Karren Colbert is an educational consultant and founder of Write Brained Learning. She works with elementary teachers across the country and also presents at state and national conferences. Karren blogs at The Write Brained Teacher and occasionally tweets @karrencolbert.
This is a story of a boy named Alex. Maybe you know him. He is the boy with twinkling eyes who speed walks (but doesn’t run) down the hall every morning with a story to tell.
“My brother broke his arm this weekend. He went to the emergency room and everything.”
He paused and waited for my response with raised eyebrows. His head leaned slightly toward me.
“He was climbin’ the tree and I told him he was gettin’ too high, but he never listens. Just like that one time I told him not play my video game and then he went and erased my high score,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
“And then he got too high in the tree and BAM. You should’ve seen it. Blood. Bones. It was deeeeeeee-gusting.”
Typically, his stories started with the ending, got a little off track and relied heavily on non-verbal cues to fill in the blanks when his limited vocabulary failed him. Although he had always something to say, he just couldn’t translate his body language into written language. He was also one of my most reluctant writers. When he wrote, it sounded just the way he talked. More often, though, he tried to avoid writing anything at all.
How could I help Alex? I didn’t want to rob him of his voice, but I also wanted him to understand that sometimes it is essential to take on a more formal tone. I thought of Martin Joos, the Dutch linguist who identified five different levels, or registers, of formality that exist in all languages: frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate. At school, and in the business world, we operate mostly in formal register, using complete sentences and specific word choice. Comparatively, the casual register of students like Alex consists of limited vocabulary (400-500 words) and mostly incomplete sentences. Non-verbal assists are an essential means of communication and stories often start with the most emotional detail. As adults with a lot of language experience, we use all five registers and adapt our language to match our audience. Kids, especially kids who don’t spend their early years in a language rich environment, often know only casual register.
To help Alex and his classmates notice and name the different types of language, I introduced the terms “Kid Talk” to refer to casual language and “Say it Like a Writer” to identify times when a more formal approach was required. Developing a common language helped us to define expectations and differentiate between language registers in a simple, kid-friendly way. Shared Writing gave us regular opportunities to practice “Saying it Like a Writer” and students became more aware of audience and voice.
Oral storytelling proved to be an effective way to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. We started by reciting well known stories, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Students were required to “Say it Like a Writer” and at first, mostly imitated the details of the original story. Our storytelling experiences gave students practice speaking in formal or consultative register, but as students’ confidence grew, so did their willingness to take risks. Changes were small at first…the little bears’ porridge changed to Lucky Charms, but soon students were revising stories and eventually creating their own.
Our practice with “Say it Like a Writer” definitely made students more mindful of audience and helped students communicate in an articulate and thoughtful manner, but more importantly, it helped Alex find joy in writing.
“Ya know what, writing doesn’t suck anymore,” Alex said.
“Can you say that like a writer?” I asked.
“I knew you would say that. What I mean is, writing used to be hard for me, but now I know that writing a story is the same as telling a story. It’s not hard. You just think about how to say it like a writer and write it down.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).