Where’s Memphis? Or It was a Dark and Stormy Night

Lightning, clear-veined and jagged, cut through the moonless sky as rolls of thunder cracked in the air surrounding the house. It would be hard to drag Memphis outside to do his business, but the girls would gladly go. I sighed. Two trips tonight. I’d take Merri and Rhonda, and then come back for my stubborn male Corgi who hated rain but loved snow.

As we walked off the porch and into the backyard, rain began to fall in thick sheets – curtains of relentless rain. It seemed as if someone had slit the sky ceiling, allowing rain to pour down so hard and fast that we were instantly drenched. Why hadn’t I thought to bring an umbrella along? Late summer birthed storms that were unpredictable and sometimes wild. It was too late now to turn back for an umbrella or rain slicker. I slogged on in silence. Walking in rain is not my idea of fun.

The backyard quickly turned into tiny rivulets and muddy slopes. A pool of water formed between the two silver maples, It was going to be a bad storm. I cast a quick glance toward Sandy Run Creek. Although I could not see it, I was almost certain I could hear it, gurgling and slurping its way through the park,  churning and gushing beneath the old bridge on Limekiln Pike,  rushing and roaring its way through the golf course.

It had been raining almost every day since September had started. The creek was running higher than normal. It wouldn’t take much more for it to overflow its banks. I shivered more from fear than the cold. I had already lost a car to a flash flood. The creek was a little too close for comfort, even though I had never even had water in my basement. But this storm was different…

I trotted the dogs back to the house and grabbed towels to dry them off before they sent water everywhere. Then I called for Memphis. Where was that dog?  I called again and again as I walked through the house. Nowhere to be found.  I raced up the stairs, looking in each room and even under the beds. Then I panicked. Did he go out the door unnoticed as I took the girls into the backyard?  Memphis was a tri-colored Corgi, mostly back. Maybe I didn’t see him follow us.

With my heart hammering in my chest, I flew down the steps, into the kitchen and into the utility room to grab a flashlight, once again forgetting to nab an umbrella. As I darted past the downstairs bathroom, I stopped and backed up. Could it be….? And there he was, my Memphis, wedged behind the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. Obviously, he was preparing for a hurricane or tornado. No amount of coaxing would get him to budge – not even dog biscuits. Memphis was terrorized by the crackling and booming.

Finally, sometime after midnight, I was able to retrieve Memphis and cuddle him in my arms.  And then I thought of Snoopy in the Charlie Brown comic strip: “It was a dark and stormy night…”  I had a story to share with the fifth grade students tomorrow. I thought they would like it.



Have You Tried Writing Flash Fiction Yet?

The challenge of flash fiction is to tell a complete story in which every word is essential, to revise until you’re left with nothing but the core of a story. Flash fiction has been called by many other names including:  short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction. In France these writings are called nouvelles.  In China this type of writing has appropriate  names: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story.

  • Is there a definable plot? Do you have a clear beginning? A strong centerpiece? A definitive ending?
  • Does your story make its point and drive it home, hard? Most flash fiction stories, due to their abrupt beginnings and sudden endings, leave the reader breathless when finished.
  • Is every word absolutely essential to the story? Or have you left unnecessary sentences or some unneeded descriptives?  Make the most of the space you have!

Purists insist that it is a complete story told in less than 75 words; others say 100 words should be the maximum. Many flash fiction writers consider anything under 1,000 words as flash-worthy.  There are even a few who stretch their limits to 1,500 words. Today, I have attempted 369 – a set of three 69-word stories sharing a common subject.  This is my favorite structure for flash fiction. As you will see, I wrote about my dad and hints of growing up Jewish.

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The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: The Your Turn Lesson

The Your Turn lesson is a solid plan for whole group instruction. Following the gradual release of responsibility model put forth by Lev Vygotsky, the sequence of instruction moves methodically and meaningfully from teacher control to student independence. Regie Routman talks about the Optimal Learning Model in her book, Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results While Simplifying Teaching. Margaret Mooney talked about the “I Do, We Do, You Do” model of instruction. The gradual release model is an example of explicit instruction, noted for its effectiveness by researchers such as Robert Marzano.

I Do: Tell students what they need to know and show them how to do the things that they need to be able to do by modeling. Research confirms that this is an essential component of an effective and efficient learning process. This is where the teacher has control and can involve many strategies including informing, explaining, modeling with your writing, and providing examples from the literature and student samples.

WE Do: We work together, often as a whole group at first, and then again, in small groups as needed.  In writing workshop, creating a shared writing experience that you can return to for revision and editing work is often the key to students’ future success.

YOU Do: Here, student writers independently practice what you have already taught them. The  practice within the context of their own drafts will help students retain the new strategy or craft move and become fluent with what they must be able to do. It is important to see the tracks of your teaching in your students’ writing. If they are not trying it out independently, they most probably will not remember it or apply it in future writing. Of course, it is important that you offer feedback along the way through roving conferences, one-on-one conferences, and end-of-workshop whole group reflection.

A gradual release model allows the teacher to engage with students more effectively because their students become proficient with essential components of writing workshop. The gradual release provides demonstration – a teacher modeling (writing) in front of her students – to immerse writers in new concepts before they approximate the learning. Then, this lesson design establishes a clear sense of ownership as students write independently and share their thinking with others in the final reflection. Throughout the gradual release, a variety of voices are heard for discussing new learning in kid-friendly talk that makes use of the nomenclature of writers. The Your Turn lesson helps to maintain a writing community as students notice and appropriate the problem-solving strategies and techniques of their peers.

Your Turn Lesson: Punctuation to Make the Message Clear

Hook:  Share Punctuation Takes a Vacation by Robin Pulver or Yo! Yes?  by Chris Raschka.

Brainstorm: Students log their thinking/realizations into their writer’s notebooks.

Purpose: Writers, I’ve noticed the ways you have been using punctuation in your writing pieces to make you message clear.  I’ve also sometimes been confused and unsure of your intended meaning because punctuation was missing. Today we are going to study punctuation in our own writing and with mentor texts in order to share some insights – what we’ve discovered about how punctuation helps us be more effective writers.

Model: Ask students to examine a paragraph from a piece of your own writing or use a student sample with permission from the author.

Lynne’s example from her narrative Around the World:

I watched Mick talking with Stuart’s parents in hushed tones.  He probably was explaining that we couldn’t help Stuart here.  But then I saw them walking toward me, and I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach and settle there.  Mick was introducing me, but I was only catching a word here or there.  “…is studying to be a teacher…starts all the beginners…trust her with my own kids.” Then I was weakly shaking hands with them and leading them back to the barn to meet O’ Henry, a faithful friend who had helped me start many “up-downers” to post to the trot and learn how to canter.  As I reached for the saddle and bridle, I noticed that my hands had begun to sweat.  This wasn’t going to be easy; as a matter of fact, it was going to be downright painful.

Students can jot and turn and talk with each other. What are they noticing about the punctuation you use in your example?  Create an anchor chart with their noticings. What don’t they talk about?  You may make a note for future mini-lessons or decide you have a teachable moment. Ask students to read your sentences silently and aloud.

In Lynne’s example for a fifth grade class, the students noticed the use of an apostrophe to show ownership, apostrophes in contractions, a comma before a coordinating conjunction, a comma to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause in a complex sentence, periods as end punctuation, ellipses to show that words were omitted, and quotation marks to indicate words spoken aloud. The students had questions about the quotation marks around the word up-downers, and no one mentioned the use of a semi-colon (perhaps a future mini-lesson).

Together with your students, talk about how the punctuation helps the reader understand the passage and make the author’s intended meaning clear, rhythmical, and easy to understand

***For primary grades K-2, create an appropriate model and limit the noticings to one convention such as apostrophe use or end punctuation.

Shared/Guided Writing:
Students hunt through their writer’s notebook to find several examples of how they have used punctuation to help make their meaning clear.  Students turn and talk, sharing their findings with a partner. Ask some student partners to share in whole group. Post some examples on an anchor chart and label. Ask partners to initial their example on the chart.

The next day, pair students to do punctuation research with books they are reading independently, mentor texts shared as read alouds, and a set of books written by a favorite author.  You could also encourage them to use textbooks as well as articles from magazines such as National Geographic Kids, Scholastic News, or NEWSELA Elementary. During sharing time, partners demonstrate what  they’ve discovered and how they have documented their learning.

Independent Writing:
Students use the punctuation they’ve been researching and talking about in their own writing to make their message clear. Students should be ready to share something they’ve tried as a result of their study in a final reflection.

Optional: Pairs can plan to teach a mini-lesson to the whole group or a small group conference. List the “punctuation experts” on a special bulletin board where it can be viewed by all.


  • Think about punctuation. What were you already doing in your writer’s notebook and drafts?
  • What did you discover/learn that you will try in future drafts?
  • Did you discover that your mentor author liked to use a particular convention (parentheses, dashes, ellipses, etc.) – you noticed this convention in different books?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • Did you come across a sentence that was difficult to punctuate? How did you problem solve?
  • What did you learn about punctuation  that you could teach to someone else?

Writer’s Notebook Ideas

The best place to become and grSlice of Life2ow as a writer is the writer’s notebook. It’s a safe place to try out new craft, to experiment, have fun, and keep ideas safe and warm. Your notebook is like a garden that changes color, patterns, and fragrances from spring to fall. Even in winter, your garden has hidden potential and takes on a quiet, peaceful beauty.  Here are a few ideas, with a nod to Ralph Fletcher, Linda Rief, and Aimee Buckner, to get you started and to help you maintain a writerly life.

Unforgettable Stories:  What moves you? Whenever you hear a story that stirs something inside you, write.

Writing Small: Jot down the important, telling details you notice or hear. Use your senses. Crack open the general words you might use by providing specific examples or an explanation.

Lifting a Line: Think about a favorite song or poem.  Pick out the line that really stays with you.  Copy it into your notebook and start to write from there.

Artifact Writing:  Write about an object around the house. It can be a picture, a piece of original artwork, a ticket stub, or a candy wrapper. Think about the item and why it is important to you. Glue the item into your notebook (if possible –  or take a picture of it) and write.

Mind Pictures: Use your five senses to absorb your environment. Divide a page into five blocks and label with the senses. In the present moment, try to fill up the blocks with what is happening around you.

Snatches of Talk: Fill up some pages of notebook with dialogue, the way people say things, pronounce and emphasize words, and repeat themselves.

Write from Another Point of View: Try writing from a different point of view than your own.  Think about the people you know really well. What would they have to say about this topic?

Fierce Wonderings: Write about what you wonder about. Pay attentions to what haunts you, what images or memories keep running around in your mind, even when you try not to think of them.

Lists:  Keep lists of different kinds of leads, words that are unique, sounds and smells of the holidays, strong verbs, spring things, pet peeves, accomplishments, favorite books, similes and metaphors, goals, poems about words, etc. Writers keep lists!

Writing that Scrapes the Heart: Do not hold back. Write about things that you keep close to you – family secrets, feelings, things that sometimes may be too personal to share.

Writing that Inspires: Use your notebook to collect lines, quotes, and passages that inspire you. Use these lines to write about your thoughts and feelings or to imitate – walking around in the syntax of the author.

Writing Off a Word: Put one word at the top of the page and allow yourself to freewrtie off that word.

Memories: Memories are a writer’s most important possession. Try to capture each memory as honestly and accurately as possible. Jot it down before it’s forgotten. To recover a memory, try writing in the present tense and describe the setting connected with the memory.

Writing in the First or Second Person Voice: Temporarily adopt another voice and try it on for size. Take on the voice of a polar bear, your pet cat or dog, or a character in a beloved book such as August Pullman in Palacio’s Wonder. Experimenting with different literary styles and techniques help us develop our own voice.

I love to write ideas down in different colored pens and watch the words spill onto a notebook page.  It’s both comforting and energizing to watch the flow from brain to hand to pen to page!  I use my notebook to write about people, places, and objects that I love or that I find unique in some way. My notebook is filled with snapshots of friends, relatives, and pets.  Rich descriptions of Long Beach Island, the Poconos, my grandma’s house, the stables, and my East Mt. Airy neighborhood are some of my favorite entries.

My notebook is always a place to store lists.  For example, after reading Names for Snow by Judi K. Beach I had the urge to brainstorm a list of names for autumn.  I came up with names such as Leaf Dropper, Best Dressed Gal, and Masquerader.   I love making lists because they often help me find a topic I want to write about or research.  My notebook is a place for memory chains, my heart and hand map, and my neighborhood map.  I put photos, ticket stubs, and clips from magazines and newspapers that will serve as memory joggers or topics I want to explore.  A running theme in all my notebooks is my grandfather, Alexander William Sulima.  I have so many snippets about all the things he taught me to do and to appreciate.

Finally, I use my notebook to study the work of other authors.  I explore their writing using the advice of Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.  Mentor texts are imitated here before I use them in classroom communities where I write for and with talented, youNotebook 3ng writers.  I could not imagine a writer’s workshop without the notebook as a central part of how writers live their daily lives.  I am grateful to Ralph Fletcher, Aimee E. Buckner, Linda Rief, Shelley Harwayne, and Katie Wood Ray for all their advice and inspiration they have provided in their professional publications and/or workshops and keynotes about writer’s notebook!


Teacher as Writer: How Can We Make Time for Writing?

Slice of Life2As teachers of writers, it is important to be teachers who write. How can we make this happen?  Begin by making the act of writing a good habit. Put it on your schedule like you would schedule time for the gym or time to participate in a book club. Just be sure to set some time aside. Here, it’s important to be realistic. Perhaps start with 5 to 10 minutes to write in a writer’s notebook – an observation, a response to a quote, a description of a person or place you know well. Then you can try to add some time several days a week – work up to 20 minutes or more over the first month or so.

Where do you like to write?  Do you have a favorite spot in your house to read?  There’s probably a favorite spot to write – you may not have discovered it yet. When do you do your best writing?  Will you accomplish more in the morning or after dinner?  I still like to draft in a notebook and return to my laptop for revision and editing after the first draft is handwritten. My notebooks all have interesting covers and are spiral-bound so when I open them up, they always lie flat on my desk or table. What else will spur you on or comfort you?  A cup of hot tea?  A sweet bun? A wedge of dark chocolate?  Do you like background noise – t.v. or perhaps your i-pod playing your favorite tunes?

It’s okay to move away from your writing, but be sure to return to it. Writers need experiences and time to reflect on how they are growing and changing. Sometimes, getting up from your desk and taking a walk may be all you need to return to a piece of writing with great gusto!  Writer’s block is easily resolved by spending a good deal of time thinking about what you will write before you pick up your pen (or tap on your keyboard).  Your students will also have less problems if their first draft has already been rehearsed in their heads. And remember, you won’t love everything you write. It won’t all be good, but you’ll be exercising your writing muscles and developing a habit. That’s important!

Planning what you will write is well worth the effort. Heart maps, neighborhood maps, memory chains, and expert lists can help you get started. If you are writing a longer piece, an outline or chain of events may help you write a piece in sections. It is not always true that you start at the very beginning. When Rose Cappelli and I drafted Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, we decided to begin with our chapter on beginnings and endings, the fourth chapter in the book. We jumped around to write what was compelling to us at that time.

Set some writing goals for yourself. Plan how much you want to write by a certain date. Challenge yourself to try a new form or a new genre. Your goal may be to share your work with a peer or with your students. Perhaps you want to try to publish a best-practice article in a journal such as PAReads: The Journal of the Keystone State Reading Association. You’ll have a deadline to meet!  Try to stick with your plan and achieve your goal(s).

You can be a little selfish. Share how important your writing time has become with your family and friends. There will always be other things you could be doing instead of writing. Make your writing time sacred.  Believe in yourself. You ARE a writer. Own the title. Make it part of your identity – how you express yourself, how you show your love, how you learn about the world and about yourself. Writing is a way to tell your story. Each day is a new page to write on.

Write, Write, WRITE!


Creating Similes and Metaphors

Often, when I introduce or revisit figurative language, I return to one or several mentor texts that I have used with students as read alouds. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen are particularly wonderful. My Dog is as Smelly as Socks: And Other Funny Family Portraits by Hanoch Piven is also quite useful.

It is worth the effort to spend some time working with students on similes and metaphors. Learning to create them also aids in comprehension.  When students rely on worn-out similes such as “He was as slow as a turtle when he had chores to do,” they don’t have to do much thinking.  I find a display of household objects to be a useful way to help students create fresh and thought-provoking comparisons. Gather some ordinary and maybe some less familiar objects from your kitchen, basement, garage, or craft room. Your finds may include a rolling pin, a vase, a ceramic dog, a piggy bank, painter’s tape, holiday ornaments, a flower vase,  a grater, a peeler, a spiralizer, a timer, a birdhouse, a whisk, mortar and pestle, a zester, salt and pepper mills, a tennis racquet, a catcher’s mitt, a horseshoe, a soccer ball, a photo album.

Choose something from the table and model how you would brainstorm a set of characteristics that you associate with the object – encourage words and phrases.

My choice: Painter’s Tape   


August blue          sticky                                      useful                                 smooth-to-the-touch

strong                    useful                                     in demand                         harmless

light                        easy-to-peel                         a painter’s tool                  essential

safe                         splotted                               splashed                              disposable

forgotten               dirty                                      streaked                              reduces error

aids in perfect creations                                  eliminates frustration       sky blue

used-to-be round                                              practical                                 presentation tool


Metaphor/Simile/ Extended Analogies – My Example

I am like a roll of painter’s tape, strong but lighthearted and streaked with imperfections. As a teacher of writers, I facilitate the development of independent thinkers within the safe environment I create. Students know they can take risks and try new things. They know I need to revise and edit my own writing, and I sometimes ask for their help. Like painter’s tape, I am user-friendly and aid students in creating beautiful pieces of writing with just the right amount of support. Although I am often in high demand for conferences, I am sometimes forgotten as my students form support structures with their peers and become more skilled in self-conferences.  My sky-blue personality each day helps students to weather the storms of their daily lives and create in the safe space of writing workshop.

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.

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