Scaffolds for Helping Students Read Like Writers, Part I (Noticing Craft)

Quick Blurb About My Fall Beat

As Rebekah mentioned in her back-to-school series introductory post, each of us will be dedicating a lot of our thinking and writing to a particular “beat” during the fall semester. There may be days we blog outside of our beat simply because another idea or experiment has risen to the surface of our brains or classrooms and we need to write into it. But for the most part, you can look forward to watching particular themes evolve over the next few months.

This fall I hope you’ll join me as I explore scaffolds to help students gain independence in writing. I’m committing to this beat for two reasons. First, one of the most frequently asked questions Rebekah and I encounter when we’re working with teachers is: but how do I make _________________ [insert skill, mentor text, anything!] work for younger students? Or, my students are emerging readers and writers…I want to make_________________ work for them, but how?

Scaffolds can help support writers of all abilities and experiences in challenging and meaningful skill work. Simply put, a scaffold is a technique that leads writers progressively to deeper understanding and independence in writing. Scaffolds eventually come down; what’s left behind is the experienced writer who can draw on her skills without tremendous effort.

Secondly, my interest in slow teaching has created a space for uncovering rather than covering content. For teaching and learning about fewer concepts more deeply rather than plowing through all the material in the world. For spending more time on the really important stuff, and using scaffolds, or independence-building techniques, to support students of all writing abilities and backgrounds in this work.


My Actual Post: Scaffolds for Helping Students Read Like Writers, Part I (Noticing Craft)

Remember those Magic Eye books from elementary school? The ones where, if you looked really closely at the image with your eyes all crisscrossed, a design would pop out at you? Here, try it:

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I used to pride myself on how quickly the image would “pop” for me; I have always spied it in a matter of milliseconds. My mom, on the other hand, would have to hold the book really close to her nose and pull it away as slowly as possible, and then sort of look up and down at the same time, to see the image. And often the image still wouldn’t pop for her.

The experience of seeing the illusion within the puzzle is a lot like reading like a writer. Since we are English teachers who have a natural predilection for the written word, craft just “pops out” at us. We don’t have to contort our eyes or brains or do much of anything to notice a beautiful turn of phrase, an interesting syntactical pattern, or an intentional run-on. Some of our students see these things right away, too, but most of them, especially those who haven’t been exposed to reading like a writer, need a lot of support in this area. Like my mom who found a technique to make the images come alive for her, we must help our students find tools to support the skill of learning to read like a writer.

Reading Like a Writer: Noticing

The protocol I like to share with teachers and students alike is adapted from Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words:


  1. Notice something about the writing.
  2. Give it a name.
  3. Come up with a theory about why the writer did this.
  4. Try it in your own work.

Today’s post will offer scaffolds for the very first step of RLAW — the noticing part; over the next month we’ll explore the other three steps, one step at a time.

As someone who cannot even follow the path of a football on TV, I truly understand what it feels like to not be able to “see” something that everyone else sees. And I have experienced far too many blank stares and Bueller? Bueller? moments to know that simply inviting kids to notice craft in a sentence is not going to work. This is where the scaffolds come in.

A scaffold can be as simple as suggesting to your students what they might see. For instance, I like to remind my kids that “no noticing is too small or unimportant.” When they continue to stare blankly at me, I add, “Let’s start by counting words. How many words in this sentence? What about the next one and the next one? Are they all the same length? Huh, this last sentence is much, much shorter than the first three. That’s interesting.” Or “Is there any punctuation in this sentence that you recognize? Yes, you’re right there’s a comma, and a period, and what’s that? There’s a funny-little-line punctuation mark there too.” Simply suggesting small things your students might be able to see on their own is a type of scaffold, a support you’ll eventually do away with as students become more accustomed to describing sentence length and punctuation on their own.

The point is: Noticing craft is a practiced skill that does not come naturally to most of our students. We have to actually teach them how to see. We have to give them a pair of craft-colored glasses.

5 Scaffolds for Helping Writers See Craft

When teaching students how to see craft, I first offer a simple definition, ditching any lists of craft moves or terminology handouts. Here’s the definition I love:

Craft is the choices a writer makes.

While handouts and lists might be considered a kind of scaffold, they don’t help students see a thing. Reading the word “figurative language” or “diction” in a packet doesn’t help you see those things in writing. Instead, a good scaffold, like an actual tool, will have a student doing something to help them see better.

1. Deconstructed Paragraphs/Word Sort

What it is: Students will sort the words and phrases of a paragraph into groups that make sense to them. These groups may reveal craft moves.

Your materials/prep: Choose a short paragraph rich with craft. Print the paragraph in large, clear font and cut it by into words and phrases. You can prepare an envelope for each student or 4-5 envelopes for small groups to work with. Keep repetitive phrases or parallel phrases together so students can spot them (see picture below). The bigger the “chunks” you leave the easier it will be to spot craft.

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In class: Hand each student an envelope or ask small groups to cluster around envelopes. Tell students,  “Inside this envelope are the words and phrases that make up a paragraph. I want you to explore what’s inside and try to sort what you see in a way that makes sense to you.” Watch what happens. Then talk about it.

What this scaffold may help students see: repetition, parallelism, types of words, interesting word choice, figurative language, parts of speech. Click here for the full sentence.

2. Tracing Structure

What it is: Students will physically trace the paragraphs (or stanzas) of a small piece of writing to better see the shape or format of it.

Your materials/prep: Secure tracing paper or translucent drawing paper through which you can see the text of a piece of writing placed beneath it. Find a compelling mentor text.

In class: Hand each student a mentor text and a piece of tracing paper. Ask them to trace the titles, paragraphs (or stanzas if working with a poem), and sections of the mentor texts until they have a series of shapes (mostly rectangles of different shapes) on their paper. Then ask, “What can you tell me about the rectangles? How many are there? Are they different sizes? Is there a pattern? What else can you tell me?”

What this scaffold may help students see: Paragraph structure; paragraph length; format.

3. Graphing Sentences & Paragraphs

What it is: Students will create a simple line graph showing the lengths of sentences with a paragraph or paragraphs within a longer piece of writing.

Your materials/prep: Secure a sheet or half sheet of graph paper for each student; find a great mentor paragraph (5-10 sentences is great). Create a partial model in advance (see below) that you can add to during class.

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In class: Tell students, “Today we will be doing a little bit of math in class! This math will help us make some observations about a paragraph we’re looking at.” Project or pass out the mentor text you have chosen and say, “You will create a graph showing the different sentence lengths (or paragraph lengths if you’re giving them a full mentor text) of this paragraph. Graphs are another way of showing information; these graphs will help us see our paragraphs in a different way.” Click here for the graphed sentence (Anna Quindlen).

What this scaffold may help students see: Paragraph length; sentence length; paragraph and sentence variety.

4. Literary Mad Libs

What it is: Students will play with Mad Libs that have been created from richly crafted mentor texts chosen by you. Later they will compare their Mad Lib creations to the actual sentences and discuss the differences.

Your materials/prep: Choose a compelling mentor text that is about a half a page long. Create a Mad Lib from this text by removing the juicy nouns, verbs, adjectives and craft choices you want your students to play with.

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Click here for full sentence.

In class: Students know Mad Libs; they’ll know exactly what to do! But you may tell them, “Here is a Mad Lib I created from a mentor passage we’ll be studying together. Have fun playing around with it and trying on different possibilities; when you’ve piece something together that feels complete, we’ll take a look at the original and talk about the differences, your choices and the writer’s.

What this scaffold may help students see: Types of words (adjectives, nouns, verbs); word patterns; repetition; point of view; whatever you choose to “subtract” out of the original sentence.

5. Humpty Dumpty Sentences

What it is: Students will put humpty dumpty or broken mentor sentences back together. As they rebuild the sentence, they will be making craft choices. Where their product differs from the original there will be space for an interesting conversation about craft choices.

Your materials/prep: Find a compelling mentor sentence of a medium to long length (or several if you want different students or groups working with various sentences). Cut it up, word by word, and place contents in an envelope.

In class: Distribute envelopes to students to small groups. Explain that each envelope contains the contents of a sentence and you’d like them to put the sentences back together again in whichever order makes sense to them. Later, you’ll ask them to share their process and why they chose to order the sentence in the way they did.


What this scaffold may help students see: Syntax.

In two weeks, we’ll discuss the next step: naming craft. Once students have played around with these scaffolds for noticing and have begun to “see” some of the craft emerge, how do we talk about it? How do we help build students’ vocabulary around their observations about craft in meaningful, sustainable ways?

I’d love to hear if you try any of these scaffolds with your students. Let me know how they’re working, what tweaks they might need, the progress your students are making!

~ Allison








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