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Author Studies Help Children Write Better

Last month I was consulting in a school with some primary grade teachers. They expressed concerns about infusing mentor texts into their classrooms. I provided them with some language for developing theories about what an author is doing in a text, as well as links to booklists I’ve created and a book that serves as a guide to engaging in craft studies with children in grades K – 6. However, I felt as though they had many more questions about how to proceed with mentor texts.

Instead of reviewing a new text each week (this month), I’ve decided to spend all of the “Thinking About Mentor Texts” Thursdays for December talking about getting stronger with introducing and utilizing mentor texts in the classroom. I hope you’ll join me on this journey of thought. I hope you’ll chime in and lend your expertise by leaving a comment. I hope you’ll feel more comfortable with the idea of pulling out a text and using it to teach many things to your students by the end of this month. In January, I’ll return to my usual, Thursday, here’s-how-you-can-use-this-text kind of posts. Until then, I’d like to start this month’s mentor text posts off by thinking about author studies in a new way.

If you’ve taken a literacy course as part of an education program, chances are you’ve been asked to create an author study. When I was a pre-service teacher in grad school I wrote one about Leo Lionni. After I began teaching, and went back for my second master’s, I co-wrote one about Patricia Polacco. I intentionally picked to co-write an author study about Polacco’s Books since I thought they’d be interesting for my students to study. I’ve taught variations of that unit four times… in Reading Workshop. However, one year, I taught a variation of an author study within the context of Writing Workshop. The planning I did was similar to the way my former classmate and I structured our Polacco Author Study (as per our instructor, Kathy Brody’s, expert guidance). Here’s an overview of how you might go about planning an author study in
Writing Workshop, which is meant to strengthen your students’ writing skills by studying a body of work by one author.

Based on what I learned from Brody when I took her “Literature for Older Children Class,” these are things you’ll want to flesh-out before you embark upon a Writing Workshop-based author study:

  • Author: Think about one author whose writing you admire. Be sure it’s accessible for all of the students in your class (i.e., they should be able to read it independently so they can study the author’s craft moves without your support).
  • Book List: Create a list of ten titles (e.g., picture books, short stories), written by the author you select, that your students will study. Make sure you can obtain at least two copies of each text. You can borrow additional copies from your colleagues, take them out of the library, or buy them. Scholastic Book Orders are great for ordering multiple paperback copies of Polacco’s Books. However, if the texts you want to study are hardcover, you might consider writing a proposal on DonorsChoose.org asking for financial assistance to purchase the books you’ll need.
  • Biographical Summary: It’s important that you learn about the author your students are going to study. Many authors have websites where you can learn more about them. Additionally, you can consult books like Something About the Author (pictured below) or Speaking of Journals: Children’s Book Writers Talk About Their Diaries, Notebooks, and Sketchbooks, which will help you get to know a writer better. Speaking of Journals, which I used for a Jacqueline Woodson Writing Craft Study when I taught in NYC, provided me with insight into the ways in which Woodson works as a writer. Finally, Appendix A in The Author Studies Handbook: Helping Students Build Powerful Connections to Literature (pictured below) is an excellent resource for sources where you can learn more about authors.
Planning to study author's craft with your students? These are excellent books to add to your professional library for that purpose.
  • Data Wall: A large, in-class, bulletin board display where your students can track what they learned about craft as they read each book. A rough template follows below.  Need ideas for craft elements to study?  Check out I can write like that! A Guide to Mentor Texts and Craft Studies for Writers’ Workshop, K-6 (pictured above).
  • Classroom Charts: Even though you’ll likely create these with your students, having a rough idea of the types of charts you will want to create (and what might go on them) will help you as you prepare your minilessons.
  • Culminating Project: Think through the type of writing your students will do. Will they write narratives, memoirs, poetry, or something else? The final piece of writing should be similar to the author you’re studying since the students are going to be studying one author’s writing, which is most likely written in one genre. Also think about how you will assess your students’ writing. Developing a rubric, alongside your students, based-off of the craft elements you studied together might be one way to assess them. However, not all students will try out all craft moves, so you might choose to assess your students on their quality of their writing rather than their attempts at mentoring themselves after the author. Additionally, you might have students synthesize what they learned about the craft of writing, from the author you studied, using the data wall to help them reflect on their learning.
  • Celebration: While I’ve heard of many people dressing up as their favorite character from the author’s book for an author study celebration, an author study celebration in Writing Workshop doesn’t lend itself to that type of finale. The celebration I hosted was a share of the students’ published writing where each child shared an explanation of how they mentored themselves after the author the class studied. If you have a big budget, then shoot for the stars and try to facilitate an author visit!

Data Wall Example (things you might study in one author’s books with your students):

Alliteration Descriptive Language Endings (circular, surprise, etc.) Figurative Language Lead (dialogue, setting details, action, etc.) Punctuation (dashes instead of commas, use of ellipses, etc.) Strong Verbs Varied Sentence Lengths
Title #1
Title #2
Title #3
Title #4
Title #5
Title #6
Title #7
Title #8
Title #9
Title #10

Students would use index cards to paste into each section of the data wall that reflected their noticings about the way in which the author used each kind of crafting technique in their book. You might plan ahead by pulling two examples of each technique out of the story so you can provide students with examples of each crafting technique, for each book. This way, when students try to mentor themselves after the author you’re studying together, they can use the data wall as a resource so they don’t have to search for the line(s) where, say, Eve Bunting used figurative language in a few of her books.

Regardless of the author you choose to study, you want to teach your students to be better writers by learning from an expert. The qualities of good writing should continuously be discussed (i.e., conventions, elaboration, focus, meaning, structure, voice, and word choice).

Next Thursday I’ll write about conferring with mentor texts.

Stacey Shubitz View All

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

5 thoughts on “Author Studies Help Children Write Better Leave a comment

  1. When you say primary, what grades did these teachers teach?

    Currently, we are studying Lynn Plourde. After reading this post, I would love to try the data wall on our next author study. And currently, having Lynn visit us wouldn’t be feasible (she’s in Maine), but I do send copies of the students’ writing to her. Last year, she sent us a thank you note. It was awesome!

    I enjoy doing author studies with students, because they start noticing that other writers use the same craft moves. I am hoping that with time, the author studies turn into more inquiry-based as I become more comfortable and the students grow in their writing.

    Thanks for the challenge!

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  2. I think my kids would really dig creating a Data Wall. It sounds so smart, so official, so grown-up and writerly! Plus, it could live with us as we go through our unit of study instead of me trying to make everything ahead of time! Kids thinking and working…I love it 🙂

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