Teacher Tips

Why Read?

For Those Who Grew up Reading, This May Surprise You

by Robyn Gioia

For many in the older generations, reading was a main source of knowledge and entertainment. We read in school, we got in trouble for reading under our desks, we read on vacation, during summer breaks, in the car, and whenever the time was right. We discussed stories, acted out scenes when we played, and let our imaginations go wild. Authors were revered, new release dates drew faithful readers, and the written word was part of life.

Fast forward to a society with never ending videos and video games.

Many of today’s students don’t read outside of school. The challenge for many educators is to teach their students the value of reading and to hone these skills into lifelong skills.

Over the years I have found a successful model for turning students into readers. At the beginning of the year, I tell them they must have a book to read at all times. If they are early finishers, they are to read. They are to read during independent reading, in the library, after lunch, in the morning before class begins, or anytime an opportunity arises. Their chosen book will travel back and forth between school and home.

Sometimes I assign a monthly genre so they are introduced to the different categories. October is great for mysteries. Genres can also be coordinated with other subjects. Biographies are great for social studies. Fantasy is great for creative writing. Some months I let them choose their own genre. When they are really excited about a book, I let them share snippets with the class, but they aren’t allowed to spoil it for the next reader. Books that are shared are generally snatched up by others.

I used to assign monthly projects, but in the last few years, I have replaced it with writing a daily summary in their journals. The focus may change depending on what we are studying. If we are discussing character development, I might assign identifying character traits. If we are studying imagery, they may search for a passage with rich description. If we are studying emotion, they might identify a scene where emotion was a driving factor.

This really hones their ability to pull out main ideas. Some grumble at first, but once they master the skill, they become pros. The skill to pull out main ideas and prove it with evidence strengthens their understanding in every academic area.

For fun, I decided to take an anonymous poll of my class to see what they really thought of reading. At the beginning of the year, I had kids who bragged about not reading. During our beginning of the year parent conferences, I had parents complain they never saw their kids hold a book.

Since then, reading lexiles have soared along with their abilities. And it’s no wonder. When a person reads everyday, the brain is constantly exposed to plot, proper writing, literary elements, sentence structure, problem solving, and vocabulary to name just a few.

When a guest speaker asked the class the other day who likes to read, every hand shot up. This teacher had to smile.

End of the Year Class Poll

How many minutes do you read each day?

10-20 min.     24%        20-40 min.  30%

40-60 min.     12%         60 min. or more   16%

60 min. to 2 hours or more  15%

What kind of books do you like for pleasure? (25 responses)

Fantasy  68%

Graphic Novels 56%

Realistic Fiction 48%

True Stories 44%

Fiction 40%

Biographies 20%

 

 

What do you like to see in a character? (25 responses)

Brave, adventurous, funny, a leader, kind, hero, helpful, hardworking, loyalty.

I like when he or she is very bold or a lead taker. I like when they are talking about themselves and stating their opinion. It’s like they are talking to you.

Smart, loyal, show leadership, curious, naive, athletic, sly, nerdy.

Does not accept bullying, cool, loving, determined, extroverted.

List some of your favorite reads: (25 responses)

Eragon, Wings of Fire, Zita the Spacegirl (graphic novels)

Moone Boy, Whatever After, Dr. Seuss

Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Tiles of Apollo

Infinity War Comics, Big Nate, Dog man

Geronimo Stilton and Pokémon

Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Rangers Apprentice

Who Was Books, American Girl, Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Harry Potter, Rangers Apprentice, Percy Jackson

Wings of Fire, Percy Jackson, and Last Kids on Earth

big Nate, Percy Jackson, Roman Legends

George’s Cosmic Adventure, The War that Saved My Life, War Horse

Last Kids on Earth, Amulet and Dog man

Percy Jackson, Chronicles of Narnia, The Ghost the Rat and Me

The Hero Two Doors Down, Amulet, and Captain Under Pants

BONE (yes it’s in all caps), Amulet, and the Unwanteds

Doll Bones, Blood on the River, Chains, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Who Was, The Star Fisher, Finding Someplace.

Liesl and Po, Echo, Be Forever,

Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Spaced out

Goddess Girls, Big Nate, Seven Wonders

Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the books by Mike Lupica.

Roller Girl, Swing it Sunny, and Strega Nona

Warriors, Wings of Fire, 5 Worlds

Roller Girl, Swing it Sunny, Strega Nona.

I survived, The Boy who Painted the World

 

 

How Language is Your Most Powerful Writing Tool

I’ve been delving deep into one of my favorite writing topics lately—language. I’m putting together the materials for an online class on voice that I’m teaching at The Writing Barn in June, and language is so much part of voice. But what I really love about language with writing is how it also affects just about everything in a story, making it so fun to play with as well as a powerful writing tool.

You’re probably thinking, yeah, yeah, of course writing is about language. It’s words! Well, yes, but too often we think that only poets or picture book writers have to worry about finding the exact right word. But for novels, including middle-grade, language can make the difference between a good book and a great book.

And knowing how to use language, can help us writers up our game.

Let’s face it, when we talk about stories, the focus is often on plot or character development, because we studied words and grammar in school. What’s left to learn?

But what we were told in school were the rules, the science, not how to break those rules, to use them to pull in readers, the art.

So how does paying closer attention to language help us?

Here are a few of the multiple ways:

Voice

Voice always seems like this elusive part of writing. How often have you heard an agent or editor say they want a “fresh, distinct voice”? And how many times have you rolled your eyes because they followed it up with the explanation, “I know it when I see it.” Right.

Well, yes, on the one hand, how “fresh” or “distinctive” a voice is is subjective, but when words are chosen carefully so they pop off the page, beg to be read aloud and sing to the reader, you can bet agents and editors will shut off their phone so they can read.

One of my favorite recent middle-grade reads for voice is Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN: FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD. Look at this section from chapter one: “Even though the whole city is ribboned with waterfalls and fed with canals, the pearl itself is dry and never melts. As I skate, my blades bite into it, but the pearl smooths itself behind me. The sensation is delicious. We have nothing like this back home. In Shin, we have to skate on rinks made of ice preserved in caves until it’s ridged and yellowed like bad toenails.”

Henry Lien uses phrases like “ribboned with waterfalls” and “fed with canals.” The blades don’t cut or slice, they “bite” into the ice. And with “The sensation is delicious,” we get a visceral sense of it that we almost taste, even though we haven’t been talking about food. The words draw us into the world. Then that last simile of “bad toenails” quickly changes the taste in our mouth.

Unique. Intriguing. Brilliant!

Character

When you’re writing in first person, the book’s voice is also the voice of your character (or chapter in dual or multiple POV), and the language must be what they’d use. We often hear that first person is more immediate and pulls readers in more easily. This is exactly the reason. We’re hearing directly from the character at all times.

This also means that we can get to know the character more intimately by the types of words they use. Look at this example from Leslie C. Youngblood’s LOVE LIKE SKY: “We got out of the car, and he reached for my hand as we crossed the lot. I grabbed it like I would catch a grasshopper, knowing I’d let it go but wanting to see how it felt. Frank’s hand was like a polished stone, hard but still smooth.”

The character G-Baby grabs Frank’s hand, and there’s an urgency there. Then the “like I would catch a grasshopper” tells us so much. Like being able to hold Frank’s hand is a moment she’s curious about but could be fleeting and she has to take the chance right now because it could jump away in a second. That tells us a lot about the relationship between G-Baby and Frank. Then G-Baby uses the simile of “a polished stone”, not just a stone, but a “polished” stone, like in G-Baby’s mind, this hand is something that should be taken care of.

Tone

The language of a book sets the tone. If you use upbeat words, readers immediately get ready for an upbeat story. But take a look at the first two sentences of Kim Ventrella’s SKELETON TREE: “The day the rain stopped, Stanly Stanwright found a bone in the garden, poking up out of the dirt. It could have been a bean sprout, only it was white and hard and shaped like the tip of a little finger.”

How brilliant is this? Simple, to the point, and yet hidden within these words is so much about the story. Not only do we immediately get drawn into the book’s inciting incident (the finding of the bone), we also get the tone of the story. Kim Ventrella didn’t choose to start on a sunny, happy day, but “The day the rain stopped,” implying that maybe it’s been raining for a while…and perhaps that the rain is symbolic of other things in Stanly’s life.

In Roshani Chokshi’s ARU SHAH AND THE END OF TIME, the language of the opening immediately lets us know we’re going on an adventure. But it also has a tone of storytelling, beckoning the reader in, encouraging us to pull up a seat and get ready for a good, action-packed story: “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them. … Some folks may not like the idea of working on a weekend, but it never felt like work to Aru.

“It felt like a ceremony.

“Like a secret.”

And notice the line breaks. They tell us that this is important information, but also build on each other to draw us in. Fantastic!

Pacing

Talking of line breaks, language and how we break it up with grammar can speed up action or slow it down. Here’s a paragraph from an action scene in K.A. Reynolds’ THE LAND OF YESTERDAY: “A flash of memory seized her brain. Of her father, trapped in Widdendream’s attic, screaming her name.

“Her lantern pulsed, and then , it blazed.

“Cecelia backed away slowly.”

The words and sentences are short and clipped, letting us read it quickly and giving us that feeling of speed and anxiety. Those first two sentences could be one, but K.A. Reynolds separated them at “Of her father,” telling us this is important and keeping the action tight.

But now, read these few lines from the first chapter of Patti Kim’s I’M OK, when the protagonist, Ok, is at his father’s funeral: “She tells me to eat, eat up, even if I’m not hungry, even if I don’t feel like it, because I’m going to need all the strength and energy to grow through this very hard thing that’s happened to me. It’s not normal, she says. It’s all wrong. What a senseless mess.”

That first sentence is long for a reason. It slows us down so we focus on every single part. Each section builds on the next, just like in the ARU SHAH example above. In that case, however, each phrase is given strength from their separation, but Patti Kim joined them with commas so each phrase strengthens the next and makes the maximum impact with the entire sentence. Then Patti Kim changes it up. Whereas the “She tells me…” sentence is long and supportive, the shorter sentences that follow are staccato and harsh, bringing us back to the difficult scene young Ok is going through.

There’s so much more that I love about playing with language. In my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, I used so many different types of figurative language that I developed creative writing exercises from it for educators.

What’s your favorite way to use language in your middle-grade books? What kind of language tricks do you love to read?

Quick Plug!

If you’re a language nerd like me and love how language affects voice, join me in my online class at The Writing Barn on June 22.

Writing Tips from Writers

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting schools to do writing workshops. As a former teacher, I loved having a chance to work with students again on their writing. As an author, I had a new perspective on it.

With my life now devoted to writing, I realized certain things about teaching writing I hadn’t before. So I thought it would be interesting to hear what tips authors of books for middle grade readers had for teaching writing to middle graders. Here are their tips, as well as some of my own.

Tip 1:
Have students get all of their needed writing materials ready before beginning the writing lesson. I found that, when I have an idea, if I need to stop to locate a pen and paper, I might lose my idea. If you’ve gotten your class excited about a topic, you don’t want them to lose that momentum sharpening a pencil or locating their writing folder.

Natalie Rompella
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press)
The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House)

Tip 2:
Appeal to 5 senses to expand descriptive writing. Close eyes and bring in unidentified sounds or freshly popped popcorn or something sticky.

Carolyn Armstrong
Because of Khalid (Tiger Stripe Publishing)

Tip 3:
Encourage young writers to read, read, read.  What better way to learn what good–or bad–writing is, build vocabulary and sentence structure, and identify different genres?

Marlene Brill
Picture Girl, Golden (Alley Press)
Dolores Huerta Stands Strong (University of Ohio Press)

Tip 4:
The follow up to that would be to write, write, write.  Not formal writing but journals and diaries to freely get feelings–and words–out and for students to use their words to express themselves.

Marlene Brill
Picture Girl, Golden (Alley Press)
Dolores Huerta Stands Strong (University of Ohio Press)

Tip 5:
Word swap: make a game of swapping out boring words with better ones to enhance writing.

Carolyn Armstrong
Because of Khalid (Tiger Stripe Publishing)

Tip 6:
Teach not just writing but revision. Let students know that ALL the books on shelves went through multiple revisions before they became books, so students shouldn’t judge their own work based on the books they’re reading. But instead, teachers should build in revision techniques and time for classes — even for essays — so students can see how their work slowly improves.

Samantha Clark
The Boy, The Boat, and The Beast (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster)

Tip 7:
I always try to impress upon kids the power of revision. Just because you wrote a “first draft” doesn’t mean your piece is done. Rather, you have a starting point for revision! Now you can take your time and choose just the right words to make what you have written stronger. They are shocked to hear that some of my poems may go through 15 different revisions!

I keep a paperweight on my desk that says:
The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little EXTRA.
Revision gives us that EXTRA!

Eileen Meyer
The Superlative A. Lincoln (Charlesbridge, Nov. 2019 release date)
Sweet Dreams, Wild Animals (Mountain Press)

Tip 8:
Five Ws and the H will always help in any type of writing. Who are you writing for, what does your character want more than anything else, when does the story take place, where does it take place, why does this story have to be written and how does your character overcome obstacles to reach his or her goal?

Catherine Ann Velasco
Behind the Scenes of Pro Basketball and Behind the Scenes of Pro Baseball (Capstone Press)

Tip 9:
Writing success for the day can be small: even one word. It’s okay to spend a writing session on one sentence or even trying to brainstorm that one perfect word—authors do it all the time! Quality over quantity.

Natalie Rompella
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press)
The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House)

Do you have a writing tip for middle grade teachers? Share in the comments section.