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Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5

Reading Like a Writer

How can you use literature in your writing workshop and teach students to look for writing strategies as they read? In this workshop, you will learn how to use “touchstone” and “mentor” texts to teach students new writing techniques. By watching classroom examples, you will also see how teachers immerse students in literary genres and use engaging texts to set the stage for writing.

Isoke NiaWhen you read like a writer, books should weigh twice as much because of what you can see inside the book.

— Isoke Nia, literacy consultant

Learning Goals

In this workshop you will explore how to:

  • create a classroom library filled with great literary models
  • use literature to help students explore different writing options
  • teach students to read literature closely by looking at it through the lens of a writer
  • illustrate and teach specific elements of writing craft using passages from literature

Prepare for the Workshop

To prepare for this workshop, you will review the strategies you already use and read two chapters from the book Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom by Katie Wood Ray.


What Do You Do?

Think about a text (a picture book, a novel, an essay, a poem, etc.) that you have used to help you teach writing. In your notebook, briefly jot down specifics about the way in which you incorporated this text into your instruction. Then answer the following questions:

  • How did your students respond to the piece?
  • What impact did the text have on their writing?
  • How would you compare the success of this lesson with one that did not include a literary text?

If you do not regularly use literary texts in your writing instruction, think of one of your favorite pieces of children’s literature and then write down ideas about how it might be incorporated into a writing lesson.


Examine the Literature

Print out the Examine the Literature Response Chart (PDF). Then read each chapter listed below, recording your ideas on the chart during and after reading. When you have finished, save your chart to submit as an assignment.

An Invitation to My Library: The Craft of Text Structure (PDF)
This chapter examines how to select books to teach lessons on writing conventions and text structure.

Ray, Katie Wood. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom, 139-159. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. Copyright 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Another Invitation to My Library: Ways With Words (PDF)
This chapter examines how to teach students to see the strategies writers use to create engaging text and to apply these strategies to their own writing.

Ray, Katie Wood. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom, 161-186. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. Copyright 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Analyze the Videos

Key Practices To Observe

“Reading Like a Writer” and “Reading/Writing Connections” explore how teachers use literature to help students become better writers. They feature commentary from experts on teaching writing at the elementary level, as well as classroom illustrations highlighting the practices of several teachers.

As you watch, look for the following key practices:

  • Teachers think about texts from the viewpoint of a reader, a writer, and a teacher.
  • Teachers demonstrate strategies that help students learn to read as writers.
  • Teachers use “touchstone texts” to help illustrate and clarify writing craft for students.
  • Students choose “mentor texts” by authors they admire and/or with whom they identify.
  • Teachers and students look for specific “craft moves”: what writers have done to make the text work for readers.
  • Students identify with the choices made by professional writers.
  • Teachers give students the opportunity to write the kinds of texts they like to read.
  • Students experiment with the craft moves they observe in their reading.
  • Students identify and critique craft moves in their own writing and analyze how their writing will affect the reader.

Extend Your Learning

Examine Your Practice

This workshop examines the relationship between reading and writing during a writing workshop. In the videos, teachers and other experts talk about what it means to read like a writer. When you are reading like a writer, you begin to notice how things are written because you write yourself. Likewise, knowing you are going to write in a certain genre changes the way you read it.

Read the following quote, consider your own students, and answer the questions below.

To read like a writer is to apprentice yourself to another writer. We try to teach kids to create their own style by learning the styles of other writers and taking on those craft moves that they think they can do and that they think will enhance their writing, without imitating the exact structure of the other writer’s piece.

Teachers should be able to first, read like a reader — take it in and enjoy it. Then, read like a writer — look into a text and notice the craft. And then, read like a teacher of writing — be able to identify the craft that you can teach to your students, what your students need to learn.

— Isoke Nia


Guiding Questions

Reflect on the quote from Isoke Nia and consider your own students. Then write your answers to the questions below in your notebook. If you are working in a group, share your responses.

  • Think about how you read text. Do you switch “lenses” easily when you’re reading, going from reader to writer to teacher? What are some specific aspects of a text that you focus on as a reader? As a writer? As a teacher?
  • Describe how you could model reading like a writer outside of your language arts instruction.

Try an Activity

Interactive. (Activity disabled due to Flash content.)

Examine Writing Techniques

To teach writing techniques, teachers often rely on passages from well-loved children’s literature. In this interactive, you will identify writing techniques involving the use of detail and dialogue from different children’s books.

Put It Into Practice

The videos, activities, and readings in this workshop illustrate several strategies for helping students read like writers. Now apply what you have learned to develop a mini-lesson to help your students notice specific writing techniques and develop their writing skills as they read.


Create a Craft Mini-Lesson

Based on what you’ve learned from the videos and activities, use one or more pieces of literature to design a writing craft mini-lesson that relates to your students’ current writing work. The lesson could be genre-specific (using space in poetry or adding descriptive detail to personal narratives), or it could reflect a more general need among your students (learning how to write dialogue or where to make paragraph breaks). Be sure to include the following:

  • materials needed, including the literature itself
  • your plan for sharing the literature with students (handouts, overhead, read-aloud, etc.)
  • the writing technique your students are learning
  • specific passages that illustrate that technique
  • the structure of your lesson, including how your students will apply what they have learned in their own writing

After you teach the lesson, answer the following questions:

  • How did your students respond to the literary example(s)?
  • What evidence did you see that they understood the craft lesson?
  • How would you change the lesson if you were to teach it again?

Reflect on Your Learning


What Did You Learn?

Summarize what you have learned about using published literature in a writing workshop from the experts’ statements, classroom examples, and the readings and activities in this workshop. Use the questions below to guide your thinking. When you have finished, save your written summary to submit as an assignment.

  • Which classroom practices from the videos reflect what you currently do?
  • Which practices or ideas are new to you?
  • What changes do you plan to make?
  • What support and/or resources will you need to implement these ideas?

Related Resources

Web Resources

National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE provides research, teaching resources, and articles for teaching writing at all levels.

Children’s Literature Reviews
This site features interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators, and several sets of themed reviews archived for continued reference.

100 Best Books for Children
Selected by the National Education Association as great reading for children and young people, this site offers recommendations are grouped by age level and include links to the books and authors.

Designed by teachers for teachers, this site features writing lessons inspired by favorite picture books — designed by teachers for teachers.

Print Resources

Flynn, Nick, and Shirley McPhillips. A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2000. ISBN: 1571103201

Each chapter begins with a “mentor poem” and then moves into an examination of how that poem could be used in a writing workshop setting to teach students particular poetic techniques and elements and to inspire their writing.

Hansen, Jane. When Writers Read. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003009

Hansen explores what students can do to better evaluate themselves as readers and writers and what teachers can do to help them.

Harwayne, Shelley. Lasting Impressions: Weaving Literature Into the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435087320

The author addresses the diverse ways in which teachers can incorporate literature into writing instruction in grades K-5.

Harwayne, Shelley. Novel Perspectives: Writing Minilessons Inspired by the Children in Adult Novels. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005. ISBN: 0325008779

This book offers 57 lessons for grades 3-8 based on passages about children from writers including Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, and Jamaica Kincaid.

Nagin, Carl. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. ISBN: 0787965626

This book is a research-based assessment of the relationship between reading and writing and the necessity for building strong writing programs in schools.

Ray, Katie Wood. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999. ISBN: 0814158161

This book provides a theoretical basis for using literature to help elementary students learn to write and offers practical suggestions for combining reading and writing in the classroom.


Literacy Experts

Isoke Titilayo NiaIsoke Titilayo Nia

An educator for more than 25 years, Isoke also spent 13 years as Director of Research and Development at the Reading/Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. She currently travels throughout the U.S. and abroad as a literacy consultant through All Write Literacy Consultants, an organization she founded in 2001. She writes short stories and is at work on a book on the study of genre in the process classroom.

Katie Wood RayKatie Wood Ray, Ph.D.

Katie is a full-time writer and researcher on the teaching of writing. With a particular focus on the study of writing craft, she leads teacher workshops and summer institutes across the nation related to the teaching of writing. Her professional background includes both elementary and middle school teaching experience; eight years as an Associate Professor of language arts education at Western Carolina University; and two years as a staff developer at The Reading and Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Katie is also the author or co-author of numerous articles in professional publications and five books on the teaching of writing, including Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom(1999, NCTE) and The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (2001, NCTE).

Featured Teachers

Sheryl BlockSheryl Block
Fourth-Grade Teacher
Simpsonville Elementary, Simpsonville, Kentucky

Sheryl Block has been teaching for 26 years, the first 9 years in special education. Since 1990, Sheryl has provided professional development training in writing instruction in her own district and throughout Kentucky. She is a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Writing Advisory Committee and the Scoring Accuracy Team. She also serves as a writing cluster leader for the north-central region in Kentucky.

About the School:

Located in a rural, agricultural community, Simpsonville Elementary places a high priority on writing instruction — the principal received the Patronus Award, the highest honor given by the Louisville Writing Project (a National Writing Project affiliate). Although the students are primarily Caucasian, Simpsonville has a growing Hispanic population, higher than the state average.

Lindsay DibertLindsay Dibert
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Danville Elementary, Danville, New Hampshire

Lindsay Dibert has been teaching fifth grade for the past six years. She has served on technology and distance learning teams for the Timberlane Regional School District. Lindsay earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and her M.S.T.E. from the University of New Hampshire.

About the School:

Danville is a small town in southern New Hampshire, and Danville Elementary is one of five elementary schools in the Timberlane Regional school district. The school enrollment is nearly 400, and 96 percent are Caucasian.

Silvia EdgertonSilvia Edgerton
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Herrera School for the Fine Arts, Phoenix, Arizona

A 22-year teaching veteran, Silvia Edgerton has worked with students ranging in age from 6 to 14. She received her bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. A second language learner herself, Silvia leads reading and writing workshops for parents of Herrera School students.

About the School:

Located in the urban core of Phoenix and among the poorest districts in the nation, Herrera is a fine arts magnet school with a comprehensive arts curriculum. Predominantly Hispanic (93 percent), 44 percent of the students are second language learners. The school has a two-way bilingual immersion program in which non-Spanish-speaking students are learning Spanish and native Spanish speakers are learning English.

Mark HansenMark Hansen
Third-Grade Teacher
Clarendon Elementary, Portland, Oregon

Mark Hansen graduated from Swarthmore College with degrees in anthropology and sociology. His first experience in teaching was as an assistant working with fourth- and fifth-graders with severe emotional problems. He went on to teach adjudicated teenagers in a Los Angeles mental health facility before returning to college and graduating from Lewis and Clark College’s MAT program in 2001. He has been teaching third grade for four years at Clarendon, where he is also the Title One Coordinator. He serves on the steering committee of Portland Area Rethinking Schools, and published an article in Re-thinking Education On-Line.

About the School:

Clarendon’s student population of 338 represents a wide diversity of ethnic groups — almost 50 percent of students speak a language other than English in their homes, and bi-weekly parent meetings are held in English, Spanish, and Hmong. No walls separate classrooms, and teachers are encouraged to mix students of different ages for a variety of activities.

Latosha RowleyLatosha Rowley
Third-Grade Teacher
Cold Spring Academy, Indianapolis, Indiana

Latosha Rowley has been teaching for six years in grades 2-5. She serves in her school district’s leadership program, and co-wrote an article published in the NCTE publication Primary Voices, titled “Making Meaning.” She received her degrees from Indiana University and currently attends Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

About the School:

More than 300 students attend Cold Spring Academy, a K-8 program with a focus on environmental studies and stewardship as well as on commitment to community action. Nearly 90 percent of the students are African American.

Christine SanchezChristine Sanchez
Third-Grade Teacher
Tohaali Community School, Toadlena, New Mexico

Christine Sanchez has been teaching for 11 years, two years at Tohaali Community School on the Navajo reservation. Christine is also Navajo and, like her students, grew up on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico. Christine received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Fort Lewis College and her master’s in educational leadership at Western New Mexico University.

About the School:

Tohaali is both a day school and a boarding school — many of its 200 students live in dormitories during the school year. All students at Tohaali Community School are Navajo. The school serves kindergarten through eighth grade, with about two-thirds of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Cristina TijerinaCristina Tijerina
Fourth-Grade Teacher
Sharp Elementary, Brownsville, Texas

Cristina Tijerina has been teaching at the elementary level since 1977. For the past 14 years, she has taught fourth-grade language arts at Sharp Elementary in Brownsville, Texas, located close to the U.S.-Mexico border. In past years she has taught remedial reading, ESL, and first and sixth grades. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in elementary education with a concentration in reading. She has nearly completed work on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Texas at Brownsville.

About the School:

Two-thirds of the students who attend Sharp Elementary are considered Limited English Proficient — most of Cristina’s students do not speak English at home. Many of the students (94 percent) are considered economically disadvantaged. The school has an above-average gifted/talented student population and a 98 percent attendance rate.