First off, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with the CCSS for your grade level. Visit www.commoncore.org to review both writing and reading standards. Don’t overlook reading even if your primary focus is on writing because—as indicated above—some portions of the assessment are very likely to interweave the two. Ability to interpret and summarize text, to identify and paraphrase main points, and to intelligently discuss the specific strategies a writer uses (that’s right—the six traits in a nutshell) will all be critical.

As you likely know, there are numerous webinars available online for supporting your journey with CCSS instruction. (Just enter “CCSS webinars” on any search engine to uncover a host of them.) I recommend the following one for writing because I think it’s particularly clear, and also because it contains several helpful examples of what CCSS writing prompts might look like:


For general information, check out www.commoncore.org/resources/frequently-asked-questions

10 Tips—and 6 Things You’re Probably Doing Now

The Common Core standards cover a lot of literary territory. Even with the help of textbooks, workshops, and webinars, you may feel confused or overwhelmed about what to do first—and about how different your writing instruction should look in the months to come. Don’t panic. You are probably doing many supportive things already. So before making major modifications, take a step back and realize you are on the right track if your writing curriculum contains these six elements:

  1. Students write daily—or at least four times a week
  2. Students (fourth grade and up) often produce text of 1-2 pages or more
  3. Students sometimes produce text based on extensive personal research (e.g., reading, viewing of films, interviews, site visits, personal experience, Internet searches)
  4. Students read diversely—e.g., novels, short stories, poetry, editorials, reviews, informational pieces, newspaper articles, and more—and write across a wide range of genres as well.
  5. “Reading” sometimes includes interpretation and analysis of such things as diagrams or charts.
  6. Students frequently discuss writing as writing. In other words, they do not just think of the message in the work of great writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Walter Dean Myers, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Gary Paulsen, Nikki Giovanni, Esmé Raji Codell, and others, but they reflect on the how: How do these writers engage us? What sorts of details do they include? How do they begin and end a piece? How do they make a character come to life—or make a technical concept clear? What words do they use—and why did they choose those particular words? How do they craft sentences or lines of poetry? And above all, what do they do that we, as writers, could try?

So much for the big picture. Following are 10 specific things you can focus on to help students build the strong writing skills needed to do well on the upcoming assessments.

6 Specifics: Begin with Commonalities

If you’ve visited the CCSS site already, you know that the Standards divide writing into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. As different as these genres may be, they do share some commonalities—such as strong beginnings. Take advantage of this in your instruction. It will save you time, and will also help students understand that even though we write for different purposes, some common elements cross all forms. Following are six of those commonalities:

  1.  Beginnings. No matter the genre, those first lines—or first words—count. One of my favorite leads comes from a book titled The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (2006, Random House): “Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox” (3). I was hooked at once. Good beginnings do many things. They engage us, to be sure. But they also preview what’s to come. They raise questions in our minds—questions we can only answer by continuing to read. Beginnings, or leads, set the stage. You can give students skill in writing good leads by modeling the writing of leads yourself (write two or three for a piece you’re working on and ask them to choose the favorite), by sharing outstanding leads from literature (remember Charlotte’s Web?), by asking students to collect favorite leads from the literature they love (focusing on informational pieces as well as narrative), and by asking students to write multiple leads for their own work, then choose the one that works best.
  2. Support/detail. Detail is critical in any form of writing—and it comes in many guises. Talk about this, and ask students to see how many different kinds of detail they can recognize. In Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2013, Random House), author Carol Rifka Brunt frequently uses sensory detail (How many different senses are at work here?) to put us right at the scene—as in this passage describing a medieval festival: “We were drinking hot mulled cider, and it was just the two of us, alone with the greasy smell of a pig roasting on a spit, and lute music and the whinny of a horse about to go into a fake joust and the jangling of a falconer’s bells” (12). Imagery is the name of the game in Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues (2007, Little, Brown and Company). Notice how the right turn of phrase helps us picture precisely what a flying raven looks like: “It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a marble” (127). In One Summer (2013, Random House) Bill Bryson makes factual information easy to digest in this explanation of why Babe Ruth, statistically the seventh best pitcher of all time, was pulled from the mound: “The problem was—and never before for any human had this been a problem—he was also a peerless hitter . . . In 1918, to take advantage of his bat, the Red Sox began playing Ruth at first base or in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The year 1918 proved to be the worst ever for home runs in major league baseball. The Senators as a team hit just 4 home runs that year. The Browns hit 5, the White Sox 8, and the Indians 9. Babe Ruth alone hit 11” (p. 113). [Actually 12, but as Bryson explains, Ruth’s 12th home run was recorded as a triple.] Details can be facts, anecdotes, images, statistics, proofs, events, examples, definitions—and more. Create a classroom collection to help students think expansively about detail. A good question to ask them is this: What form does detail usually take in each of the three umbrella genres—and why are these subtle differences important?
  3. Transitions. In a writing assessment, transitions can mean the difference between a high score and a mediocre one because writing without transitions can be annoyingly hard to follow. So, how to teach this? Those lists of “100 Effective Transitions” are, I think, helpful for introducing the concept. But they’re not an end in themselves. Words and phrases like Afterward, Meanwhile, However, and Therefore give us a feeling for what transitions are and how they work. But on their own, they’re not enough. Think of it this way. As you’re driving down the highway, you need to know where you’re headed in order to know which way to turn and when. Choosing from a list of options—right, left, north, south—won’t help you unless you know your destination. So what do transitions do? They link ideas, of course—but they do more than this. Transitions actually change the way we look at information, much the way furniture and art change how we see a room. Let’s say I’m writing about how an unexpected wind damaged crops in a farming community. I might write this: Winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. No houses were damaged. This makes sense in a basic, mechanical sort of way, but you would get far more out of the passage if I wrote this: Without warning, winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. Remarkably, no houses were damaged. You might share some samples like this with students. Find a passage with excellent transitions and rewrite it sans transitions. Have them revise it by adding a few transitions they think make sense (I recommend doing this orally as a class because you’ll be amazed at the discussion it generates). Important: Realize that students’ suggested revisions may or may not match the author’s original. This does not matter at all; what counts is creating a passage that makes sense. What else can you do? With students, collect and discuss passages in which transitions are used well, and talk about each writer’s technique. In the Prologue to One Summer, Bill Bryson stretches well beyond the old clichéd list we know by heart to come up with phrases like these: At thirty-eight stories, From a distance, By a curiously ironic twist, With his Gallic charm and chestful of medals, From almost nothing, Entirely coincidentally, For some moments, To make matters worse, and When preparations were complete (pp. 1-22). Bryson didn’t grab these from a list. They show his thinking in action. More than almost any other element of writing, transitions reveal a writer’s mind at work.
  4. Language. Language is all about vocabulary. Before you reach for a list—any list—however, consider how difficult it is to memorize word meanings out of context. My heartfelt recommendation is that you not waste your time with ineffective shortcuts. Memorization is difficult at best, yields minimal long-term gains, and results in affected text like this line from an eighth grader: We always get inured when we skate. Pardon? First, put all vocab words into sentences or short passages of 2-3 lines. Giving words a context will enable students to make inferences about meaning, and once they know a word, to understand the nuances of meaning that dictionary definitions alone seldom make clear. If possible, use passages from texts students are currently reading or studying. Don’t feel bound by the literature in your own class. Samples from math, physics, biology, history and other content areas are extremely helpful. Take your time. Just imagine if students really added 10 words a week to their vocabularies. That’s substantive progress. Only words students use both correctly and with confidence at just the right moment will make a serious difference in performance scores. Words used inaccurately or inappropriately not only create confusion or misinterpretation, but risk creating the impression that the writer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. Inured is a great word, but you need to know when to haul it out, and when to simply say Skating every day helped us get used to the cold weather.
  5. Endings. Nothing creates a stronger impression in the reader’s mind than an ending—regardless of whether it’s good or bad. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you know how important the ending to that series was. Had it not gone well, much of the writing and acting that had gone before would have been for naught. Viewers are unforgiving when it comes to bad endings. Readers are even more critical. If I hand you a book and say, “Boy, this is great right up until the end,” it’s unlikely you’ll ever open it. Endings, important as they may be, can be tricky to write. The old standbys, rehashing your three key points, or waking up to discover “it’s all a dream,” are potentially deadly. Readers want new content—or a new perspective. At the close of her informational text Birdology (2010, Simon and Schuster), author Sy Montgomery uses language so new and fresh we feel we’re hearing her primary message for the first time: “Birds are as ordinary as they are mysterious, as powerful as they are fragile, so like us and so beguilingly Other. Birds bring us the gifts of Thought and Memory, guided as they are both by intellect and instinct. These winged creatures, made of air, have outlived their kin, the dinosaurs. It is our duty and privilege to protect them” (242). An ending like that lingers in our minds, causing us to think differently about birds. A great way to teach endings is with a chapter book or anthology in which each chapter or section offers an effective ending. For an informational example, try Ben Hillman’s How Fast Is It? (2008, Scholastic). Here are some ear-catching conclusions from several one-page essays on speed: “That’s an ostrich: tall, fast, deadly—and so good-looking!” (5); [from an essay on high tech trains] “So forget about your Great Train Robbery. At these speeds, crime just doesn’t pay” (7); [from an essay on penguins and flying fish] “Sometimes it pays to break the rules” (29). Endings have a sound all their own—think of the final lines from Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. They also accomplish things no other portion of the text can do. Endings can wrap up loose ends, reveal a secret we’ve been wondering about, suggest what might happen in the future, answer (or raise) a question, surprise the pants off us, make us laugh aloud or cry, toss the ball into our court, suggest next steps—and much more. What they must never do is let us down, come to a screeching halt, leave us bewildered, repeat words and phrases we’ve already heard, anesthetize us with clichés, or bend credibility to the breaking point. Narrative endings need a touch of drama. Informational endings often contain a surprise fact or most important point yet to be revealed. Arguments often end with a powerful piece of evidence, recommendations about what the reader should think or do, or a prediction about the consequences of a bad choice. As you create your class collection of powerful endings, keep these differences in mind.
  6. Organizational structure. Like endings, the architecture of writing differs genre to genre. To figure out how, you simply have to analyze a few pieces. Don’t cheat, though. I’m appalled by textbooks or lessons that offer diagrams to make these various frameworks clear. First off, there is no one way to structure a story, essay, or argument, any more than there is one way to build a house. And second, diagrams, for the most part, are only helpful if you draw them yourself. So—do that. Have students work in small groups (2 or 3) to see if they can map writers’ thinking. Have one group (or two) work on narrative, one on informational, another on argument. With narrative, students should notice that a mere list of events does not make a story. Events need drama; they have to build up to something: an emotional explosion, the resolution of a problem, a discovery, the unveiling of a secret, a moment of change. Further, stories have a point—just as informational pieces do. If you’ve ever interrupted a story teller with the question “Why are you telling me this?” you know what I’m talking about. The secret to a good informational piece is focus. Writers who try to tell us about “U.S. History,” “The Planets” or “Life on Earth” are biting off bigger chunks than they—or we—can wrestle with. Smaller topics (“The Climate of Venus,” “Poisonous Spiders of the Amazon”) allow for organization like a wheel, with the main point at the hub, and every single detail relating in some way to that point. How the details are presented varies widely, though. Some writers start with the familiar and save details we could never have imagined for the end. Some begin with what’s easy to comprehend, laying a foundation for what’s tougher to grasp. There are no rights or wrongs—exactly. But the writer does need to continually ask, What will keep readers reading? And as Elmore Leonard famously said, leave out the parts people skip. With argument, it’s important to lay out the controversy early on—and to make the writer’s position clear. Details take the form of evidence, and each point must be clearly and thoroughly presented. As with informational writing, it is sometimes helpful to follow a dramatic design, building to the most compelling evidence at the close. Argument requires two organizational features that other forms do not: (1) The writer needs to present the opposition’s point of view, as well as reasons for discounting or minimizing that view; and (2) The ending must include some sort of call to action, recommendation, or predicted consequences of ignoring the evidence at hand. Picture the closing argument in a courtroom case, and you’ve got it.


4 More Specifics: Classroom Practice

Writing practice is nearly always valuable. But the following four kinds of targeted practice build specific skills likely to be especially helpful to writers in upcoming writing assessments:

  1. Quick-writes.  In addition to creating original text, students may be asked to revise pieces that are faulty in some way—or have something (e.g., lead or conclusion) missing. You can prepare students for this kind of revision with 10-minute practice sessions, during which they might do any of the following: add a lead to a piece that doesn’t have one, add an ending that flows right out of the text provided, create transitions where none exist, delete a sentence or sentences that seem to wander from the topic, tighten up a wordy passage by crossing out unneeded words or phrases, replace ill-chosen words with effective substitutes, and so on.
  2. Reading aloud. I’ve known several teachers who open every class with a poem. And although I love and applaud this practice, I also know how important it is for students to also hear the very different rhythms of journalism, technical writing, argument, and exposition. Think about ways you could increase the repertoire of what you share aloud. Also think about how you introduce what you read. Are you requiring students to be careful listeners, and to use what they hear to define genre in their own minds? When we open with words like “Here’s a story by . . .” or “Listen to this example of outstanding informational writing . . .” we give away the game. Instead, try simply providing the title and author. Ask students to make notes as they listen and to tell you what genre they hear. Most good writing is a blend of genres, so in many ways, the separation of writing into narrative, informational, and argument is artificial—and students will likely discover that (This in itself is a good topic for discussion). But they’re also likely to notice many subtle differences that define a writer’s purpose. Informational writing and argument tend to have more direct, forthright leads and endings, for instance. Technical writing and journalism, both “fact-heavy,” tend to have shorter sentences because the mind cannot process too much information in one swipe. The quality of detail (as noted earlier) also differs genre to genre. Narrative, in contrast with other genres, is far more dependent on special features like character development and dialogue. Awareness of these and similar differences helps prepare students not only to read with a better understanding of a given writer’s purpose, but also to write with more purpose themselves.
  3. Treasure hunting. You may be wondering where you will find time to dig up all these examples of striking leads or endings, significant details, well-crafted sentences or memorable phrases. The answer is, you don’t need to find all of them. Have students do some of this treasure hunting. You can dig up a few introductory examples to prime the well. Then turn students loose to explore the whole world of writing (not just books, but articles, the Internet, historical documents, newspapers and more), hunting for pieces that move them. Share them aloud as a class or in small groups, and discuss what makes each one special. What is so stirring about that opening to the Gettysburg Address? Why are we still reading and performing Shakespeare after hundreds of years? Reflecting on the how’s and why’s of good writing is vital in preparing for CCSS assessment.
  4. Editing. Good writers are not always good editors—and vice versa. So we can’t assume that just because students write daily (or at least frequently) their editing skills will miraculously develop. This is like assuming that if a person swims for enough hours, he or she will also learn to dive. The skills are related, but different. Editors have an eye for conventional detail that is similar to an artist’s eye for shape or light. Some editors have a talent for it, sure. But a great deal of this eye for detail comes with practice and patience. Editors look carefully at text. They read aloud—and they often read more than once. They don’t scan, as if admiring a landscape. Like a hawk hunting for prey, they zero in on specific things: e.g., misspelled words, missing or faulty punctuation, lack of subject-verb agreement, shifts in tense, missing capitals. Admittedly, beginning writers make some mistakes because they just don’t know the rules yet. Often, though, mistakes are the result of hasty writing or review that allows things to be missed. You can do two important things to reverse this. First, teach to the errors. Notice what students are struggling with most, and focus your direct instruction there instead of trying to cover everything. Make sure basic rules are understood. Second, provide daily editing practice—not a single sentence with many errors, but a whole paragraph with just a few errors. The occasional error camouflaged in extended text is trickier to spot, and demands more careful reading. Give students time to edit, then have them compare notes with a partner. Finally, edit the piece as a class, guiding your students line by line so they can compare their editing with yours, and ask questions. Do this as often as you can. Anyone who thinks conventions won’t count all that much in upcoming assessments hasn’t been paying attention. Every editorial problem your students know how to correct pushes them closer to a high score. What’s more, like a clean shirt and shiny shoes, good conventions create an impression, like it or not. Those of us who have been involved in large-scale assessment don’t like to admit this, but it’s true: Students who write conventionally clean text are often perceived as better thinkers than those whose text is riddled with errors—even when this is not the case. Moreover—if you’ve visited our site recently, you already know this—there is the very real looming possibility that some writing will be assessed, at least for conventions, using AI (artificial intelligence). Be ready.


Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills

If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons of the sort described in this post, we can put them right at your fingertips. Jeff and I have created a host of lessons designed to help students write across genres, create effective leads and endings, use transitions wisely and well, choose words and phrases that work, go from bland and general to clear and detailed, revise with purpose, and edit like pro’s. If you prefer to design your own lessons, you don’t need our help. But if you’d like to have that part done for you (lessons we promise your students will actually like), we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits. All lessons are easy to teach, written with voice, and grade-specific (and yes, you can choose those you like best). For more information, please visit this site:


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Thanks to our regular followers and to everyone who stopped by this week. Come often—and bring friends!

This will be our final post in December, but we will return early in 2014, when Jeff promises to review some of the best books he’s discovered recently. His reviews are always intriguing and dynamic—you won’t want to miss them.

Meanwhile, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to 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, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Viewing Writing Via the CCSS–and the 6 Traits

Something exciting just happened in the world of writing assessment. A good friend–Connie Spiegel–started a company in Portland, Oregon called Raters of the Lost Art. The Raters are committed to assessing student writing as it was meant to be assessed–you remember: a person sits down with a paper and reads it, thinks about it, sometimes reads it a second time, and responds thoughtfully. And not just with scores, either. We’re talking comments. Remember those? And here’s a new twist: Connie and her team can assess papers using both 6-trait and Common Core criteria. How about that?

Maybe this is even more important than we thought. In a recent post, Spiegel takes us on a small assessment journey, looking at a piece of writing–“Horses”–posted in the CCSS Appendix as a model. She weighs it against the demands of both the traits and the Common Core, asking us in effect to focus on the best of both worlds. The piece is written by a highly competent third grade student who has completed an impressive amount of research, but is clearly held in check by some formulaic requirements. You will find Spiegel’s analysis, I think, both enlightening and thought provoking. I urge you to have a look. Go to “Raters of the Lost Art” to find the website; click on “Forum,” then on “Hold Your Horses.” Get ready for an exhilarating ride.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I (Vicki) am putting the finishing touches on my review of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s delightful book Exclamation Mark, and will have that post up shortly. Thanks for stopping by, and please do so often, even if we are into summer. Jeff and I keep writing, and we hope you’ll keep visiting, in between other adventures. You’re probably not thinking about professional development right now, but when you do, remember . . . we can custom build a writing workshop for you and your district–featuring traits, standards, literature, workshop, or all of it combined. Call us: 503-579-3034.


Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. 2012. Steve Sheinkin. New York: Roaring Book Press.

Genre: Informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 5 and up

Features: Historic information; vintage photos, letters; resource list for further research; source notes; quotation notes; index.

266 pages (including end matter)


Steve Sheinkin is a writer of many talents. He knows how to write award-winning books. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, have earned high praise and honors—National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor, to just begin the list.  And he also knows how to title his books to make them practically leap off the “shelf” into the hands of anxious readers. Whether you prefer to access books electronically or traditionally, you know, old school with bound paper pages, Mr. Sheinkin’s titles alone are enough to entice readers to grab or click and jump in. (More to come below on titles.) That’s no small skill for an author of non-fiction histories. This is especially true in light of the Common Core State Standards pushing teachers and students towards more informational reading and writing.

For many student readers, informational reading, especially in history, is a turn-off (I won’t use the word boring, a word that was banned from our house to keep our son from using it as a crutch). For many teachers and students, their experiences with informational texts and textbooks have been less than positive—dry, encyclopedic mounds of lifeless facts, dates, places, etc.  Author Sheinkin, in his bio on Bomb’s slip cover, after admitting to being a former textbook writer, states his intention to “dedicate his life to making up for previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history.” Fortunately for teachers and students, he is doing just that. His recent book, Bomb, delivers on all fronts–an exciting title and a well crafted, informative, and engagingly “gripping narrative” history.

What Mr. Sheinkin understands is the importance of story. Cognitive scientist Mark Turner explains in his 1996 book The Literary Mind, “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.” History is stories. Science is stories. Mathematics is stories. In A Whole New Mind (2005), Daniel Pink emphasizes it this way, “Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” I think educators have to be careful to avoid pitting narrative writing against informational writing, or reading works of fiction against non-fiction content. I don’t see them as being separate and discrete elements of literacy. Stories provide the context to determine the value of information, to sort, categorize, and remember. What do classroom teachers do then, to make sense of the CCSS emphasis on informational/expository reading and writing?  Strike a balance. Don’t abandon one to serve the other. Help students to access reading that is motivating to help them develop the desire and the tenacity to tackle content—narrative and informational—that may be more complex. Continue teaching, practicing, and building skill in narrative writing because of its connections to building skill in informational, expository, and persuasive writing. Adopting the CCSS does not mean scrapping common sense. (To learn more about the value of narrative writing, including some myth busting, be sure to check out Vicki’s post from June 25, 2012, Dissecting and Defending Narrative Writing via the Common Core.)

So how does Steve Sheinkin begin his thrilling history—from discovery to deployment—of the atomic bomb? With the story, of course! And what a story it is! Scientists (Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein), spies, double agents, secret governmental agencies, super secret missions, world leaders (Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler), American presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman), plots and counter plots, and more! This book is a history lesson, well researched, complete with all the names, dates, events, and locations told with a storyteller’s eye and ear for detail and audience.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You could select chapters or passages to share aloud to build excitement for independent reading or make connections to supplement a history text. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud or a book study where each student has a copy—and it would work well for either, I would recommend devoting a flip-chart page or part of a bulletin board to helping students keep track of all the important figures. There are a lot of “characters.” You could even keep three charts—one to follow the American development of the bomb, one for the Russian efforts to steal the bomb’s technology, and one for the people involved in sabotaging the German scientists attempting to build a bomb for their side. I would involve students in researching/finding images of each player to copy and post on the charts. This could be done as a hierarchical organizational chart to show the connections between each person, government, or agency. There are b/w photos of the key figures, included at the beginning of each of the book’s four sections. Each photo includes the subject’s name and brief identifying information—e.g. Harry Truman U.S. President 1945-1953. These could be shown to students using a document camera and serve as models for the students during their research.

2. Historic background. What do your students know about World War II—the leaders and countries involved, how the U.S. became involved, or how it ended? Is it an area of interest for any of them? Do any of them have relatives who fought or were involved in the war? The level of background information may, of course, depend on the age/grade of your students. They don’t need to know everything—this isn’t a complete history of the war—but a few key details will help students understand the urgency felt by the United States to direct and affect the war’s outcome. Science, especially physics and chemistry, is at the heart of this story. Are some of your students interested in a specific area of science? What do they know about the study of physics or chemistry? You don’t have to be a physicist or chemist, but you can be a guide to helping them find out what scientists in these fields do. This may help them begin to look for answers to the question—How does a college physics professor in Berkeley, California, end up working on a top secret project to develop the weapon that will be used to end World War II and change the world for all of us?

3. Images/Stereotypes. Popular culture, especially television and movies, has often guided our images of science and scientists and even the role of science in our world. The Nutty Professor, The Absent Minded Professor, Frankenstein, Gilligan’s Island, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and more recently, The Big Bang Theory, Ironman, CSI, Bones, and Breaking Bad. What are your students’ images of science/scientists? The nerdy or evil genius? The oddball crackpot? The suave jetsetter with the cool toys? The shy lab rat in the white coat? Have any of these stereotypes affected their interest in science? What are your students’ experiences with stereotypes each day at school?

4. Details/Purpose/Audience. One of the most striking things about Steve Sheinkin’s book is how much readers learn about physics and chemistry without being overwhelmed with theories, laws, processes, and terminology. I wouldn’t call it “Science Lite”—the author is not dumbing anything down for readers. He has chosen a level of detail that matches his purpose for writing, and his awareness of his audience. Discuss the concept of audience with your students. Why is it important, as a writer, to know and write for your audience? Who was the last audience they may have written for? How did that knowledge affect their writing (pre-writing, research, narrowing of topic, etc.)?

5. Becoming an “Expert.” Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are experts on their topics. 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 discover the writer is posing as an expert? Spend some time with your students looking at the Source Notes, Quotation Notes, and Acknowledgments sections at the back of the book. What do these sections suggest to students about the expertise of Steve Sheinkin? This would also be a good time to talk about the differences between primary and secondary sources. Why is it important in a book like this to seek out so many primary sources?

6. Book Titles and Grabbing the Audience. I mentioned earlier that one of the author’s skills was the way his books are titled. How does a book’s title demonstrate the author’s audience awareness? Do titles make a difference in a book’s initial appeal? (What if Louis Sachar’s award winning book, Holes, had been titled Some Kids in the Desert With Shovels?) Are titles important to readers? How do they help our minds begin to ask questions, make predictions, or know what to focus on? Have your students identify what they see as the key words (words that grabbed their interest/attention) in the title, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. I recently asked a sixth grade student I’m working with to do just this before knowing anything else about the direction of the book.  She highlighted bomb, race, steal, and dangerous. She then made a prediction about the book focused on the words race and steal. This student thought that the race could be against time and/or against others. The word steal made her think that race was “…so important that someone would cheat in a very sneaky way to win.” This is a kind of concept formation practice—setting our thinking in motion prior to reading.

7. Organization. Ask your students to describe the overall organizational pattern of the book. Yes, it’s chronological, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a prologue, epilogue, and four main parts dividing the chapters. The author has chosen to begin his story at the end, with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American man the Soviets were using as a spy. How does this choice create interest for readers? What questions does it spark in the minds of curious readers? You could have your students begin a timeline with Harry Gold’s arrest in 1950, knowing they will have to jump back in time as the rest of the story begins to unfold in the first chapter. It is 1934 when readers meet young scientist Robert Oppenheimer in the book’s first chapter. The timeline and organizational chart suggested earlier could be added to as the story progresses. Students could not only keep track of the “characters” but how they are involved in the events of the story.

8. Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it encyclopedic? The voice of a history professor lecturing to students? The voice of a scientist speaking to colleagues?  Passionate? Knowledgeable? Biased? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece. Is there a connection between finding that appropriate/effective voice and being an expert on your topic?

9. Sentence Fluency/Dialogue/Voice. As a writer, if you are going to tell an exciting story filled with characters, from heroic to villainous, you need to have these characters interacting through dialogue. Readers will feel more involved with your story and connected with your characters. But what if your story is about a real historical event involving real people? How do we know what historical figures said to one another? Bomb is filled with dialogue between scientists, spies, generals, soldiers, and presidents. So what did Steve Sheinkin do to get his “characters” talking? Research! And lots of it! Check out the Quotation Notes section to help students understand, again, the importance of the writer as topic expert. Have students take roles and read sections aloud (try the Prologue) to see, hear, and feel how the dialogue helps readers identify, understand, and connect to each character. Is it appropriate to approximate, after extensive research, what historical figures might have said in various situations, if no actual record exists? What is the difference between historical writing and historical fiction?

10. Modern Devices/Secret Codes. A great deal of Bomb’s story is about communication—face to face, in letters, radio transmissions, coded notes, etc. Today’s students are used to communicating instantly with a variety of personal electronic devices and through various forms of social media (My old man is showing, but I’m uneasy with using the word social when a great deal of this type of interaction is not about meeting people face to face.) How many of your students have written/received actual letters? What is the difference, in their minds, between receiving a text and a letter? What is their preferred method of communicating with friends? Parents? How would the use of modern communication devices—computers, email, cell phones, etc.—have altered the events of Bomb? Are secrets harder to keep now? Are people, in general, less private? The spies in the book communicated through coded messages. Have any of your students ever developed or used their own secret code? (Some of your students might be interested in researching the Navajo code talkers used during World War II.)

11. Argument. Engage your students in discussion and writing about one or more of the topics below (or generate some of your own). Discussion is a great form of pre-writing and will help suggest the level of research needed to become “experts” as they begin writing.

  •        The role of science in our world today
  •        How the development and deployment of the atomic bomb changed the world
  •        Nuclear weapon technology is crucial to national security
  •        Other ideas _______________


12. Other Models. The more students are exposed to lively informational writing, grounded in story (narrative), the easier it will be for them to write in a similar fashion. Narrative writing is more than beginning, middle, and end. Informational writing is about more than a mountain of information. Besides books like Bomb, one of my favorite sources/resources for this blend of narrative informational writing is National Geographic magazine. Each issue is filled great with writing and, as a bonus, amazing photography. The April 2013 issue, for example, has a thought-provoking article about the scientific possibilities and environmental implications of de-extinction—reviving currently extinct species. The article is exciting science and history, and it’s a model of the kind of informational writing that begs to be read.


To find out more about Steve Sheinkin and his books, visit stevesheinkin.com


Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Vicki reviews Andrea Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Drop by any time to see what’s new or mine our archive for some gold you may have missed. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

wt10_7     CW6 Cover

Conventions are BIG in the Common Core
Get ready. Conventions receive significant emphasis within the Common Core Standards, and are likely to play a major role in upcoming assessments relating to those standards. Students will not only need to be in conventional control of their own writing, but will also need to be proficient editors of any text we might throw at them. How do we get them there? Order more red pens? Maybe not . . .

Correcting ALL Errors: NOT the Best Choice
Chances are, you can look back on your own experience as a student (particularly if you’re over 30), and recall the old-school approach to “teaching” conventions: elaborate, meticulous red-penning of errors. If you’ve ever been subjected to this approach, you can probably recall how it felt—and how enthusiastic it made you feel about writing. Granted, there are those exceptional students out there who not only take time to correct every single error, but also look up all pertinent rules for future reference—using those well-worn handbooks they keep by their beds. Hm . . . right. Most of us have never met these wonder students, yet their legend lives on. And the red ink keeps flowing. Why? Well, think about it: This was the approach modeled for most of us. Many teachers (even those who question the value of error hunts) simply don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, despite the incredible amount of time and effort required, line by line correction (unless specifically requested by the writer) almost never pays off. Here’s why:

1. It creates a sense of hopelessness among students who struggle with conventions. Getting this sort of response to one’s writing is like having strangers walk into your house and begin remodeling. What can be perceived as a kind of assault may trigger hurtfulness, resentment, indifference—or alienation. The odds of an over-marked paper surviving a trip past the nearest trash can are small indeed. Of course, if you have a student who is conventionally skilled (a natural born editor), and you mark one kind of error—say, use of quotation marks—that student may actually welcome your suggestions. But the student who struggles with spelling, grammar, capitals, punctuation, and paragraphing cannot possibly absorb the 20 or more “suggestions” his or her paper calls for. A student who feels overwhelmed is likely to think, “I can’t write,” and just give up.

2. It isn’t enough. Correcting is not teaching, and we kid ourselves when we assume it is. Students learn next to nothing from simple, quick corrections that lack any explanation or suggestion of how to approach editing differently next time. “How many times do I need to correct this error?” I hear teachers ask. The answer? Every time it appears—forever. Do you want to sign up for that? If not, be a teacher, not an editor. Writers (even professionals) who are given a choice quickly become dependent on editors, and have little incentive to notice, learn about, or correct mistakes the editor will fix anyway.

3. Once you identify errors, the hard part is done. The ONLY way students become proficient with conventions is by doing their own editing and developing what Jeff and I call “an editor’s eye.” This refers to the ability to spot things like a misspelled word or missing word or letter, misused or omitted punctuation, faulty subject-verb connection, and so forth. Developing such an eye takes a lifetime of practice. That’s why it’s difficult to find any publication (novels, newspapers, textbooks, whatever) that’s error-free. Each time you do the identifying for your students, you rob them of one more opportunity to practice developing that editor’s eye that is critical to conventional proficiency.

4. It’s too time consuming. You don’t have time to be an editor for 30 to 180 students. The time you spend correcting would be much better spent developing editing lessons or searching literature for models you can use to teach excellent use of conventions. And most important of all . . .

5. It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. In fact, research (See George Hillocks, The Testing Trap, 2002; Hillocks, Research on Written Composition, 1985; Vicki Spandel, Creating Writers 6/e, 2013; Carl Nagin and the National Writing Project, Because Writing Matters, 2003; Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined, 2005) indicates overwhelmingly that students subjected to extensive marking of errors may actually decline in editorial skill. We cannot afford to have that happen.

So—What DOES Work?
Many things. Here we offer just 12 suggestions to help you turn your students into confident, capable editors. (And by the way, no guilt trips allowed. When you stop correcting everything, you are NOT showing that you don’t care about conventions. On the contrary. You are shifting your focus from errors to students. You are showing that churning out perfect copy is a lower priority than coaching your students to become strong, independent editors—like you.)

Suggestion 1
Explore the “why” behind conventions. An easy way to do this is by removing all punctuation and spacing from a piece of text, and ignoring rules of spelling and grammar. See how long it takes your students to decode a piece like this:


Can you decipher it? Of course. You’re a teacher. You can read anything, right? But imagine if everything you read were written this way. Reading would be quite a chore. The very term “conventions” implies the conventional, traditional, or accepted way of doing things. Good writers break rules all the time. But following most traditions most of the time (e.g., writing left to right, putting spaces between words) makes reading easier. In a very real sense, editing is a courtesy. You make your text comfortable for readers just as you might make your home comfortable for guests.

Suggestion 2
Develop a routine. Editing and writing are related (like swimming and diving), but are NOT the same skill, and teaching one will not necessarily increase proficiency in the other. Instructional time must be devoted to editing per se. But—isn’t it enough to have students edit what they write? No. It sounds like a good plan, but unfortunately, most students don’t write anywhere near enough text to become proficient editors simply by correcting their own work—even if they do so regularly and carefully. In addition, they need daily practice editing text that is not their own. This is important for a couple of reasons: (1) as just noted, it extends editing practice, and (2) we are all much more ruthless when attacking something we ourselves did not write. Remember the words of H. G. Wells, who reminded us that “no passion on earth is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Take advantage of this impulse. Give students “someone else’s draft” to work on (preferably an anonymous someone, not another student from your class). Keep the practice short: about 50-100 words of text (depending on students’ age), not overloaded with errors (See Suggestion 4 for guidelines on this). Create lessons students can finish in ten minutes or less. Double space copy so students have ROOM to edit; or, if possible, put editing lessons right on the computer. And don’t be seduced by those speedy one-sentence “daily” lessons; they’re far too short, and most are irrelevant to students’ current editing needs—which means, in a nutshell, that students will tune out.

Suggestion 3
Identify problems your students are having right now. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. You can identify problems by skimming through a stack of your own students’ papers and creating for yourself a list of 10 (very manageable), 15 (still do-able), or 20 (that’s plenty) of the most frequently recurring errors. Zero in on those.

Note: Andrea Lunsford, Professor of English at Stanford University, has identified the 20 most common kinds of errors in English writing (see Easy Writer, 3rd edition, 2009). Find Lunsford’s book if you can; or look up her list by searching under “20 most common errors in English.” This kind of focused instruction will benefit your students far more than 60 random lessons developed by someone who doesn’t know your students and has never looked at their writing. (Suggestion: If you work with older writers—say, grades 6 and up—share the list itself with them, too.)

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples. The second part involves practice, a chance for students to apply what they’ve just learned in editing faulty text. Such text (again, think 50 to 100 words) should contain at least three (and for older students, as many as ten or more) errors relating to the concept at hand. (The paragraph you just read is 103 words long, not counting this sentence.)

Following direct instruction in the concept, give students a few minutes to edit the faulty text on their own—then a minute or two to check with a partner to see if any errors were missed. At this point, I like to tell students how many errors they are looking for. Students who have found, say, five out of ten have a reason to go back for another look. When everyone has finished (remember, keep the time short), ask students to coach you as you edit the piece on a Smart board or document projector. Provide this kind of practice as often as you can possibly fit it in. You will see a marked difference in students’ editing skills.

Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources.

Question: What happens when students have had practice with ALL the recurring errors you’ve identified for the class? Answer: Create new editing lessons based on additional problems you’ve identified, or lessons that combine several kinds of errors—with two or three of each kind. You might also have students take turns designing editing lessons, and leading the discussion that follows.

Suggestion 5
Pull anonymous problem sentences from students’ current writing. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having. Share these sentences on the board. This is an excellent way to kick off a writing class, and takes about five minutes. (Let students know you plan to do this, so you know they feel comfortable having their writing shared in this way—you need not use names.)

Ask students to confer with partners about what they notice, then coach you as you edit each sentence. Be sure to let them know if they miss anything. As a teacher, I found this strategy extremely effective because—somewhat to my surprise, I confess—students waited eagerly at the beginning of each class to see if their writing would be chosen as an instructional model. I was very concerned about not making anyone feel picked on, but I needn’t have worried. No one to my knowledge ever felt self-conscious in the least. What did happen, however, was a dramatically heightened interest in every lesson because the examples were coming from them. This was perceived as real, immediate, useful information because it was personal—and current.

Suggestion 6
Look to literature. In the 1800s and far into the 1900s for that matter, many teachers began their instruction in conventions by sharing a rule—often stated in language no one could understand. No wonder most rules were never internalized, and those that were, were quickly forgotten. But, we’ve come a long way, baby. We know now that one of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice—or any trait: through literary examples.

Here are just a few, and they’re diverse. Normally, when you’re teaching one convention—say the use of semicolons or dashes—you’ll want several examples because there are nuances of usage that rules simply don’t cover. You might collect three sentences containing semicolons, for example. Share them aloud, one at a time, but also write them out. Then discuss them. As you do so, the question to ask students is this: What difference does this [convention] make? Open-ended discussion encourages students to look and listen closely, to do their own inductive reasoning, and to come up with rules or guidelines or possibilities for themselves. (My “what to notice” notes in this section are only for clarification. I don’t share my reason for choosing a particular example at first because I want students to tell me what they notice.)

• If you don’t have a copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, consider getting one. Grahame is particularly adept at using conventions with precision, style, grace, and creativity, and you can find an example of just about anything in the world of conventions that you’d like to teach—like semicolons (which can be hard to find in current lit). In this example, Mole (who’s just overturned a boat in the river), is being rescued by Rat, who offers Mole shelter in his home: “It’s very plain and rough, you know—not like Toad’s house at all—but you haven’t seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable” (Ariel, 1980, p. 15). What to notice: Two distinct clauses are closely aligned, “joining hands” we might say, via the semicolon. Would a period work as well?

• In The Good, Good Pig, author Sy Montgomery uses semicolons in a totally different way [Christopher, by the way, is a pig]: “We lined up to face the camera in ascending seniority: Christopher, age one; me, thirty-three; Liz, sixty; Lorna, ninety-three” (Random House, 2007, p. 64). What to notice: Semicolons provide a nifty way to handle a complex series in which too many commas could create confusion.

• In this passage from Hatchet (20th Anniversary Edition) by Gary Paulsen, the hero Brian (who is beyond hungry), is watching a kingfisher go after a meal. Think about how the ellipses at the very end affect you: “Of course, he thought. There were fish in the lake and they were food. And if a bird could do it . . .” (Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 108). What to notice: The ellipses give us time to enjoy the same aha moment Brian is experiencing, to fill in the blank, as it were: If a bird can do it . . . maybe I can, too.

• In Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine uses conventions in extraordinary ways to show how Caitlin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, responds to the world: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or greGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (Philomel, 2010, p. 44). What to notice: Creative use of italics and unexpected capitals helps us get inside Caitlin’s head.

• The humble hyphen is useful in two-part words (like that one) or for splitting multi-syllable words at the end of a line. But perhaps it has more creative uses, as in this passage from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool—in which one of the main characters, Jack, is wondering just how strange his new acquaintance Early Auden might be: “Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange? I knew a kid who used to do that in second grade” (Delacorte, 2013, p. 28). What to notice: Hyphens can help a writer create unique adjectives that put some pretty vivid images in readers’ minds.

You don’t want to do all the digging, of course. After sharing a few examples, have students find their own—and present them to the class. As you collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover together that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to share both message and voice in memorable ways.

Suggestion 7
Give students room to breathe. If we wait—three days seems about ideal—from the time we write a draft until the time we attempt to edit that draft, our ability to spot errors is heightened noticeably. Almost no one (not even skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. (Writing assessment developers, please take note.) That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what found its way to the page. When editing our own work, we also tend to read rapidly, and in so doing, skim right over missing words, misspelled words, faulty punctuation, and the rest. Allowing time between drafts creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. We literally create the illusion that it belongs to someone else.

Suggestion 8
Keep it real. Students for whom editing does not come easily may feel very nervous about writing five pages if they anticipate having to edit every line. While I am a huge advocate of making students responsible for their own editing, I also agree that we need to find ways to make the task manageable for students who dread it. After all, we want them to write more, not less.

You can ask a student to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme diligence—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits with close-up care can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons (See Suggestions 3, 4, and 5).

Many students benefit from having a teacher mark (with a check, star, etc.) those lines in which errors appear (some teachers use a number to show how many errors a given line contains). No need to mark every line. Use your judgment in determining how much the student can handle—and think about which errors should receive priority.

A conventions conference can be helpful, and it need not take long. Go over one or two errors you think deserve the most attention—perhaps those that come up more than once in the paper. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find other similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. As an alternative, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (not a prescribed list, but one that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write. Add new words as the need arises; remove words students have conquered.

And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world. Note: Unfortunately, many writing assessments still do not permit such access. Some people, evidence and common sense to the contrary, fear that the mere presence of a dictionary can somehow transform a struggling writer into a best-selling author. If only it were that simple.

Suggestion 9
If technology is available, use it! It’s no secret that revision and editing are far easier and faster when you have access to word processing. A student can create multiple word processed revisions in the time it takes to tediously recopy one draft by hand. Further, the ability to make big and continual changes in a draft (e.g., moving copy, perhaps more than once, deleting or adding text, trying several different leads or endings) means that a word processed document winds up mirroring the writer’s thinking more closely than a handwritten, one-time revision ever could. Technology also allows for last-minute changes (oh—just thought of a different word, got a better title) that someone writing longhand just won’t trouble to make. Comfort with word processing is particularly important given that (based on current best guesses) assessments pertaining to the Common Core writing standards will be administered on computer.

Suggestion 10
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud sloooooooooowwwwwwwws us dooooooooooowwwwwwwwwn, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud. Further, moments that sound awkward when read aloud will probably slow a silent reader down, too. As students gain sophistication, reading aloud helps them hear places where specific punctuation (e.g., ellipses, dashes), italics, FULL CAPITALS or other conventions of emphasis might bring out the voice in a piece.

Suggestion 11
Get a good handbook. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. No one remembers everything. You might consider—

The Write Source College Handbook by Dave Kemper and Patrick Sebranek (other grade-specific handbooks are available from these authors, but I happen to prefer the college edition, even for younger students)
The Chicago Style Manual (the most respected source out there—and most complete by far)
MLA Handbook, 7th edition (some portions are also available online)

Teach students to use whatever resource you settle on, and when a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time. If you have two copies in your classroom, students can do this competitively, which makes the search considerably livelier—and students who help the class in this way are learning a skill they will use for life.
Other resources provide suggestions for writing that go beyond what you’ll find in even the best handbooks—and they’re often entertaining too, so you can choose passages to read aloud. Here are a handful of my favorites (Every single one of these is fun to read):

Room to Write by Bonnie Goldberg
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Words Fail Me AND Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) by William Zinsser
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald Murray
Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano

Suggestion 12
Celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be.

Notice content and voice first. Students are far more excited about tackling editing when they feel certain they have a reader’s attention and have written something worth editing in the first place.

Have students collect examples of conventional creativity. Create a class Podcast featuring these examples, or make a bulletin board display. Help students see how much fun conventions can be.

Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

Celebrate conventional evolution. There’s nothing stagnant about English; it changes hourly! Split infinitives? Commonplace! They actually precede Shakespeare (who is reported to have used a few). Dickens apparently favored sentences that began with “And” or “But” (and I’m happy to know this since I like them, too). Snuck is becoming an accepted form of sneaked (though not in all circles, admittedly). Words like dis, chill, creds, phat, and bling weren’t even words (at least not in the modern sense) until recently, but they’re finding their way into Webster’s. For numerous other examples of English on the move, check out the fascinating Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner, a brilliantly researched and very funny book you will enjoy sharing (one selected passage at a time) with your students. Then talk about which conventions will last (Is the semicolon doomed? Are dashes enjoying a renaissance?), and why our amazing language is ever-evolving—and expanding.

Looking for editing lessons?
Check these NEW resources we designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff reviews the remarkable historic narrative Bomb, a Newbery Honor book by Steve Sheinkin. Not many informational books can also claim to be thrillers. You won’t want to miss it. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards, writing process and workshop, and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

A New Classic: Wonder


Wonder. 2012. R. J. Palacio. New York: Random House. 310 pp. (excluding Appendix)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 4 and up.


“I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” So says 10-year old August (Auggie) Pullman, who longs to be ordinary in the most basic sense: He wants to blend in. He wants other ordinary kids to look at him and not “run away screaming” (p. 3). Is that too much to ask?

Auggie is ordinary in some ways: he loves ice cream, sports, and video games. He loves his family and his dog Daisy. There’s just one problem. Auggie was born with a facial deformity so severe that even after twenty-seven reconstructive surgeries, people find it hard to look at him without turning away. Can anyone (save his immediate family) get beyond Auggie’s appearance to the phenomenal person behind the face? That’s but one of several provocative questions raised in this riveting tale that grabs readers by the lapels from page one. Palacio’s writing rings with voice, and Wonder is enlivened with detail that takes us—like it or not—right back inside middle school happenings.

As the story opens, Auggie (for whom life has never been a cake walk) faces a particularly difficult challenge. He’s been home schooled by his mother all his life; now, his parents (his mother in particular) have decided he should break out into a bigger world, and they have enrolled him in a prestigious private school in Manhattan. At first, Auggie is understandably terrified. What could prove a difficult transition for any student feels to this previously sheltered 10-year-old like a surefire path to public degradation. As we soon discover, however, we underestimate Auggie at our own peril. From that dreaded first day of school to the wonderfully climactic graduation ceremony, we witness an homage to courage—and to kindness—in one of the most memorable coming of age stories in a long while.

Wonder is a book with grit and depth. Some of its characters are unlikeable—and not all undergo magical last-minute transformations, either. Hats off to Palacio for creating a world that is realistic enough to make us cringe at times, while still offering enough silver linings to satisfy our abiding belief in humanity. Auggie is a brilliantly imagined character who gains complexity throughout the book, and it’s a tribute to Palacio’s writing that while we empathize (who hasn’t endured some rough school experiences?) and cheer for him, we never pity him, even during some very dark moments. Instead, we admire his strength and patience, and his skill (that soars far beyond his years) in navigating emotionally choppy waters with a grace unique to his highly individual persona. Would we be as brave? Indeed, this is a book that invites us, repeatedly, to look at our own values and our own behavior. Hopefully, we will like and respect what we see.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. It’s an outstanding read-aloud, with alternating moments of heroism, humor, despair, courage, and action. It’s fast-paced, high-interest, and full of variety—some of which comes from the fact that chapters are written in multiple voices. We hear first (and last) from Auggie, but in between we also hear from his sister Olivia and from other students with whom Auggie interacts. Chapters are short enough that you may have time to share several at once. Wonder also makes an outstanding choice for a smaller-group after-school book club.

2. Background. Much of Wonder deals with the rejection of people who look or seem different from ourselves. This is a highly sensitive subject, but one well worth broaching in order to prepare students to think seriously and deeply about Auggie’s experience. You may wish to spend some time discussing exclusion and inclusion in our society—particularly within school environments. Who gets included routinely? Who is excluded? Why do some people reject or avoid socializing with others? What are some of the most common motives for behaving this way? What are some of the forms that such rejection takes? How difficult is it to not go along with exclusion if one’s friends are engaging in this kind of behavior?

3. Opinion pieces. Is exclusion a form of bullying—even if it does not involve physical harm to the person targeted? And is it possible to take a strong personal stand against bullying? Take time to write about this. Since this can be a highly personal topic, you may want to assure students at the outset that they will not need to share what they write unless they feel comfortable doing so. If possible, write a piece of your own to share with the class. After writing, you may wish to discuss the topic of bullying further (see items 15 and 16 below).

4. Central Topic/Theme. What is Wonder’s central message? Is there more than one? Encourage students to write about this, and to share their writing in small groups. Then open the topic to class discussion. Suggestion: You may wish to do this more than once as you share the book together. Wonder is a book of some complexity, and students may discover more than one main theme (relating to, for example, kindness, bullying, friendship, courage, personal change and growth).

5. Organization. Wonder is a narrative, and is written chronologically. But is there more to the organizational structure than that? How much time lapses from the opening chapter through the closing chapter? Why might the author have chosen to encapsulate the story within this particular time frame? Also consider other elements that contribute to the overall organization. The book is divided into chapters, like most novels—but also into parts. Why? (Encourage students to notice that each part is written in a different voice. Also, the book starts out in Auggie’s voice, then returns to that voice at the end. Why is this significant?)

6. Voice/Narrative writing. What challenges does an author face in choosing to write a book in multiple voices? Discuss this. How hard is it for one writer to make different voices all sound authentic? Find out. Encourage students to try writing a two-person narrative in which a story is told from one point of view, then another. Each voice might be heard once—or multiple times. (Note: Students who feel ready to try it might create more than two voices.)

7. Character. The Common Core Standards for Narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through dialogue. Have students choose a character whose voice is featured in any part of this book. (Possibilities: Auggie, Olivia, Jack, Justin, Summer, Miranda.) Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze that character. What motivates this character? What character traits define him or her? Does this person change through the course of the book, and if so, in what way?

8. Expository writing. One of the book’s characters, Mr. Browne, has a monthly precept, a “life rule” we might say, that he writes on the board for his students. Discuss the concept of a precept: What is it, and how might it influence someone’s life? Review Mr. Browne’s list of precepts (see pages 311 and 312). Do your students have a favorite? Do you? Ask students to write a personal response to one of Mr. Browne’s precepts or to come up with one of their own. Create a class book. You may wish to follow the suggestion of the book and have students write their own postcard precepts (see pages 312 and 313) that they mail to you or to one another. Question: Do all people have precepts that they live by? Where do precepts come from anyway? (Suggestion: Create podcasts for weekly or monthly precepts at your school. Students can take turns writing these.)

9. Argument: philosophical questions. Wonder raises some serious philosophical questions. Following are a few suggestions for questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any one of these—or have students pose a question of their own to answer—orally, through a podcast, or in writing:
• Olivia seems happy to escape to high school where her younger brother August is not known and she does not have to be seen with him or explain anything about him. Is she justified in feeling this way, or is it wrong of her?
• At the beginning of the book, Auggie’s parents (particularly his mother) are urging him to take the big step of enrolling in a private school. Is this a good decision on their part?
• Auggie has a number of “friends” in this book. Which person would you consider to be his truest friend? Why? Cite evidence from the book to support your point of view.
• Characters in this book show kindness in a number of different ways. Cite two instances in which characters go out of their way to be “kinder than is necessary” (from the words of Mr. Tushman, pp. 299-300). Use quotations from the book to prove your point.
• At the end of the book, Mr. Tushman encourages the students from Auggie’s class to practice more kindness than they need to. Is this a good precept by which to live one’s life? Is it realistic? Why or why not?

10. Comparison/Contrast. Have any of your students read the book Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (see our Jan 3, 2011 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparative review of the two pieces. What do the two books have in common? (Consider characters, voice, organization, appeal to certain readers, themes, etc.) Are the books different in any important ways that you notice? If so, how? (Note: Encourage students to use quotations from each book to support their points of comparison.)

11. Beginning and ending. The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion and endings that bring things to resolution. Look carefully at the opening chapter and the final five or six chapters of Wonder. Does the opening set up the story in a way that draws us in and helps define the situation and the main character, August? Was the ending what you expected, and does it bring resolution to the story? Talk about why endings matter so much to us—whether they’re endings of books, TV programs, or films. Have you or your students ever been deeply disappointed by an ending—and if so, when and why? Ask students to consider whether the ending of Wonder is precisely what they would have hoped for—or whether they might have written something different. Some students may wish to create varied endings of their own. (Note: I happen to love this ending, with its emphasis on the importance of kindness. But endings, like most things in literature, are highly personal—and often controversial!)

12. Presentation. Take time to notice the drawings that open each part of the book. What details stand out? What do these drawings tell us? Also notice the quotations that accompany the drawings. Why do you think the author chose to include them? Finally, notice the chapter headings; this writer uses words, not numbers, to define the chapters. Is this, in part, an organizational strategy? How so?

13. Description. Auggie tells us in the opening chapter, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (p. 3). The author withholds any detailed description of Auggie’s face until we are well into the book (see pages 88 and 89). Why might she want to wait? Read this description carefully, and discuss it or write personal responses. It is very vivid and detailed. Does that make it difficult to read? What is our emotional response? What response is the author hoping for? Olivia, the voice in this chapter, asks this question: “When he looks in the mirror, does he see the Auggie everyone else sees?” (p. 89). Is this a question that could be asked of anyone? Perhaps the person anyone sees in the mirror is different from the person others see. What do your students think? Write about this.

14. Analyzing dialogue. Author R. J. Palacio has been praised for the authenticity of the dialogue in her writing. Ask your students to consider whether they agree with this assessment, and if so, to cite examples of dialogue they feel works particularly well. In particular, consider the chapter titled “Letters, Emails, Facebook, Texts” (page 160ff). What does this chapter reveal about the characters involved that we could not learn through straight narrative? Do your students like this narrative technique? Have them create a narrative scene of their own involving two or more characters who communicate through letters, emails, texts, etc. Talk about the challenges involved in writing this way. Some students may wish to “perform” their scenes with partners.

15. Informational writing: bullying. As a class or in small writing groups, do some research on the subject of bullying. Is it on the increase? What forms does it take? Is it exacerbated by social media, which can sometimes make the tormenting of another person more public? What is being done to stop it? (Suggestion: If possible, make personal interviews part of this research. For example, students might speak with a school counselor or psychologist, or with an adult who recalls an experience with bullying that he or she is willing to talk about openly.)

16. Argument: bullying. Following your research on the topic of bullying, invite students to write an argument on the best way(s) to stop or prevent bullying at school. Such arguments should include documented evidence that a particular approach is effective. (Suggestion: Numerous books and articles have been written on this topic. If possible, make some available within your classroom while students are doing their research.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .
In a recent workshop, a teacher raised a very important question: If we are not going to cover students’ writing with corrections, but we DO want to teach conventions, how exactly do we go about that? Just what are the alternatives? Drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas—along with resources that include outstanding conventions lessons! Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Our January 20 post included a memo distributed by a school district central office a few years ago—a memo designed to recruit volunteers who would recommend budgeting priorities to the local school board. If there is ever a time you want your writing to be concise and punchy, it’s when you’re asking for help. However, this district office apparently didn’t get the memo on writing concise, readable memos. Theirs was vague—and long. Long doesn’t even work for novels unless they’re really good; with memos, it’s a disaster. (If you’ve not read our January 20 post, take a quick look before going on so you can see the unrevised memo—it will help you appreciate what these high school revisers did!)

Turning Real Writing into a Lesson
As I noted last time, I had saved this piece of writing in a file labeled “Real World Writing.” I save all kinds of pieces (to use for lessons or in workshops)—from advertisements and flyers to travel literature, editorials, reviews, recipes, excerpts from textbooks or journals, letters, and more.

I choose them specifically because they need revision. They may be unclear, filled with jargon, over-written, or just contain awkward moments that could use some smoothing out. Whatever the problem(s), they provide a challenge for students looking to sharpen their revision skills. Let me share the steps I followed to turn this particular piece into a very worthwhile lesson on revision, and then I’ll also share the impressive revision I got from one team of students.

1. Prepare the text for editing. First, I retyped the piece so I could put it in larger print and double space it, allowing room for revision. Anyone who has tried revising single-spaced text knows how inhibiting it is to have virtually no room for your inserts and editorial marks.

2. Print copies. I printed out enough copies for each student in the class I was visiting–about 30.

3. Introduce the lesson. I introduced the lesson by suggesting to the class that many pieces of real world writing need revision, and asked them the last time they could recall reading something and thinking to themselves, “I could write that better.” Virtually every hand went up. (This was a good start!)

4. Set the context for the writing. I then gave them the context for the memo—a school district trying to put together a committee of volunteers who would make recommendations to the local school board on top priorities for spending. This memo went out to all parents with children attending schools within the district. We talked about the kind of writing that would make a positive impression on parents. It should be clear and friendly, they told me.

5. Read the copy aloud. I read the memo aloud, and asked for comments. Most students said they needed to hear it again. It didn’t make sense. Several said it was too long. Two or three asked what on earth Volkswagens had to do with education. One said it didn’t sound as if it were written by an educator—it sounded more like it was written by some CEO trying to impress the readers with his vocabulary. I asked if the voice sounded male or female—all but one said male. (I don’t honestly know, so I couldn’t say if they were right.)

6. Hand out copies. After reading the text aloud, I handed out copies so students could read the copy again silently to themselves.

7. Discuss problems. Before they began marking up the text, I asked them to identify, as a class, what they saw as the major problems. What really needed revising? We made a list, and while they mentioned quite a number of things they’d like to change, these were the top three: (1) Make it shorter; (2) Get rid of unneeded information; and (3) Make it sound friendlier—not “like you’re trying to show off”!

8. Work individually. At this point, I asked students to work for a few minutes individually, crossing out anything not needed, adding information, changing wording, or anything else they felt was important.

9. Work in teams of two. When they’d spent about seven or eight minutes on their own, I had them pair up with a partner to write a final revision. This gave them a chance to compare notes, to talk, to rethink anything they didn’t feel was quite right yet, and to combine the best of each student’s individual efforts.

10. Have writers read final drafts aloud. I encouraged writers to read their final revisions aloud to each other, softly, using their ears as well as their eyes to hear how each piece would strike a reader, keeping in mind that this would be read by parents being asked to donate their time.

The Results
Students were invited to read their final drafts aloud for the whole class (they were a very appreciative audience for one another) and to talk about their revision process. Virtually every team had shortened the original considerably—most by at least half. Everyone took out the reference to conjoint analysis, which no one understood, and which seemed unrelated to the issue at hand. (I confess I never looked it up on the Internet—perhaps it is related to budgeting, but it seemed unnecessary and cumbersome.)

Most revisions involved condensing and rewording—as well as making an effort to give the memo a more conversational tone. The students were very audience-sensitive, and several said their parents would throw this memo (the original) away without a second thought. We talked about ways to reach an audience and hold their attention; this is a major focus of the Common Core Standards—and this memo in its original form shows why.

Finally, several students noted that the memo provided no specifics about how to reach someone at the district office “in the unlikely event” (as one put it) that someone should actually want to volunteer (though no one could picture this happening). So they added this information. Many of the revisions were excellent; ALL (without exception) were improvements on the original. Here is one I saved as an example:

Help! Our school is facing serious budget problems, and our school board is seeking suggestions on how to spend limited funds. What are your priorities? We’d like to know! If you can spare an hour or two, please call ###-####. Thank you! We look forward to hearing your ideas!

I think this is an excellent revision by a student. It’s short, it’s friendly, and it’s clear. I know there’s a picky editor out there somewhere saying that high school students shouldn’t use so many exclamation points. As Gilda Radner used to say, “There’s always something.” And normally, I’d agree. But if you take them out of this memo, it suddenly gets all solemn and serious, and the urgency evaporates. What matters is this: High school writers took an inflated, overblown memo all full of itself and turned it into a simple request. Just imagine if this student had been “helping out” at that district office. I can imagine quite a few more volunteers would have shown up.

The Common Core Assessments
It’s worth noting that the upcoming Common Core Assessments for writing will include activities just like this, which is to say, activities requiring revision. That’s because revision is a form of thinking in action, and thinking skills will be the heart and soul of CCSS assessment. Students may be asked to create an ending for writing that doesn’t have one, to condense a wordy piece, to delete sentences that are unrelated to or distract from the central topic, and so on (check out www.smarterbalanced.com for examples). In other words, they’ll be asked to engage in real world writing tasks, much like the one I shared with the high school students. So—the next year or so offers a good time to practice. Check out the online sample items, and if you’d like more, we have books filled with revision and editing activities just like this for grades 2 through 8. They’re titled Creating Revisers and Editors, and each edition is grade specific. You will also find many similar activities in the Write Traits Classroom Kits written by my wonderful co-author Jeff Hicks and me. Check online (Pearson.com, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amazon.com) or call the number below for more information.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Look for our review of Doreen Rappaport’s remarkable book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by. Please come often—and bring friends. If you enjoyed this lesson, let us know—we’ll post more revision examples! And remember . . . for the very best writing workshops featuring traits, standards, process, workshop, and literature, please phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Linking the CCSS with the Trait of Word Choice

Word choice embraces all the words and phrases a writer uses to create meaning, imagery, or voice. With at least a quarter of a million words in the English language (depending on whether a word like rock is one word or several, based on how it’s used), there are multiple ways to say just about anything—unless highly technical language is required. So the focus with this trait is on choice: choosing words that suit the topic, the audience, and the writer’s intended tone or message.

Link to the CCSS
When you think about it, every single one of the Common Core standards for writing is related to word choice. After all, words are the tools we have for making meaning clear and organizing thoughts. In addition, though, several standards make specific reference to this critical trait.

Emphasis on word choice in the CCSS spans all genres, and is most clearly evident in writing standards 1 through 3, which spell out the following requirements (Note: We are paraphrasing here; for precise wording, please see http://www.commoncore.org):

For informational writing or argument—
1. Write in a formal style—which is also voice, but formality is achieved through language
2. Use appropriate transitions to clarify relationships between ideas
3. Use precise or domain-specific vocabulary—in other words, choose words wisely, and be comfortable with any terminology pertaining to the content area or topic

For narrative writing—
4. Use transitions to signal shifts in time or setting
5. Include relevant descriptive details
6. Include sensory details

A word about transitions
Transitions are achieved through language, obviously—e.g., words or phrases such as for example, to illustrate, however, therefore, in spite of this, first of all, a few days later, and so on. Words and phrases are not the only kinds of transitions we use, however. Sentences, paragraphs—even whole chapters—can serve a transitional purpose. Moreover, while transitions—bridges from idea to idea—are achieved through wording, they’re really more about organization. Good transitions enable readers to track the writer’s thinking, through examples (for instance), flow of time (the next day), emphasis (what’s more), parallel ideas (similarly), contrast (on the other hand), and more.

Teaching Word Choice
Vocab lists revisited. Traditionally, language has been taught through vocabulary lists, which are probably not terribly harmful (though memorizing them does eat up precious time), but probably don’t do a great deal of good, either. Unless . . . they are connected directly to reading. The difference is that isolated words on a list are quickly forgotten, while words in context are far more likely to be remembered. If students learn a few key words (say five, as opposed to twenty), then read text in which those words are used, both reading and vocabulary benefit.

Reading, reading, reading. Seeing and hearing language used well is key to vocabulary growth, so reading is essential. Students need to read both silently and aloud—and need to be read to, as well. This is true even for older students. Why? Because a skilled reader—e.g., a teacher or parent—uses inflections that bring out meaning. To many of us, reading aloud feels like a treat—the slice of cake after all the broccoli has been eaten. But actually, it’s one of the most valuable instructional activities available to us.

Revising. Good word choice isn’t just about acquiring new words, however. It’s also about using the words we know well. Everyday language comes to life in the hands of a skilled writer. But gaining this kind of skill takes practice. Writing every day is one way to get it. Here’s another: revising unclear writing. I do not mean the student’s own writing, either. If students only revise their own work, they will never get enough practice in revision because they simply don’t write enough. The world is filled with writing that is unclear, vague, or downright senseless. Be a collector of such writing, and ask your students to try revising it, a sentence or short paragraph at a time. They can work with partners or even in small groups to do this. They will enjoy it thoroughly, and their word choice skills will grow by leaps and bounds. (Watch our next post for one example you can use with middle school or high school students.)

Following are several of our favorite books for teaching and modeling word choice. We hope you like our choices, and we invite you to recommend some of your own.

Book 1: World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky. 2011. New York: Workman Publishing. Genre: Argument. Ages: 5th grade and up, including adults.

This offers one heck of a lot of instructional bang for your book dollar. By that I mean that you can use it to illustrate clarity, organizational structure, effective and precise word choice, and more–including presentation AND the art of argument.

The book is very appealing, in a whimsical, edgy sort of way. Kurlansky and his editorial team weave together photography, cartoon graphics, paintings and sketches, along with playful use of fonts and colors. The page design is brilliant. It’s meant to draw in young (sometimes reluctant) readers, and it does.
In addition, though, the book is written with a persuasive voice that is simultaneously appropriate and passionate. Kurlansky speaks as a man who means what he says. He writes with the confidence that only comes with knowing a topic extremely well, through firsthand knowledge and research. His is a voice of urgency that says to readers—albeit in a polite way—“Hey, listen up”:

The United States government said in a 2002 study that one-third of the 274 most eaten types of fish are threatened by too much fishing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says this is true of almost two out of every three types of fish they have studied in the world. The oceans are in serious trouble. (p. xxiii)

The book is filled with scientific terminology, but Kurlansky uses it gracefully, consistently making meaning clear from context (e.g., the term “Cambrian”): In the ocean, that would mean sea life returning to conditions 550 million years ago in a time known as the early Cambrian period—long before dinosaurs. (p. 5)

The chapters are carefully arranged to support Kurlansky’s argument that current fishing practice is dooming our oceans. He lays out the problem, explains how we got to this point, shows why previously posed solutions will not work, then suggests things we can do. The organizational structure is compelling—as are the details and documented research. You could literally spend a week discussing this book in the classroom, then ask students to draft a response either supporting or countering Kurlansky’s argument. Note: If you fish, enjoy eating fish, or are a supporter of marine life in general, you do not want to miss this book.

Book 2: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. 2001. New York: Ballantine. Genre: Nonfiction history, combining narrative and informational writing. Ages: Adult (but individually selected passages are suitable for upper elementary and beyond).

Hillenbrand’s book has won so many awards, it takes a full page to list them. All are deserved. This is a fine piece of research, but it has all the page-turning appeal of a great novel. It combines a remarkable portrait of 1930s America with the incredible story of a horse that became an American icon. Seabiscuit was small for a thoroughbred, and ran so badly early in his career that he did not seem destined to ever win a race. In what could be described as the perfect storm of horse racing, the destinies of three men—owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, and legendary jockey Red Pollard—came together and pushed the little horse to immortality. For a few years, America’s down and out public had something in which to believe.

Research. The book is incredibly well-researched, through reading (including the private scrapbooks of Charles Howard, “a wealth of newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, telegrams, and letters,” personal visits, and interviews (Notes, p. 349). If you choose to share parts of it with students, use a document projector to skim through the notes so students can see just how voluminous this research was. You may also wish to read sections from the Acknowledgments, in which Hillenbrand talks about how she gathered her information.

Word choice. In an interview a few years ago, I heard Laura Hillenbrand say that she likes to keep modifiers to a minimum in her writing, relying on the strength of precise nouns and energetic verbs to create imagery and meaning. Seabiscuit is a masterpiece of effective verb usage. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the book features numerous racing scenarios, all of which Hillenbrand recounts in a dramatic fashion that makes you feel you’re watching a film. Consider this passage describing the Santa Anita Handicap race in which three of the fastest horses in the world are pitted against one another:

Whichcee screamed along the rail, stretching out over the backstretch, trying to hold his head in front. Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges. Wedding Call tracked them, just behind and outside of Seabiscuit as they pushed for the far turn. They clipped through a mile in 1:36, nearly a second faster than Seabiscuit and War Admiral’s record-shattering split in their 1938 match race. Seabiscuit still pushed at Whichcee. Pollard, up in the saddle, was a lion poised for the kill. (p. 321)

Technical precision. As noted previously, Hillenbrand literally spent years researching Seabiscuit. As a result, she writes with knowledge and precision about the world of racing. For an outstanding example of this, see her extended informational passage on Thoroughbreds and jockeys, pages 70 and following. Notice how Hillenbrand manages with ease to accomplish the ultimate goal of good informational writers, which is to make readers feel like experts.

Book 3: Reign of the Sea Dragons by Sneed B. Collard III. 2008. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Genre: Nonfiction science writing. Ages: Fourth grade and up for independent reading; all ages for selected passages shared aloud.

For precise use of language—a quality emphasized in the CCSS—Collard’s books are hard to beat. (Check out this prolific writer online for a wide range of nonfiction books ideal for teaching and modeling informational writing at its best.) Collard uses words with care, and great accuracy. It is evident in each line that he wants readers to understand what he is saying, and he has a talent for making the complex clear and accessible. Consider this passage from the book’s introduction (noticing the pronunciation guides, so helpful to younger readers):

The elasmosaur and the Pliosaur belonged to an astonishing collection of reptiles that filled our oceans during the Mesozoic (MEZ-oh-zoh-ik) era, about 25 to 65 million years ago. Some of these reptiles, such as crocodilians and turtles, have familiar relatives that survive today. Most, however, were totally different from anything in our modern world. They included porpoiselike ichthyosaurs (IK-thee-oh-sohrs), the long-necked elasmosaurs, and enormous mosasaurs (MOSS-uh-sohrs) with curved daggers for teeth. Scientists often refer to these reptiles as sea dragons, and they include some of the most extraordinary, awesome predators the world has ever known. (p. 13)

If you’re thinking that last sentence is intended as an enticing transition, you’re right. This book is chock full of predators, prey, and conflict. Sneed, who is a friend, once told me, “You can’t just pile facts on people relentlessly—fact, fact, fact. They can’t absorb it, and they stop paying attention. You need a little drama mixed in there. Good writing has a rhythm to it. It goes more like fact, fact, fact, drama—fact, fact, fact, drama—like a dance.” This is why, when we teach students about genre, we need to make it clear that genres are not mutually exclusive. Good informational writing and argument make use of narrative examples to hold readers’ attention—but also to clarify meaning. We learn from informational writing, but the human brain craves story. (See Appendix A of the Common Core for a discussion of this.)

Research. You may wish to share “Learning More About Sea Dragons,” a summary of Collard’s research, aloud (p. 55). Encourage students to visit the websites listed on page 56—and to discover others on their own. Collard also includes a fine list of museums (pp. 56-57) that display sea dragon dioramas and fossils. The idea of visiting a museum or similar venue may broaden the way some students view research.

The book also includes an excellent glossary and index, both worth sharing with a document camera. You may want to discuss when such features should be included with a piece of writing. Are glossaries and indices just for books—or could they be important components of reports your students might produce?

Book 4: Amos & Boris by William Steig. 2004 (reissued). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Genre: Picture book. Ages: All. The book is directed at young readers, but adults love this book.

Like all of Steig’s books, this one has depth—and passion. It is a touching story of the unlikely friendship between the compassionate whale Boris and the adventurer mouse Amos, told in eloquent language. It is my all-time favorite picture book, and I have shared it with countless children and adults, and given away many copies as gifts.

Sometimes in our zeal to teach precision and technical correctness, we forget to help children appreciate the value of words used beautifully—like this:

One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. (Unpaginated text)

That’s flat-out gorgeous writing. Children who hear this passage for the first time have an immediate, intuitive connection to words like phosphorescent, marveled, luminous, immense, speck, vast, and akin. When it comes to expanding students’ vocabulary, the power of reading dwarfs anything lists and memorization can ever hope to accomplish.

We mustn’t forget that the most important things we teach cannot be captured in standards. If we do not teach students to love books, and to treasure some over others, then nothing else we teach them about the mechanics of word choice will matter very much.

Book 5: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. 2007. New York: Simon & Schuster. Genre: Fiction. Ages: Grade 5 and up. All ages for selected passages.

The CCSS calls for students to include sensory details in their narrative writing. No one does this better than Gary Paulsen, whether he is writing novels, short stories, or nonfiction accounts of his own experiences. All good narrative writers include visual details. What sets Paulsen apart is his talent for zeroing in on just the tactile, auditory, or olfactory details that make readers feel they are sharing an experience. Hatchet is filled with these. Brian, the hero, is particularly sensitive to smells, especially after being alone in the wilderness for some days—and knowing extreme hunger. In this passage, we not only picture the fish, but hear it sizzling over the fire and smell the aroma:

He cut a green willow fork and held the fish over the fire until the skin crackled and peeled away and the meat inside was flaky and moist and tender. This he picked off carefully with his fingers, tasting every piece, mashing them in his mouth with his tongue to get the juices out of them, hot steaming pieces of fish . . . (p. 127)

For a little contrast, read Paulsen’s account of eating turtle eggs—a lost person’s last resort (pp. 99 and following).

As you peruse Hatchet, it may hit you how easy it is to weave sensory detail into narrative involving food (just as athletic scenarios lend themselves to use of strong verbs, as in Seabiscuit). Encourage your writers to write a narrative involving the preparation or consumption of food—any memorable experience, good or bad, will do. There are two tricks to making this kind of writing successful: (1) go beyond the visual, including sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations; and (2) don’t hold back—include the ugly or unpleasant details along with the pleasant ones.

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
As promised, we’ll provide you with a passage much in need of revision with respect to clarity and word choice—and offer suggestions for using this in a revision lesson with students. Meantime, Happy New Year to each and every one of you. Thank you for stopping by, and please come often. If you enjoy our posts, please recommend them to friends. And remember, for the very best in writing workshops featuring traits, standards, writing process, and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.