A Quick Guide to Workshop Lingo


When we were little, my brother and I had our own made-up words for things.  We called flowers “fluvvies,” and pillows were “fo-fo’s.” Stuffed animals were “bubbies,” and my dad’s blue pickup truck was the “pack-a-wo-po.” This evolved, I think, partly because we lived in a very rural part of Vermont without a lot of other kids to play with. And partly, I’m sure, this was encouraged by my parents who probably thought it was just ridiculously cute. Also, those words just totally made sense to us. What could be a better word for flowers than fluvvies?

Well, fellow writing workshop teachers, we also have a little bit of our own language. Call it jargon, call it terminology, call it what you will. We have our own made-up words for things sometimes. While these words make total sense to us–to outsiders it can get a little confusing.

Over the years, teachers from all over the country have asked me about various writing workshop terminology. More than once, teachers have requested that I create some kind of glossary. What follows is a quick list of the most-frequently-asked-about workshop lingo, with my own definitions.

DISCLAIMER: These definitions are not “research-based” nor are these official definitions. I’m sure there are folks out there in the world who use these same words to mean very different things. These are just MY definitions of these words, based on my own experience as a teacher, staff developer, and author.

Minilesson: A very short, five-ten minute long lesson in which you teach kids a strategy that they can use in their own writing not just today–but every day.

Watermelon Idea and Seed Idea: In the primary grades, a watermelon idea (or watermelon topic) is an idea for a story that is very big, stretching across quite a bit of time: multiple days, or a week, for example. A seed idea for a story, by comparison, is a small moment, or an event that only took a few minutes, or just a part of one day. Seed ideas are much easier to write about in detail, because the story will be shorter and more focused. Watermelon and seed ideas were included in the original Units of Study for Primary Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues. 

Seed Idea (again): But wait! There’s another kind of seed idea! In the upper grades, a seed idea refers to when kids choose an idea for a story that they plan to publish. Kids generally will collect many entries in their writing notebooks for several days (or longer), and then at a certain point, they’ll be guided to reread all their entries to choose just one (or part of one) to become the seed idea for their published piece.

Bend and/or Bend in the Road: This is probably the terminology that I am asked about most often. Years ago, in a group with Lucy Calkins, she taught me to think of a unit of study as a journey with my students. From time to time, as I travel down the highway that is my unit of study, that journey will shift directions. Perhaps I’ll move from gathering notebook entries, to drafting. Perhaps I’ll go from teaching about structure and organization to teaching about detail and voice. I’m not completely getting off the highway and ending the unit, I’m just taking a bend in the road. In materials published by Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project, parts or sections in of a unit of study are referred to as “bends.”

Writing In The Air: This phrase simply means rehearsing what you want to write by saying it out loud. You might even pretend to write as you say the words aloud. Sometimes you might write in the air as a way to demonstrate your own writing quickly (writing very much on paper generally takes a lot longer). Sometimes you might teach kids to use this as a strategy to plan their writing. As simple as it sounds, many kids need a lot of coaching and practice  to learn do this.

Word Wall Words and/or Snap Words: This really needs its own post to do it justice, but to make a long story short: Word wall words are high frequency words that have been introduced. These words are on display so that kids can refer to them quickly throughout the day, to double-check their spelling, and to support their reading. Eventually kids know word wall words “in a snap,” meaning they can write those words with automaticity, without thinking much about it, and they can recognize those words on sight.

Mentor Text: Think of a mentor text like this. How great would it be to have an author like Angela Johnson come to my classroom and mentor my students as writers, teaching them everything she knows? Well, I can’t have Angela Johnson in my classroom every day–but I can use her books in her place. Her books can be our mentor, used for examples of strategies that my kids can try. A mentor text is a familiar picture book or trade book that I refer to often to show kids examples of strategies they can use in their own writing.

What lingo have you long wondered about, but have been too afraid to ask? Let us know in a comment! Don’t be shy!