Writing about Reading: A Quick Guide to Quick Literary Essays

Writing About Reading Blog Series FINAL (1)

For years, I taught the unit Literary Essays: Writing about Reading in Lucy Calkins’s previous Writing Units of Study, co-written with Medea Mcevoy (2006). The work that my students produced was typically solid and thoughtful. I was impressed with the way in which the unit supported them in developing skills at the intersection of reading and writing, the way it pushed them toward deeper interpretation and analysis of texts while also supporting them in writing well. The unit moves students thoughtfully through reading short texts, developing interpretations through writing, then selecting a thesis and evidence and crafting an essay over the course of about 4-6 weeks.

When I was working full time as staff developer for the Reading and Writing Project, I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking about essay writing. Kathleen Tolan, Senior Deputy Director for the Project, spearheaded some very exciting work on teaching students to compose “fast essays”, work that involves students generating ideas, rehearsing, and drafting all in one quick go. After coaching students through a reading of a short text, usually in a Read Aloud, Kathleen teaches students to first “talk an essay”, channeling them to rehearse aloud how each part of the essay might go in small groups while she coaches and prompts. Then, Kathleen sends the students off to write the very same essay they just practiced, this time on their own. When I’ve modeled this work in classrooms, I sometimes get asked by teachers whether the coaching is too heavy-handed. Sometimes it seems as if I’ve prompted students so much it’s as if I’ve written the essay for them. My response is always that students need rehearsal and need concrete, specific models in order to write well. Also, there tends to be huge variation in the work that students produce. If the coaching was too heavy-handed, wouldn’t all students produce essentially the same piece?

The two ideas that resonate most with me about the fast essay work are that students don’t always need 4-6 weeks to compose a nice literary essay once they are familiar with essay structure and that talking in essay form is not only a sophisticated, important skill in its own stead, but it also serves as very powerful rehearsal for writing.

This is not to say that we should throw a writing process approach out the window and channel students to write quick, one-off, prompted pieces every day. Far from it. Students must also learn to gather ideas, to draft and go through a lengthy revision process, to stay with a piece of writing over an extended period of time. It is the process approach that supports students in writing with volume, stamina and craft and through which they learn to write well. I believe that it is precisely because students have been taught to write using a process approach that they are successful when faced with producing a piece of writing quickly.

There are three essential steps to helping students to generate solid literary essays in just a class period or two.

  1. Reading Interpretively
  2. Rehearsing
  3. Fast Drafting

Reading Interpretively

The prerequisite to writing a strong literary essay is to read the text one will write about carefully and thoughtfully. The best literary essays are the ones built upon strong interpretations. When reading a text in order to write about it, there are some ways that students can interact with the text at various points in order to move effectively and efficiently toward growing big ideas. As is recommended in Lucy Calkins’s literary essay work, I strongly recommend that students write about short texts, particularly when they are first learning how to write literary essays. The short texts could be short stories, picture books, or even excerpts from larger books.

Organize students into clusters of 3-4, and, during a Read Aloud, stop at various points to coach them through asking and answering some of the below questions in these small groups to lead them toward growing big ideas about the text.

In the beginning of a text, students can ask themselves questions such as:

  • Whose story is being told?
  • What kind of person is the character
  • What does the character want?
  • What are some of the feelings in this part of the text?

Toward the middle of a text, students can ask:

  • What gets in the character’s way?
  • What are the people  & things that add to how the character is feeling?
  • Are the feelings changing? How?
  • What are the issues that are emerging?

At this point, it’s helpful to include a bit of whole-class discussion to support students’ analysis. There is a huge leap in thinking to move from naming a character’s feelings to analyzing some of the issues that are emerging in a text. But it is in this leap that true interpretation begins to take place, and the groundwork for lovely big ideas or thesis statements is laid. For example, if a character is feeling picked on or ostracized because he is different from his peers, an issue that students may recognize as starting to emerge could be “people often don’t accept differences in others, but they should.” Or, “people are often afraid to be true to themselves because they don’t want to be made fun of.” Feel free to interject some of your own suggestions as models, particularly if students are struggling.

At the end of a text, students can ask:

  • What does the text seem to be saying about an issue?
  • What life lesson is the text teaching?
  • As students talk in their clusters, listen in and try to capture some of what they are saying on a chart or SmartBoard. These statements can easily be turned in to lovely thesis statements.

Rehearsing

Kathleen Tolan posits that talking an essay it is one of the most effective ways to rehearse for this kind of writing. First, choose one of the statements you recorded earlier, one that you feel would make for a viable essay. Still in their clusters, set students up to talk through each part of the essay, perhaps referring to prompts or essay structures you have previously taught. You might post a list of transition words and phrases to help students with structure, such as: “One reason this idea is important is that..”, and “Another reason…”

Fast Drafting 

Imagine yourself as a sports coach, spurring your writers on with helpful tips on structure, timing, and craft. As students are writing, remind them of all they know about good essay writing. You might whisper to one student that transition phrases help with organization, and to another that text examples should match the thesis.

Needless to say, this work is an excellent way to practice for any standardized (or other) test in which students are required to read texts and write about them within a prescribed time limit. If you are interested in reading more about fast essay writing, see Boxes and Bullets: Personal and Persuasive Essays by Lucy Calkins, Cory Gillette, and Kelly Boland Hohne. For more on Literary Essays and to read more of Kathleen’s work, see The Literary Essay: Writing about Fiction by Lucy Calkins, Kathleen Tolan, and Alexandra Marron. Both books are in the series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (2013).

We would love to hear more of your thoughts on writing about reading in a Two Writing Teachers community get-together of sorts. Please join us on February 3 at 8:30EST for a Twitter Chat on Writing about Reading. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. We hope to see you there!