Monday, December 2, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 10

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format, text scaffolding, and text density, text structure, and voice. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m sharing some ideas about the power of rich language and it’s close connection to last week’s topic—voice.

Authors carefully select each and every word to craft text bursting with rich, powerful language that engages their young audience. In some cases, figurative language infuses prose with combinations of sounds and syllables that result in a lyrical voice. Consider this passage from We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell:
When cool breezes blow and leaves fall,
we say otsaliheliga . . .
. . . as shell shakers dance all night around the fire,
burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the
Great New Moon Ceremony.

Notice how the author employs alliteration, sensory details, and imagery to transport young readers to the Cherokee Nation’s autumn Great New Moon Ceremony and show them how special it is.

In on the other hand, combining language devices like puns, rhyme, alliteration, and surprising phrasing can make writing more humorous and playful, resulting in a more lively voice. Consider these amusing headings from Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sarah Albee:

Toxic Plots, Poison Pots, and Shipboard Shots

I Came, I Saw, I Poisoned

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

You Say Potato, I Say Be Careful

Albee includes this kind of language to help middle-grade readers see just how amazing and exciting and interesting history actually is.”

Albee notes that while her early drafts often include some lively writing, enriching her prose with “humor and energy is something I usually do at a late stage of revision. I carefully examine each sentence and think: How can I make this funnier, or more vivid, for my reader?”

The best way for students to get a feel for the flow of rich, engaging expository language is to analyze finely-crafted books. Invite students to choose one of the following titles and type out a few pages.
Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson
Giant Squid by Candace Fleming

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep
by April Pulley Sayre
After organizing the class into small groups based on the books they selected, encourage the teams to identify key language features and highlight them with different colors. Students may color the text in the computer file, or they can print out the text and mark it up with colored pencils or highlighting markers. The following color code works well for the titles listed above: red = vivid verbs
blue = similes, metaphors, and other comparisons
green = alliteration
purple = repetition
orange = onomatopoeia
After students complete this task, invite them to highlight these same language features in one of their rough drafts. Can they find spots where replacing a verb or adding a comparison or language device could strengthen their writing?

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