A Revised Explanation of a Game
borrowing voice techniques from a mentor text and applying them
to an expository prompt about explaining a game's rules
Here's a book that inspires us!
In Nevada, our Northern Nevada Writing Project hosts annual teacher workshops on Expository and Informative Writing.
In the sixteen-hour version of this class, participants are each given a copy of Gretchen Bernabei's Reviving the Essay: How to Teach Structure Without Formula, which contains great lesson ideas for teaching authentic expository writing. No hamburger paragraphs in this book!
We encourage our participants to adapt the book's lessons, applying the book's ideas to their favorite mentor texts. This page contains a lesson that was created by one of our teacher participants.
A Note from this Lesson's Author:
Quoting Corbett: "Although I specifically designed this lesson for Nevada eighth graders who were preparing for their eighth grade expository writing test, I believe it could be used with all students in grades 4th-12th who are learning to write and revise explanatory/informative text. I have successfully used this lesson to teach revision for writing done to the following prompt:"
Think about a game you enjoy. You have a reader who has never played the game but wants to learn. In a report to your reader, describe the game and explain how it is played. Be sure to explain the rules, the equipment, the number of players, and anything else your reader might need to know to play the game.
To help them create a better piece of expository writing based on the prompt above, students are taught to "read like a writer" and analyze voice skills used by the authors of The Dangerous Book for Boys. When they draft or revise their own reports that explain how to play games they have chosen to write about, students try using two or three voice skills from the mentor text in their own writing.
Focus Trait/Skill: Voice/applying appropriate expository voice skills to help their expository writing "sparkle" a bit more
Support Trait/Skill:Organization/organizing an essay into logical parts and sections, which should always be a skill that's talked about when teaching expository writing.
The Mentor Text for this Lesson:
My mother bought me a copy of Conn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous Book for Boys when I was forty-one years old. Inside, she wrote, "Please don't ever lose that boyish quality. Love Mom." The book self-describes itself as "The perfect book for every boy from eight to eighty," which has proven to be a true statement.
The book is a collection of expository writing intended to teach boys skills to keep from being bored. The book's text explains how to identify things in nature, tie knots, fold paper boats and hats, and countless other tasks that all boys should learn to do. As a kid, I had my copy of The Boy Scout Handbook, which was kind of a boring read on many of the same topics in this book. The Dangerous authors go out of their way to add small amounts of voice to every essay.
For this particular lesson, I chose three short pieces of expository text from the book, Xeroxed them so that students could mark it up as we learned about voice, and pasted them onto this header that I created. The three pieces of text are:
- "How to skip stones" (on page 171 of my copy of the book)
- "How to play hangman (on page 144 of my copy of the book)
- "How to play 'houses'" (on page 144 of my copy of the book)
My Teacher Model:
If you really want to invest your students in writing expository text (which can be a dull task), I am a true believer that you need to write and show your own attempts at the same essays you are asking them to write. When writing is assigned to them but the teacher doesn't participate or use his own model to show learning, the writing suffers.
I am including my rough draft and my revised draft that I use to teach this lesson. I invite you to use my model as your own, but you should really write your own model, if you're trying to inspire your students to care about their writing.
- My rough draft about playing "Heads Up, Seven Up" I purposely wrote this to be organized but not have a lot of voice. I use it in the lesson by asking students, "What advice would you give me about improving my voice here?"
- My revised essay on playing "Heads Up, Seven Up" I ended up revising just my introduction and the first paragraph of my essay, which was more than enough to help my students see how writing can be improved if one thinks about specific voice skills before revising.
Teaching Students to "Read Like Writers:"
The Essential Question for this lesson is:
How can ‘reading like a writer’ help me choose skills to focus on for improving my next piece of expository writing?
When students "read like readers," they are reading a published piece of writing to comprehend and hopefully enjoy the text. "Reading like writers" requires students to read the text a second time, this time specifically looking for skills that the author used to make his/her writing stand out as strong, quality writing.
One of my favorite tools for teaching students to "read like writers" requires them to "rank" writing skills against each other. When ranking, students must select one skill as the "stand out skill," then decide on a second-place skill, third-place skill, etc. This type of thinking demands that students analyze the skills in the mentor text and evaluate them against each other , which is a challenge to teach them to do well; our students, I believe, aren't asked enough to anaylze and evaluate in school, so you must take the time to teach students to use tools--like the following--well.
When first teaching students to rank skills, I find it helpful to have them do it in partnerships, but you must be very diligent in getting them to talk to each other before deciding on their rankings.
(Have students fold these rating checklists, so they have a side A and B side to look at separately.)
- Several days after students write rough drafts for the "Explain a game to a reader" prompt, tell them it's time to revise them for voice, which is a trait that can make expository writing better but that you have to be careful not to include too much of it. In narrative writing, extra voice can be appropriate; in expository writing, a writer can include snippets of voice but not too much.
- Show them your teacher model of writing to the prompt. In the model I've included, I purposely avoided using much voice. I tell the students, "Sometimes I forget to include voice in my rough draft. That's why I'm thankful for revision; it gives me a chance to add it. What voice skills have I forgotten to include that I might try to add?" WritingFix's student-friendly 6-trait handouts work really well for giving students vocabulary about voice (as well as the other traits), if you're having conversations like this whole-group.
- To show them what "snippets of voice skills" look like in published expository writing, have them read the three expository texts from The Dangerous Book for Boys. Have them discuss, "Which of these three essays would earn a better score, if it was submitted for scoring to the state writing exam?" Have students share their reasoning. Have students see if they can identify snippets (word choices or powerful sentences) that strengthen the voice of these essays. Be sure you have some voiced-specific moments identified ahead of time that you can discuss with the students.
- Assign partners and have student groups choose one of the three essays to read a second time (preferably the one they selected from above), this time "reading like a writer." To help them do this, to help them think specifically about skills, they will use side A of the voice checklist to rank the author's writing skills against each other. Require students to have a real conversation about the five skills before they mark any numbers down. I encourage my students to find the "5 skill" first, then the "1 skill," then rank the skills that fall in between.
- Show your teacher model again. Read just one paragraph aloud, asking students to help you "read like a writer." Ask, "Which of the five skills from the checklist would they rank the lowest in your model? How do knowing what those skills are help me to choose some strategies for revision?" Remind your students that revising is not checking spelling, adding a few details to make it longer, and writing it neater; revision is about--possibly--changing whole parts to make skills stand out stronger.
- Now, ask students to use side B of the checklist to rank their own use of the five voice skills in their own rough drafts. I have students do this independently, then discuss their rankings with another student. With the rankings in place, have them look specifically at their bottom three skills. To promote student choice, I always say, "Look at three, and from those select two voice skills that would make sense for you to focus on when you revise your draft for me to score."
- Before students revise, show them your revised teacher model, asking them to spot where it seems to have improved in voice.
- In Nevada, when using this lesson as a practice for our writing exam, we have students write their final drafts on this exam final draft mock-up form so that they can practice fitting their writing into the amount of space they're allowed to use on the test; plus, the form gives the teacher the ability to mark the trait scores analytically on the right-hand side. Here is our student-friendly rubric for the four scored traits in Nevada. Here too is the holistic rubric that actually is used to score 8th grade writers, but we believe providing an analytic score proves more useful to our students as they prepare for the state writing exam.
This is a brand new lesson that was created over the Fall of 2010. Students samples will be added by Corbett soon.
If you use this lesson and want to share a particularly good student essay that showed much improvement in voice during revision, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If we end up posting it here for other teachers to share in their classrooms, we will send you one of the NNWP's Print Guides as our way of saying thanks.