June 16th, 2016
The next post in our #Blogstitute16 series comes from Paula Bourque (@LitCoachLady), author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6. Paula shares her strategies for creating a habit of close reading — the first step in developing close writers. Be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #Blogstitute16 for a chance to win some amazing new Stenhouse books!
I love coaching in classrooms during writing workshop. I love to watch students take ideas from their heads and magically transfer them to paper. I love listening to the talk that floats above the flurry of writing. It was from these opportunities that I noticed the varying range of connectedness students had to their writing. The most successful writers seemed to be very connected to their written work, while those who struggled more were often quite disconnected. This translated into some students frequently rereading and revisiting their writing and others who saw writing as a one-way process: get it down and done.
I started observing the most accomplished writers to analyze which behaviors and habits supported their success. The thing that jumped out at me in almost every instance was that these writers were close readers of their own writing. They reread their work with purpose and focus, and they did so frequently. I thought about how we have been teaching students to closely read the work of other authors but not how to apply those strategies to their own pieces of text. That was the genesis for my book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2–6 (2016).
What started as a book about teaching students close reading strategies for their own work evolved into a plethora of approaches for creating stronger relationships between writers and their writing and building awareness of their writing identities. That process was a genuine path of discovery for me, and it continues to this day.
I am now frequently asked by teachers who have looked at the collection of ideas and strategies in Close Writing, “Where should I start?” I think that’s such a relevant question because teachers sometimes find writing instruction “messy.” Writers’ needs are so varied, and their styles are so individual. One size rarely fits all. I usually suggest that they start where I did—encouraging writers to create a habit of close reading.
The premise for Close Writing is that writers reread, reflect, and revise with a variety of purposes and lenses. Writers cannot reflect or revise if they aren’t aware of what IS and what IS POSSIBLE, and that can happen most effectively when they first reread what is in front of them. So I now emphasize teaching students to reread (closely read) their writing to raise that awareness as the first step in becoming a Close Writer.
Three Aspects of this Initial Process
Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. —Thich Nhat Hanh
You can’t be intentional without awareness. You can’t purposefully change a behavior you aren’t aware of. So how can we raise this awareness?
How Do Other Authors Do It?
We can start by sharing with our students audio or video of published authors reading their work. These are obviously successful close writers! Some of my favorites are Neil Gaiman, Eric Carle, Mercer Mayer, and Suzanne Collins. We can ask students to describe what they notice about how they read their work and why they made certain choices. I found many of the techniques could fall into one of these categories:
- Pace—How quickly or slowly authors read
- Pause—Where authors stop at various points
- Punch—What words or phrases authors choose to emphasize
- Play—The dramatic quality or style of authors’ voices
I then invite students to try these techniques in their own writing and to think about their purpose to help them share—as well as reflect on—their writing.
How to Read Your Writing
Once students are aware of techniques and purposes for reading their work, we can reread with a variety of lenses. Close reading often answers a question for the reader. You change your lens or focus to answer questions. We can ask questions of our own writing that can be answered with a close read, such as these:
- How do I show transitions of time or place to my reader?
- How natural does my dialogue sound?
- How varied are my sentences?
- Which verbs are my strongest? My weakest?
The questions are limitless. Whatever craft element, technique, or convention you are working on can be monitored and strengthened by close reading.
“Children work very hard in their purposeful endeavors in the world, when they have ends they want to accomplish themselves.” —Frank Smith
Almost all of the students I know want to get better at what they do. Most recognize that this requires work. When we understand the purpose and can see how that work could pay off, it is much easier to invest time and energy.
- Why is close reading important? I contrast a “fast forward” style of reading (quick, mumbled, inattentive) with a purposeful “writer reading” (intentional pace, pause, punch, play techniques) and discuss the difference between “getting through” a piece of writing and really “getting into” a piece of writing. I invite students to consider which style will help them to be more aware and purposeful with their writing. I believe that if they don’t understand the purpose behind a skill, it doesn’t become a strategy.
- How does this close reading help me? The idea isn’t that they can turn their writing into readers’ theater. The focus is on the purposeful choices they make to interpret and convey the meaning of their writing more precisely. Slowing down, thinking about what is important, and listening to how those written words sound when spoken aloud can help readers to better reflect on what they have written.
- One of my favorite lessons to demonstrate the effectiveness of rereading is “Rewind and Find.” I ask students go back and read a piece of their work for just two minutes to see what they might find to revise or edit that their teacher would find if he or she read it. We then list everything they notice, and those lists are often quite extensive. I say, “Look at what we were able to find in just two minutes. Do you think if you took two minutes each day to go back and reread your work that you would become a stronger writer?” At this point, most students are convinced!
“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” —Malcolm Gladwell
We can’t just tell our students to reread their writing and expect them to be more attentive and intentional. How often have kids told us they have reread their work only for us to discover a myriad of errors, incomplete sentences, or gaps? They may have reread it, but they weren’t sure what to look for.
- Teach it. I don’t assume that this comes naturally to students. I model how it looks and sounds using my own writing and then give them plenty of opportunities to practice it themselves with feedback and reinforcement.
- Prompt for it. Once I teach a technique such as Flash Editing, Rewind and Find, or Listen and Learn, I can then quickly prompt for it so that students can practice independently without a lengthy lesson. If every time students said or thought “I’m done!” they heard a prompt for closely reading their work, they would very quickly begin to develop that approach as a classroom expectation.
- Make it a habit. If we put structures and routines in place that foster close reading, it will more easily become habituated. We need to make it easy for our students to develop these close writing behaviors.
There are so many more strategies and approaches that I have written about that can help our students become Close Writers, but if we can begin by making them aware, helping them to understand its purpose, and giving them opportunities to practice closely reading their writing, I am confident that they will become much more accomplished writers. I welcome you to continue this exploration with me on Twitter @LitCoachLady, on Facebook, or at my website. You can find resources for my book Close Writing at the accompanying Stenhouse website.
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