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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Six Ways to Increase Elaboration in Writing

So often student writing efforts are what I call "bare bones." Student writing lacks muscle and flesh and features, due to a paucity of specific verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, as well as a lack of complex sentence structure. Students often have not received instruction in showing versus telling.

How can we increase elaboration in writing?

The best remedy for this is for students to examine excellent writing. As students read exemplary passages, they need to ask:
  • What's happening here that's not happening in my own writing?
  • What choices has the author made in terms of individual words, sentence grammar, and paragraph construction?
  • What did the author include to paint a picture of what's happening?
  • What has the author deliberately left out for the reader to piece together?
Sometimes the missing piece of the puzzle is simply word choice. When teaching my students the importance of using alternatives to said, for example, I assigned pairs of students two chapters from Gordon Korman's Swindle. Korman is a master at crafting realistic dialogue, and in one chapter alone a student found thirty speaking words other than said, and the word said itself was used just five times (and most often with an adverb). (Using just a portion of a novel like this to examine craft absolutely works! You can use online book trailers to fill in the missing information or to give a complete picture of the story line).

More often, however, multiple variables are at work, making some texts difficult to dissect; this, in turn, causes some students to simply decode words, and other students to give up entirely. If students aren't struggling with complex texts, then they're likely to lack experience with excellent exemplars upon which to model their own writing. One way to address this in the classroom is through close reading of select portions of text (see my previous post on Close Readings).

Another way to address elaboration, however, is through close readings of simpler, rather than more complex, mentor texts. In much of our students' writing, the details which are important and of interest to the reader simply aren't fleshed out. But in picture books, of all places, authors often take the simplest kernel of an idea and expand it broadly and creatively. To see such an example of elaboration, I recommend Daniel Boone's Great Escape, written by Michael P. Spradlin and illustrated by Ard Hoyt. This suspense filled book, bursting with strong verbs and vivid details, is inspired by just a single line in Boone's diary!

A great extension would have students choose historical events from their typically brief descriptions in textbooks and "blow them up." Will some imagination be involved? Yes. Will some "liberties be taken"? Yes. But I think if we resign ourselves to those concessions, and rightfully call our pieces historical fiction, we can then focus on this craft of elaboration.

I'd also recommend using students' own writing as exemplars. Following our Boone reading and discussion, my sixth grade class turned to a formal lesson on  Six Ways to Increase Elaboration in Writing. Students were pleased and proud to see their own writing selected to illustrate each point (see below). They also felt encouraged, knowing that their existing writing was already beginning to improve since earlier sessions.

Need a more picture books for ideas? Check out the extremely descriptive language of The Scarlet Stockings Spy, written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp, or the humorous, fictional retellings of great lives in Lane Smith's John, Paul, George and Ben. Both books are described in a previous post on The American Revolution.


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