Scaffolds for Helping Students Read Like Writer, Part III (Theorizing about Craft)

(Before diving in to today’s post, be sure to read the first and second posts in this four-post series about noticing and naming craft.)

As we move deeper into the process of reading like a writer, we climb higher and higher on Bloom’s pyramid. After we notice and name craft, it’s time to consider why the author is using a particular move. This is analysis.

Analysis is the reason many of us became teachers. To linger over language and then pull it apart, parsing the author’s intentions and the deeper meaning of a text.

But for many of our students, analysis is the reason to dodge English class. It’s where they can hit some major stumbling blocks. Analysis is challenging; it requires the kind of deeper level thinking we expect students to be able to do even though they haven’t necessarily been taught how or afforded opportunities to practice.

So how can we support our students in considering author craft in a way that expands their curiosity about a text, and ultimately about themselves as readers and writers, rather than squelching it?

Scaffolds for Helping Students Theorize

1. Model, model, model. 

Modeling–getting on on a student’s level and showing her how to do something by thinking aloud, or writing down our thinking–will always be one of the best instructional tools we have. Certainly for a challenging and nuanced skill like analysis, showing our students what’s happening in our brains as we think about the deeper significance of a well crafted piece of writing is incredibly helpful. Modeling takes little effort and can be done with little preparation. In fact, some of the more powerful modeling moments are those done on the fly as they represent the real, raw process of grappling with a text. Here’s a little excerpt from The Girl on the Train that makes for a wonderful modeling text. It’s craft-rich from the first word to the last period and makes for a really interesting conversation:

I know this house by heart. I know every brick, I know the colour of the curtains in the upstairs bedroom (beige, with a dark-blue print), I know that the paint is peeling off the bathroom window frame and that there are four tiles missing from a section of the roof on the right-hand side.

Can you imagine yourself doing a think aloud with students to consider why Paula Hawkins has embedded some of the craft you’ve noticed into this passage? You might start by saying…

So, together we noticed the repetition of the phrase “I know.” We see it four times in this short passage. The narrator is really laboring on this point. Her knowledge of the house. How she knows it like the back of her hand. Since I’ve read the book, I know that she is not describing a house she lives in, but someone else’s house, and the repetition of the phrase “I know”, combined with the “tiny details” we’ve noticed — the peeling paint, the four missing tiles, the particular beige patterned print of the curtains — makes her sound obsessive. It’s like the author is really driving home her obsession, her infatuation with this house by repeating the phrase “I know” in this rhythmic, almost creepy way.

2. Connect noticings and theories in a helpful organizer.

During my summer at the writing project, I took home many gifts to enhance my practice and see my teaching with fresh eyes. One of those gifts was a chart that helped students connect the craft they were studying across texts. The chart has evolved over the years, but the original looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 5.53.01 AM

In next week’s text, we’ll zoom in on the last two boxes–another place I have seen this craft and a place I might be able to use it–but for now, consider how a chart like this that helps students track craft moves within texts and across texts might help them organize their thinking. Another option is to put the “sentence/passage I’m studying” box at the very top of the organizer, so students are able to track multiple moves across a short text without recopying it over and over again. Often I’ll give students a small, typed passage to glue here so they don’t have to handwrite it (although writing it out often helps student hone in on craft!).

3. Encourage students to make CRAZY theories or create ideas that no one has ever thought of.

Students are afraid of being wrong, especially when it comes to the author’s intentions. How can we really know what the author was thinking? Sometimes encouraging and rewarding them for sharing big, bold, crazy, never-been-said before ideas helps ignite their creative thinking. Consider the passage above from The Girl on the Train. A student who has never read the book before may still sense the obsession behind the narrator’s words. When encouraged to create a crazy theory for this repetition, he might say, “The writer uses the repetition to show that the narrator is a psychopath. She’s crazy! She’s going to burn the house down or something!” What’s awesome about crazy theories, is there’s usually some truth behind them. Some real smart. And even when there’s not, encouraging crazy in your thinking helps students push past the surface, enabling them to explore possibility.

Consider putting students in small groups for this make-a-crazy-theory game. After the crazy theories come out, you can test them. If the passage you’re studying comes from a novel, consider the novel as a whole. Does this theory add up? Does it make sense in the context of the whole novel? If not, how might we tweak it so it fits?

4. See what the absence of craft might reveal.

See craft work with fresh eyes by removing it. Here’s what the passage from The Girl on the Train looks like without the repetition craft feature:

There’s a house in the neighborhood with curtains in the upstairs bedroom (beige, with a dark-blue print). The paint is peeling off the bathroom window frame, and there are four tiles missing from a section of the roof on the right-hand side.

With the repetitive phrase removed, the passage reads more like a casual description of a neighborhood house (although the details in parentheses–why parentheses??–is still curious and wants to be noticed and talked about) rather than an obsessive monologue. Consider giving your students a 2-column handout with this doctored up passage on the left and the original on the right. Have them look at the left-hand side first and discuss; then the right. How are they different? How are they the same? How does the absence of this craft help us understand the author’s intentions?

5. Visualize the craft.

One of my favorite instructional texts is Harry Noden’s Image Grammar in which he compares craft moves to “brush strokes” that add texture and color to a piece of writing. Consider having your students draw or paint craft-rich scenes. They’ll have to return to the text over and over again to see the brushstrokes and find the draw-able details. Next have them label their pictures with the words from the original passage. Finally have them think about what the process of illustrating craft reveals about the author’s intensions.

When you move slowly and deliberately through the steps of Reading Like a Writer with your students, you give them so, so much more than a bunch of terms to memorize and label their reading with. Students who are grounded in this kind of reading, are in a posture of reading to write, of seeing the brush strokes of other writers as possibilities for their own masterpieces.

What are some other ways we can help students analyze the craft moves of writers? How can we move students past easy phrases like “the author is trying to emphasize his idea or “the author is trying to create a movie in my mind”? Connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or on our Moving Writers Facebook group–I’ve love to hear about what you’re doing!






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