3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject.

So now, I’ve moved our voice and tone lessons up to the beginning of the writing process, just after we’ve developed some brainstorming, by asking ourselves some critical questions:

  • How do you feel about what you want to write about?
  • Who needs to hear about it? Why?
  • How do you want them to feel about your subject?
  • What do you know about them and how you can get them to feel the way you want them to feel?

2. Use mini-mentors to analyze tone

The concepts of voice and tone can be pretty abstract for young writers, so I think it’s important to immerse them in mentor texts so that they can see for themselves. We can always analyze an author’s voice and tone in depth with one of our touchstone mentor texts, but there’s a lot of value in showing students a wide range of tone up front, so I like to make mini-mentor stations.

To do this, I collect a few articles that display a range of tones from professional writers, then I cut out just enough of an excerpt for readers to be able to get the idea and not get lost in the content of the article. I ask students to work in groups to answer the questions “How would you describe the author’s attitude toward her subject? Her audience?”

FullSizeRender(1)As they determine these descriptors, they should underline and mark up the words/phrases that helped them to come to this conclusion. Each group lingers with each mini-mentor for just a few minutes before they switch to the next station. This way, by the end of a 15-20 minute lesson, they’ve analyzed several different pieces of writing and have a deeper schema to bring back to thinking about how this might apply to their own writing topics.

3. Support academic language by first engaging everyone in discussion

The mini-mentor stations are powerful because every student is able to engage. Where I’ve found some students tend to struggle, though, is with the vocabulary associated with identifying tone. When they read a mini-mentor, almost all students are hearing the tone, but some of them have trouble putting a word to it. In the last round of this lesson, I heard some of the following student observations as they grappled with trying to describe the tone:

“It’s like, I can almost hear her smacking her lips and rolling her eyes.”

“I feel like he’s, you know, he’s… it’s like he’s just done. He ain’t havin’ it.”

There was a lot of head-nodding to these as others in the group struggled to communicate these ideas. Then I had another lightbulb moment. These kids know tone. They use it every day when they text. So, I asked them to get out their phones and decide which emoji best represented the author’s tone.

emoji example
image via emojipedia.org

Bam. That did it. They had no trouble communicating and identifying tone, then. And there were even some really great debates between if a particular text should get an eye-roll or a side-eye.

Then, once they were finishing up their conversations, I was able to layer in a quick vocab lesson in a way that was relevant and would stick. As they shared their findings, I helped them find words to associate with their emojis. For example, we talked about the difference between being sarcastic or cynical. We even started an emoji word bank in our notebooks.

Asking students to use emojis before we layered in the vocab opened up an entry point for every student to be a part of the discussion. Their analyses were incredibly high-level and engaged, and once they were ready, they were able to start using more academic vocabulary.

How do you teach students about the complex concepts of tone and voice? How do you engage them in these conversations? I’d love to hear from you. Find me on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan


  1. Hello! Just read your blog post. Would you be willing to share what pieces you used for mini-mentor stations? I love this idea!

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  3. For a fun look at tonal differences, have students listen to “Remember Me” (from the movie “Coco”), examining the two different ways the song is sung and how the meaning changes.

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