Tag Archive: word choice



Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Welcome back!

In this post and the last (and the next!), we’re looking for ways to make writing instruction related to the Common Core Standards manageable. One way to do that is by focusing on essential writing features common to all three CCSS umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. In Part 1, we considered four features:

  • Purpose and audience
  • Detail
  • Leads
  • Structure

In Part 2 (this week), we’ll look at Features 6 and 7:

  • Transitions
  • Wording

And in Part 3 (coming up right after Thanksgiving), we’ll review the final two:

  • Conclusions
  • Conventions (and Presentation)


A Reminder

As a reminder, please read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. Now—on to transitions and wording (aka, word choice)!

 FEATURE 5: Transitions

A writer’s thinking is not always easy to follow. Transitions help. They form bridges between ideas, paragraphs, or chapters, orienting or alerting the reader, and guiding him/her from thought to thought to thought. Here are just a handful of things transitions can do—you and your students can no doubt think of many more:

  •  They can link periods of time: Later, In an hour, Momentarily, Just minutes before, The next day, Years later, At that moment, While we slept, As we watched, During the night, As the tide came in, During the Pleistocene Period . . .
  •  They can orient us spatially: On top of the bureau, Behind the door, Across the street, Just beyond the fence, At the back of the room, By my side, In the underbrush, Above her signature, Below the lake’s surface, Within her peripheral vision, On the other side of the world, Across the galaxy . . .


  •  Transitions can signal a reversal or contrast: However, Although, To everyone’s surprise, Unexpectedly, Surprisingly, In contrast, Despite all this, Shockingly enough, Unbelievably though, On the other hand, To look at things another way . . . 
  •  They can show cause and effect: Therefore, As a result, Because of this, Since this happened, For this reason, Consequently . . .
  •  They can set up an example or quotation: To illustrate, For example, As one person put it, To see how this works, In one instance, Repeatedly, In the words of one expert, As research now shows us, Results of the study suggest . . . 
  •  Transitions can also indicate support or emphasis: In fact, In addition, Besides, Indeed, Moreover, Furthermore, As everyone predicted, What’s more, To no one’s surprise, Unquestionably . . .

As the preceding examples show, transitions are not always single words—though they’re often depicted that way on lists. In fact, transitions can be multi-word expressions, whole sentences—even paragraphs.


One of my favorite paragraph-long transitions is the ending to the fourth chapter in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography, Boy. We’ve just been introduced to Mrs. Pratchett, proprietress of the candy shop, “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry” (1984, 33). After just two pages, we not only know her; we despise her. How can we help it? She dishes up fudge by digging into it with her blackened fingernails. So we’re not surprised by this end-of-chapter confession—which is a masterful transition into the chapter that follows:

So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.

The perfect bridge between before and after, this brilliant transition sums up how the children feel, and offers us a hint of what’s to come. The mouse is a tease, like a quick peek at the weapon in a murder mystery, and it’s delightful that the words “dead mouse” come at the very end of the paragraph. We’re humming along, reading about schemes that don’t work, and bam, the writer drops a dead mouse right onto the page in front of our noses. Perfect. Dahl doesn’t tell us what he and his friends planned to do with the mouse because that would kill the suspense. We can imagine, of course. And to find out if we’re right, we must read on.


Having a conversation. Transitions can be taught in a very mechanical way, as if each and every sentence should open with a transitional word, phrase, or clause. This results in extremely unnatural writing, as illustrated by this example from an eighth grade writing assessment:

My best friend is John. The reason he’s my best friend is because he’s good company. Another reason is that he’s nice to me all the time. Also, we’ve known each other for more than two years. Secondly, my parents enjoy having him at our house. Even more, we look alike. Next, we have many things in common. Another thing—we get along. Also we like the same girls. Secondly, many girls like us, too . . .

There’s more—but you get the idea. Sometimes transitions are essential, but this writer is building suspension bridges where stepping stones would do the trick.

A less formulaic way to think about transitions is that they help a writer have something approaching a conversation with the reader. If we were really having a conversation right now, chatting over coffee and biscotti, I would be watching your body language and facial expressions to see if you were following my train of thought—or if I needed to repeat, expand, or rephrase something. In writing we can’t do that, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to make the trail of our thinking as easy to follow as possible.


Consider the following explanation of how modern mathematics began with the simple concept of counting. It’s from Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife (2000, 6). I’ve underlined the transitional words to make them stand out—but you’d notice them anyway:

It’s difficult for a modern person to imagine a life without zero, just as it’s hard to imagine life without the number seven or the number 31. However, there was a time when there was no zero—just as there was no seven and 31. It was before the beginning of history, so paleontologists have had to piece together the tale of the birth of mathematics from bits of stone and bone. From these fragments, researchers discovered that Stone Age mathematicians were a bit more rugged than modern ones. Instead of blackboards, they used wolves.

(Wolves? More about this last line later.) To fully appreciate how much these transitions add to the writer-reader conversation, try reading the Seife passage aloud without them. Hear the difference? It still makes sense, but it’s jarring, abrupt, terse. Without transitions, we lose that sense that a thoughtful writer is leading us through the discussion—not forging ahead with the flashlight off.

Gaia Warriors

Fill in the blanks. One of the best ways to teach transitions is to ask students to fill in the blanks. Try it. I’ve left the transition out of the following sentence from Gaia Warriors, Nicola Davies’ nonfiction text on global warming (2011, 13). How would you begin this passage?

____ you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Was it obvious? Or did you need to think about it? Sometimes, there’s more than one possible sensible answer. But usually, there are many answers that would make no sense. This is why transitions matter. They point the reader in one direction, and if we change them, we point the reader somewhere else. For example, imagine this passage beginning with any of the following: Until, Because, Whenever, Although. All of these tamper with the meaning. Here’s the author’s original:

 Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Medusa and Snail

OK—that was just one word. For more of a challenge, try this one from Lewis Thomas’s essay “On Warts” (The Medusa and the Snail, 1995, 77). Warning—this transition is a multi-word phrase (not that you have to match Thomas exactly):

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, __________________ , they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

Maybe you’re thinking—hey, wouldn’t but or however or nevertheless work? Yes—they would. But those words wouldn’t direct our thinking as much as Thomas wants to. Here’s what he wrote:

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.


Connecting two sentences. Think how much we learn from Thomas’s few transitional words. Transitions aren’t throw-aways; they carry meaning. Here’s another exercise to try. Fill in any transitional word or phrase(s) you like to connect the following two thoughts:

Hank loved Irene. He wondered if she loved him back.

Here are a few possibilities—all slightly different in meaning:

  •  Oddly enough, Hank loved Irene, but often wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, but after finding the gun, wondered if she loved him back.
  • For a time, Hank loved Irene. During those few months, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, though it was hard. Every time he ate her pot roast, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, even if she was a humble turtle. He wondered if she loved him back.
  • To the best of his ability, Hank loved Irene. In his own pitbull fashion, he wondered if she loved him back.



 TEACHING Transitions

Following are six things you can do to teach transitions to students:

  1.  Have a transitions treasure hunt. Ask students to find (and list, as a class) as many transitions as they can within a specified period—say, ten minutes. Look through textbooks, literature, business writing, ads (they’re FILLED with transitions), newspaper articles, your school’s publications, or any other sources. Mix it up. I guarantee that the resulting list will have a much more lasting impression than any pre-published list you can post.
  2. Talk about a few of the transitions on your list. Don’t go crazy. If you go through them all, one by one, you and your students will soon find transitions tedious. But if you pick out three or four of the most interesting, and ask, “What does this show? What sort of bridge is this?” you will help students understand the nature of transitions. Be sure you ask students to read the sentence (or paragraph) from which they pulled the example. This helps put things into context.
  3. Look for extended transitions. The transitions at the ends of paragraphs aren’t always brilliant or even noteworthy. But sometimes they are. Sometimes, that final sentence guides us right into the next paragraph. So check for those end-of-paragraph guiding sentences. (For a perfect example, re-read the Seife paragraph on counting that ends with the sentence Instead of blackboards, they used wolves. Wouldn’t you like to know why? or how? Gotta read that next paragraph!) Good authors also know that there’s no handier time to stop reading than when one finishes a chapter. Only really strong transitions (like Roald Dahl’s reference to the dead mouse) can keep us turning pages when we feel like stretching or reaching for a chocolate.
  4. Play the missing transitions game. Keep it simple. You might choose an example with only one transition missing. Here’s an easy one from the chapter on Mrs. Pratchett—there’s only one missing word. What would make sense here? “Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg-yolk. It was her hands, ______, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime.” Remember, the question is NOT What did Dahl write? But rather, What makes sense? What builds the bridge? Hint: It’s one of the following: therefore, however, in conclusion, delightfully enough, for example. If you said however, you heard the contrast. That’s the bridge. Would your students hear it?
  5. Don’t forget to comment. When one of your students makes a clear, definite connection, one that changes the meaning of a sentence or helps you easily make the leap to the next paragraph or section, say something like this: Thanks for helping me make that connection! This makes an impression, and is infinitely more powerful than the more familiar negative comment—How on earth did you get to this point? Where’s your transition?
  6. Find another way to say it. For many students, the word transition has a kind of technical sound that dehumanizes it. Try connection, connecting words, bridge, link—or something similar. Once students understand how transitions work, they’ll appreciate them more in their reading, and using them in writing will come naturally.


On Writing Well 

FEATURE 6: Wording

Overview. “Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” So said William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (2006, 34). I love this bit of advice, but admittedly, we might have to modify it for the CCSS, perhaps amending it to read this way: The race in writing is not to the swift but to the clear and precise. (Note: For a full picture of what the CCSS demand with respect to word choice, be sure to check not only writing standards per se, but language arts standards as well.)

With respect to word choice, the standards emphasize such things as the following:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Appropriate use of relevant terminology
  • Use of words that link ideas (covered under transitions)
  • Comfort with figurative language, such as metaphors or similes
  • Use of descriptive language or sensory detail (in narrative)

Language can be formal or informal, and as with all writing features, needs to change to suit the occasion. We don’t wear tuxedos to the beach or flip-flops to the wedding. Sometimes it shifts within a single sentence, as in this line from the Introduction to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times (2005): “The intensity of poetry, its imaginative fervor, its cadences, is not meant for the triumphant executive, but for people in a jam—you and me.” Keillor swings gracefully from lofty to humble, elegant to chatty, in a few keystrokes.

Keeping it measurable. Language can also be inspiring or provocative. It’s the key to voice. The right words can move us, touch our very souls, cause us to highlight passages or scribble quotations we tape to walls or send to friends. Such things are hard to measure. That doesn’t make them unimportant—quite the reverse. I mention this because the CCSS must, by definition, focus on the measurable. We need to keep this in mind because it’s easy to conclude that what does not appear in the CCSS is unimportant. The truth is, what does not appear may be vital—but difficult (or even impossible) to measure. We cannot very well have a standard that says “Students will write quotable prose.” Many will, of course—at some point—especially if we consistently share the literature that inspires us. But quotable prose is something to wish for, encourage, cherish, and invite. It is not something we can demand. I often wish the CCSS were subtitled “Some Important Stuff We Feel Confident We Can Measure.”

Clarity. Let’s begin with a functional (and pretty measurable) goal: clarity. In the simplest terms, clarity means that the text makes sense—and specifically, that the text makes sense to the intended reader. For example, a science writer would likely describe photosynthesis one way to a consortium of botanists and another way to a class of fourth graders. In other words, while clarity is certainly about word choice, it’s also about audience.

Following is an excerpt from an owner’s manual on boilers purchased to heat homes. Keep in mind that the audience is the lay user, not a technician or engineer:

To change the “normal room temperature”: Factory setting: 68 degrees F/20 degrees C from 06:00 to 22:00 hrs. The “normal room temperature” can be set between 37 and 99 degrees F/3 and 37 degrees C. Press 1, or 2, or 3 to select the desired heating circuit. Turn the selector knob; the temperature value appears in the display window. If this is not done, the following instruction appears in display: Select button 1-2 or button 1-3.

Will any of this be on the test? Seriously, I think they’re trying to tell me that the temperature is set at the factory for 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius. This temperature will hold from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. I can change it if I want to, however, re-setting it for anything from 37 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my personal need for warmth. I don’t know what the “desired heating circuit” is because this is not explained—but hopefully, it will become more evident after I push button 1, 2, or 3.

Here’s the deal, though: I have to read this passage slowly and more than once to squeeze even this much meaning out of it. That shouldn’t be. This is not written by an incompetent writer; it’s simply written by someone used to communicating with other technicians. This is important because a large number of our students will make a living that involves writing. They may not be writing poems or novels, but many will be writing reports, letters, PR documents, press releases, or technical manuals, just like this one. And those who can communicate clearly will be in high demand.

As the preceding example shows, clarity involves choosing the right words (sometimes non-technical words) and putting them together in a logical order that speaks to a targeted audience. So—right words, logical order, audience awareness. Is that enough? Not quite. There’s also much to be said for including all necessary information.

Clarity requires completeness. An entertaining little book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999, 57) contains some advice about what to do in a variety of situations—such as, if one is attacked by an alligator.

Point 1 says this: “If you are on land, try to get on the alligator’s back and put downward pressure on its neck.” Pardon? I know what the individual words mean—nothing technical here—but have to say I cannot picture myself (or any sane person) doing this. I need some context. Is this alligator at all large—say larger than a cat? Is anyone helping me? How does one mount an alligator—always on the left, as with a horse? In other words, I’m suggesting that clarity demands including all essential steps, not just the one where I turn into a stunt double.

Point 2 tells me to “Cover the alligator’s eyes.” Seriously? Not unless I can do it from 50 yards away. I can just see myself digging through my purse, saying, “Where the heck did I put that alligator bandana?” It seems to me that this writer, like the writer of the boiler manual, would benefit from a reality check titled “Know Your Audience.” To write clearly, we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place.

Cultivating Delight

Details, details. Notice the contrast in this “full picture” example from Diane Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, 14). Though the topic is almost equally bizarre, her cautionary advice makes perfect sense because she helps us understand the circumstances under which a frog might find itself in a human mouth:

Never hide a frog in your mouth. Never lick a toad. Never kiss a warty small green male, however princely. Disgust is an underrated strategy. Many toads exude a toxic slime that makes predators recoil. The poisons tend to be hallucinogens, which teenagers are often tempted to sample, so each year some die from toad-licking. Toads won’t give you warts, but they can kill you.

The difference between this and the tip on blindfolding alligators is that Ackerman gives us detail and background info. She answers our most pressing question, which is, Why on earth would someone lick a toad or frog? Because, dear reader, hallucinogens (though often lethal) are (for some, anyway) tempting as all get-out. The best example of good word choice here, though, is “underrated strategy.” Who knew disgust was a strategy, much less an underrated one? We humans haven’t figured out that disgust is nature’s way of tipping us off. Gives you renewed respect for your instincts: e.g., repulsive could mean dangerous.


Precision. Clarity is also about using the just right word for the moment. Author Janell Cannon is known for her vivid, rich language and refusal to write down to children. In the picture book Crickwing (2000), she describes the capture of the artsy cockroach named Crickwing by a colony of ants: “He had no chance for escape as thousands of leafcutters swarmed over him, dragged him back to the anthill, and marched him down its dark, winding corridors.”

Brilliant. Not ants, but leafcutters. Very precise. They didn’t crawl over him; they swarmed. They didn’t pull him back; they dragged him. They didn’t take him down into the tunnel; they marched him into those dark, winding corridors.

We not only see the scene, but feel it, as if we were the ones being swarmed over, dragged, and marched to our doom. With its forceful parallel rhythm, the episode is meant to be horrific, and it is. Had she written, “The ants pulled Crickwing into their tunnel,” no one would be getting the chills—not even Crickwing.

pocket babies

Making meaning clear for the reader. Informational writing or argument often call for subject-specific terminology. The CCSS require that students not only use words appropriately and with understanding, but help readers understand them, as well. What does that look like? Here’s a clear explanation of the term speciation from Sneed Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, 11):

The marsupials that invaded South America, Antarctica, and Australia began evolving into many different species. Scientists call this process adaptive radiation or speciation. South America, for instance, gave rise to large marsupials that resembled bears and saber-toothed tigers. At a site called Riversleigh in Australia, scientists have unearthed an amazing variety of fossil marsupials, including nine-foot-tall kangaroos, marsupial lions, and ancestors of today’s koalas.

Note that Collard provides a simple definition for speciation, but also includes an example. This kind of attention to verbal detail makes his writing extremely easy to understand.

Animals in Translation

The expanded example. In her fascinating book Animals in Translation (2006), animal scientist Temple Grandin takes explanation a step further. First, she describes the concept of task analysis (a way of teaching handicapped students and sometimes animals) in these simple words: “If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way” (13). That’s easy enough to follow, but what I love is her expansion of the discussion:

Doing a task analysis isn’t as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren’t really aware of the very small separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt . . . If you’ve ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don’t really know how to do it, either—not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.

With this example, Grandin makes clear that word choice isn’t really about individual words (or synonyms) so much as it’s about concepts. (That’s why simply handing out vocabulary lists has only limited value.) Without the buttoning example, I would have only the most abstract and hard-to-recall sense of what task analysis is about. Now it’s a term I’ll remember forever—even though I don’t use it in my daily life. If you think about it, creating that kind of understanding is quite an achievement for a writer.

Figurative language. I want to pull one more example from Grandin to illustrate excellent use of metaphor. In this passage (214) on how the brain works, Grandin explains that simple, visceral fear happens in the amygdala—and very quickly. Analysis happens in the cortex, and takes longer. Only a few milliseconds longer, mind you—but in life or death circumstances, milliseconds count:

You’re walking down a path, you see something long, then, and dark in the path, and your amygdala screams, “It’s a snake!” Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, “It’s definitely a snake!” or, “It’s just a stick.” That doesn’t sound like very much time, but it makes all the difference in the world to whether you get bitten by that snake or not, assuming it is a snake and not a stick. The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.

The “rough draft of reality” is the perfect metaphor for helping me understand the nature of fast fear.

The CCSS require students to understand—and occasionally use—figures of speech. Why does this matter? Because metaphors, similes, or analogies take the unfamiliar and make it familiar by linking it to what readers already know. This strategy, though powerful, does not necessarily come naturally to students. That’s because they’re normally writing to us, their teachers, and believe we already know more about the subject (no matter what it is) than they do. This isn’t always true, naturally, but they write as if it were—as if they were teaching baking to Martha Stewart and dropping a few specifics could hardly matter less. This is a limiting perspective from which to write because it lets the writer off the hook when it comes to details or explanations. The writer-as-teacher, by contrast, has a distinct edge. When students write as if they were experts with something important and fascinating to share, as if every detail would make a difference to our understanding, their writing improves markedly.

The Winter Room

Descriptive/sensory language. Descriptive or sensory language enhances both setting and character development in narrative writing (For much more on this, see the section on Detail in the previous post.)

I cannot imagine a better introduction to sensory language than the Preface to Gary Paulsen’s The Winter Room. It only runs a couple of pages, but within this short space, Gary transports us to the farm of his childhood, alive with the sensory details that linger in his memory—notably sounds and smells. Because of copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the whole piece here, much as I would love to. But look it up. You’ll be so glad you did. When you talk with your students about sensory detail or descriptive language, consider using this piece (1989, 1-3) to kick off your discussion. Don’t be surprised if many students want to write (almost immediately) about places memorable for them. (It’s stunning what memories are unleashed just by the smells of popcorn, pine, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate.) Here’s just a fragment from Paulsen’s Preface:

If books could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells . . . . It would have the smells of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn . . . This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop . . .

Books, Paulsen tells us, cannot by themselves have sounds, smells, and all the rest—because they need readers. “The book needs you” (3). Yes, books do need readers. Yes, it is a dance. But the words are the music.

The Animal Dialogues

Descriptive detail in informational writing. Does descriptive detail have a place in informational writing? Absolutely. Think how dull informational writing would be, what an absolute nightmare it would be to pay attention, if it were all charts, graphs, and statistics. Human readers need stories, examples, and images to hold onto. Otherwise, we can’t put all that information in its place—and what is more, we aren’t very compelled to do so. The abstract is only interesting when we have specific cases to which we can apply what we learn.

In The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs teaches us about the brains of mosquitoes (2007, 283), first laying the groundwork with some factual information:

Of any creature this size, the mosquito has the most complex mechanical wiring known. Fifteen thousand sensory neurons reside in the antennae region alone. The sensory organs of the head are arranged like clockwork. Electron-microscope examination reveals interconnected rods and chambers, pleated dishes and prongs and plates . . . These take the mechanical and chemical environment and translate it into a tactical array of electrical impulses to the mosquito’s brain, a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.

If you’re anything like me as a reader, your imagination clings to that final explicit detail—“a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.” The rest I sum up this way in my head: mosquito brain = “complex” and “structurally organized” and “highly sensitive.” I probably won’t recall the part about the fifteen thousand sensory neurons, even though it impressed me at the time. But I’ll always recall this next paragraph, the descriptive part:

If a mosquito is released in still air, it will come directly to you even if you are standing one hundred feet away. Through the air, the mosquito senses the carbon dioxide of your breath, lactic acid from your skin, traces of acids emitted by skin bacteria, and the humidity and heat of your body. If there is a slight breeze, a mosquito may be able to locate you across the length of a football field . . . . Some people stink more than others. The degree of the stink, subtleties we may never comprehend with our noses, is like a field of wildflowers to a mosquito. (283, 287)

You feel them coming for you, don’t you? Those sensory neurons are important—but in the end, it’s the futility of escape I cannot stop thinking about. I’m trying not to sweat. And by the way, how long does it take to run the length of a football field?


TEACHING Word Choice

Here are seven things you can do to teach word choice.

  1. Read. It’s still the best strategy. Students need to read on their own—of course. But they need to be read to as well, even older students. You don’t have to read a 300-page book. Pick an excerpt, about the length of the ones I’ve chosen here. Quality and variety matter far more than length. Read aloud as often as you can—more than once a day, if possible. Read what you love so the passion comes through. The standards don’t call for students to love language, but without this, the rest doesn’t really matter.
  2. Encourage students to hunt up favorite passages. They can read them aloud to partners or in small groups or to the whole class. Or post quotations for everyone to read.
  3. Don’t shy away from picture books. Secondary teachers often think their students have outgrown picture books. This is interesting to me since picture books have an enormous adult audience. I buy them for friends all the time and so far no one has said, “Thanks, but I think I’m too old for this.” Maybe that’s because picture books are not what they used to be in the good old days of Dick, Jane, Spot, and Puff. On the contrary, picture book writing is arguably the most demanding genre. And in addition, many picture books today are written specifically with an adult audience in mind. The advantages of using picture books instructionally are many, but here are just two: (1) They’re short enough to share within a single class period, and (2) They hold students’ attention. I have found this to be true even with middle and high school students.
  4. Fill in the blanks. Take any passage you feel is especially well written, omit a few words or substitute something more banal, and ask students to fill in the blanks with their own versions. Here’s a short passage from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (2000, 272), detailing the famous match race between the small but gutsy thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the legendary War Admiral. It’s a tight race at this point, and Hillenbrand wants to use verbs that will capture the intensity. What would you put in the six blanks I’ve filled with something flat and ordinary? You don’t have to match Hillenbrand. Just make it sing! (I’ll give you the original at the end of this section.)

The horses WENT out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They MOVED shoulders and hips, heads GOING up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and MOVING in unison. The poles WENT by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and FELL behind.

  1. Focus on verbs. The CCSS do not make a big deal of verbs—but in my view, this is a serious oversight. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be captivatingly powerful if they’re uncommon and selected with surgical care—if we’re finicky, as Zinsser puts it. But for sheer, raw energy, nothing beats the verb, as Diane Ackerman illustrates here: “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern . . . The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” (A History of the Senses, 1990, xvii). I love picturing my senses tearing reality apart and feeding shards of info to my brain. That makes me feel alive—much more so than “making sense” of the world.
  2. Explore nuance. The thesaurus can be your friend or arch enemy. The secret lies in knowing precisely what you want to say. Words like smart, intelligent, mindful, savvy, clever, and cunning are related, but not interchangeable. Discuss groups of words like these, asking students to distinguish among them by using synonyms, explanations, and examples.
  3. Model. Create a business letter, short informational passage, or description as students look on. Pause one, two, or three times to ask for help finding the right word to express an idea. Talk about how words affect tone (voice) as well as meaning. If you’re agreeing to a job interview, for example, what’s the difference between saying “I’m dying to meet you!” and “I look forward to our meeting”?

What did she really write? Here’s Hillenbrand’s original passage. I’ve underlined the missing words so you can spot them easily. Notice she does not repeat—and she does not use first-word-that-came-to-me verbs like went or moved. As you compare what you (or your students) wrote, please remember that matching is not important. What counts is coming up with words that are striking, meaningful, original, and fitting (272):

The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Right after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll present Part 3 of our look at the Core of the Common Core. In December, I’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative; and in early January, we’ll look at Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills—and make important links to the six traits. You won’t want to miss either one. Meantime, Jeff and I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings.

Thank you for coming. Please come often, and recommend our site to friends. And . . . to book your own personalized 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 post, please check out the following resources:

  • 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 to order 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 www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e



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

Figure Skating:

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

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


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

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

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

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

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

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



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

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

Grade Levels: K and up

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

40 pages (including back matter)

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


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

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

 In the Classroom

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

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

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

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


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

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

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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


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


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

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

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





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.

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.

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.