I started a new book the other day, and as I settled into it, it felt like I was returning to an old friend even though I’d never read it before. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but as I kept reading, I realized that it felt very much like another book I’d read and loved. The content wasn’t all that similar, and the books were written by different authors, but there was something about it that felt like the narrators of the books might be friends or belong in the same fictional universe somewhere. In this case, I identified that it was their voice that made the connection for me.
Analyzing voice in writing can be a tricky concept to teach, but, making connections like these is something that readers do in authentic reading lives, so that got me thinking about instructional moves that might support readers and writers in doing both.
Step 1: Gather some excerpts where you might be able to draw similarities between the voices. Note that these are fiction, but nonfiction would work well, too. For these excerpts, I tried to choose parts where the voice shines through but that aren’t super content heavy. It can be hard for kids to focus on the how rather than the what a text is saying, so I tried to make the excerpts as content neutral as possible. For example, I don’t want them to be distracted by the fact that two of the excerpts have characters that are supernatural (trolls, ogres, sprites, etc.), so I chose sections that didn’t include those kinds of markers. This is obviously impossible to do completely, so I see content neutral as being a little bit of a continuum itself.
I could tell right away that ROYO Video was a different kind of store than Blockbuster. I mean, yeah, there were shelves of VHS boxes, movie posters plastered to the walls, racks of candy, and a Coke fridge – your basic video store staples – but it had a different vibe. More hometown, less corporation, I guess.
(Baby and Solo, Lisabeth Posthuma)
Ms. Jenkins reached his desk, her mouth a thin line. As was her wont, she appeared to have applied her makeup rather liberally in the dark without the benefit of a mirror. The heavy rouge on her cheeks was magenta, and her lipstick looked like blood. She wore a black pantsuit, the buttons of which were closed all the way up to just under her chin. She was as thin as a dream, made up of sharp bones covered in skin stretched too tightly.
(The House in the Cerulean Sea, T.J. Klune)
Why was he so bad at this? Norris wanted to apologize, but he also felt as though Liam had gotten too close, grabbed his hand, and shoved it deep into his guts. This was all way too close for comfort.
(The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe)
He told me this while ripping through his duffel bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a T-shirt drawer. He believed that all drawers were created equal and filled each with whatever fit. My mother would have died.
(Looking for Alaska, John Green)
There is an actual stone in Stone-in-the-Glen, which is situated at the center of what once was an actual glen. The glen, once upon a time, before the town was built, was thick with trees. Mostly oak and ash and sycamore. Ancient things, they were, and so numerous you couldn’t see past the wide trunks and sprawling branches.
(The Ogress and the Orphans, Kelly Barnhill)
Step 2: Ask students to match or group. This could be done through an inquiry question like one of the following:
Which of the following texts have voices that sound similar?
If you had to make categories to describe the voice of these texts’ narrators, what would they be? How might you label each category?
I think it’s also important to note that there may not be one correct answer key, here, either. Because you’re dealing with smaller excerpts rather than voice throughout an overall text, it’s possible that there may be more than one “right” way to sort excerpts. In the above samples, I would have connected Baby & Solo, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, and Looking for Alaska in one group and The Ogress and the Orphans and The House in the Cerulean Sea being another.
Step 3: Invite students to analyze how they made these connections. What was it about how the passage was written that helped them to describe the voice? I like to let their observations drive the analysis, but it’s often helpful to me to have a couple of broad ideas in mind of where the analysis might go. This might include:
- Word choice: How does the author’s word choice help you to get a better sense of the personality of the text’s voice? Are they using contemporary, casual words or a vocabulary that evokes another time or place?
- Sentence construction: There’s endless opportunity for authentic grammar analysis here. In the excerpt from The House in the Cerulean Sea above, nearly all of the sentences are made up of a combination of multiple clauses. What affect does that have on the voice and the feeling of the text? Compare and contrast the comma usage in the the excerpts from Baby & Solo and The Ogress and The Orphans. Both use commas in longer, more complex sentences. How do their commas function differently and how might this affect the voice of the text?
- Paragraph construction: What’s the rhythm of the paragraph? Is it made up of a few long and flowing sentences? Does it feel more staccato with several short, quick sentences?
- Narration and Tense: Extend the typical identification of first, second, or third person narrators and past and present tense to analyze how the narration affects voice. When does it feel like the reader is closest to the story? Why? How does the author make the readers’ connection feel like they’re invited in vs. dropped into a story vs. kept at arms’ length?
These are three steps that broadly align with a mentor text approach to teaching reading analysis and writing. They could be taught straight through in one lesson or broken up into smaller parts spread across multiple days. What’s most important is that they situate the concepts of analysis and voice into authentic purposes so that students can transfer their learning into their own reading and writing lives.
When have you made connections between voice in texts? What was it about the writing that helped you to make those connections? I’d love to connect more with you in the comments below or on Twitter @megankortlandt.
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