One thing I like about the new Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts is the emphasis on looking closely at language choices authors make. NY State Standard #4 requires that students, “Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” Looking closely at language is a huge part of what I love about reading and writing in my own life. Standards themselves, however, don’t teach any of this to students, or make it interesting.

I’m sharing a lesson sequence on economy of language I taught last week, that provided a compelling way in to this standard. I co-planned the lesson with learning specialist Marcia Stiman-Lavian and I borrowed significantly from materials shared by fellow CTQ blogger, Bill Ferriter. This sequence was a lot of fun, and it really seemed to wake students up to the power and nuance of individual words, opening the door to more intensive investigation of the function of specific words—and punctuation—in text.

Lesson: Economy of Language

How Much Meaning Can Authors Pack Into a Few Words?

Preparation: For homework the night before, students bring in a photograph that represents something important to them or relates significantly to their lives.

1. Free-write first: Using their photograph as inspiration, have students free write for about 5-7 minutes. Any genre of writing is allowed in free-writing.

2. Read 25 word stories: I got this idea from Bill Ferriter, who offers a lesson and great downloadable materials for it on his blog, The Tempered Radical here. (He first got turned on to the form by following Kevin Hodgson on Twitter.)

I simply introduced the 25 word story to my students by saying, “There’s a cool new story form out there, catching on through Twitter, called the 25 word story. These stories have the main elements of story in only 25 words. Today we’re going to look at how much meaning authors can pack into just a few words.”

Then I project these two stories–both from Bill’s handout.

Understand me, John: The next time you talk about ‘dropping deuce’ in front of Grandma, you’ll be grounded for longer than you can possibly imagine!

First I ask for some general reactions. Then I ask,

  • Who are the characters in this story?
  • What has happened in this story?
  • What kind of conflict is this?
  • What would you say the mood or tone of the story is? (The difference between these two is pretty difficult for middle school students. Perhaps that’s another blog post. Suggestions welcome!)
  • What words do the most to suggest this mood?

We look at one more example:

He sat surrounded by people yet completely alone. “Why can’t I just be normal?” he muttered to no one, tears streaming down his teenage cheeks.

We discuss the same questions.

3. Write 25 word stories. Next students must create a 25 word story, using their free-write as a springboard. I suggest they go about cutting the free-write down to 25 words, but students can also pursue a new idea if they want. Bill suggests in his handout that students should keep in mind that a 25 word story is about 1 long sentence or 2 shorter sentences; they should write first, and then worry about getting exactly 25 words. The process of deciding on each word, however, is where the work gets really interesting.

4. Share. Students share their 25 word story with a classmate near them, and then I have a few share out to the whole class.

5. Read a 6 word story. Next, I tell students, “Ernest Hemingway, a famous 20th century author, was once challenged to write a six word story. Hemingway accepted the challenge, and this is what he wrote.” I project—

For sale: baby shoes; never worn. 

Students say, “Oohhh…” as the layers of meaning in the simple story take hold of their imaginations. We discuss, again, who the characters are, what has happened, literally, and what is suggested.

I ask students, “What image does the language put in your mind at each moment in the story?

We discuss, “For sale,” then “baby shoes,” and then “never worn.”

6. Write 6 word stories. Now students must take their 25 word story, and whittle it down to six words. There is lots of energy in the room at this point. The challenge often posed to students is to write a lot. It’s refreshing for the challenge to be, write a little! I allow students to talk a bit during this writing session, and I listen for interesting conversations about word choices.

7. Share–in class and on Edmodo! The 50 minute period ends with several students sharing their 6 word stories with the class.  For homework, they must post their story on our Edmodo group space and comment on at least one other student’s story. (If you’re not familiar with Edmodo, it is so worth checking out!) With a longer period, this next part could happen on the same day.

Next day…

8. Reflect on word choices. Have students to share their 6 word story with a partner. They should discuss—

  • What was the most difficult decision you had to make in terms of which words to use?
  • Which word would you not mind replacing with a stronger word?
  • Ask your partner: What seems to be the tone of the story? Which words convey that tone?  Which words are weaker and don’t build that tone?
  • What does the story leave the reader to wonder about? Why? Is this intentional?
  • Take some time to write an alternate version of your 6 word story based on the conversation.

Another day… (You could go in many different directions now, but I took this opportunity for some much needed attention to punctuation.)

9. Learn new punctuation. The next day, I teach the semi-colon! Incidentally, the colon and the double dash come up in discussions as well. We began by looking at Hemingway’s 6 word story again. I ask students to identify the 3 punctuation marks and talk in groups about why Hemingway probably chose to use each one. I give them some exercises to help them combine or break up sentences properly using a semi-colon.

10. Revise punctuation in previous writing. Then I ask students to add a semi-colon to either their 6 word story, their 25 word story, or their original free-write, depending on what makes the most sense. Some students experiment with colons and double dashes as well.

11. Reflect on punctuation choices. Share with a partner. Discuss: Is the new punctuation an impovement on the old? Why or why not? How can punctuation help create more meaning in a few words?

The next step is to apply this kind of reflection on word choices to longer texts without over-structuring the experience of reading for students. In other words, no one reads specifically to analyze language, so we have to find authentic ways to encourage this kind of thinking. We are working on it in our current novel study. I will follow up in another post. Hopefully this was helpful for others who are trying to find interesting ways in to this sort of work for kids.


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