Below is excerpted from the Introduction in Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language (2017) by Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca. It’s a wonderful description—in the authors’ words—of what makes this authentic grammar and conventions instruction through the process of invitation so successful and how it’s used to bridge the gap left by current reading and writing curriculums.
Beyond ideas of absolute right and absolute wrong lives a classroom where writers thrive. They live in the questions and the wonders of language. Here, instead of avoiding errors, young writers make choices based on thinking and purpose. To these writers, the conventions of language are patterns of power they use to shape meaning. This classroom is built on the knowledge that brains naturally seek patterns to make sense of the world (Cunningham 2016). And after all, writing is about making sense, isn’t it? Patterns attract our attention. They draw us in with familiarity and beauty and meaning. And like all patterns, language conventions can be counted on to repeat over time.
Instead of showing young writers the mistakes to avoid, we argue for illuminating the patterns of language that mold meaning and have powerful effects on readers. Creating a classroom in which the special-effects devices of grammar and conventions are studied in authentic texts (real books and student writing) generates writers who naturally come to know the conventions of the English language. They come to know them as the patterns of power. Without much work, they’ll note that the most effective patterns are repeated more often because they get the job done.
Patterns. Not Rules.
We call the conventions of language patterns of power instead of rules, because we think that phrase better represents them. Rules allude to absolute right and wrong. Like laws, rules are expected to be followed—or else. Patterns are created, noticed, and repeated because they happen naturally, like cycles in nature. Patterns show and rely on purpose rather than an outside authority. Would you rather face down rules burdened with confusing exceptions or turn toward attractive, meaningful patterns that repeat often to communicate meaning?
Take capitalization, for example. When most of us think of capitalization, correctness and rules come to mind. What if we thought about conventions—even as simple as capitalization—as author’s purpose and craft? What if we considered capitalization as a pattern of power that telegraphs meaning to our readers with purpose?
When Mo Willems capitalizes a word in his beloved Elephant and Piggie series, he does so for a reason. It can be as simple as capitalizing Gerald and Piggie, the main characters’ names. Writers and readers know the pattern of capitalizing names. When they use the capitalization pattern, writers give their readers an additional detail about a word. When they don’t, their readers squeal to a stop and wonder, “Is piggie a name or not?” We only capitalize words for a reason. In There Is a Bird on Your Head, Piggie asks Gerald where he wants the birds, which are hatching eggs on his head, to be. Gerald replies, “SOMEWHERE ELSE!”
Where Reading and Writing Meet
The reader knows exactly how to read aloud Gerald’s reply. Willems’s choices of capitalization or “all caps” and the end punctuation ensure that. Knowing and using these patterns empowers readers to read and writers to write. In the patterns-of-power philosophy, young writers explore the conventions as special-effects devices for the words they read and write. They experiment and grapple with the power of meaning that conventions create—moving, pausing, stopping, speaking, yelling, comparing, timing, identifying, emphasizing.
Conventions activate meaning, showing us how to read the text: words, punctuation, and syntax unfold before us, triggering meaning, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. These conventions live in the books sitting on young students’ desks and are modeled in the overstuffed bookshelves in the corner. These patterns inhabit the words and punctuation young writers scratch down on paper, expressing meaning.
No Quick Fix Exists.
Worksheets and workbooks aren’t a necessary evil. We don’t need pages of fill-in-the-blank exercises designed to cram language into a tidy black-and-white package tied up with a chevron bow. We use messy, glorious writing and reading. Workbooks and worksheets don’t explore the real application of language. They are designed for limitation, not possibility. Worksheets avoid the gray areas of usage. They stick to absolute right and wrong. If there is only one answer, you know it’s a worksheet. When children write and read, learning is orchestrated, composed, and notated. They are busy mucking about with conventions, experimenting and approximating and discovering. Expression and meaning dance across the pages in this classroom as students talk about the patterns they notice and try them out in their own compositions.
Messy wall charts drip with examples, and students’ noticings fill every nook and cranny of this classroom, capturing learning for future reference and application. The classroom is abuzz with meaning-making and interaction: talking and listening, and reading and writing, not filling in blanks.
To learn more about the Patterns of Power family of resources, download this sampler.
Cunningham, Patricia. 2016. Phonics They Use. New York: Pearson.