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Sunday / July 23

Reading Like a Writer

3 Moves to Awaken Dormant Writers

In my National Writing Project summer institute, each morning begins with a participant sharing a short powerful text to use as an inspiration for writing. This last year, NWP fellow Nancy Tacke shared a poem entitled “I Remember.” The poem first listed several intense memories around a significant life experience, and then ended with the learning that was achieved – the insight or takeaway to carry forward into the future. I used the poem as a model for my own writing of a poem.

I began by writing about several incidents in the health journey of my wife Peggy, who has been suffering for ten years from a life-threatening blood disease. At the end, I composed the takeaway: “And I remember that I loved and was loved . . . /and that more than anything I want to continue, and to remember,/ through all the continuing, that this is all I ever really wanted. . ./ And that in fact, I had and still have everything.”

My poem was quite different from the one shared by Nancy, but by reading like a writer, I was able to recognize basic structures and moves – and the meaning and effects each achieved – that I could use to express what was currently on my mind and heart. I learned something about composing a poem, about moving from particulars to generalizations. I learned by reading the poem like a writer, recognizing it as a particular kind of poem (or genre), and mining it for ideas and moves.

Positioning students as inquirers into reading and writing

In our new book Diving Deep Into Nonfiction (2017), co-authored with Michael W. Smith, one of our central instructional moves is casting students as writers or respondents to the writing of others. Doing so has two benefits. First, it helps their reading because the instruction positions students as inquirers into how texts work to communicate meaning and achieve effects.  Second, it helps their writing because they can use what they learn from their reading of mentor texts in their informal and then formal writing. Students write informally in response to their reading, and then practice using what they learned from their reading of mentor texts in their informal and then formal writing. This process helps them to write with a reader in mind, learning new ways to organize and code their own compositions so that a reader can navigate, learn and be moved by what they write.

Genre knowledge as a gateway

We want to help students inquire into how genres work and build genre knowledge that can be used in their own writing. Genre knowledge is threshold knowledge, i.e. foundational and generative knowledge that can be developed throughout a lifetime, and that can be used flexibly any time students read or write. Research shows that determining a text’s genre guides what readers do when they read. Duke and Roberts (2010) point out that we read different genres in very different ways, attending to different structural moves, elements, and details, and interpreting these in ways that fit the expectations of the genre. For example, when reading a recipe for the first time, you attend to the ingredients to see if it is something you would like to eat. Only then do you zero in on amounts and processes. But even though the focus is on genre knowledge, you’ll see lots of other learning going on too.

In many of the inquiry units that we teach, we use the genre of “letters to the editor.” It’s easy to find or generate such letters that weigh in on an inquiry topic and what is at stake in addressing it. (In our book, we have students read and then respond to many short pieces of writing including letters of recommendation, fables, PSAs, micro-arguments, comparisons, etc. In fact, any genre you want to study can be boiled down to basic structures through micro-writing.)

So, in a unit on “What is necessary to student health?” we introduce the following color coded letter. We ask students to name each of the four color-coded “moves” and then to compare notes with a neighbor.

To the Editor:

I have been a nutritionist for twenty-nine years. I can’t believe the furor caused and letters to the editor generated by reporting on the new healthier school lunches! In an article published in the Baltimore Sun on 9/28/14, I read this: “Traditionally, the USDA had used the National School Lunch Program as a dumping ground for surplus meat and dairy commodities. Children consumed animal fat and sugary drinks, to the point where one-third have become overweight or obese. These early dietary flaws became lifelong addictions, raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.” 

I am here to tell you that the new healthy school lunch initiative is a good one! Parents should work with school cafeteria managers to encourage consumption of healthy foods. Initiatives could include student recipe or poster contests, a student garden, and “Meatless Mondays.” This will be better for learning in the short term and better for health in the long term.

We then share a second letter with the same four moves coded with the same colors.  We ask students to see if their previous name for each move still works or if they want to revise that name. They then share again in pairs or small groups.

Dear Editor,

In your recent school lunch article I read that kids are still hungry after eating the new healthier school lunches. Several high school students are quoted in the article as saying the new food is not only unappetizing, but also served in too small portions. As someone with a school-age child, I agree that making school lunches healthy is important, but it doesn’t help when the food is inedible or there is not enough of it. Contrary to what schools may think, reducing portion size is not the miracle fix for childhood obesity. Let’s not overlook the side effects of reducing portion sizes. The article reports teachers are complaining about students falling asleep and getting distracted in class. I hope the voices of experts and concerned parents like myself will result in permanent, sustainable changes to school lunches—healthy AND adequate; healthy AND tasty!

We follow this up with a large group discussion of the genre moves of letters to an editor.  Students will give different names to the moves, but in general the moves are:

  • Red is identified as staking one’s authority or background in relationship to the topic
  • Green is a reference to the topic of conversation the writer is weighing in on
  • Blue is the writer’s position in this conversation, or their claim
  • Purple is their basic argument or support for their position

This activity could continue with more complex letters and students could identify the four basic moves and other possible ones.  The instructional sequence continues with our asking students to provide what we call “procedural feedback” to the letter writers.   We ask peer responders to start by giving a description of what the writer has done and then explaining the meaning or the effect of what was done.  Students write things such as “I notice that you began your letter by showing your authority.  I think that was a good move as it made me believe the argument that you go on to make”  Or  “I see that you try to establish your authority by explaining that you are a person who is affected by school lunch policy.  I wonder whether saying a bit more about something related to nutrition might help make the rest of the letter more persuasive.”

With this preparation students should have enough genre knowledge to compose their own letters to the editor about an issue that has come up in the current inquiry or unit.  Since students have developed conscious competence about how the genre works, and the capacity to notice and name the different moves and the effect of each, they can then share their drafts and will know enough to identify the four moves, and provide useful feedback to each other about what has been done or could still be done to revise the letters.

This process of induction, which positions students as active meaning-makers and inquirers into how texts work – both in general and with specific text types, can be used to teach any genre, any text feature, or literary element.

Duke, N. K., & Roberts, K. L. (2010). The genre-specific nature of reading. In D. Wyse, R. Andrews, & J. Hoffman (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of English, language, and literacy teaching (pp. 74–86). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Wilhelm, J. D. & Smith, M.W. (2017). Diving Deep into Nonfiction: Transferable tools for reading ANY nonfiction text.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Written by

Jeffrey Wilhelm is an internationally respected teacher, author, and presenter who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen professional texts and programs that have redefined secondary school literacy instruction. He is the author of Uncommon Core and the upcoming title, Diving Deep into Nonfiction.


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