The Power of “Anything” Making the Case for Starting Your Writing Year with Choice of Genre

By Matt Glover

Last week, a teacher emailed me this quote from her child after one of his first days of school.  That night at the dinner table her son Barney said:

“Mr. Harry made me LOVE writing today by just saying ONE WORD. He said we could write ANYTHING!!!”

So much is implied in the word anything.  It’s ripe with possibilities for writing about any topic, in any genre that is meaningful to a child.  Fortunately for Barney, his teacher wanted to capitalize on the power of anything to increase engagement.  And judging by Barney’s reaction, it worked.

For years I have been advocating that teachers start the year with a writing unit of study that allows for choice of genre.  In fact, I believe students at any grade should have several opportunities within a year to experience some units that allow for choice of genre, in addition to plenty of genre studies.  However, I believe choice of genre is particularly important during the first unit when teachers want to maximize student engagement.  If there has ever been a year when we need to think about increasing engagement, it’s this year.

I realize that having units that allow for choice of genre runs counter to the prevailing practice in many schools today.  I work in a wide range of schools across the United States and internationally, and increasingly I’m in schools where students never have the opportunity to choose their genre.  There are many schools where every unit of study in writing workshop, from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of eighth grade is a genre study. This is tremendously problematic, especially in terms of the impact on student engagement.

Let me be careful. This isn’t an anti-genre stance.  I love genre studies.  I spend significant amounts of time finding stacks of mentor texts for specific genres, and I have a wide variety of genres to study. But I also care about student engagement, which means I have to think about the role of choice of genre.  Since engagement is especially important at the start of the year, I would not begin the year with a genre study.

If as educators we care about engagement, then we have to consider the role of choice. Choice and engagement are inseparable.  In any activity, choice influences what we do, how we do it, and our disposition towards the activity. Learners in any area will be more engaged when they have ownership and control over their learning.  In writing, choice manifests itself in many ways, including choice of both topic and genre.

I’ve written at length about the specific benefits of students’ choosing their genre, but I want to zero in on a few of the reasons that impact the beginning of the year. Regardless of whether you are teaching in person, online, or in a blended environment, engagement is more important now than ever.  If your students are learning virtually, they need to be engaged in order to write a lot, which is crucial in becoming a better writer.  If you’re teaching face to face, you may be online at some point and we want to maximize engagement now so it will carry over into an online setting.

Maximizing engagement right from the start should be enough of a reason to begin the year with a unit that allows for choice of genre.  Here are a few that particularly influence the beginning of the year.

Understanding our students as writers

At the beginning of the year we want to understand our children as writers. I want to know what their favorite genres are, as well as their favorite topics.  I want to know who’s the fantasy writer, the comic writer, the how-to writer.  I want to be able to ask the question, “What genre have you chosen, and why?”  That’s an incredibly revealing question and I can only ask it if the child has choice of genre.

Understanding all our students can do as writers

In addition to understanding children as writers, I want to see their best writing so I have an accurate understanding of their strengths.  If I choose to start with a genre, whichever genre I choose will decrease engagement for someone in the class, and decreased engagement will make it difficult for them to show me all of their strengths.

Accelerating Learning

Students will learn more when we study something in depth.  Having choice of genre for a few days before we start a genre study won’t be enough. Instead, by going deep into topics (units) such as revision, peer conferring, illustration, or reading like a writer, we can accelerate student learning and provide them with crucial skills and understandings they can employ in every unit throughout the year.

Now that we are going to start the year with choice of genre, we need to think about the possibilities for units.  A unit of study is simply a collection of days of teaching writing that work towards significant goals. There are at least three types of units we could include in our year.  We could have:

  • Genre Studies- Studying a specific genre of writing
  • Process Studies- Studying an aspect of how authors create pieces of writing
  • Craft Studies- Studying specific techniques authors use to craft effective pieces of writing

Students can meet the goals of a craft study or process study by writing in any genre they choose, thus increasing engagement in writing in any environment.  In craft and process studies, the learning is dependent on students writing in a particular genre.

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Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

When working with teachers, I have a list of over twenty craft studies or process studies we consider.  I wouldn’t rule out any of the them for the first unit of the year, and I know grade level teams that have used all of them as their first unit. But, some of them occur more frequently as the first unit. Some of the most common craft studies and process studies used to start the year are:

  • Launching Writing Workshop– This process study focuses on helping students become self-directed, independent, and productive in writing workshop each day. The focus is often on the routines and procedures students need to start the year, especially if they are new to writing workshop.
  • Launching the Use of a Writer’s Notebook– The key to this process study is that students are using a notebook as a tool to help them produce pieces of writing. Students are learning to use this important tool they will continue to use throughout the year.
  • Finding and Developing Independent Writing Projects– When I tell 3rd to 6th graders that they can go write anything they want, I am sometimes met with, “What do I have to write about?” Or, “Which genre are we supposed to write?” Those questions indicate that students don’t know how to create independent writing projects, often because they have been consistently directed what to write for years.  A process study on finding and developing independent writing projects teaches students how to choose topics and genres, plan and revise their writing, and how to start new projects.
  • Reading Like a Writer– This process study nurtures students’ habit of mind of noticing what published authors do to craft texts well and then try those techniques out in their own writing. This important process skill is one they will need in every genre or craft study throughout the year.
  • Author Study– Early in the year we want to support students in creating and maintaining a strong identity as a writer. An author study is a craft study that helps students realize that they can use the same techniques that published authors use.
  • Genre Overview– An interesting question to ask your students is, “What genre have you chosen?” Many students don’t answer that question well simply because they haven’t heard it. This craft study helps students answer that question by supporting them in better understanding the concept of genre, as well as being more intentional and articulate about the genres they choose.
  • How Authors Find Ideas– If your students consistently say they don’t know what to write about, this process study will provide them with strategies they can use to find meaningful topics throughout they year.

Again, in each of these units, students can meet rigorous unit goals by writing in any genre they find meaningful and energizing.

There are other units that often occur later in the year, but they could provide a significant benefit early in the year.  For example, a unit on Revision sets students up to have a positive disposition toward revising throughout the year. Throughout the unit, students create pieces of writing and try out the revision techniques they are studying.  This deep dive into a process that they are applying to personally meaningful genres and topics impacts their ability to revise in every unit that follows.

In whichever way we start the year, we have to consider how our actions align with our beliefs.  If we believe that engagement is crucial in helping students become better writers, then we would have to consider the role of choice of genre.  Writing anything will allow our students to write with energy in the first unit, and all the units to come

Matt Glover has been an educator for over 30 years, including the last 10 as an educational consultant. He is the author of numerous professional books for teachers, including Craft and Process Studies: Units of Study that Provide Students with Choice of Genre.  Matt can be contacted at

Reading in a Pandemic: How did it suddenly become so difficult?

By Carol Jago

With Covid19 has come upheaval. So much anxiety. So many uncertainties. On many days I feel as though I am in a state of suspended animation. Although I usually read at least one book a week, I recently found myself unable to focus, giving up on a book that I had hardly begun. My eyes might be on the page, but my mind was elsewhere.

That is not to say I wasn’t reading.

I spent hours on Twitter following links to breaking news. I read compulsively, but none of that reading was nourishing me. Upon reflection, I think that I was starved for story ­­– stories that had a clear beginning and end and were internally consistent. Stories that could help me make sense of the news. Stories that could serve to sustain me through these difficult days.

I kept wondering if the same thing was happening to students — not only those who had limited access to or appetite for books but also the most avid young readers. Was it possible that the pandemic was interfering with our capacity for reading? Was the constant bombardment of “Breaking News” getting in the way of sustained attention? In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, Maryanne Wolf warns that we are all getting into the habit of skimming rather than reading texts closely.

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Photo courtesy of Sylvain Maruoux via Unsplash

“The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

Although I found it difficult to settle down to a book, I didn’t stop buying them. (Habits die hard.) Two of those purchases, one an adult novel by Elizabeth Wetmore called Valentine, and the other middle-grade historical fiction by Ann Clare LeZotte called Show Me a Sign provided me with an onramp to finding my way back to books.

Valentine is the story of how five women survive the rape of a Mexican teenager in the midst of a 1970s boom in the oil fields of West Texas. As in the much-loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, the sunbaked setting echoes the characters’ inner landscapes. As in Miriam Toew’s Women Talking, these women struggle together to make their way in a brutally male world. I could not put this story down. When in-person book clubs resume, Valentine would be the ideal choice for your first meeting.

Set in a Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805, Show Me a Sign is narrated by 11-year-old Mary Lambert, deaf from birth and living in a community where everyone can sign. In her author’s note, Ann Clare LeZotte, who is herself deaf, explains, “Throughout the story, I tried to highlight the differences between sign language and spoken language. I hope to convey the intimacy, complexity, and expressiveness of sign language.” Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of Change trilogy, Mary’s story offers a particular window into post-Revolutionary War years. The island community’s prejudice against the Wampanoag reflects the mainlanders’ view of the deaf as lesser beings. As Mendelian genetics was unknown at the time, hereditary deafness in isolated communities was a puzzlement. I predict that Show Me a Sign will be a serious Newbery Medal contender.

At a time when travel is a risky undertaking, books offer safe transportation. At a moment when loneliness visits daily, reading provides fresh company. In a period when troubles are manifest, stories help us prevail.

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crises (Heinemann 2019).

DISTILL, DESIGN and DOCUMENT: Remote Learning in 3-D)

By Dan Ryder, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

The stress is real. 

Whether we teach kindergarten in pK-3 Reggio Emilia- inspired elementary schools or run library cum makerspaces for young adults in expeditionary learning programs, we are feeling the strain. We are balancing the needs of our students against the expectations of our curricula while responding to the concerns of our communities and challenges of the moment. And if those two sentences weren’t word soaked enough to overwhelm the most verbiage-resilient amongst us, add the terms “hybrid instruction” and “fluid public health conditions” and grab hold of something sturdy.  

And yet, I am hopeful that we may yet manage and — dare I dream — thrive in the rapid response remote learning environments into which we’ve been thrust.  As my good friend and stalwart Pacific Northwest educator, Darren Hudgins points out, Spring 2020 was not a time of distance education.  It was a time of emergency teaching.  How might we reframe the start of a new school year as a place of possibility and potential rather than pessimism and peril?

Because education loves a good acronym and who doesn’t adore a retro-futurism mnemonic, I’ve worked up a 3-D frame through which to look at remote learning instructional design.  It doesn’t require any special glasses or goggles.  (However, lesson planning at the drive-in can be a wonderful way to support local theater owners.)  The goal here isn’t to break new ground but instead to find a more peaceful pathway to planning quality instruction and deeper learning.  And if the alliteration hasn’t driven you from this blog yet, consider how this distill, design, and document framework might benefit you as well as your students and other stakeholders.  


What really matters? 

When face-to-face instruction went on hiatus during the spring of 2020, many educators started their planning by looking at their typical spring plans and attempted to retrofit the activities and lessons to remote learning conditions.  Other folx dropped familiarity entirely in favor of creating all-new assessments and extended learning opportunities aligned to their students’ current realities.  Both approaches met with success and struggle, with the latter tending to focus on the meaningful now and the former holding tight to the meaningful always.  

What if we just pause for a moment, examine our curricula, survey our students’ world, and ask, “What really matters?”  What if we were able to take our scopes and sequences and simplify them in the service of ensuring screen time is purpose-driven time? What if we were able to prioritize the habits of work valued highest in our communities and the social emotional learning outcomes students’ families need help with most?  And then asking that first question again, “Okay, what really matters?” 

For example, we might throw our hands up and say, “Well, we have to throw away the drama unit.  We can’t get all of the kids together online at the same time and even if we do half of their connections are lousy and I just want to eat cake.”  For the record, there’s nothing wrong with cake.  (Though I’ve learned recently that hugs last longer than cake.) 

Instead we might ask, “What are the skills and understandings students takeaway from the drama unit?”   Memorization.  Tone and inflection.   Relationship between speaker and audience.   Communicating emotion.  Creating a reality.  Collaborating with peers. 

Once that distillation occurs, opportunities emerge.  What if students composed monologues for their peers to deliver, record and publish?   What if those monologues told the stories of undervalued or under appreciated minor characters from well known works? What if those monologues portrayed emotion that character experiences in the story, but the audience doesn’t realize it?  How might such an assessment meet curricular goals and then serve as a bridge to discussions of under-represented voices in our communities and world?  

I’m not here to cast judgement on your conclusions about what really matters — visit my Twitter feed if you want to know how well our edu-values align.  I’m suggesting that the act of paring down helps all of us feel that much more calm and confident in our work during a time when those states are in short supply.  And I’m also suggesting that doing so fuels deeper learning, rather than diminishing rigor.  

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Photo courtesy of Unsplash


How might we meet the needs of students, school, family and community?

Perhaps now more than at any point in recent history, schools are being called upon to meet the needs of stakeholders both in their immediate communities and beyond.  Engaging students in their instruction may have much deeper stakes than good grades or successful achievement of learning outcomes.  Heightened student engagement may well translate into reduced familial stress and increased community involvement.  Providing more real world problem solving experience for students  contributes to the value added and return on investment arguments for supporting schools.  This may be even more true in a time of remote instruction substituting for face to face learning.

Making a quick list of needs for each of those four domains based on available information can put us into a more empathetic posture for our lesson designs.  Now, authentic empathy only comes from intentional and multi-faceted observation and inquiry into another’s point of view, and few of us have the capacity to do that sort of deep work in such tumultuous times.  Still, we have local surveys and news articles, social media and public polling.  We have conversations with our neighbors and communication with our students.  What if we take a moment to glean insights from those sources and apply those insights to our assessment design?

What if students read from a wide selection of poetry and lyrics related to social justice?  What if they then identified challenges of social justice facing their local communities, whether they be matters of systemic racism, multigenerational poverty, economic opportunity, LGBTQ equality, or such and similar?  What if the class  partnered with local non-profit organizations such as the United Way or community public health networks that work to address those issues?   Students might then compose poetry and lyrics that demonstrate both their understanding of poetic elements and the issues at hand.   Students could then design digital anthologies of their peers’ pieces, illustrate them with original artwork, and then publish those anthologies.   Along the way book editors, self-published authors, and social entrepreneurs might join video conferences for expert perspectives as those anthologies might be sold online with proceeds going to support a local cause.  Consider the layers of learning and understanding that one project might present.

The length of the preceding paragraph illustrates how easily one can get caught up ideating when passion and purpose overlap with pedagogical potential.   However, we should always take what the National Equity Project calls an “equity pause.”   Take a moment to consider our own unconscious and implicit biases, the impact they may be having on whatever work we are doing, and make a mindful effort to challenge those biases.   


How might we track process, provide evidence and unpack intention?

Without our typical face-to-face classrooms, we not only miss out on the rapport that builds from informal interactions with students, we miss out on the nuances we rely upon as we assess their understanding.   The body language that lets us know there is something bugging them and that is why they aren’t willing to share their drafts for a peer writing workshop.   The tendency to look longing out the windows and flip pages absent mindedly during reading sessions, while still logging those pages as “read” in their journals.

During remote instruction, it proves increasingly helpful to implement strategies that build routines and provide similar information about the context of student work.   Consider using color coded spreadsheets where students might track a variety of metrics about their daily reading experience.  To what extent did you feel your mind wander during reading today?  To what extent do you think you will need to re-read when you next sit down to dive into your book?  How excited are you to return to this book when you next get a chance?  

How often do we look at a piece of student writing or answers to a series of comprehension questions and say, “Oh, I know what they were trying to do here.  I get it they just . . . Oh. . . . I can hear them saying this.  I know they get it even if it doesn’t look like it right here to the untrained eye?”  Few of us likely use that many words, but I still believe it is a common pattern of thought amongst my fellow educators.   What if students created podcasts or audio journals explaining the intention and purpose behind each of their choices for a paper or project?   I often suggest the music podcast, Song Exploder, for older students as an example of creators breaking down the choices they made along the way to an artistic product.  For younger students, episodes of Mythbusters Jr. or clips from Master Chef Junior can serve a similar function.  

And if those approaches feel daunting, consider a fairly simple graphic organizer divided into three columns.   What did you do?  Why did you do it?  What might you do it differently next tme?  Ask students to identify three pieces of evidence of learning featured in their product.  This becomes increasingly valuable in projects and creative endeavors as so often students’ visions outweigh their capacities to execute.   When we hear that they were striving to achieve and where their thinking was headed, we often find that the learning is intact even if the demonstration was lacking.  

Remote learning has enough stresses and worries associated with its effective implementation, the last things any of us need is to be fretting about are complicated lesson plan design protocols and expansive curricula.   Try looking at our work through this 3-D lens of distill, design and document.   Despite its relative simplicity, just as much depth and excitement awaits us and our students alike.

Dan Ryder is a high school English teacher by title, idea wrangler, design thinker, improviser and educator by practice, co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom.  Dan has taught for nearly 20 years at Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington, Maine.  Follow him on Twitter @WickedDecent.


How to Get the Most Out of a Virtual Author Visit

By Melanie Conklin, 2021 CCIRA Conference Author and Presenter

In the time of coronavirus, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to preserve the educational traditions that we cherish. Recess. Team sports. Clubs. Library visits. Maker spaces. Read-Alouds. Some of these activities are difficult if not impossible to re-imagine as a virtual activity in a distance learning setting, but technology has made great strides, and when it comes to author visits, there are options!

Author visits are a unique opportunity for students to interact with creators and gain insight into writing. Typically, an author visit involves an author attending your school in person for a portion of the day, during which the author gives various presentations, speeches, or writing workshops. I’ve been fortunate to visit many schools across the country. Young scholars have the best questions, the most enthusiasm, and an almost tangible energy for learning that is inspiring.

Now that it’s no longer possible (or wise) to visit schools in person, I’ve spent a good bit more time doing virtual author visits. Virtual visits have always been part of my work as an author, but now there is a key difference: the students on my screen are no longer in the same place. They are joining from different locations and environments. This can make a virtual visit a bit more challenging, but there are ways to ensure that you get the most out of your time with an author. Here are my tips for having a successful virtual author visit as part of your distance-learning school year.

Finding an Author for a Virtual Visit

One of the questions I hear regularly is: how do you find authors for an author visit? I think this really means how do I connect with authors or find authors who are local to me, but first I’ll address the larger question of how to find authors to invite for a school or library visit.

Start by tracking your reading and classroom reading. I use Goodreads, but you can also use Library Thing or Reader Tracker. This way you have a handy list of authors you would like to connect with. Tracking your reading can also help you identify areas where you are under-read to broaden and diversify your reading life.

Find authors who live in your area by contacting local bookstores or book festivals. There are many booking agencies such as The Booking Biz, Provato Events, and Phil Bidner’s Author Village. Author Kate Messner also maintains a list of authors who Skype for free.

Social media is perhaps the easiest way to find and contact an author. If you read an author’s book, tag them in a tweet or Instagram or FB post. Then, when you reach out to inquire about an virtual author visit, you can introduce yourself by mentioning that you recently tagged them about loving their book.

Most authors provide email or a contact form on their website. It’s okay to write with questions or rate inquiries. Your questions are not a burden. Just remember to be respectful of the author’s time by replying to their communications. No one likes to be left hanging!

Include scheduling details in your message. When reaching out to schedule a virtual visit, be sure to include your time zone, the days and hours that are best for you (several options is good), and any honorarium you may be able to provide. Many authors will provide a short virtual visit for free (15-20mins). Longer visits warrant an honorarium.

Preparing for a Virtual Visit

Once you’ve scheduled your virtual visit, it’s time to prepare. Like everything in school, success depends heavily on the work done in advance.

Be sure to introduce the author and their work to your classroom. This can be done by sharing virtual read-alouds, Youtube videos, and electronic previews. Include information about the virtual visit with parent communications so they can support the connection at home. Direct parents to your local independent bookstore for copies of the author’s books, and be sure to let the bookstore know. They will be thrilled to coordinate, and might even be able to get signed books!

Prepare questions for the author in advance. This can be a fun activity for the classroom. Students can submit questions and even vote on which ones to ask. Author visits have a limited timeframe, so a realistic number of questions is important (around 10 questions in a twenty minute visit). Developing questions as a team can help all students feel included.

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Use a pre-visit activity to allow all students to interact with the author. Many authors have printables, writing prompts, or educator guides on their websites. Share a printable activity with students so they can hold them up to share with the author during the virtual visit. This interactivity is key! Even if we can’t read all of their writing, we can cheer them all on!

Test your technology. Whether you are using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or another platform to host your virtual visit, make sure you have practiced ahead of time. It’s a shame to lose time in a virtual visit due to technical issues, and familiarity can help with trouble-shooting. Some authors will do a quick technical check, too.

Day of the Virtual Visit

The logistics of a virtual visit are just as important as the logistics of an in-person visit. You want to get the most out of your limited time with the author, so be prepared to start on time and have a clear plan in hand.

Many authors will log in a few minutes early to get set for the visit. This gives you time to confirm any last-minute details and troubleshoot any sound or image quality issues.

Have an arrivals strategy in place. When dozens of students join a video chat from different locations, it can be even harder to wrangle them than in person! Make sure you know how to control volume and mute voices. Give students a Right-Now type of activity to engage in when they arrive to the visit. That can be as simple as holding up a drawing that is related to the author’s work, or showing off their pet, or dancing in their seat to show how excited they are. You can also utilize the comments section as an interaction tool, though it requires moderation to maintain a safe space for all.

Ask questions equitably and clearly. Some authors wish to call on students to ask questions, but that can be tough when only twenty faces fit on your zoom screen! Plan ahead so that all students feel included and utilize your mute button as needed.

Look for opportunities to interact. Some authors are well versed at virtual visits and will get your students engaged easily. Others may be new to this platform, so allow students to interact during the visit by raising their hands to indicate their choice, waving or wiggling fingers to show applause, or holding up pre-prepared signs or pictures.

After a Virtual Visit

Time flies during a virtual author visit, and your students may feel they did not get to interact as much as they would have liked. Give students an opportunity to communicate after the visit via written messages. These don’t have to be delivered on paper. You can collect photos of handwritten letters or compile typed thank-you messages into a follow up email to the author.

The way we connect may have changed during the age of COVID-19, but authors still want to visit schools and libraries. We share a common goal: literacy engagement. If you follow these tips, by the time the author visit arrives, the whole class will be buzzing in anticipation, and afterward the enthusiasm will last for weeks. That is the value of an author visit.

Happy planning to all!

Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer for ten years before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. Her second novel for young readers, Every Missing Piece, published with Little, Brown in May, 2020. When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Connect with her on twitter @MLConklin.



The Journey to Becoming Well Spoken

By Erik Palmer, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

Student voice. What a hot topic! I see tweets about it, conference sessions about it, articles in educational publications about it—it’s all the rage. How can we give students voice? Oddly, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice, speaking. 

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When you see the word voice used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those: I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well, because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means sounds from the mouth. defines it this way:



      1. the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.
      2. the faculty or power of uttering sounds through the mouth by the controlled expulsion of air; speech

I think you’ll find every dictionary thinks of speaking first and foremost. How can so many educators, then, talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? How do we share information? How do we socialize? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media are used expanding the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tools such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, TikTok, Flipgrid, and so many more showcase oral communication. All students can make videos and podcasts designed to let us hear their voices. If we listen closely, we hear that students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed. You’ve struggled to listen to the end of a student’s two-minute podcast. And if you think back to how mediocre those in-class poetry recitations were, you shouldn’t be surprised.  

Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one to have an impact, to have voice, if you will. 

Why have we let kids down on their journey to become competent, confident oral communicators? We have been focused on reading and writing. I joke that we should have a new word: readinganwriting. Those words always seem to come together, and they are the only words mentioned by English and language arts teachers. No one ever says reading, writing, and speaking. We have an enormous blind spot. By consistently shortchanging and often downright ignoring the number one language art, speaking, we have robbed students of their most important voice. We have excuses: “Some kids are just naturally good at it and some aren’t.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.” These excuses keep us from giving the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. I especially worry about the last one. Making kids talk as an afterthought in some other activity does not teach speaking. At the end of the poetry unit, have students mutter a poem. After reading the book, make students give a book share that inspires none of the listeners. Listen to those with new ears. How many students demonstrated an effective voice? Few. They were never specifically taught the skills of verbal communication.

The truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure) to improve writing and specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., genre, setting, metaphor, plot line, textbook structure, character development), to improve reading there need to be specific lessons on each of the specific skills needed to improve speaking. I’ll give you an example of how to teach one speaking skill. 

The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. We suffer through this in the classroom, but when we listen to recorded lifeless talks, we stop the podcast 30 seconds in. See if you can make it past that amount of time with this clip: I’m not criticizing the student, I’m criticizing us. We had this child in class for eleven years and did not teach her how to be well spoken. As we went to remote instruction and asked students to submit presentations digitally, these sorts of clips were the norm. Because recorded voices are always less impressive than voices in person, and because distance learning involves more recorded voices, maybe more of us will come to notice that students have never been taught how to avoid being dull. You taught how to choose better adjectives in writing, so teach how to add life in speaking.

Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding inflection, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: There is a quick visual showing what a voice with no life looks like compared to a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference—1:20 of no life followed by the exact same words with life. 

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling. 

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one on of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or of reading or of drawing or of anything. But all will get better, and all will understand one aspect of how to communicate better. 

One aspect? What are the others? When I ask teachers at workshops to give me descriptors of effective oral communication, answers vary wildly: inflection, articulation, enunciation, vocal modulation, loudly, slowly, clearly, pacing, body movement, expression, eye contact, gestures, stand still, humor, and many more. Some of the answers are wrong. You’d hate me if I talked loudly and slowly—obnoxious and boring! Many are confusing for kids. Vocal modulation? Say what? I created six-trait speaking to solve the problem. You know one of the traits, life. That’s a teaser. There isn’t time in this blog post to explain them, so visit The site name will make sense once you get there, but I bet you can guess what the “l” stands for.

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. They can’t get there on their own, they can’t get there just by speaking a lot in class. They need you to be the guide.

Many more resources here:

Erik Palmer is a Denver-based education consultant who has published two books with Stenhouse: Well Spoken and Good Thinking. He presents often at the CCIRA conference and his sessions are favorites among attendees.