It’s something that we teach our students all the time: you need to show your reader, not just tell them. But do we always practice what we preach? I know that during the first part of my career, I did not. And no matter how well I “told” my students what to do for writing assignments, they didn’t always get it. However, when I started to teach writing by showing, not telling, I saw a huge improvement.
In this post, I’m going to explain one very successful activity I used to teach writing by showing not telling. Then, at the end of the post, I’ll link some other activities you can try too.
Literary Analysis + Writing = Fear of Failure
Ok, first of all, sorry for the math 😉. However, I want to emphasize that when we combine these two, many students get frustrated. Analyzing a text can seem like a daunting task, and then if we ask them to write about it, the task becomes even scarier. The fear that they can’t do it can shut many down before they even begin.
That’s why I came up with a variety of activities that took that fear away, and one of the most successful was my build-a- paragraph exercise. It’s one that scaffolds the skills students need to write literary analysis by showing them, not telling them, what to do. By giving them the ingredients and the chance to work together to build an analytical paragraph, they get the skills – and the confidence – they need to do it on their own.
So let’s look at the things you need to do to try this in your classroom.
Before you do the activity:
This is an exercise that you do after your students have been introduced to not only how to write a paragraph, but also how to write one that focuses on literary analysis. In other words, you need to lay the groundwork. CLICK HERE to get a free exercise to help you do this.
I did the build-a-paragraph activity first with my tenth grade class when we were about a quarter or a third of the way through a text we were reading together. My students had already spent a couple of months reading independently and had practice with close reading and identifying the ways that authors used literary elements to tell their stories.
Armed with that knowledge, they were ready to start writing literary analysis paragraphs, and the activity that follows was the perfect way to teach them to write by showing not telling.
Step one: write a paragraph
The first thing you need to do is write a paragraph that will show your students what a good written analysis looks like.
Start small, with something that isn’t too complicated. We were focusing on character development, and so I chose to write about the ways a minor character is developed in a section of the text. Then, later, students would use what they learned to try the same thing with a major character.
After you write the paragraph, save the original and number each sentence (you’ll need this copy later to check your students’ work). Then, make a new copy of the paragraph; make the font extra large and put a blank line or two between each sentence, so you can cut them up. You will then photocopy one for each group and cut up the page so you have separate sentences.
Next, mix up the sentences so they are in a random order, and put a paper clip on them. You will give each group one of the piles and they will have to reconstruct them into the original order.
I also gave them an instruction sheet that told them to label each strip when they are done: which one makes an assertion? Which one provides context? etc. That way, they aren’t just putting the sentences together; they are also thinking critically about its purpose in the paragraph.
Add some competition
Competition always adds a little fun to any activity you do. You don’t always have to offer a prize, either. My experience is that even knowing they can “win” makes students get really into an activity like this.
Explain the process to them before hand, making it clear that there is one way you want the paragraph to look when they are done. Tell them to work quietly so the other groups don’t hear their ideas. And tell them to call you over to check to see if they are right when they are done.
Tell them that you will only say “yes” or “no.” You won’t tell them which is wrong, only that they need to try again. This process makes them work quickly, but also with intention, as they know they want to be the first to get it right.
During the build-a-paragraph activity
While your students are working, you will be circulating, checking to see if they are on the right track. Don’t tell them what order the sentences go in, but feel free to ask them probing questions – if they need some direction: look at the first words of the sentence…any clues? My experience was that I had to do very little of that. Instead, I was very happy to hear the students asking themselves these questions!
As you circulate, have your original copy with you, with the sentences numbered, so you can quickly check if a group is correct. Once someone gets the right order, tell the others that they are still in the game and that you want to see who comes in second and third. At that point, if some groups need a little more help, give them a clue or two.
Follow up activity
Once the activity is finished, project the final copy on your screen so you can go over it with them and point out the different parts of the paragraph. In the picture below, I have them color-coded so they can further SEE what they need to do.
The final step is to get students to try this on their own. So, after you do the activity, ask them to choose another character (or whatever you’re focusing on) and try to write a paragraph similar to the one they used for the activity.
The video below summarizes the activity. Look below it to be taken to other visible leaning activities, so you can teach writing by showing not telling. (NOTE: this is just one of the activities that I share in my short Planning a Novel Study course)
More visible learning activities: