Most of the consulting I do deals with conferring and small group work in the writing workshop. From time to time, I get lucky enough to talk about my greatest passion – mentor texts. A couple weeks ago, I worked with a group of New York teachers on conferring toolkits. We spent time talking about the items that could go in a narrative toolkit. One of the most important things that goes in a toolkit are mentor texts. We studied Yard Sale by Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo together. (BTW: If you don’t know Yard Sale, it’s a new picture book worthy of nearly everyone’s narrative conferring toolkit. It’s also one of the 20 books for which I wrote craft lessons that will appear Craft Moves: How to Use Mentor Texts in Writing Workshop, my forthcoming book from Stenhouse.)
First, I read Yard Sale aloud to the group for pleasure. I read it a second time, asking the teachers to listen to it with an ear for what they could teach young writers (i.e., they were reading it like writers). As I listened in to teachers’ small group conversations after the second reading, I heard them talking about things like the use of dialogue, lead/ending, turning point, and internal thinking. I didn’t hear any kind of talk about figurative language, which is often the first thing many teachers will say they noticed in a text (and would want to teach students to do in their own writing). This delighted me so I addressed it with the group.
There’s nothing wrong with metaphors, personification, or hyperbole. In fact, all kinds of figurative language can make writing stronger. However, it’s not the go-to thing I teach kids in a writing conference. I’m more concerned with the things Carl Anderson asserts are the qualities of good writing in Assessing Writers. He states:
Lifelong writers write well when they
- Communicate meaning
- Use genre knowledge
- Structure their writing
- Write with detail
- Give their writing voice
- Use conventions
When I confer with a young writer, I’m concerned with a child’s writing being focused and including a variety of details, not whether or not they included similes in their writing. Therefore, when I mine a picture book for craft moves I can teach kids, it’s rare I will think about figurative language since that’s not the most pressing thing the majority of young writers need to work on right now to make them better writers. After all, we teach the writer, not the writing.” Figurative language can make a piece of writing sound better, but teaching kids how insert some figurative language into a given piece of writing won’t necessarily make them better writers. After I got through with my diatribe about figurative language, a teacher (whose name I wish I knew since I’d love to give her credit lighting the spark for this blog post) raised her hand and said, “Figurative language is kind of like the icing on the cake.” Being a cupcake aficionado, I heard the word frosting and ran with what she said. I likened figurative language to being like the decorations on top of a cupcake. They’re great to have, but a cupcake is complete if it has a moist cake and sweet icing. It doesn’t need to have decorations on top of it if it’s baked carefully with all of the necessary ingredients.
A few days later, I was in New York City talking about the cupcake metaphor in Shana Frazin’s advanced session, “Using the Best New Children’s Literature as Mentor Texts: Support Sky High Writing” at the TCRWP Writing Institute. That evening, I wanted to find a way to illustrate the cupcake metaphor so I took the subway to Molly’s Cupcakes in Greenwich Village, which is one of the few places with good gluten-free cupcakes in Manhattan. (That’s right, as of January, I became gluten-free. Now I have to think of myself as a gluten-free cupcake connoisseur.) I ordered a flourless molten chocolate cupcake, which contains flourless chocolate cake, dulce de leche ganache filling, French vanilla buttercream, and chocolate drizzle. When you look at it sitting on a plate, it looks like cupcake perfection.
Molly’s has a sprinkles station, which allows customers to decorate their cupcake with finishing touches. I didn’t need sprinkles on my cupcake, but I knew it would help illustrate my point about figurative language in writing so I walked over to the station and sprinkled some onto my cupcake.
I sat down at the counter and bit into my cupcake – sprinkles and all. A few bites in I realized I didn’t need as many sprinkles as I added. Less would’ve been more so I grabbed a fork and scraped some of them off.
There are lots of things I want to see when I read student writing. I want kids to communicate meaning in any piece they craft. I want kids to show evidence of knowing the genre in which they’re writing. I want kids to use a structure that helps the reader navigate the text. I want kids to use a variety of details, specific to the genre in which they’re writing. I want kids to carefully select words to make their writing come alive. And, obviously, I want kids to write with proper grammar, mechanics, and spelling. These are the most important things I think we need to teach kids to do in order to be good writers. In my opinion, figurative language instruction can wait until kids have a grade-level command for structure, development, and language conventions.
How about you? What kinds of craft moves do you like to teach young writers from picture books you hold up as mentor texts? Please share by leaving a comment.
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).