One of the important habits of mind student writers need to develop is reading like a writer. “Reading like a writer” is a term that describes a special kind of close reading writers do when they notice how other writers write texts, with the intent of using what they learn in their own writing (Smith, 1983; Wood 1999). When you teach your students to read like writers, you give them the “keys to the kingdom” –- they become able to see what writers do, use what they learn themselves, and in the process become better writers!
How do you help students learn to read like writers?
One answer is to provide time for whole-class text study during genre studies, as well as during other units of study that focus on the teaching of craft (Ray, 1999). Whole-class text studies suspend the normal structure of writing workshop, giving you the opportunity to devote most or all of a writing workshop period to engaging your class in a discussion of a mentor text. In this discussion, students talk about craft techniques the author of the mentor text uses, analyzing what the author did as a writer, and why. As students talk about the text, your role is to guide and support them as they try to read the text like writers.
Whole-class text study has several important benefits. These conversations:
- Help create a classroom writing community in which students value and enjoy talking about the craft of writing.
- Give students a guided experience with reading like a writer.
- Give students the opportunity to learn from each other about how to talk about texts.
- Put students in charge of noticing interesting crafting techniques, instead of relying on you to do so.
- Boost student enthusiasm for trying new craft techniques, because they’ve discovered them themselves. Writes Felicia Rose Chavez (2021), this kind of work “empower[s] students to claim ownership of their artistic community.”
There are several steps in whole-class text study:
Step 1: Introduce your class to the study
→ If your class is new to whole-class text study, explain what they’ll be doing during the period, and why.
→ In this excerpt of a video of whole-class study, watch me introduce the study to a group of upper elementary students:
Step 2: Read the mentor text
→ Next, read the mentor text aloud. It’s best if you reread a mentor text your students are already familiar with from the immersion phase of the unit, that is, the first few days of the unit when you introduce the mentor texts with which you’ll be teaching.
→ If possible, give your students a copy of the text, and ask them to mark places where they like the way the writer wrote a part. If that’s not possible – for example, if you’re reading a picture book – project the book onto a screen or SMART board using your document camera, and tell students to be on the lookout for places where they like how the writer (and illustrator) wrote or illustrated something.
Step 3: Students share what they noticed
→ When you’ve finished reading the text, ask your students to read their favorite parts of the text aloud. If they have a copy of the text, they’ll read from that. If you projected the text, ask students to tell you which part to zoom in on so they can read it aloud.
→ As students read, mark on your copy of the text which parts your students enjoyed, as you’ll soon be discussing some of them.
→ Watch the upper grade students share their favorite parts and features of the feature article, “Surprising Saturn,” by Liz Huyck:
Step 4: Students discuss several craft techniques
This is the most important part of whole-class text study, when students have an in-depth discussion of craft techniques they noticed.
- Reread a section of the text a student shared.
- Ask students what they noticed the author did as a writer in this part.
- Support the students as they try to describe what the writer did.
- Ask students to speculate about why the author used the technique.
- Ask students to give the technique a name, so they can remember it.
- Repeat, having students analyze other parts of the text they liked, until students’ energy for the discussion wanes, or the period ends.
Watch the upper grade students discuss one of their favorite parts of “Surprising Saturn”:
You’ll find students will be just as engaged in whole-class text study in the primary grades as they are in the as upper grades. In this video, watch – and enjoy – the conversation first and second graders had about an exclamation mark Gaia Cornwall uses in Jabari Jumps:
If your students are new to whole-class text study, you may run into these issues:
- Students respond as readers to the text, rather than as writers. For example, students may say they liked a part because “it put pictures in their mind.” If this happens, redirect them by saying, “What did you notice the author did as a writer when they wrote this part to put pictures in your mind?”
- Students describe a craft technique very generally. For example, students may say, “This part has a lot of detail.” Nudge students to describe what the writer did more precisely. Say, “So this part has a lot of detail. Say more about that . . .“ You may need to jump in and model how to describe the part yourself, so they can see how a more experienced writer talks about a text.
Step 5: Invite students to try out the craft techniques:
→ Finally, end the study by asking students which of the craft techniques they discussed they’ll try in their own writing.
→ If the idea of reading like a writer is new to your students, on the next day, you could do a mini-lesson in which you demonstrate using one of the techniques the class discussed in your own writing. Seeing you do this also helps students understand the ultimate purpose of studying texts closely as writers.
You’ll find students enjoy whole-class text study and are genuinely interested in discussing what writers do. You’ll also be amazed at your students’ insights into how texts are written – and at how much better their writing gets when they try out what they learn from this study!
For more information about whole-class text study, read Chapter 6 in A Teachers’ Guide to Mentor Texts K-5. The book also gives you access to the complete videos of the primary and upper grades whole-class text studies excerpted in this blog.
Chavez, Felicia Rose.2021. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to
Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Cornwall, Gaia. 2017. Jabari Jumps. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
Huyck, Liz. 2019. “Surprising Saturn.” Ask 18(8): pp. 6–11.
Ray, Katie Wood. 1999. Wondrous Words. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Smith, Frank. 1983. “Reading Like a Writer.” Language Arts 26 (5): 558-67.