Tag Archive: teaching revision



Do you love nonfiction? Teach it to students? If so, here’s some good news just for you. Today, Heinemann put our new book on their website, and my co-author Sneed B. Collard and I could not be more excited. The book is titled Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons. The book makes its official debut August 31, but I wanted to give Gurus followers a short preview. I think the title tells it all, but here are some highlights just in case . . .

The premise is simple. Sneed Collard, author of more than 80 books for young people—many of them nonfiction—gets inside his own head to analyze the strategies that have made him one of the most successful authors for young people ever.

My part? To translate that insight into lessons you can share with your nonfiction writers grades four through eight—and honestly, beyond. Sneed’s perceptive and highly teachable ideas transcend grade level, and can be adapted for older writers right through college.

The book is short—just over 200 pages. Chapters are blissfully short, making it easy to zip through them, choosing the lessons you want to share with students. Oh—if you think nonfiction lessons need to be serious and intense, think again. Sneed and I had a great time putting this book together. He has a wicked sense of humor, and that shines through in every chapter. This guy knows how to make nonfiction fun. We’re not talking typical research papers here.

Sneed and I are grateful to my wonderful colleague (and recent co-author) Jeff Hicks, who will be reviewing the book on this site in August, so watch for that. Meantime, to learn more (and take advantage of some good pre-publication offers), please visit the Heinemann website: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

And happy, happy Fourth of July.


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vicki_jeff_smallAt Gurus, we’re often asked how the Common Core State Standards (www.commoncore.org) connect to the 6 traits. In the last few posts, we’ve talked about how the CCSS links to four specific traits: ideas, organization, voice, and word choice (the four most emphasized in the Common Core). But take a step back and you see at once that the real link between traits and standards is much more sweeping: Each of these conceptual frameworks provides us with a vision of what excellent writing should look like. And both, ultimately, drive toward strengthening students’ skills in revision. Let’s look at what the two have in common—and then at some ways we can help students achieve success as writers and revisers.

Traits in a nutshell. The 6 traits are the engine that makes writing work–all writing, since the beginning of time. Ideas are about good information: main idea and development through detail. Organization is the skeletal structure, the architecture of a document. Voice is the writer’s perspective and passion—together with the confidence that comes from knowing a topic well. Word choice is self-defining, but goes beyond individual words to the phrasing and overall tone of a document. Sentence fluency depends on rhythm and variety, but is also measured by a writer’s ability to link sentences in meaningful and seamless ways through the use of effective transitions. The trait of conventions & presentation covers editorial correctness, use of conventions to bring out meaning and voice, and the packaging of information to make it both eye catching and accessible to readers.

Learning CCSS vocabulary. All six traits are touched upon in the CCSS—but not necessarily under the names familiar to 6-trait teachers. The secret to making the connection is to learn the CCSS language. The writing standards call for organization, development, substance and style. Clearly organization refers to the trait of that same name in the 6 trait model. Development and substance are key components of ideas. Style is a fusion of voice, word choice, sentence structure—and yes, sometimes even conventions & presentation. (To see how style is influenced by presentation, think of italics, bold print, full capitals, ellipses, boxed sidebars, bulleted lists, illustrations, bold colors, overall page design—and more). The traits of word choice and conventions also receive special attention within the language standards (and it’s clear that students will need to be skilled editors to meet the requirements of the standards). Presentation (sometimes considered the alter ego of conventions) is covered in the CCSS under writing process and production (Standards 4 through 6).

Genre to genre shifts. The traits span all genres, but admittedly look a little different in research-based writing (informational, argument, technical, and some nonfiction narrative) versus creative writing (personal narrative, expository—or any writing that comes right out of the writer’s head, without need for research). For example, in creative writing, strong ideas might emerge as imagery, character development, or sensory details. We want to smell the aromas escaping from the kitchen where someone’s cooking, or understand what motivates a hero or villain, or picture Australian wombats toddling along like (in author Sneed Collard’s words) “furry tractors with legs” (Pocket Babies, p. 36). In informational writing, ideas may emerge as careful observations, taking us inside an artery or to the craters of Mars; or as data, revealing economic fluctuations or the influence of a vegetarian diet on heart disease.

Other traits differ in parallel ways. Word choice might be edgy and daring in a creative piece, more formal in a report. We want the voice in a mystery novel to give us chills; in a technical document, we want to hear the voice of a professional who’s knowledgeable, confident, and in full control of the discussion. Conventions can be playful in a poem; they must be as precise and correct as possible in a lab report in order to limit misinterpretation.

Figuring out WHAT TO TEACH. The first three standards direct our attention to three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. We might begin with teaching these genres. The Common Core Standards call for students to think continually about what’s appropriate for topic and audience as they write. This means first choosing a genre by identifying the purpose for writing: to tell a story (narrative), to inform (informational/expository), or to persuade (argument).

And as noted earlier, language and style (and even content and organizational structure) must shift genre to genre. Students sometimes have a hard time realizing that the laid back style of a personal narrative is inappropriate for a research summary or lab report. They need to both read and write frequently and repeatedly across all genres—beginning at a very early grade level—in order to get a deep, personal understanding of these shifts. Moving genre to genre can feel like going from a wedding to a football game—it takes some rehearsal to do it smoothly.

Zeroing in on specific lessons. At the same time, reading through the requirements for each genre (Standards 1 through 3), it’s interesting to note the many commonalities among these forms of writing. Whether the writer is creating a story, argument, or report, it is ALWAYS important to set things up with a good lead. It is ALWAYS important to dig for unexpected details and to develop ideas clearly. It is ALWAYS important to use effective, precise language, to link ideas, and to close in a way that is both satisfying and thought provoking. In other words, though audience and purpose may change, many elements of good writing remain constant—and these are elements we need to teach.

Guess what? The very kinds of lessons we teach in conjunction with the 6 traits (e.g., how to write a strong lead, how to use sensory detail) are perfect for helping students comply with the standards across genres. Trait-based instruction supports the standards in this very direct way. But the link goes deeper than that. It’s also about the way writers write.

Process, process, process. Have a look at Standards 4, 5, and 6. They’re all about process. Students are asked to engage in various writing processes to plan, draft, and revise their writing—sometimes with the help of partners who listen and respond to what the writer has said. The 6 traits are grounded in process, and cannot exist without it. In particular, the traits hold the key to revision.

People often imagine that the traits exist mainly to support assessment. Nothing could be further from the truth. A 6-trait writing guide (rubric) can certainly be used in this way, but that is not its primary purpose. It’s called a writing guide for a reason: It’s a guide to revision.

Skim through the top levels of any good writing guide (student or teacher version), and it will hit you at once: These are the things writers do when they revise. They add detail, craft a new lead, reorder information, improve transitions, change the voice to suit the audience, alter the word choice, smooth out sentences, edit. Why is this important? Because when we teach the traits as they were meant to be taught—through revision practice—we teach students strategies they can use to revise their own writing, or any writing on earth. And in so doing, we prepare them to comply with the standards and to become lifelong writers. After all, many if not most will be writing in college, on the job, or for real world purposes long after they’ve forgotten either traits or standards even existed.

Figuring out HOW TO TEACH. Let’s say we identify specific elements to teach: leads and endings, clear language, transitions, main ideas, details, and the rest. How do we do it? We recommend four approaches—recognizing that of course there’s more to teaching writing than this (e.g., we also need conferences, good communication, teaming, formative assessment, and more), but these four provide a core of sound, results-oriented instruction:

• Assessing and discussing samples of writing
• Using literature
• Practicing revision on someone else’s writing
• Modeling

Let’s look at each one briefly, considering its implication for enhancing students’ revision skills. (Here’s the ultimate criterion: When a student can revise anything you throw at him or her, that student can unequivocally be called a writer.)

Assessing and discussing writing samples. We have a saying: What you can assess you can revise. Not assess in the sense of scoring and grading, but assess in the sense of taking a close look, studying, analyzing, discussing, critiquing, understanding. One of the most effective ways to teach writing is to help students become astute critics, both of their own work and that of others. But, wait—doesn’t this happen automatically when we teach literature? Not usually, no, because in our discussions of literature, we tend to focus on such things as character development, themes, tone, or connections to current events. We don’t always talk about literature as writing—the way, say, a critic might talk about it: the grabber lead, the disappointing ending, the striking imagery, the inflated or striking language, the comic voice, the vivid characters so real you feel you know them, the sentences that flowed like music, the setting you couldn’t get out of your head, etc. We should, though. Not in place of literary analysis, but as part of it.

Moreover, in assessing writing, we need to go beyond books. Students also need to read and discuss newspaper columns, ads, letters, business correspondence, textbooks, technical documents, and of course, the writing of other students. Think of the writing your students may produce after leaving school; find copies of such writing and analyze them together. Students don’t need to score this writing necessarily (though many enjoy this), but they need to respond to questions like these: Does this writing make sense? What is this writer trying to say? Can you follow it? Do you like the language the writer chose? Does the piece begin and end well? Does the tone work? Are you engaged, put off, intrigued, enlightened, baffled? Do you see any errors? Would you structure sentences differently? Cut anything out? Add anything? If you were going to revise this piece, what would YOU do?

Using literature. You may have particular books (or other literature) that you discuss with your students for purposes of focusing on themes, topic development, character development, and so on. But when you begin to see literature as writing, it swings open a whole new door of sharing. Be a reader—and a collector. Grab some Post-It notes or a yellow highlighter. Choose little moments (anything from a phrase to a paragraph or two) from a wide range of documents to share aloud with your students so you can illustrate things like these:

• Strong lead or ending
• Effective transition
• Beautifully crafted sentence
• Sensory detail
• Strong verbs
• Precise language or terminology
• Effective use of dashes, semicolons, italics, or other conventions
• Effective use of color, illustrations, or other design features

When students begin to really notice what professional writers do, they discover things they can try, too. They see options—and their writing blossoms with possibility.

Something else magical happens when we see all forms of writing as writing. We recognize the value of sharing picture books with older students, or snippets of nonfiction adult books with young children. Not having to share a whole work is very freeing. Suddenly, we don’t have to care so much about age appropriateness (a very confining way to view literature). We learn to look beyond all that to the lessons a particular piece teaches. We can help students appreciate a phrase that captures our imagination, a book cover so beautiful it causes us to buy the book, a title that’s just perfect, an exemplary use of the semicolon. Think little and you open an instructional door you’ll never close again.

Practicing revision on someone else’s writing. Most students never revise anything but their own work. It’s not enough. Students simply don’t write enough to gain the practice they need to become strong revisers. In addition, they may not encounter the range of writing problems you want them to solve: rewriting a lead, getting rid of unneeded or irrelevant words or sentences, strengthening details, creating transitions, and more. (Please note that tasks like these will be included on upcoming CCSS assessments: see http://www.smarterbalanced.com for sample items.) But you can provide this practice by sharing real-world writing that needs help—or asking them to revise anonymous student samples.

There are some tricks to making this practice work: (1) Choose samples with obvious problems needing attention because this makes the task both manageable and interesting; (2) Provide double spaced copy, if possible, so students have room to revise; OR, provide online copy so students can revise right within a word processing program; (3) Keep the practice focused so that students are zeroing in on one kind of problem, such as lack of detail or need for more precise language; and (4) Ask students to work individually at first, then to share with partners so they talk about the task—out of that discussion comes insight no lecture or demonstration can equal.

Because hands-on revision is one of the most effective ways to teach writing, expect fantastic results. Note: Students who know the 6 traits well have within their repertoire literally dozens of ideas for tackling revision. The more they know about the traits, the greater their success at revision will be.

Modeling. When teachers think of modeling, many of them imagine themselves standing in front of students, ponderously penning a whole essay. This is one way to go about it, all right, but for most teachers, this approach would be not only time consuming, but stressful. There’s an art to writing and talking about your writing at the same time, and it takes practice. So why not start small? Luckily, some of the BEST modeling is very small, and literally takes only moments.

Take topic selection. You might write down (or discuss orally) three topics you’re thinking of writing about at any given moment. Your students will be intrigued—guaranteed. And you will have provided a priceless lesson on how writers come up with ideas. Take one of your topic ideas (your students’ choice, perhaps) and while students look on, write three possible one-sentence leads. Have students choose the one they like best (it’s usually the third—what does that tell us?). Here are just a handful of other things you can model in a minute or less:

• Adding a significant detail
• Adding just 2 or 3 strong verbs to a paragraph to see what difference they make
• Combining two sentences
• Starting a sentence in a different way
• Removing unneeded words from one or two sentences
• Removing a sentence that’s unrelated to the topic at hand
• Discussing possible ways to end a piece
• Coming up with a good title
• Figuring out where to look for more information on a topic
• Narrowing a topic (lions, instead of wild animals of the world)
• Figuring out to do when you feel like quitting—but you can’t

For more ideas . . .
For much more about connecting the traits and the CCSS, as well as using all the strategies outlined above, see Creating Writers: 6 Traits, Process, Workshop and Literature, 6th edition, 2013, by Vicki Spandel. Available on Amazon.

For writing and revision lessons directly connecting the 6 traits to the CCSS, please see The Write Traits Classroom Kits by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks, available through http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. These kits are grade level specific for grades 1 through 8. Be sure to request the NEW edition to ensure connection to the CCSS.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We haven’t forgotten the remarkable book Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport. That review (along with ideas for writing and discussion) will be posted very soon. And look for other reviews of outstanding literature in the weeks to come. We’ll also have some comments on teaching editing skills effectively. So—stop by often, pick up our RSS feed to stay tuned in, and if you like our posts, tell friends. Remember, for the very finest workshops featuring traits, process, literature, workshop AND the Common Core State Standards, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.