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The Power of Three

When I was at the TCRWP’s Writing Institute a couple of weeks ago, there was a buzz about the power of three. Funny how I’ve been in and around lots of writing-related professional development in the past five years and have never heard anything about the power of three until mid-August. I heard it first from Emily Butler Smith, my morning section leader, who pointed out all of the times Barbara Robinson used three things to make a point in her story “Alligator Mystique,” which can be found inside of But That’s Another Story. Then, I heard the power of three mentioned by Mary Ehrenworth in a morning keynote address. Finally, my friend, who was taking M. Colleen Cruz’s afternoon section said Cruz talked about the power of three in her section.

By the time I returned home to Pennsylvania I was captivated by the power of three and began to notice it in my daily life, not just in my writing. In fact, I noticed I’ve been grouping things in three around my house. And then, yesterday afternoon, my neighbor’s daughter called out to me as I came out of the house, “Ms. Stacey, this is the third time I’ve seen you today!” There really is something captivating about the number three!

Just what is the power of three in writing? Here are some ways I’ve noticed writers using threes in books:

  • Commas in Lists (a little grammar-teaching bonus): Whether it’s a simple list of three items or an elaborate list, many writers create lists of items, character traits, etc. in threes. Tuck in the teaching of commas in lists when you teach your students how to create a long or a short list.
  • Internal Thoughts: When a character thinks about what do, sometimes the options come in groups of three.
  • Same Start:  The author begins with the same word or phrase in three separate, consecutive sentences for emphasis.
  • Same Word Repeated:  Done for emphasis (e.g., really, really, really or yes, yes, yes).
  • Setting Details: Often revealed with three vivid adjectives or three vivid phrases that describe.

I spent a half hour going through picture books in my basement; in search of books that included the power of three at least two times in the text (I could have gone for three times in the text, but I felt that would have been getting a little carried away with the number of three!). Here’s a short list of some books I found that use threes in a variety of ways:

  • 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy
  • Alex and Lulu: Two of a Kind by Lorena Siminovich
  • Good-bye, Curtis by Kevin Henkes
  • Mutt Dog! by Stephen Michael King
  • See the Ocean by Estelle Condra
  • The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco
  • Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding by Lenore Look

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

12 thoughts on “The Power of Three Leave a comment

  1. Annie,
    I agree with your mini lesson idea. With my (college) students, I look for ways to have students work with ideas in three different ways.

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  2. I think my writers will enjoy investigating the power of three in mentor texts. great idea! I noticed you are chairing a session on blogging in the upper elementary grades. Do you have any advice for getting blogs unblocked or any research I could use to persuade my county officials. I blogged with my students last year and was really looking forward to improving it this year, but I found out last week that my blog has been “outlawed”. I will be meeting with officials to try and convince them to allow blogging, so any help you can give would be appreciated.
    Dollie

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  3. Ellen, I don’t have any references on that… but I do know (as the wife of a minister) that seminaries teach that a sermon should have three points. This makes me wonder if a good formula for a mini lessons is one teaching point + three examples.

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  4. I recently read (but can’t remember where) that characters often make three attempts to solve their problem before they’re successful. After reading your post, I did a little data collection with Purpilicious, my daughter’s current favorite. And what do you know…three really is a magical number!

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  5. When I was in grad school (counseling psychology) it was claimed that the brain tends to remember things that are grouped in threes. The ancient Greeks apparently found this to be true in their rhetorical training, and modern pscyhology confirmed it. But don’t quote me on that; I no longer have the references. Anyone out there have any?

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  6. Mike: I will be at NCTE in November. I’m chairing a session for some teachers in California about blogging and other forms of technology in the upper elementary school classroom. 🙂

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  7. I teach ‘3’ as a characteristic of folk and fairy tales, and the children love finding the three’s that I never even thought of… part of the power of three is the allure it has for children. Thanks for reminding me to teach them to look in other books, as well.

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  8. Yeah, there’s mountains of numerology regarding three. Of course there’s the trinity thing, but I think the Greeks were facinated with three because of the whole triangle thing, but also because three was the minimum number of legs required to make a stable table or something like that.

    But I am kind of fascinated with your literary nod to the three. It’s so very, very, very cool. You’re in Philly? Will we see you at the NWP Annual?

    Hope so.

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  9. Groups of 3 occur often in fairy tales.
    Goldilocks and the 3 Bears: Goldlilocks tests 3 items: porridge, chairs, beds
    Jack and the Beanstalk visits the giant 3 times
    The 3 Little Pigs
    and I am sure that there are many more!

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  10. The power of three has a rhythm to it that just works so well. It’s great for comedy writing, for showing indecision, for showing emphatic decision. I use it all the time in my dialogue.

    Then when you have the rule of three down, there’s also the power of five and the rule of seventeen…. 🙂

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