Thursday, September 26, 2013

Using Fragments

We always tell students that sentence fragments are bad, bad, bad. And, if they don't use them strategically, they are. But do you notice how often published authors use them well? What effect does the author create by using fragments?
"This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 11).
"In the dungeon, there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 25).
"So I wrote a lot of action into my story. I wrote about a bus hurtling down the highway with no one at the wheel. I added a tornado. And a pirate. And a great white shark. But the story didn't seem quite right" (Eileen Spinelli, The Best Story, 4).
"He started gobbling fried chicken so fast he choked on a bone and died right there on the spot. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a bucket lid" (Paul Brett Johnson, Old Dry Frye).
For more mentor texts, go here

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Words from a Can

A note about voice from a fictional student:
"She [Francie] started fresh on a new page.

'Intolerance,' she wrote, pressing down hard on the pencil, 'is a thing that causes war, pogroms, crucifixions, lynchings, and makes people cruel to little children and to each other. It is responsible for most of the viciousness, violence, terror and heart and soul breaking of the world.'

She read the words over aloud. They sounded like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them. She closed the book and put it away."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, page 229


One way I lured my girls into writing was to show them contests they could enter. Contests moved the writing process outside our home, giving the girls an audience beyond me, setting their focus beyond the work to the hope of a trophy, a blue ribbon...or money! At age six, my oldest daughter won her first prize. She wrote a piece for the zoo about a bird migrating south.  Her reward? Joining the zookeeper to feed the animals. Her lesson? Writing produces results!

I did a quick web search and found some contests. Check them out, but also be on the lookout for them in kids' magazines, newsletters, local newspapers, and libraries.
Grades K-8

Are you aware of any writing contests? Share them in the comments.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Advice from a Teacher

Teacher Carolyn Foley sent a letter to the parents of her students. It's worth reading in full. Here is a quote she includes which piggybacks nicely with what I said here and here.
Don’t worry too much about technicalities and misspelling.  (Some-times we over-stress spelling because it gives us something easy and clear cut to land on.  We mustn’t overlook what is being said.)  The school has primary responsibility here.  Grammar can always be repaired if sincerity and interest are present.  On the other hand no amount of “correctness” can cover up the empty world of a child who hasn’t been helped to get interested and excited about something, preferably many things.

free clip art   

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Playing with Voice

I am joining my youngest daughter as she reads The Swiss Family Robinson for a history/literature class. The story is told in first person, from the perspective of Mr. Robinson, the father of four boys. The writing makes me smile because, at least in this version, it is very formal, even stuffy.

If you don't own the Bantam Classic edition, invite your students to read chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 here. Based on the writing style, what words would they use to describe the father? Give them the task of revising a few of Wyss's paragraphs, making the writing sound like a different father: their own, one they know, or one they imagine. They can then compare the two versions. What makes them different?

Not only will your students be able to practice revising through this exercise, but they will also see the effects of different voices in writing.

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I don't know if my English teachers' instruction about voice floated right over my head or if they didn't include it in their lesson plans. All I know is that I didn't learn it from them. What did sink deep was the importance of sounding smart and using correct grammar. But, as this article explains, an impeccably correct essay can be a painfully voiceless one. And who wants to read it? No one.

The author says, "I would define voice in writing as the quality of writing that gives readers the impression that they are hearing a real person, not a machine."

Let's be teachers who help our students develop their voices, providing practice, encouragement, and models. If their personalities and passions are welcomed at the writing party when they are young, they will likely continue attending when they are older.

It's long, but this article about voice in writing is excellent. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Identifying with an Author

Here's a quick children's lit. quiz. I'm going to name some main characters; you're going to name their author.


Murdley Gurdson
Princess Penelope
Wodney Wat

Okay. What's your answer?

Did you say Helen Lester?  Ding. Ding. Ding. You are correct!

Lester also has a book about herself. In Author: A True Story, she tells the good and the bad of becoming an author. Your young writers will see an experienced writer facing rejection, persevering, practicing, using the writing process, being frustrated, being inspired.

They will see that they are much like Helen (well, except that they don't receive royalties for their work). Knowing that they are not alone may make a very difficult process just a tad easier to bear.

If you're not familiar with Murdley and the rest of the characters I mentioned, go to E/Lester on your next visit to the library and fill your bag with Lester's books. They are the kind you won't mind reading for the 20th time.

This post contains affiliate links.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Writing Rules

Rule #1: No sentence fragments.

Rule #2: Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.

Rule #3: A writer must not shift your point of view.

See what is happening?

In How Not to Write, William Safire breaks the rules he pronounces, then creatively explains the rules, tossing in some rule breakers in his explanations.

Ideas for how to use this book:

  • Read the rules, finding and fixing the mistakes Safire includes.
  • Mark or highlight the times Safire breaks the rules in his explanations.
  • Demonstrate the rules with original, correctly-written sentences.
  • Marvel at how Safire can take potentially stuffy content and make it fun.

Note: This post contains affiliate linkx.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Recognizing and Fixing Fragments

When students are learning to write, we tell them that fragments--partial sentences that are missing either a subject or a verb--are no-no's. We don't want them writing grammatical horrors, such as "David bought a gopher ranch. Hoping to strike it rich." or "David bought a gopher ranch. Although he knew nothing about rodents." These examples show that the writer lacks sentence sense.

Rules are sometimes made to be broken, though, right?  Writers break the complete sentence rule all of the time, using fragments to their advantage.

When I began reading Eileen Spinelli's The Best Story, I noticed fragments. Plenty of them. (Whoops. There's one of my own.) 

Use Spinelli's book with your students, giving them a closer look at fragments. Start by reading the story together, being reminded that the best stories we write come from our hearts.

Okay, now for some grammar in context. Look at page 2.
I ran home.
Went to my room.
Shut the door.
I sharpened five pencils.
Opened my notebook to a brand-new page.
And thought.
And thought.
And thought.
And all I could think was this writing stuff was hard and lonely.
Maybe I needed help.
How many sentences do we have here? If your students think sentences start with a capital letter and end with a period, we have ten.  In that case, maybe Mr. Morton of Schoolhouse Rock can teach them about the essential parts of a sentence.

Test Mr. Morton's lesson with two-word sentences here, finding the subjects and predicates.

Now return to Spinelli's text. Look at the first line. Is there a subject?  Yes.  Is there a verb?  Yes.  It passes the test.

How about the second line. Is there a subject?  No. What subject can we add to make it a sentence?

Continue through each line, writing the revised sentences line by line as Spinelli does.

When you are finished, compare the two lists. What do your students think?  Why do they think Spinelli chose to use fragments instead of complete sentences?

Now revise the first eight lines, linking them with commas, so they are all part of one longer sentence. How does it compare to the other two lists? Which one do they prefer?

Read the story a second time, pausing at fragments and discussing how to "fix" them.

Bonus: Look at page one, where it says "Write the best story. Win first prize."  Discuss with your student whether these are fragments or sentences.

A Second Bonus: Do you remember teachers telling you never to begin sentences with and, but, or so?  Maybe Spinelli is rebelling against language arts teachers or something because most of her sentences start with one of these three conjunctions. Again, discuss why she may have chosen to do this. How would the text sound if these words were eliminated?

A Little More Practice: If your student tends to use fragments unintentionally, pull out some of her pieces to analyze and revise. If your student has sentence sense, ask him to sprinkle a couple of fragments in an assignment to see if he likes the effect.

Gopher sentences come from Steps to Writing Well by Jean Wyrick.
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