Tag Archive: revising


Teaching Nonfiction Revision

Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons, by Sneed B. Collard III and Vicki Spandel. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 223 pages.

Available for pre-order/order:


Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: 4th-8th grade (Though that’s the target grade levels, this book’s ideas, concepts, and tips are easily adaptable for K-12 and beyond.)

Features: Table of contents (Big deal, right? Every book like this has one. Wrong! This one reads like a lesson planning guide for your classroom! Much more on this later.), Lessons, strategies, and examples from both student writers and from Sneed’s own nonfiction books, Recurring pop-up sections—In Conference, A Note to the Teacher, A Writing Secret to Share with Students, Something to Try—filled with practice exercises and advice directly from Vicki Spandel, Appendix A: Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers, Appendix B: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Students, Appendix C: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Adults, References, and Online resources specific to this book available for download from www.heinemann.com


With a name like Sneed B. Collard III, he better be good, right? Absolutely right! A book about nonfiction revision from such a skilled, experienced writer of nonfiction? I’ve been reading and recommending his books for over twenty years. So, sign me up! But wait (and at the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial)—there’s more, so much more. With Teaching Nonfiction Revision, you get all of Sneed’s nonfiction-writer-wisdom, the real inside scoop on his process as a writer, AND the added bonus of writing guru-teacher whisperer Vicki Spandel’s classroom insight popping up at just the right moments, practically answering your questions before you can even ask them. I’ve known Vicki Spandel, and had the pleasure to work with her, for close to thirty years. So, it’s a done deal–double-sign me up!

Just in case, before I launch into a few of the highlights Teaching Nonfiction Revision has to offer, you’re already pumped up and ready to buy, I’ll repeat the pre-order/order information:


(Now I do sound like an infomercial.)

One of my favorite things about this book is that Mr. Collard never tries to sugarcoat the truth about the act of revision: Revision is not always easy or fast. And, as you may already have experienced, revision, for many student writers, is a total mystery. He addresses the struggle students have with revision, using a sample of student writing, in the book’s introduction–when the page numbers are still Roman numerals! “Not knowing what else to do, students plug in extra facts, make sentences longer, fix spelling, change fonts, swap one word for another—or maybe insert an adjective, adverb, or exclamation mark for emphasis.” (xiv) I’m sure that “revision” of this type is something you’ve experienced in your own classroom. I’ve had middle school students take an even more direct route by simply printing two copies of their writing, labeling one “Rough” and the other “Final.” Boom! Done! The purpose behind this book is to remove this cloud of mystery, not with any magic words or spells but with “…nuts-and-bolts teaching strategies design to strengthen students’ nonfiction revision skills.” (xv) There are no promises of instant success, but these strategies offer a “Big” to “Small” path to understanding and application. “Students may not master every strategy on the first try, but they will make huge strides toward understanding the revision process. Given practice, they will write words you will actually look forward to reading.” (xv)

The passion both Sneed and Vicki have for their craft and for sharing it with teachers and students is the energy blowing away any clouds of mystery or misunderstanding about revision. Their voices are distinct and comforting—they write from and about real experiences. And that’s one of my other favorite things about Teaching Nonfiction Revision (there are many). The authors make it clear that a fuller understanding of the process of revision supported by the toolbox full of strategies this book provides, opens the door to happy, even joyful times for student writers and their teachers. Sneed lets readers in on his secret—revision is not only important work, it’s downright fun! Let me now share with you a few of my other favorite parts and features of Sneed and Vicki’s new book.

Table of Contents (Seriously)

I’m retired, so I am no longer an every day teacher with my own students. The classroom still calls to me, so I get my fix by substitute teaching and volunteering–exclusively at my neighborhood elementary and middle school, with teachers I know and with advance notice. Going back to the same classrooms means I get to know the students, even if I’m only in front of them now and then. You might think that I walk in empty handed and simply follow the regular teacher’s plans, but I can’t help myself. I bring in books, student writing samples, and ready-to-go, focused writing activities—just in case. I want the teachers to leave me plans, but I always ask if it’s OK if I slip in an activity involving writing, especially if it would support something currently happening in the classroom. And they always say, “Yes!”

When I first picked up Teaching Nonfiction Revision, my plan was to give it a quick read to get a feel for Sneed and Vicki’s message. My plans changed as soon as I read the Introduction (something I like to do first) then took a look at the Table of Contents. The book is divided into seven parts: I: Setting the Stage, II: Big-Picture Revision, III: Scene Revision, IV: Paragraph Revision, V: Sentence Revision, VI: Word Revision, VII: The Final Wrap. I immediately grabbed a pad, pen and highlighter, and slipped into teacher-mode. Not substitute teacher mode but every-day-teacher mindset! I mentally superimposed a school calendar over the seven parts and the breakdown of topics in each section and began planning. I couldn’t help myself. It was as if the authors had asked me personally about my teaching experiences—what my students might come in believing about writing and revision, what I knew students needed, what questions I would ask, my personal struggles as a writing teacher, where and when I might say, “What about…?” Here’s one example of what got me excited—the subheadings from Part II: Big-Picture Revision:

  1. Isolate Your Main Idea
  2. Research Your Topic—Again!
  3. Add Missing Information
  4. Cut, Cut, Cut!
  5. Check Your Organization
  6. Unleash Your Voice!
  7. End With Something to Say
  8. Give It a Rest

I sadly reminded myself, “Hey! You don’t have a classroom!” so I switched mental gears. As a substitute, I have been in classrooms where, at various times, students needed help with each of these items. I couldn’t wait to mine these sections for their golden strategies to turn into booster-shot lessons to carry with me into any classroom. My temptation was to skip ahead to various sections, but I resisted. It’s something you could easily do, but I recommend a complete front to back read. This way you’ll get a feel for the overall process of revision and an appreciation for the beauty behind organizing the book’s strategies from “big” to “small.” As the authors say, “Whether you are a regular classroom teacher, a literacy specialist, or a writer yourself, this is your book, and we know you’ll figure out the best way to use it.” (xv)

Appendices and References—Take a Look Before You Read

Teaching Nonfiction Revision, as you will see, has three appendices—A, B, and C. Appendix A—“Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers”—is a starter list of revision reminders, “…things you might do when revising.” (207) I appreciate that it’s a list, not a formula or set of boxes to be ticked off in order. As you and your students do more nonfiction writing and revising, the authors encourage you to “…add your own ideas to ours.” (207) I do suggest you read the checklist before you dive into the book. Not only will it activate and alert your subconscious to what’s coming, it will give you the opportunity to reflect on your own revision practices, “Hey! I do that, too!” Very comforting!

Appendices B-“Nonfiction Books for Students”—and C—“Nonfiction Books for Adults”—are loaded with book recommendations for you and students of all grade levels. (Books by a certain Sneed B. Collard, III, are included and highly recommended!) Again, by taking a pre-reading look at the titles, you may find some that already know and love. Again, rather comforting!

The “References” section, is included for your additional comfort. Here is proof that Sneed and Vicki have mined not only their own work and experiences, they’ve tapped into the writing of other experts as well.

Online Resources—Just Look for the Icon

Anytime you see the icon in the margin, you will know that there is an online resource available to help you bring a specific lesson or activity into your classroom. All you have to do is follow the directions at the end of the Table of Contents to create an account at Heinemann.com and register your book (once you’ve purchased it). This access will allow you to duplicate or project writing activities for your students. Very handy!


Trait-Based Writing and Revision

The Six Traits of Writing and trait-based writing instruction is the well from which my career as a writing teacher, presenter, and co-author was drawn. The language of the traits—ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions—in my mind, is the vocabulary of writers. It connects and integrates varied approaches to writing instruction and writing as a process. The language provides a specific feedback loop for readers and writers, students, teachers, and parents to communicate about what they value in writing. And it is the language embedded in the act of revision.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is not a book focusing on the traits exclusively. But if you’re a teacher who has “grown up,” so to speak, on trait-based writing instruction (Vicki Spandel’s Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, Write Traits Classroom Kits, Sixtraitgurus) you need to know, even if the traits are not called out, they’re all here (even Conventions) playing lead roles in the “big” to “small” revision strategies. And if you are not an experienced “Trait-er,” have no fear. This book is still for you. No secret handshakes required.

Sneed—Modeling Revision (and Struggling) Through His Own Writing

If by chance you are not familiar with any of Sneed’s body of published works (80 + titles), Teaching Nonfiction Revision will not only introduce you to many of them, it will give you (and your students) a backstage pass to his writing and revision processes. Sneed uses his own writing—actual examples of drafts to model and introduce revision strategies he uses to hone his work. In the “Unleash Your Voice!” section of Part II, Sneed points out that, “…writers have to learn to recognize what kind of voice matches their subject and intent for a passage. Do they want to be funny? Dramatic? Conversational? Precise? Persuasive?” (51) This is such an important element of helping nurture voice in student writers—aligning voice with purpose and audience. He references a particular moment in his book, Hopping Ahead of Climate of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival (2016) where he struggled with this decision. In a passage at the beginning of the book, he describes an owl and hare, hunter vs. the hunted, in the ultimate predator/prey moment. Sneed lets us know what he was thinking, “I had to ask myself, ‘How do I write about this?’” (52) He shows readers two of the many options he considered, including his final choice, each with a very different voice. What was the deciding factor? Purpose! His decision wasn’t based on word count or whatever idea first popped into his head. He needed to stay true to his “subject and intent.” What a great lesson and discussion for student writers!


Later in the book, when the “big” to “small” revision lens has zoomed in on paragraphs in Part IV, Sneed returns to the owl and hare passage in Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, to share another revision struggle (no sugar coating) he faced. “To wrap up the passage, I wanted a sentence that emphasized how ominous this situation is for the species—but without getting hysterical about it.” (170) He shows readers six of the twenty-plus variations” he tried, before revealing and reflecting on his final choice. (He tried at least twenty different variations of the same wrap-up sentence! 20!) “You’ll notice that to reach my goal, I tried myriad ideas and phrasing…Did I arrive at the best solution? I may never know for sure, but I do know that the struggle of trying brought me closer to what I wanted.” (171) This is a powerful message to students and teachers: Writing and revising is not easy or fast, but delivering your message (“subject and intent”) to readers is important and worthy of your best effort.

Vicki—Pep Talks, Tips, and Ideas for the Classroom

Dovetailing perfectly with Sneed’s strategies, Vicki’s appearances in Teaching Nonfiction Revision come in the form of four rotating pop-ins: Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students. Her presence is like an omniscient advice columnist who responds to your letters before you write them.

Dear Vicki—Bam! Here’s that book title you were going to ask for.

Dear Vick—Wham! Sentence fragments, right? Try this the next time you conference with her.

Dear Vi—Kabam! I’ve got your back—the perfect mini-lesson to kick-start your writer’s workshop.

When Sneed is wrangling with finding the appropriate voice (owl and hare example mentioned above), Vicki appears with a Something to Try called “De-Voicing a Passage.” She offers a short passage from Sneed’s book Pocket Babies and other Amazing Marsupials, for students to rewrite, without changing the passage’s meaning but “…bleeding as much voice out of it as possible.” (52) Discussing and listing the changes students made helps them gain a deeper understanding of what contributes to voice. (And asking students to write without voice is flat out fun!) If they know what to remove to suck the life out of a piece of writing, they’ll get better at knowing what to put in to breathe life into their writing.

What Vicki suggests with each aptly named Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students, are a combination of small, focused activities and practices that might be introduced as a mini-lesson or become an every-time-I-revise tool in your student writers’ toolboxes, alongside timely suggestions to gently guide you and your student revisers.

Final Comments

Sneed and Vicki open Part VII: “The Final Wrap,” with a reminder to readers, “…we have never intended this book to be a rigid regimen to be pursued with Navy SEAL-like determination…Sure, you may wish to incorporate every one of our strategies into your classroom, but…it’s more likely that you will pick and choose those you find most helpful.” (201-202) That’s my suggestion as well. I’ve only scratched the surface of what this book has to offer. It’s not a long book, but there’s a lot to pick and choose from to help you and your students become more confident writers and revisers. With Sneed and Vicki’s help, the act of revision loses its veil of mystery, and “With your encouragement and guidance, many students will discover the joy of turning their first rough ideas into something readers cannot put down.” (206) Imagine that! And with Sneed and Vicki’s encouragement and guidance you might discover (or rediscover) the joy of Teaching Nonfiction Revision.

As always, you can find Vicki here at www.sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com

For more about Sneed and his books: www.sneedbcollardiii.com

Coming up on Gurus…

I’m not exactly sure what Vicki is working on next. Perhaps something to kick off the new school year? (Yes, in case you haven’t noticed the back-to-school ads—which started in June, a new school year is just around the corner.) Actually, I think reading Teaching Nonfiction Revision, would be an excellent way to rev your teacher-engines. As always, thanks for visiting. And come back soon! Give every child a voice.





A Word Choice Lesson from Real World Writing

Word Choice–BIG in the Common Core

Word choice gets major emphasis in the CCSS–not only in the writing standards, but also in those for language. The Standards stress clarity above all else, and this makes perfect sense. If we can’t make ourselves understood, what’s the point of writing at all? But here’s the catch: How on earth do we teach people to write clearly?

3 Steps to Better Word Choice

Traditionally, clarity has been taught through marginal comments, not all of them kind. Perhaps you recall receiving some of these sprinkled on the margins of your own writing: Awkward! Unclear! Give an example! Say what you mean! A colleague remembered one of her college professors writing this: Just spit it out! Well, at least he was clear.

While no one would cite labeling, shouting, and name calling as the top three instructional techniques, sometimes it IS difficult to know how to help students who cannot seem to express their thoughts clearly. We want to suggest a couple of things that can help:

1. Whenever possible (and it isn’t ALWAYS possible, we realize) encourage students to choose their own topics. This increases personal investment, upping the odds that the writer will either (a) know something about the topic already, or (b) like the idea of researching it. A lot of vague writing results from the writer simply not knowing much about the subject, and so relying on generalities and repetition to fill the page.

2. Encourage students to talk to each other (in pairs or small groups of three) about their topics prior to writing. (Sidebar: We often ask students to share work after they write, but sharing prior to writing can be even more valuable.) Students can take about five minutes each to introduce their topic to this small audience, summarize what they find interesting, and ask listeners what they’d like to know. This kind of oral rehearsal gets the writing engines humming, and clears away many linguistic cobwebs before they can ever drip onto paper. It is time well spent.

3. Have students practice revising other people’s vague writing. Where will you find examples of this? Oh–everywhere. Look around: newspapers, business PR documents and announcements, advertisements, boiler plate letters and memos from government offices or other agencies, textbooks, editorials, reviews–a very large percentage of the writing all around us could use revision. Start today making a collection, and within a month, you’ll have numerous ready-to-go lessons that will engage students because they represent real writing. If nothing else, students will learn this important lesson: Just because it’s published, that’s no sign it’s well-written.

Preparation for Testing

Much of the upcoming testing based on the CCSS will be performance-based, not multiple choice. What does that mean? In the case of writing, it means students may be asked to write original pieces or revise others. They may be asked to come up with a lead or ending for an existing piece–or suggest ways of making unclear writing comprehensible. So–why not begin now?

One Example

Here’s a real piece of writing that I received a few years ago from a district (that will remain anonymous) asking for volunteers to help sort out budget difficulties and make recommendations to the local School Board. I was quite stunned to receive this note, finding both the tone and the content a little surprising, but saved it to use as a word choice lesson–and after waiting a couple of years (I didn’t want to appear to be pointing fingers), I took it to a high school class so they could try revising it. In the next post, I’ll share the results of that lesson. But meanwhile, here’s the memo:

It may be in your objective interests to know that we are in the process of doing a budgetary analysis (through a procedure known as conjoint analysis) to determine how funds may best be spent to meet the impending needs of teachers, students, and others within the community. Conjoint analysis is best understood as a critical technique employed by marketing firms to develop products whose salient characteristics comply with a company’s primary market demands. A clear example is the recent revival of the Volkswagen. Key to this process is assembly of a voluntary committee to facilitate decision making. Only 4 hours of your time are required! Please give consideration to this request. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated!

If you decide to use this with students, these are my suggestions:

1. Print the copy out, double spaced.

2. Read the memo aloud first, and ask your class for reactions.

3. Try, as a class, to determine the primary message: What is the writer trying to say?

4. Also identify the audience. Who will receive this? Are the message and tone appropriate for that audience?

5. Pass out the copies of the memo, and encourage students to read it more than once. They should begin thinking of ways to revise it, and mark it up any way they wish.

6. Have students work in teams of two to create an actual revision. There are NO RULES other than to retain the central message. They may delete anything at all, add sentences, revise any wording, etc.

7. When they finish, have them read their revisions aloud to themselves first–and make any finishing touches. Then, ask for volunteers to share their revisions aloud with the class as a whole, and discuss results.

Note: This is not an easy task. It calls for thinking, and that will be at the heart of CCSS assessment. Students will be required to think, plan, and problem solve. This particular activity is suitable for high school students and many middle schoolers–it would be a challenge for most elementary level writers, but advanced elementary writers could give it a go. If you decide this particular memo is too hard for your students to tackle, find an example more suited to their reading level and follow the same steps. Keep the sample fairly short. The one I have shared here is about the maximum length I would ever use. A sample of two or three sentences in length might be appropriate for young writers. 

Advantage to This Type of Practice

Students do most of their revision and editing practice on work they have written themselves. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near enough practice to promote proficiency because students simply do not write enough. If they were writing several pages a day, every single day, that amount of practice would come closer to meeting what’s needed for real improvement. But that isn’t realistic in most classrooms, and even if it were, there would still be a problem: As writers (and readers), we simply do not see our own text the way we see that of others.

This isn’t a matter of pride–imagining we’re better writers than we really are. No, there’s a very simple explanation. The intended meaning of everything we write lives in our heads, even if it stubbornly resists showing up on the page. And so, we often wind up reading what we meant to say, rather than what we said. To make matters even more complicated, as we reread our own writing, we always know what’s coming–we wrote it, after all. So there’s little motivation to read our own work attentively, hanging on every word, as the saying goes. We skim and skip along, often leapfrogging over whole passages. No wonder we often fail to notice missing words or punctuation, misspellings, repeated words or phrases, grammatical lapses, and whole departures from logic.

But–there is hope. By practicing on the work of others, students develop a much sharper eye–and ear–for catching problems or inconsistencies. Practicing revision is, in fact, such an effective technique that you almost cannot do too much of it. With routine practice in revision of others’ work, expect to see significant improvement in students’ ability to revise their own work.

A challenge . . . Even if you’re not teaching right now, try revising the previous memo yourself. That way, you can compare your revision to that of the high school students (which we’ll post shortly). It’s fun–and such comparisons teach us many embedded lessons about revising well.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, we’ll share a follow-up post containing a high school revision of the conjoint analysis memo. Expect to be surprised!! And in weeks to come, we’ll discuss Conventions and the Common Core, and post reviews of some new books that have captured our attention this year. Thanks for stopping by, and if you enjoy our posts, please share our blog address with friends. Remember, for the best writing workshops combining traits, standards, writing process and workshop, and literature, please call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

The “Battle” for Complexity

Toads vs. Frogs

                 Skiing vs. Snowboarding

     Chips vs. Pretzels

 Charles Dickens vs. Suzanne Collins

Father vs. Son

       King Kong vs. Betty White

(OK, this last one was just for fun and for that brief, bizarre image that flashed into your brain. Oh, the power of a few words.)

Except for the final example, each of these pairings pits two similar/related opponents in a “battle” of like against like—amphibians, winter sports, salty, crunchy snack foods, famous authors, and family members.  These are, of course, fictional contests (except for the father/son pair—that is a daily contest and very real for me)—you won’t find them as summer “reality” programming on network television, and they are not part of the bill at a B-movie marathon at a drive-in theater near you. And as I said, they aren’t really contests; they are choices within a category; they are spots along a continuum. It is something my son said to me the other day though, that started my mind thinking along battle lines.

I had just started reading a book recommended by a good friend. I’m an early riser and like to read in the mornings, especially summer mornings, when it’s quiet. When my son (not an early riser) got up, he asked what I was reading. Defending Jacob by William Landay, was my answer. Andrew flipped through the book, noticing my bookmark at page 126/432. “Did you read all that this morning?” he asked, and yes, I had. (The book is a page-turner—highly recommended by both my friend and me.) It was at this point that he “threw down,” dismissing my reading as being a mere trifle compared to his, and the “battle” began. Andrew was reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and suggested that reading 126 pages in my book was possibly like reading 15-20 pages in his, though, according to him, you really couldn’t compare the two at all. Thus, his reading feat was stunning, and mine was, well, rather pedestrian. The battle for Andrew wasn’t really about whose book was better; he hasn’t read my book and I haven’t read his. But after he quickly scanned a few pages, the issue was clearly about whose book was “deeper,” “intellectual,” and “complicated.” In my son’s mind, he was obviously the victor.

This got me thinking (like nearly everything does these days) about the world of reading and writing instruction and the CCSS (www.corestandards.org). The Standards see pairings of the written works by authors like Thoreau and Landay or Charles Dickens and Suzanne Collins being separated by the notion of text complexity—neatly broken down, defined, and even measured in the informative, Appendix A (also highly recommended reading). The triangular visual is a representation for their Three-Part Model for Measuring Text Complexity. (Figure 1, Appendix A, page 4.)

What Andrew was suggesting to me (without knowing the specific CCSS terminology), is that Mr. Thoreau’s text is more complex than Mr. Landay’s on a Qualitative level—text structure, language conventionality, knowledge demands, a Quantitative level—word length, sentence length, text cohesion, and in terms of Reader and Task variables, specific to each reader—motivation, knowledge, experiences. To employ a term that we like to use at home, Thoreau is “chewier” than Landay. For those of you unfamiliar with the term chewy (chewier, chewiest), we are saying that Thoreau, for example, causes us as readers to read slowly, pause to look up words, stop to think (or even discuss), reread sentences, paragraphs, or even the whole text a second time. It’s not that there was no chewing going on with Defending Jacob, but in a novel, the rereading and pauses for discussion (with my wife, who has also read it), may not be as frequent and may be more about our personal connections to the characters or plot than about the content you would find in non-fiction.

The Standards for both reading and writing, from K-12, clearly emphasize a progression of chewiness—complexity and sophistication—in reading materials—to prepare students for the reading/writing/language demands of “college, workforce training programs, and life in general.” This makes absolute sense to me.

College may not be the next step for every student, but every student should leave a school system with next-step options. So how can teachers provide the kind of instruction that helps students through increasingly sophisticated and complex texts? Well, the bad news and the good news—in my opinion—is that no one knows exactly, and consequently, the Standards aren’t mandating specific processes and strategies—“Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

That leaves us free to experiment—but also scratching for teaching ideas. But as you know, we’re here to help. So, following are some ideas and practices, connected to both reading and writing, to be filtered through your professional judgment and experience, designed to help students conquer this slope of complexity.

I want to focus my suggestions—we are operating under the name Sixtraitgurus—on the trait of sentence fluency. Though this trait is not named specifically, one of the key elements of the Standards’ emphasis on reading and writing complexity is varied syntax—sentences of varying lengths, structures, and purposes. (Sounds a bit like sentence fluency to me.) The standards also emphasize that students need to experience both texts and tasks that are developmentally appropriate and progressively more complex.

One of the practices I like to engage my writing students in is something we just called “Sentence(s) of the Day.” It became a part of our AYE (As You Enter) daily routine. In the beginning I chose the sentences, trying to vary sentence lengths, structures, fiction/non-fiction source, placement/purpose of each sentence—opening/closing sentence(s), first/in-between/last sentence of a paragraph, topic, support, detail, commentary, etc. The procedure went something like this:

  1. Students see the sentence(s) posted on the board/overhead/computer/document camera. Here is a pair of sentences I have used before:                                                                                       A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.                                                            (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Ch. 1)
  2. Students read the sentence out loud to themselves, then to a partner, listening while their partner reads the sentence aloud, as well. (They have now heard and/or read the sentence three times.)
  3. Students write the sentence on their Sentence of the Day paper (to be used for the current week), underlining any capital letters and circling all punctuation marks. (These are important clues for readers about starting/stopping points, type of sentence, and the capitalized words could indicate characters, important places, etc.)
  4. Students are also encouraged to highlight any words that they don’t know or understand, even after checking with their partner for help.
  5. Students need to count the words in the sentence(s) and record the number.
  6. A student volunteer reads the sentence aloud—maybe even more than one reader to hear it several times, and then the class directs the teacher to the circled, underlined, and highlighted parts. The teacher follows with questions (like these or any that come to mind): What punctuation did you notice? What is the reason for the comma/internal punctuation? What kind of sentences are these? What is the purpose of these opening sentences? Reasons for the capital letters? Does anyone know where Soledad or the Salinas River is located? What is the subject of each sentence? Predicate? Are there any words you aren’t sure of? Do you know the book? Author? Does this remind you of anything we have read? Can you tell from this sample what the book will be about? How many words are in the sentence(s)? Do they feel like long, medium, or short sentences? Etc. (As you can see, your questioning can go in several directions, including a focus on conventions, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. This all goes pretty quickly once the routine is established.)
  7. (Now for the fun part) It’s time to imitate! Students will now (working alone or with a partner) write a sentence that imitates the model sentence patterns. (These imitations are a student’s chance to try on a sentence whose structure or length is different from what they might independently use in their own writing. Over time, the imitations become more original, but in the beginning they could simply substitute in a new subject, verb, location, or as much as they are comfortable doing. They can’t change the punctuation or the basic structure. This is a great opportunity for you to model and write with your students.) Here are a couple examples of sentence pattern imitations of the model–                                                                                             Example A– A few miles south of Roseburg, the Umpqua River drops in close to the mountainside and runs deep and blue. The water is cold too, for it has slipped twinkling over the white snow in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.                                            Example B– A few blocks north of Jeff’s house, the Sunset Highway cuts in close to the hillside bank and rolls for miles in either direction. The pavement is warm too, for it has sat baking beneath the many cars in the sunlight before cooling in the evening air.
  8. Sharing—Ask for volunteers to share their imitations. If you have a document camera, use it to project each student’s work. Students need to see and hear how their classmates imitated the sentence pattern. Volunteers need to feel safe, so I like to have everyone clap for each brave volunteer. I like to share as well, to help build a supportive culture. Sharing time is also a fast, formative assessment for me—I keep track of volunteers, and look and listen for the depth of changes in the imitations.

I collected the student’s papers at the end of the week, so I could take a closer look at their work, another formative assessment opportunity. I also looked for interesting examples to be posted in the room—each Sentence of the Day is displayed, followed by 1-2 imitations. This is meant to be a resource for students to use in their own writing—the Sentence of the Day bulletin board is a place to go for help when revising for sentence fluency. Students can choose a sentence pattern to try in their own writing.

For me, this classroom practice of reading, analyzing, and imitating sentences from increasingly complex texts, is just that—a practice. I’m not expecting perfection, but I am looking for evidence of progress in both their reading and writing. The first time I used this in my classroom, three important pieces of evidence of this kind of progress jumped out at me. After just a couple days, students began asking if they could read the book I had taken the day’s sentence from—I remember one day when I had taken a pair of sentences from Iain Lawrence’s The Wreckers. It was a rather gruesome description of a body washed up on the shore after a shipwreck and stirred up quite a bidding war—“I want to borrow that book!”—for my only copy of the book. Really cool! After only a few weeks, students, based on their own reading (I have even received some sentences from parents), began suggesting sentences for us to use as Sentences of the Day. I snapped these up, giving the student credit when it was used in class. Very cool! The last evidence highlight took a bit longer to surface. It took close to five weeks of Sentences of the Day before I began noticing obvious imitations of sentences we had focused on popping up in students’ writing; they were applying their practice to improve the sentence fluency of their own writing. These were not copycat sentences but tributes to the original authors and the complexity of the original text. And other students began noticing the exemplar tributes in their classmates work, as well. Cool. Really, very cool!

Here are a few more sentence exemplars, of varying complexity, I have used with students. I have selected them from books I have read. This allows me to help students understand the sentence’s context within the whole text. :

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.

Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie


While some sharks eat only plankton, most are supreme fish-eating predators whose jaws bristle with several rows of teeth.

Joyce Sidman, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors


When the first raven came it was alone, a piece of blackness laboring across a cold dawn sky.

Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild


Moving the lamp as the man moved, I made out that he was substantially dressed, but roughly; like a voyager by sea. That he had long iron grey hair. That his age was about sixty. That he was a muscular man, strong on his legs, and that he was browned and hardened by exposure to weather.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


Determined to apply economic pressure peacefully, black protesters let the nearly empty buses rumble on by like green ghosts, ignoring the doors that snapped open invitingly at the corners, and devised their own transportation system.

Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice


Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Next, catching sight of Odysseus, Priam said,

“Now tell me about that man over there, dear child.

He is shorter than Agamemnon but, truly, he looks

more muscular, and broader in chest and shoulders.

His weapons and armor lie on the bountiful earth,

And he himself strides about through the ranks of soldiers

Like a thick-fleeced ram through a flock of silvery ewes.”

Homer, The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell


I think it’s important to remember that complexity, as defined in the Standards, is not one-dimensional. Complexity is not solely about the length of a text, the number of “big” words, whether it is fiction or non-fiction or rhyming couplets, the publication date, or the historical status of the author. It could be about one or all of these factors. The issue of complexity is, in itself, complex. In Appendix B, it states that, “Complexity is best found in whole texts rather than passages from such texts.” Well, I feel that complexity isn’t that simple. The classroom practice just described, is based on “passages” taken from longer texts.  I believe passages can be used to preview, prepare, establish classroom practices, scaffold necessary skills, focus classroom instruction, and even to motivate students to be excited about tackling whole texts.

Appendix JH

I want to put in a pitch for taking a careful read/study of CCSS for ELA & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks. That title is a real mouthful, perhaps a bit chewy, and not a real grabber, but please, dive in anyway. As the last part of the title suggests, Appendix B is filled with grade-level specific suggested texts and tasks, not mandates. This appendix is a resource, a bulletin board, a possible template, a potential comfort zone, and definitely a professional conversation/discussion starter.


Coming up on Gurus . . . Look for reviews of some stellar literature, including Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and coming up next, one for young readers, Perfect Square by Michael Hall. Please remember, for the very BEST in writing workshops combining standards, traits, process, workshop, and literature, phone 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by, and please come again. If you enjoy our posts, recommend us to friends. Give every child a voice.

What are we REALLY teaching when we teach the traits?

This seems like an obvious question. Aren’t we teaching six writing concepts–idea development, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions & presentation (the art of publishing)? Sure. And in doing so, we’re giving students a language for talking and thinking like writers, as well as an indepth understanding of how writing works.

If were teaching the traits well, however, there’s more to it–a LOT more. To understand this, consider the primary strategies we use to teach trait-based writing:

  • Assessment & discussion
  • Literature (mentor texts)
  • Modeling
  • Practice in revision

Through these strategies, we not only increase students’ understanding of writing, but also provide them with three mindsets every writer needs:

  • Independence
  • Awareness
  • Confidence

This is what separates trait-based instruction from all formulaic approaches: The ultimate goal is to have students working on their own, not dependent on formulas, not even dependent on us. To see how this works, let’s explore each of the four key strategies.

Assessment & discussion

Students learn a great deal about writing by assessing and talking about the work of others. They can use rubrics (writing guides) to do this, but they don’t have to–any more than we have to grade a piece of their work to appreciate it. The point is to get inside the writing, to figure out what is strong and why, and what you’d do differently if you were in charge. This kind of evaluative thinking is not easy; it requires imagination and focus. But consider what an education in writing teachers get all the time just by assessing their students’ work. Why shouldn’t students have a chance to learn in this same way? Students also need the insight and perspective that only comes from getting to wear the evaluator’s hat now and then. They need to review more than student writing, though–because very little of it resembles what they’ll be asked to do in the real world once they are out of school. Have them assess editorials, newspaper articles, directions of all kinds, excerpts from textbooks or other nonfiction, advertisements, speeches, letters, proposals, resumes, and more. Remember that rubrics can be helpful for this kind of assessment because they often help us find words to express ourselves, and the numbers on a scale can provide a basis for discussion when we don’t agree. But with practice, students go beyond the language of any rubric, finding their own words for describing strengths and problems. At this point, they become confident evaluators who can determine on their own whether a piece of writing (including their own) is working–and if not, what to do about it.


Almost everyone who teaches writing uses mentor texts in one way or another–whether simply reading aloud or, like my author friend Jeff Anderson, tracking down model sentences or short passages to illustrate dynamic structure, innovation, grammatical nuance, creative punctuation, and more. Exposure to great literature expands the understanding students gain by assessing and discussing everyday writing. When you share a fine published piece, you’re stepping up the game a notch, letting students see how the pro’s do it. How does a best-selling author achieve voice? Is it true that professional writers rely more on verbs than on adjectives? Do professional writers vary their sentence structure as rubrics suggest we should do? Are they conventionally rigid–or do they mess around? Do the pro’s generally have a main idea and three supporting details–or is that a myth?

Literature heightens awareness. it reveals the truth about writing: the myriad of irresistible things clever people can do with words. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should have classes full of students with green visors, poring over pages with magnifying glasses, hunting for literary gems. Just reading for the pure joy of it has enormous impact–especially if the writing is fine. And mediocre work has its place, too. In his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King reminds us that “quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (2000, p. 145). Hear, hear. Plus, it’s a real kick to hear a student say, “I can do better than that.” Nothing like outwriting a published author to make your confidence soar.

Modeling (aka, Problem Solving)

Mention modeling and a lot of people picture a teacher standing before the class laboriously cranking out an essay. If this works for you, do not let me discourage you. But I have to say, that’s more what I would call “extreme modeling.” Just way too hard. Writing whole pieces in front of an audience is not relaxing, natural–or even especially helpful. The problem is, the watchers don’t learn a heck of a lot more than they’d learn from seeing the finished essay–except, of course, that you’re very nervy. (And good for you–I really mean it–if you do this.) What they need to see, though, is what’s happening in your head. Writing is, in large part, problem solving. Give your students awareness and confidence by sharing the problems you face as a writer–and then solving them as they watch and listen. You have to talk as you write. You might tackle problems like these: choosing a topic, figuring out where to find the best information, writing a sentence three ways and deciding which sounds best, getting rid of a passage you’ve fallen in love with that just plain doesn’t fit, coming up with a good lead or ending, writing honestly so the voice comes through, spicing up dialogue, taking criticism gracefully–and figuring out whether it’s actually helpful, choosing a title, scanning a source to identify the very best quotation–the one your readers will learn from and remember.

Once you start approaching modeling this way, you’ll begin to envision all sorts of “tight spots” your students will love seeing you work your way out of. This might just become your favorite way to teach. And what happens when students discover how to solve writing problems? Right . . . awareness, confidence, and independence.

Practice Revising

Revision isn’t fixing. Nor is it chipping away tediously at your masterpiece until it fits someone else’s vision of how it ought to look. If students think of revision this way, they will hate it. Who wouldn’t? Revision is a creative act. It’s starting to sing the National Anthem too high on the scale–and coming down an octave. It’s rearranging your living room furniture, painting the walls, hanging your own art where the Picasso used to be, going somewhere different on vacation, going sleeveless, losing weight, cutting your hair (or growing it out), accepting a dare.  

In teaching students to revise writing, we usually begin with students’ own writing–and this can be a game killer. Why? Because it’s threatening and because they tend to tread so lightly when tinkering with their own work that nothing interesting happens. Sometimes, they aren’t sure what to do. Worst of all, it feels like someone else’s idea. You don’t want someone else telling you to cut your hair, lose weight, or take down your Picasso. See the difference? Revision has to come from within.

That’s why they need to practice on someone else’s work first. This builds the confidence and skill they need to see their own work differently. It’s almost never tedious to analyze someone else’s writing. It’s fun. It’s also fun to rip it apart and rebuild it. And if students have been discussing writing, listening to good literature, and seeing you model problem solving, they have a wide repertoire of revision possibilities to draw from. Have students work on short, problematic pieces they can readily assess and improve: an anonymous student piece, an office memo, a public relations statement, a business letter, the first page of a not-very-exciting picture book–or just something you make up. They should work in teams of two, so they can talk as they revise. It’s more fun that way. Read the results aloud and applaud every ingenious solution your revisers come up with. Soon they’ll be applying what they’ve learned to their own writing–and when that happens, they truly own their writing process.

Can you assess mindsets?

Yes, actually, you can. Granted, being confident and independent isn’t like “writing a paragraph with a clear main idea.” You can’t just collect writing samples and score them. But that’s only one kind of valid assessment. Think how much you learn about your students just watching them as they work: Who has an easy time coming up with a topic? Who’s ready to coach others? Who’s good at reading her work aloud before revising? Who’s never ready to stop writing at the end of workshop? Who’s always hunting up passages from literature that he just has to share? Who’s comfortable moving from genre to genre? You get the idea.

Listen to the comments students make–here are a few that show real comfort with writing and revising:

  • This isn’t ready to publish yet
  • I need to do more research
  • I love this lead–I really improved it
  • There’s a better way to say this
  • This part right here is the best thing in my whole paper
  • I am going to end this totally differently
  • I tried to write something I’d want to read
  • When I read this aloud, it actually sounds like me

What about rubrics, posters, and kits?

Do they fit in? Can they help? They do and they can–if you use them wisely. We get many questions about this, and we’ll talk more about it in an upcoming post.

Coming up on Gurus . . . 

We are taking an early, very short spring break here at Gurus! But please rejoin us the week of February 13 when we’ll review and celebrate Lane Smith’s gorgeous picture book, Grandpa Green. We love it–and think you will, too. Remember, for exceptional professional development in writing (emphasizing the four strategies outlined here), please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.