About this blog Subscribe to this blog
« Prev: Boys Write, Boys Read Writing Workshop Units of Study: A Day with Lucy Calkins: Next»

Teaching Conventions in Context: Author's Craft Study

New photo added 4/13


I distinctly remember teaching myself conventions through personal literature as a child. I even remember having trouble grasping a grammar lesson taught during the day, only to have an author teach me, through their writing, later that evening. I still believe the best way to learn grammar conventions is through observation- or what we call author's craft. What better resources do we have than professional authors to learn from? Plus, research clearly does not support teaching conventions in isolation. Here are a few things we do in the classroom to teach and apply conventions.


Photo: Learning through observing

Finding Mentor Texts

Many of the professional authors I endorse recommend having mentor texts for your classroom. If you are not familiar with this concept, think of adopting an author or a few well-written pieces this year with your class to help guide your writers on various skills and strategies. We have adopted a few authors which we refer and look to time and time again. The short piece "Eleven" posted in a Ralph Fletcher book and Lucy Calkin's 3-5 Units of Study, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack, and several books by Cynthia Rylant. When I first adopted this approach of talking about and discussing certain elements of language I worried that students would begin to say, "Ah, not Lester again," but I can honestly say that it has had the opposite result. Instead of hearing murmurs of, "Not again," I often hear with various read-alouds, "Oh, like Lester does in his book." Unprompted or questioned. They just seem to get it and understand the benefits of going back to familiar, well-written books. I think one of the strongest benefits to adopting mentor texts for your classroom is that students deeply understand what it means to read like a writer. They can't help but to look at books differently. They notice what the author is doing-and more importantly- they are understanding why they are doing it. With this concept under their belt, they are one short hop away from trying it out in their writing.

The process I use to address conventions in context is usually three-fold.

~First, I introduce the concept through a mini-lesson using an author (or mentor text). We look at this together and discuss our noticings. I often organize this by creating a chart that says- "What is the author doing? Why are they doing this? Other examples we have read include."

~Next, I invite my students to try this out with their own reading. I pass out a blank chart like the one we created together and ask students to take some time to record what they are noticing in their books. What I like about this activity is that it is natural differentiated. Each student is reading a different book with varying degrees of complexity.I find it true that students can only write as well as they can read.

~Finally, I encourage students to incorporate this new knowledge into their writing. I follow this with looking to see if students are "using but confusing" this skill or strategy and support them through individual conferences. The anchor charts are really helpful and can really help reinforce what we have learned and noticed. I enjoy pulling books out to help support attempted skills and strategies. It seems less threatening to rely on a picture book to teach us something during an individual conference.

Here are a few anchor charts that demonstrate how we addressed specific skills through context this year:

To Teach Dashes

(The students came up with the definitions. I thought the P.S. of a letter was just pure brilliance).


To Teach Proper Nouns

Although not shown in the photo, the "why" behind using proper nouns was well received by our class. There is a big difference between teaching a skill then assessing it through a worksheet verses discussing why authors use proper nouns in their writing and observing and supporting students who begin to try this in their writing.  


To Teach Transitional Words

We used Katie Wood Ray's book, Study Driven, during our essay unit to look at high interest essays.  Our goal was to see how real writers used transitional words. We started a collection of words we found. We also noticed headings were used to go from supporting detail to supporting detail to help organize thoughts.

We also noticed that the traditional hamburger model of 5 paragraphs with five sentences in each paragraph is non-existent outside of a school setting.


Applying Figurative Language

Could you imagine Jane Yolen being told to incorporate "X" amount of similes and metaphors into her Owl Moon story? That idea just sounds insane to me, yet many teachers assign students to incorporate a certain amount of similes or metaphors into student writing. I kept my focus on observation and had students post examples found in books they were reading. This included similes, metaphors, and rich examples of alliteration. As a result, my students do a solid job of balancing in figurative language.


Looking at Beginnings

Move your students away from scripted beginning stories. We went straight to the sources and read many, many books in one sitting. Okay, we read the first paragraph...for author's craft purposes. How do authors start their stories? Are there some patterns? Certain techniques? Can we try it in our writing?


Photo: The chart on the left came from our mini-lesson together.


Photo: This is a close-up of the chart on the right above. Here students began to add strong beginnings found during reader's workshop. These examples were then shared in class.


Photo: After looking at beginnings, we attempted to try out rich beginnings in our own writing. Here are a few. Although I don't have my second mini-lesson chart to show you, we discussed using fragments to start a story. As you can see, two of these story beginnings attempt this strategy. I think it had the right effect and turned out nicely.

General Author's Craft

And it all comes back to what I remember doing when I was younger. What is the author doing? On any given page this could be very many things. That is why I like to conduct mini-lessons that allow us to look at all the various elements an author may be using in their writing, rather than restrict our talk to just "fragment sentences" or examples of "similes." Here is an example from last week:

Photo: An author's craft mini-lesson, using the book Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. I dare you to read this without crying!


Photo: A student uses a chart similar to the one shown above to observe and record her noticings in another Polacco book. The only modification was a chart box that asked if the student was considering trying this in their writing. Many did go on to incorporate this newly claimed strategy or skill.

A Word on Assessment

Undoubtedly, a teacher will want to know the bottom line. Where's the assessment for the grade-book? How do we communicate this with parents? You may want to visit my other blog post on Assessment under the workshop model. In short, I just don't worry about it anymore. Especially when we use the multi-literacy block approach where 20 mini-lessons each week give an abundance of opportunities to formally assess a skill or strategy.

Tornadoes Hit Murfreesboro


Photo: One of 4 tornadoes that touched down in Murfreesboro. It was graded an F4, with 1/2 mile width and a 15 mile path.

Maybe you heard about us on the national news or noticed a link on various pages (including the Yahoo homepage). Several tornadoes touched down and damaged many parts of our city Friday, April 11. The damage was far spread, including one house lifting up and landing on another house. Fortunately, we were out of the state when this occurred; one of the larger tornadoes was very close to our home. As a family member tried to get to our house to see if everything was okay, a tornado crossed in front of their truck. Our house was not damaged, but unfortunately some student homes at my son's school were totally destroyed. Two residents, including a nine week old baby were found dead and over 40 residents were badly injured. Please keep Murfreesboro in your prayers.http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090411/ap_on_re_us/severe_weather


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.



It just makes sense to teach it that way, right? Teaching voice can be a challenge for emerging writers for sure! Thanks for reinforcing that it is more meaningful to learn conventions, form, and style by closely looking at quality pieces of writing.

Knowing that you are a fellow photo-copier...you might want to look into Katie Wood Ray's book, Study Driven. I have used many of her pieces to photo-copy and discuss with my class. It has helped me in both reader's and writer's workshop.



Alyssa Zelkowitz


I also love using 'real authors' to teach conventions... I've actually found that the best way to teach 'voice' in my classroom (that elusive quality of writing often evades my emerging writers, especially those who lack confidence!) is to photocopy pages from different mentor authors writing on a similar subject or purpose (describing something, introducing a friend, etc.) and share them with students on the overhead. We talk about how different authors 'sound different' when talking about the same thing and deduce that this quality is what Ms. Zelkowitz means when she says she "wants to hear your voice in your writing." Another way to teach voice using mentor texts from real authors is to copy pages from two different books by the same author (or half as many authors as students in your class), have them find the person whose text they think is by the same author, and justify their choice based on how the author uses words and language to communicate ideas.

While voice is not strictly a convention, you can DEFINITELY use authors to teach it!

Thanks for your continuing great ideas!




I was so happy you sat next to me...front row, in the middle....we were such nerds. Lucy Calkins, right! How could we not?

Great to hear that you checked out the blog and will be sharing it with other teachers. With state testing starting tomorrow, my classroom environment currently looks like a stark prison. U-g-l-y!

So, Ralph Fletcher is on my list next. I'm crossing my fingers...maybe I'll see you around soon. :)



Hope your Florida trip was fun! I met you at Lucy Calkins' workshop last week and just wanted to let you know that I love your blog! I've added it to my favorites. I've also shared it with my students at Harding. I'm writing my dissertation on classroom environment (yours is amazing!) and the perceptions of first year teachers. I will be adding your blog to my list of resources for first year teachers. Thanks! It was very nice meeting you. Maybe our paths will cross again meeting another favorite author....

Wishing you all the best,



How bizzare that another Victoria (B.) writes (vs. Victoria J.). Victoria is not exactly a common name around here.

I formally taught 6th grade myself. It did seem like it was much harder to find resources for this age grade. I also found things geared for upper grades and modified it.

And I have enjoyed adding all the photos this year. Each week I am on the lookout for something new to post. This blog has helped us create a yearbook of sorts...

And finally, I am going to add a photo of ONE of the tornadoes that touched down in Murfreesboro. It was graded an F4, 1/2 mile long and took a 15 mile course. 41 were injured and 2 died (a mother and her 9 week child were sucked out through the roof and thrown). It is such a sad situation, and everyone seems to know someone who was severely impacted by this terrible storm.





Thank you for sharing your year with all of us. I have been so inspired by your blog. As a 6th grade Language Arts arts teacher, I have easily modified many of your ideas to meet the needs of my slightly older students for whom taking ownership of their own learning is so important. I especially appreciate the number of pictures that you include. I am such a visual learner!

I'm so sorry that your school and community have been through such a terrible weather event. You are all in my prayers.



Victoria and Laura,

Yes to Number the Stars. We are going to see a play version next month as well. I think Lowry's books are great. The Giver is one of her best books to me.

And Laura- on filming mini-lessons. I have tried this out a few times at the beginning of the year. It is a VERY good learning tool for yourself. You notice things that you haven't noticed before. For me it was affirming, as I discovered that I do not have any nervous ticks (ex- saying, "Um."), and I also managed to teach a lesson in 10 minutes. A few students, two, on the other hand...

And yes to Victoria's site. She knows when I found hers because I wrote and told her I was very jealous! Very jealous. It makes me want to learn some html a little more. :)



Laura Sims


I just wanted to say that I love your idea of filming mini-lessons for future reference! I might try it too... And as a side note, I happened upon your website awhile back, and IT IS TRULY AMAZING! (Angela & fellow followers of this blog- you have to check it out!)

Laura Sims
4th grade


I "officially" saw Murfreesboro on the news today. I haven't watched the news too much lately, so I hadn't heard it was your town at first. However, I thought about you a lot, and I am so grateful you are doing all right.

Now about this mini-unit- I LOVE IT. I am actually going to use your mini-unit as inspiration because of our book publishing project. Grammar is challenging to teach to fourth grade students because the last thing I want to do is teach it in isolation. (Example- "Correct these sentences.") I desire to teach it in context of what they read. Understanding author's craft helps students to develop their prosody as they read various stories aloud.

I inform parents about mini-lessons in my weekly newsletter, and I hope to inform them more in the future through our classroom website. Perhaps next year I can have students film mini-lessons so they can go back and watch the lessons for future reference.

It's also so exciting to see Number the Stars in one of your pictures. That is one of my very favorite books.



Thanks for the thoughts and prayers. I just opened my email up and was overwhelmed by all the updates from friends and family. The word used by several was "war zone." I will be sad to see it all when I return tomorrow from Florida.

Also, thank you to those that follow this blog that personally emailed me today. I really appreciate your concern and care.

Much respect,


Susie G

Our thoughts and prayers are with you all!



If you visit an older blog (under Quick Links), you will see a post titled- Teaching Moon Phases

It will give you detailed directions. In essence, I used it to show the different phases of the moon. I took a black foam board and screwed ping palls around in a circle fashion. Using a flashlight it visually shows you the different phases of the moon (having the child, not the board move around as the flashlight shines from one direction). The blog gives you a much better description than this, but hopefully you get the point. :)


Brent Kramer

I came across your wonderful website this morning. I was wondering what project you were doing that involved the white foam balls on your Science page? It seems like your class has a lot of fun!

Brent Kramer
3rd Grade
Brandon Elementary

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

Recent Posts


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Angela's 4th Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.