Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Three Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers

Learning to read like a writer is a skill that takes time and practice, but there are some simple scaffolds for moving our writers towards this special way of reading that can help. In this post, I offer three try-it-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas for helping your writers understand how a piece of writing was put together, so they can bring these ideas back to their own work.

Imagine you’re eating at your favorite go-to restaurant, that small table for two in the back corner by the window. You place an order for dinner without the menu. You have been here more times than you care to count. You don’t need a menu!

Now imagine that the head chef at this restaurant has invited you to cook alongside him in the kitchen. You’ve been eating at this restaurant for years — you know the menu like the back of your hand, but as you enter the steaming kitchen, your body seizes up. You know the food by heart, but you don’t know the first thing about making it. “Just watch,” the chef says to you, pushing you into a row of line cooks. He smiles, assuming you’ll be fine since you frequent this restaurant so often. But eating the food and cooking the food are two very different things, and the cooks are moving so quickly. Even though this restaurant has always been dependable in the past, suddenly you find yourself wishing you hadn’t come here tonight.

This analogy is my best attempt to describe how our students might feel when we first introduce the idea of reading like writers. As in the scenario above, our students have been eating at the same restaurant for years: they are experienced readers, and they have been “eating” books and texts like readers for a while. But for these same readers, the concept of reading like writers–or reading to identify writing techniques–is brand new.  It’s hard to “cook up” techniques when you don’t know what to look for.

To grow, young writers must be able to recognize craft in professional writing and bring it back to their own work. But this kind of reading does not come easily. At the end of a year, we still have students who struggle to read a text in this way.

In addition to notebook time invitations, and inviting your students as often as possible to notice craft in a text, here are three simple things you can do in your classroom this week to help your students read like writers and start them on their writing journey:

Use the magical phrase, “Writers of __________…”

At the beginning of a new writing study, in our classrooms, students spend time reading a cluster of mentor texts as writers to get a sense of what the genre looks and sounds like, and to begin making a list of craft moves they can take back to their own writing. One of the benefits of doing this activity on large post-its notes (see below), is that you can invite students to do a Gallery Walk of all the posters. Giant post-its also let teachers see clearly when students (or an individual) are still reading like readers.


In the example above, one student wrote “the girl is fire and a happy part of a tough life.” After talking to him, I discovered that he meant, “The girl is a symbol of fire — the happy part of a tough life.” While this observation is interesting and grounded in the fire imagery of the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto, it’s a r-e-a-d-e-r-l-y noticing. So I used the magical phrase to redirect him.

“Can you rephrase your noticing by completing this phrase: Writers of poetry…?” I asked.

He thought for a minute, then scribbled what you see in yellow at the top of the poster: use people as metaphor

Writers of poetry use people as metaphors. YES!

A different student in this same group observed that the writer was using “lots of words like ‘bright’ and ‘light’ and other happy words.” Since the goal of reading like a writer is to create a list of craft moves that can be taken back to the writer’s work, the observations must be general enough to describe craft in a handful of poems. I asked this student to “think bigger” and complete the magical phrase. His revision can be seen in yellow marker: use similar words for emphasis.

Poets use similar words for emphasis.  YES!

These are just two quick examples that illustrate the power of the magical phrase. Because we have had so much success helping our students read like writers with this phrase, Rebekah and I have started to head all of our noticings materials with it.


Spend more time reading like readers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my goal of helping writers discover possibility in their own writing by  spending more time reading like READERS. In this post, I confessed to getting carried away by mentor texts — to skipping ahead to the what-do-you-notice part of reading without appreciating the ideas of the text first. So I vowed to spend more time lingering on a piece as readers first.

While I knew it would be good for my students’ writing to spend more time discussing the ideas of a piece, I didn’t expect it to simultaneously lift their ability to read like WRITERS. My theory is that when we spend more time reading like readers, we make clear the difference between these two types of reading, strengthening the students’ ability to do both. We clarify and validate the different ways of thinking about a text when we give them equal time.


Prepare an inquiry lesson

One day my lack of preparedness lead to an amazing discovery: the inquiry lesson as a way to help writers read like writers.

I had planned to teach a lesson about repetition in poetry, but had failed to complete my presentation in time. As my students entered the classroom, I panicked and did the only thing I could do: throw something together quickly that I hoped would work (ever done that before??).


I chomped on my finger nails as I walked around the room, nervous to see the results. Since it was only September, I was very worried that my students wouldn’t have had enough practice looking for craft to successfully complete the task…

But then something wonderful happened. A student said, “Can we put our notebooks under the document camera and talk about what we found?”

The first student brought this:


One representative from each table presented their notebook page to discuss the groups’ noticings about repetition. I took notes on their findings and promised the students I would compile them into a mini handout they could glue into their notebooks the next day.

When the class was over, I took a few minutes to reflect on why the lesson had gone well (so much better than I had expected!). My theory is that because I had directed their attention to a specific craft move, and provided questions to frame their inquiry, they were able to tune out the other craft features in the poems and focus their attention on one technique. This scaffolding, coupled with the copious practice they have had in noticing craft in the past month, lead to an important aha moment for them and for me: When given the opportunity, and scaffolding to lean on, students can read like writers as early as September.

(As a side note, wouldn’t this kind of notebook work be helpful as an assingnment prior to teaching a craft lesson?)

As I write this, I wonder if my students are aware of what they were able to do… Since they can read like writers in September, is it possible that they might even see themselves as writers, too?

How do you teach reading like a writer, and how do you help students develop this skill over time? I would love to hear from you @allisonmarchett!

– Allison

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