What Do You Say to Your Writers to Help Them Revise Through the Eyes of Their Readers?

We all have strategies for revision. A strategy such as FARMS – Focus, Add, Remove, Move, Substitute – or abandon a piece of writing to begin a new one is often hard to do!  The students have already invested a good deal of their time in planning and drafting. Of course, it helps when students have been able to choose their own topic, genre, and form as well as have a target audience other than the teacher.  It helps when they have a purpose other than to receive a final (passing) grade.  Choice is always a strong motivator and necessary for engagement.  But even with choice, students often resist revision work after working very hard to create their first draft. Once the words come to life on a page of writing, it is hard to change or remove them.

Here is a collection of responses that teachers in grades K through 12 have used to elicit revision action.  Writers need feedback that helps them communicate a clear message to their readers.  They need to know that their readers may need more/less/different information to understand.  These prompts help writers internalize the kinds of questions and statements that readers might ask. Indeed, writers are writers first and then transitions to the role of being their own first readers.  The teacher queries below are in no particular order.


I’m trying to picture this in my mind. If I were watching this scene, what would I see?

I need to know all the information you just told me so I can see what you saw. Can you go back and write it into your piece?

I’m not sure how this fits. Can you explain?

Tell me more about ________________.

Let me read your piece back to you. Does it sound like the way you remember it?

I am start to get confused when you start telling me about…..

Oh, I think you should say that in the beginning.  That would grab everyone’s attention right away!

Let me tell this back to you as I am understanding it. Then you tell me if I have it right.

What’s giving you trouble in this story? How have you tried to problem solve already? What strategies/craft moves have you tried?

How did you feel when _____________________happened?  It would be interesting to let your readers know what you were feeling.

I feel I need more information about _______________ to understand what you are trying to say.

What do you think you could do to make this piece clearer?

I think if you put an example in here it would help the reader understand.

Did you mean to say that twice?

How does this piece sound to you when you read it aloud? Let me read it to you. How does it sound? Were there any bumpy spots?

What do you want to work on in your next draft of this piece?

What did your peer response partner think when you read it to her?

It sounds like you have two stories (two issues) in this piece. Maybe you could choose the one you want to concentrate on for now and develop it.

This happens to me sometimes when I write, too. Here is something that I’ve tried…. Maybe this could work for you, too.

This piece start out with exciting action and makes me want to read on, but it just seems to end. What could you do to really grab your readers at the end?

Tell me…. what is the one thing you really want to get across to your reader in this piece?

First Revision Strategies for Narratives

slice-of-life2When I talk with writers about revision, I always suggest that they begin by looking at the content to see if they have developed their ideas. Elaboration is key to good writing. Students should practice reading their work aloud with expression and think to themselves: Is there a place in my writing where I said something but could say something more?

Ask students to work with partners. As each writer shares her piece, ask the partner to listen for places where more details/information can be added. Mark these places with small sticky dots or a light pencil mark. Try for two different kinds of elaboration. Here are some suggestions:

Character: Flesh out the individuals in your piece of writing. Select a key feature of the character and develop him/her like a cartoonist or portrait artist would. How do her hands look? How does her mouth work when she smiles or talks? In The Witches, Roald Dahl writes: With each word she (The Grand High Witch) spoke, flecks of pale-blue phlegm shot from her mouth like tiny bullets. (1983, p. 72-73) What about the character’s hair, eyes, clothing?  Close your eyes and try to picture the character in a specific location.

Dialogue: In a narrative, dialogue is a key element. Readers expect that talk will be scattered throughout a story. Let the characters talk instead of telling what they say. Show the character’s personality – what he is thinking and feeling. If your writers are not sure how to punctuate conversation, forget about that for the moment. Ask them to skip a space or indent every time a different character speaks, and concentrate on creating a voice for each character. From The Witches: “You may rreee-moof your vigs!” snarled The Grand High Witch. (1983, p. 69)

Setting the Scene: Look for places in the narrative where places are mentioned but there are no specifics about what those places look like. Add details – use your senses – to develop them in greater detail. Try to create a picture in the reader’s mind. From The Witches by Roald Dahl: At the back of the room there was a large folding screen with Chinese dragons painted on it… I tiptoe to the back of the room and settled myself on the thick green carpet behind the big screen. (1983, p.57)

Looping: (For older writers) Find the best part of your story – the place where you believe everything is working well. Begin writing right at this place. Forget about the other parts.  Spill your words here as quickly as possible. See if your piece wants to continue in that direction. See where your writing takes you, and then decide if it works for you – if you are happy with it.

Write More: What else do you know about this character? Place? Particular story?  Is there a sequel to this story?  Is this piece really two stories?

Great Ways to Begin a Narrative

Slice of Life2One of my favorite things to do in writing workshop is to teach student writers more about writing a great story!  I have always believed that this is something we are born to do – sharing our stories is part of the human experience. A good story starts with a great lead that hooks the reader and draws him right in.

Although some of our young writers find their way with beginnings almost naturally, many do not.  We’ve all read leads that begin with “It was Saturday morning” or “I went to the zoo” or “My name is Sammy and I am going to tell you a story about….”  Our youngest writers can start with a question, a description of weather, or an exclamation.  I like to give them several choices because it’s important to understand that every kind of lead does not fit every story. If you have a toolkit of craft moves for leads, then you can choose which lead is a good fit for the particular story you are currently drafting.

The following leads were built around a topic I can write about – dogs!  When I work in classrooms, I like to make posters with these leads and add photos of my Welsh Corgis to dress it up.

  1. Start by asking the reader a question. Have you ever seen a dog that likes to eat asparagus and broccoli?
  2. Start out with someone talking. “Hey, Mom, Merri is cleaning up the kitchen floor for you.”
  3. Start with a metaphor. Whenever we have a party, my Welsh Corgi Rhonda is Mom’s best vacuum cleaner.
  4. Start out with an exclamation. “Grab Memphis before he runs after that rabbit!”
  5. Start with a controversial opinion. I think dogs are a big help around the house. My mom does not agree.
  6. Start with a description of weather. It was a snowy December day, cold and dreary, when Merri arrived to warm my heart.
  7. Start with an action. When Dad placed the puppy in my arms, my heart melted.
  8. Start out by making your reader wonder about your topic. My dog Rhonda is a big help to Mom.

Be sure to collect leads from mentor texts and from your students. It’s a great way to honor someone’s writing. Students can nominate a peer’s lead sentence or paragraph for “Lead of the Day” or “Lead of the Week” and copy on sentence strips to post on a display board with the author’s name. This practice is a great way to celebrate your student writers, especially those who are slow to finish and do not always get work posted first.


Wordless Books for Summer Reading & Writing

slice-of-life2The practice of reading aloud is widely acknowledged to be key to literacy development and both oral and written communication skills. But many parents overlook the benefits of wordless (or almost wordless) picture books.  In wordless books, the story emerges through the illustrations rather than the words on the page. This practice gives children the freedom to become more involved in the storytelling process.  They choose names for the characters, focus on particular details in the pictures, or relate the story to their own lives. In the study conducted by University of Waterloo in Canada, twenty-five mothers were given one book with words and one without to read to their toddlers. The study found that the mothers used more complex language when reading the book without words, describing objects and relating them to real life experiences rather than just naming them.

Ball for DaisyAnd wordless books are not just for toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarten children. When I first had my own class, I used David Weisner’s Tuesday to offer my fourth grade students another choice for writing. Many of them chose to write their own story for this incredibly captivating book about flying frogs with a surprise (or maybe, not such a surprise after reading Weisner’s book) ending.

Later, when Diane Dougherty and I were writing Grammar Matters; Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6, we chose to return to wordless books to inspire our narrative units of study in both primary and intermediate grades. I again used Tuesday to create a shared writing experience for both first and second grade classes and Night at the Fair with a kindergarten EL class. The students loved writing stories for wordless books, and often continued to collaborate or write individually. Some students wrote a sequel (for Tuesday, they wrote about the night of the flying pigs!)

In Grammar Matters we write advice that can be usefl to both teachers and parents:

Time Flies“Wordless books are motivating choices for younger and older students. The pictures will help your struggling writers and nonwriers (students who can write but choose not to write) to invent narratives that help them feel successful as writers. We suggest beginning with a read aloud. In this case, the students (or your child) will read the pictures with you. ‘Reread’ the book by asking questions as you turn the pages. You might want to pay attention to the story grammar – in other words, who are the characters, where and when did the story take place, what is the problem or conflict, and how is it resolved?”

The thing about wordless picture books – there are many ways to write the story.  To model this at home or in the classroom, return to your mentor texts and tell the story in different ways. If there is more than one character in the book, tell the story from different perspectives or in the first person and again in the third person voice. You can make up a different story every time. That helps students (or your children) know that there is not one correct way to write a story for a wordless book and gives them choice – so important for writers of any ages!

Bibliography of Wordless BooksWave

Baker, Jeannie. 2004. Home. NY: Greenwillow Books.

_________       2010. Mirror. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Banyai, Istvan. 1995. Zoom. NY: Puffin Books.

Becker, Aaron. 2013. Journey. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Boyd, Lizzy. 2013. Inside Outside. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Briggs, Raymond. 1986. The Snowman. NY: Random House.

Catalanatto, Peter. 1993. Dylan’s Day Out. NY: Scholastic.

Cole, Henry. 2012. Unspoken: A Story for the Underground Railroad. NY: Scholastic.

Crews, Donald. 1998. Night at the Fair. NY: Greenwillow Books.

______________. 1990. Truck. NY: Greenwillow Books.

Day, Alexandra. 1989. Carl Goes Shopping. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Day, Alexandra. 1991. Good Dog Carl. NY: Simon and Schuster.

de Paola, Tomie. 1981. The Hunter and the Animals. NY: Holiday House.

________      1978. Pancakes for Breakfast. NY: Voyager Books.

Frazier, Craig. 2011. Bee and Bird. NY: Roaring Book Press.

Idle, Molly. 2013. Flora Flamingo. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Keats, Ezra Jack. 1999. Clementina’s Cactus. NY: Viking.

Lee, Suzy. 2008. Wave. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Lehman, Barbara. 2004. The Red Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

________      2008. Trainstop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

McCully, Emily Arnold. 2007. Four Hungry Kittens. NY: Penguin.

Miyares, Dolores. Float. 2015. NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Newgarden, Mark and Megan M. Cash. 2007. Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug. NY: Harcourt, Inc.

Pett, Mark. 2013.  The Boy and the Airplane. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Pinkney, Jerry. 2009. The Lion and the Mouse. NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Raschka, Chris. 2011. A Ball for Daisy. NY: Schwartz and Wade.

Raschka, Chris. 1993. Yo! Yes! NY: Scholastic.

Rogers, Gregory. 2004. The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, The Bard. NY: Roaring Brook.

Rohmann, Eric. 1997. Time Flies. NY: Dragonfly Books.

Rothmann, Peggy. 2002. Good Night, Gorilla. NY: Putnam.

Staake, Bob. 2013. Bluebird. NY: Schwartz and Wade Books.

Tan, Shaun. 2007. The Arrival. Melbourne, Australia: Lothian Books.

Weisner, David.  2006. Flotsam. NY: Houghton, Mifflin.

Weisner, David. 1992. June 9, 1999. NY: Houghton, Mifflin.

Weisner, David. 2013. Mr. Wuffles. NY: Houghton, Mifflin.

Weisner, David. 1999. Sector 7. NY: Houghton, Mifflin.

Wiesner, David. Tuesday. 1991. NY: Clarion Books.

Boston Treasure

Slice of Life2We left Friday morning for a relaxing weekend in Boston. My husband did an amazing job of driving for the entire trip. Diane and Joe Dougherty and I could set back and relax.  Joe served as the navigator (along with the GPS) and Diane and I took in the scenery.  Spring is such a lovely time of the year to travel.  A town filled with so many things to do, we had choices to make before we arrived in Boston.  It was decided we would spend Saturday morning at the John F. Kennedy Library and the afternoon at the Isabella Gardner Museum. This was not my first trip to Boston (and will certainly not be my last), but in all my visits to the Boston area, I had hoped to visit the Isabella Gardner Museum. Finally, I got my wish!

The trip really was planned around visits with friends. Patty and Ed moved outside of Boston when Ed was hired by a local newspaper. I didn’t want our friendship to evaporate over time – not that we wouldn’t always be friends – but relationships have a bad habit of slipping away if you do not keep track of them!  Patty has a new dog named Bentley – an adorable snow-white Maltese – to keep her company while Ed is at work.  The Maltese has been a lap dog to royalty for centuries.  Bentley has silky hair and loves to be pampered, cuddled and held. Patty brought him along in a tote bag when we visited the Kennedy Library. No one said a thing when Ed and Patty walked in with the dog. He never barked. Never! Not once! As long as Patty or Ed carried him, he was content.  Wow!  If I had tried that with either of my Corgis, we would have been escorted out of the museum in a New York minute! My dogs bark all the time – they are recreational barkers and love to talk!

The Kennedy Library was so interesting – we were reliving history – and that made everyone both happy and sad. Kennedy was so eloquent. He had a way of making everyone feel proud to be Americans. He gave us a mission – a job to do – and we were all in this together for the long haul. I couldn’t help feel a chill or two when I thought about the reality of what is going on in our country right now and all over the world.  We spent some solemn moments in front of a piece of the Berlin wall. “Ich bin ein Berliner” echoing in our minds.

Saturday afternoon was a real treat!  We met Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan and their husbands, Chris and George, to tour the Isabella Gardner Museum. It was wonderful to see them all again and be in such a magical, mystical place.  The museum is a living work of art – the gardens are so beautiful and central to the design of the building. So much to see! The fabrics as wallpaper, the intricate wooden doors, charming desks, postcards and letters from the famous – we read a letter written to Gardner from T.S. Eliot.  The artwork on the walls – everything, actually – is exactly where Isabella Gardner wanted it to be. I will definitely go again!

And then, some bocce ball and a delicious dinner at Limoncello’s – a restaurant in the North End – right next to Paul Revere’s home!  We had a chance to talk on our walk to the bocce ball court, to the restaurant, and back to the cars. Clare, Chris, Tammy, and George are such great people!  I realized how much I loved spending time with them. I actually felt….peaceful – like I was with my tribe – like I belonged. I knew this would not be the last trip to Boston. Oh, yes. The town is wonderful. But it’s the friendships that will pull us back again and again. We hope they have a chance to visit us here in Philly. Clare said she would love to see Longwood Gardens – the place Rose Cappelli often talks about on Slice.  Oh, and the Brandywine River Museum, and Chanticleer Gardens and Gallery, and dinner at the Gables or the Dilworthtown Inn.   Yes!  And of course, reunions at ILA and NCTE.

We met Patty and Ed for lunch at La Voile on Newberry Street. What fun!  I came home with two very expensive bottles of balsamic vinegrette and lots of great memories. There are many treasures in Boston, but the most precious treasures are the friendships!