“Reading like a writing teacher” is a term coined by Katie Wood Ray. In her book What You Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop (2002), Katie explains that teachers should be on the lookout for interesting sentences and paragraphs. She describes the world as being “full of writing that makes us slam on our brakes when we’re reading and think, Ooo... look at that, I need to show that to my students. That’s really good writing” (90).
By Rozlyn Linder
Reading like a writer is what I did as a child; reading like a writing teacher is what I do now. I cannot look at a website, commercial, article, novel, basal passage, or book jacket without eyeing a juicy sentence or detail that I feel I need to show my students. I joke with my husband that it is hard for me to read for pleasure because I have become consumed with looking at the moves that writers make: I don’t want to miss anything that could be brought back into the classroom.
Text is all around me with lessons and ideas that my students can integrate into their writing. Over the years, I started to catalog these different details. Sometimes, I would forget where they came from or mix up the titles. It started not to matter as much, though. Once I knew a move, I could easily search for it again. Writers use some of the same things—the same moves—over and over. If I couldn’t find the move as I remembered it, I would sit and type up a paragraph to show the detail move I was thinking of. Then, I shared the found or created model with my students to give them access to that move so they could use it in their own writing. As my lists grew, I began organizing the moves by type. Just like I did with Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, I started noticing some patterns that writers used.
For example, I noticed Judy Blume often relied on recounts of conversations, instead of the actual conversations, in her books. She didn’t always use dialogue tags to tell readers what was said. Sometimes she just remembered the conversation for the read. In her classic, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Blume writes:
My father said he invited Mr. and Mrs. Yarby to stay with us. My mother wanted to know why they couldn’t stay at a hotel like most people who come to New York. My father said that they could. But he didn’t want them to. He thought they’d be more comfortable staying with us. My mother said that was about the silliest thing she’d ever heard. (2007, 8)
This move became one of my details that talk. Writers didn’t always have to replay a conversation with quotation marks at all. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll writes:
“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies. (2015, 7)
Carroll let the reader have a peek into the character’s mind in two different ways. First, he offers what I call a Thought Bubble: he quotes the exact thinking of the character. Next, he switches tactics: he just explains what else the character is thinking. If he had shared Alice’s thinking using direct quotations, this section would have been much clunkier, and the pace would have easily slowed.
In The Giver, Lois Lowry writes:
Instantly, obediently, Jonas dropped his bike on its side on the path behind his family’s dwelling. (2014, 2)
Lowry describes how Jonas drops the bike in a very specific way here. She offers the readers two adverbs before she names the character or the action. This move, used frequently by writers, helps to situate the action very specifically. The writer automatically knows the nature of the action before the rest of the sentence unfolds. This feels different than adding them after naming the subject or the verb in the sentence.
This is what I wanted for my students: to use details in their writing in a meaningful way that conveyed their ideas and their purpose. I knew that my students couldn’t learn this from a bland assignment; they needed to learn from great writers. This obsession catapulted me into a summer of reading at the library. I sat in the children’s section and pulled titles off the shelves. Once I had about twenty books, I found a quiet corner and read. When I saw a sentence or detail that appealed to me or stood out, I copied it down on a note card. Then, I moved to the nonfiction section of the library. My daily visits to the library resulted in an unwieldy stack of index cards. When I wasn’t in the library, I was cutting out editorial columns and articles from any newspaper I could get my hands on, perusing first year composition manuals, and stockpiling every magazine from Time to Vogue. I was building a collection of details.
I couldn't just limit my writers to the moves we found in books in our classroom
To read like a writing teacher in a time of accountability also meant reading the types of essays that kids wrote for the standardized writing assessments with that same type of lens. Because most states post writing samples and exemplars from past writing tests online, it was easy for me to access tons of student writing samples. I started to browse different state websites and print out the papers that the states identified as exceeding the writing standard. I printed dozens of papers from fourth through eighth grade. I couldn’t just limit my writers to the moves we found in books in our classroom: these essays offered direction and advice and were written in the same timed, highly rigid environment that my students would eventually need to perform well in. These students were, in fact, writers.
To learn more about The Big Book of Details: 46 Moves for Teaching Writers to Elaborate, Click here.
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As a literacy specialist, a blogger, a high-demand consultant, and the author of The Big Book of Details and the bestselling Chart Sense series, Rozlyn Linder loves to help colleagues take complicated research and turn it into classroom-ready teaching ideas. Connect with her on Twitter @rozlinder or at her web site.