Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Every Word Carries Its Weight

It is rare that a picture book is awarded the John Newbery Medal. This honor is usually bestowed on novels for intermediate and middle school age readers.  Therefore, when I discovered that this year's recipient was Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book by Matt de la Pena, I was even more eager to read it.  The word choice of this book immediately stood out.  I teach my students that when thinking about the trait of word choice,  a writer's goal is that every word carries its weight.  That means that the author has stretched and searched for that  just right word that will paint a picture in the reader's mind, or precisely describe what the writer sees or feels. Matt de la Pena has done this.  
This book is an excellent mentor for teaching the trait of Word Choice.  If you are using the Teachers College Reading  & Writing Project checklists and rubrics to guide your instruction, this lesson would help students meet the criteria for Description in the Development section of the narrative checklists and rubrics.

Mini-lesson Suggestion for Word Choice:
  • Have students close their eyes and listen to you read the page on which CJ closes his eyes and listens to the man playing the guitar for the passengers on the bus.  Then, ask them what they pictured in their mind as they listened, and which words helped create that picture.   Are there any words that linger or "stick" in their mind from that page?  You may choose to list these on a chart of "Wonderful Words".  
  • Remind students that writers stretch and search for the just right word to paint a picture in your mind.  Note that the author did not simply write that the hawks and butterflies flew; instead, the hawks "sliced through the sky" and the butterflies were "dancing free". As a writer, you need to start with a picture in your mind, then search for that "just right word" to show the reader what you see in your mind. 
  • Have students read the pieces they are currently working on and choose a scene or sentence (depending on which is more appropriate for the skill/age of the students), and have them close their eyes and picture it in their eyes.  You may even encourage students to act it out!  Then have students tell a partner what that they saw in their mind's eye.  Encourage them to "stretch" and search for a more precise word than what they had originally written.
  • After this oral rehearsal, students can revise their writing by replacing some "just o.k." words with more specific "just right" words.  
  • Don't forget to give the young authors the opportunity to share their improved word choices!

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