Why Did the Poet Do That?—The Case for Teaching Author’s Craft

Authors: Janet Hester and Lenicia Gordon, Literacy Specialists

We know that we are growing beyond the old classroom paradigm of drilling printed lists of terminology and moving toward providing authentic reading and writing experiences for our students.  Contemporary research affirms the need for students to be interested in their reading and writing tasks. Student choice of reading text is critical for engagement. An authentic purpose for reading is paramount. An onus to write and a responsibility to communicate will promote true participation in learning the skills of writing.  Students are no longer interested in jumping through hoops. But they will create their own diversions—if we could only harness their individual interests.

Yes, we all agree on the need for authenticity and student ownership of knowledge. But then it seems TEKS and STAAR mandates box us in—how can we teach the power and art of language when we are beholden to the State of Texas?


TEA Agrees with Best Practices

It turns out that our mandates and best practice are not far apart at all. In fact, if we only looked closely at our state curriculum and assessments, took a deep breath, believed in our students’ ability, took another deep breath, and trusted that daily reading and writing would improve their language skills, the kids might just be all right.


TEKS Ask Students to Read Like Writers




The TEKS reveal that students should be reading like writers and writing like—well—true writers.

For example, the student expectations in poetry ask students to “analyze how poets use sound effect to reinforce meaning” and “analyze the importance of graphical elements on the meaning of a poem” in the 5th and 7th grade, respectively. Now, harkening to those old classrooms, it would be tempting as a teacher to get caught up in the technical definitions of “sound effects” or “graphical elements”: to create a vocabulary list of these terms, drill our students, and arrest student learning at a Depth of Knowledge Level 1 or a Bloom’s Category of Remembering.

Yet, we are charged with teaching more than the terms, and we must extend student learning to include analyzing the effect of the terms. We should be teaching students the power of words and asking our students to analyze all the trouble a writer goes through to communicate.


STAAR Asks Students to Read Like Writers

Beyond the language of the TEKS themselves, released STAAR reading items from 2011 and 2013 elucidate this responsibility.

See an example of a 2013 English I released question:


A student answering this question correctly needn’t recite all the technical information she knows about analogies in poems; she must instead be familiar with interpreting poetic meaning. This item is dual-coded as 3/Fig.19(B), or as the overarching Knowledge and Skills statement of poetry (3) and the reading comprehension skill Figure 19(B). The skills assessed, according to the dual-coding, are to “make inferences . . . about the . . . elements of poetry” and “make complex inferences about text,” from the poetry Knowledge and Skills statement and  Figure 19(B) comprehension standard. For this question in particular, making inferences about the elements of poetry means interpreting what the analogy means in the context of the poem—reading the poem as a poet and determining the author’s intent of the analogy (not the technical terminology of “analogy”).




Here’s another example from the Grade 7 2013 Released items:



Again, the question does not assess the level of understanding of the term, imagery, but of the term’s use. It assumes understanding of the term itself. This question is dual-coded as well, as 8/Fig. 19 (D), or the overarching Knowledge and Skills statement of Sensory Language (8) and the reading comprehension skill, Figure 19(D). The skills assessed, according to the dual-coding, are to “make inferences . . . about how an author’s sensory language creates imagery in literary text” and “make complex inferences about text.”   Essentially, to answer this question, students must read poetic language and determine the intended purpose of the imagery used.  Students should be reading poems and learning how to ask themselves this question, again and again, “Why did the writer do that?”  Students should be reading like poets. In other words, in order to understand why poets and authors do what they do, students must be charged with making these same types of deliberate decisions in their own writing…..


The Learning Model—Reading and Writing Like Writers

So, how does a student get comfortable with reading poetry like a poet? Not by memorizing terms. We’ve written about this process before, and we will do so again. Jeff Anderson has written extensively in 10 Things Every Writer Should Know about flooding students with text so that they might inductively learn author’s craft and strategies.

  1. Teachers should flood students with text by exposing them to massive classroom libraries.  Newspapers.  Magazines and blogs. Students should be reading text of their choice. There should be so much text, kids have no option but to find that book about bulldogs—their own personal passion—and settle down to read.
  2. After reading independently, teachers should pull powerful mentor texts and engage the class in reading and discover for themselves the characteristics of the genre. There should be a controlled groundswell of Noticing these characteristics. The teacher should scribe these noticings on class anchor charts for easy reference throughout the year.
  3. Then, the teacher should divert the groundswell by creating opportunities for partner, small group and class discussion. By Interacting, students should discover the text features of expository text, and realize that they serve a function for the reader. The writer placed them there on purpose.
  4. The students should then Name those characteristics as the academic term and as their own definition.
  5. Teachers should provide students with opportunities to Experiment using those characteristics in their own writing and revision processes.
  6. Reflecting and metacognition—students should reflect upon the knowledge they learned and how it fits into their own schema. Allowing time for reflection allows students to make the learning about reading and writing their own.

This method may be used over and over again, so that students develop a habit of reading and noticing, become experts at interacting with the text, develop an intuition for naming strategies they encounter, and, finally, become proficient in employing these strategies as a writer of the genre.  See the diagram below.




To understand author’s craft in any genre, students must see examples of the genre, discover their own examples, and ask the question over and over, “Why did the writer do that?”  Ultimately, writing their own arguments, explanations, and poetry worthy of interpretation will extend the learning.

As it turns out, the TEKS and STAAR’s interpretations of the TEKS call for students to be able to interpret the effect of writers using their tools. And STAAR assesses this zealously, with the help of the dual-coding of Knowledge and Skills statements and Figure 19.  This is a good thing. It means we do not have to teach static lists of terms. The state charges us with teaching authentic reading and writing. How fortunate, because this is precisely what is best for students.

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