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Unit of Study 5
Literary Essays: Writing About Reading

by Lucy Calkins
with Medea McEvoy, contributing author
Annotated Table of Contents | Contents: Narrative Format
Annotated Table of Contents
  1. Writing Inside the Story
    In this session, you'll teach children that good readers flesh out stories by envisioning them and living vicariously through the characters. You'll teach children to try this first on paper, in preparation for trying it mentally.
  2. Gathering Writing by Close Reading
    In this session, you'll remind children that writers read with an attentiveness to detail that can spark larger ideas. You'll show again how writers can use conversational prompts to extend their thinking and their writing about a text.
  3. Gathering Writing by Studying Characters
    In this session, you will teach children that experts know that certain features of their subject-character, for example, for literary essayists- merit special attention. Therefore, essayists study characters to grow significant topics.
  4. Elaborating on Written Ideas Using Conversational Prompts
    In this session, you will teach children one way writers elaborate on their ideas-in this case, ideas about character. You'll guide children through a discussion that has the same features as a written analysis of a text, reminding children that conversational prompts are also useful as writing prompts.
  5. Developing Provocative Ideas: "What Is This Story Really About?"
    In this session, you will teach children that literary essayists ask, "What's this story really about?" and then analyze the ways the author deliberately crafts the story to convey this meaning.
  6. Developing Provocative Ideas: "How Does This Story Intersect with My Life?"
    In this session, you will teach children some ways that literary essayists draw on their life experience to understand and develop ideas about texts.
  7. Finding and Testing a Thesis Statement
    In this session, you will teach students that writers select seed ideas to craft into thesis statements. You'll teach students ways to question and revise their theses as writers do, making sure each is supportable by the whole text.

  8. >View Session 7
  9. Framing Essays
    In this session, you'll teach students that writers plan their essays, making sure they can deliver the evidence from the text that their thesis promises.
  10. Using Stories as Evidence
    In this session, you'll demonstrate ways that essayists collect and angle mini-stories as evidence to support their claims.
  11. Using Summaries as Evidence
    In this session, you'll explain summaries and offer an example, then demonstrate how essayists use summaries to help them support their points. You'll outline the steps children can take to create summaries for their essays.
  12. Using Lists as Evidence
    In this session, you'll remind children of work they did during the personal essay unit in using lists to support their claims. You'll again encourage them to write "tight lists" in which they write with parallelism.
  13. Using Descriptions of Author's Craftsmanship as Evidence
    In this session, you will teach children that writers study the choices authors make in their texts in order to find evidence to support their claims. You will support children in learning to do this.
  14. Putting It All Together-Constructing Literary Essays
    In this session, you will teach children some of the ways that writers create drafts out of collections of evidence. You'll also teach children ways to study published literary essays in order to find structures for their own literary essays.
  15. Packaging and Polishing Literary Essays
    In this session, you'll teach children some ways to make final revisions and edits to their essays. You'll show them how to write introductory and ending paragraphs, to import some specialized vocabulary, and to handle citations with more finesse.
  16. A Celebration: Publishing as Literary Scholars
    In this session, children will be able to "publish" their literary essays in the tradition of literary scholars. Children will put their work in the hands of those who have studied the same text. They will have the opportunity to see their ideas used to build new thinking about texts and life.
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Contents: Narrative Format

In personal essays, many children will have written about lessons they learned from people they know and interact with. But writing also helps us learn from the characters in the books we read. Just as writing allows us to pause in our hurried lives and really notice and experience and reflect on things that have happened to us, so, too, writing allows us to pause in our hurried reading and really pay attention to the characters in our books.

In order for children to write about reading in this way, they need to be reading! Children who are learning to write literary essays while they are still very young—in grades three, four, and five—will profit from writing these essays about short texts they've read, reread, and discussed. In this unit, I invite children to read and study small packets of short texts that merit close study. A teacher might thread one short story through many minilessons, showing children how she reads, thinks, and writes about that one story and then suggesting that children try similar techniques with a story from their packet. The stories in a child's packet need to be ones the child can read. Therefore, children may not all have the same collection. I encourage teachers to provide stories that are rich, complex, and well-crafted enough to reward close study.

On each of the first few days of the unit, I demonstrate a lens that readers can bring to a text, reminding children that all of these lenses accumulate so they have a repertoire of possibilities to choose from whenever they read. I teach children that just as essayists pay attention to our lives, expecting to grow ideas from this wide-awake attentiveness, so, too, literary essayists pay attention…but this time, the attention is directed to texts. Each child chooses a story that especially speaks to her and then collects entries about that story. The process of choosing a seed idea in this unit has two stages. First, a child chooses a story. Then, the child lives with that one story and gathers entries about it. Eventually, the child rereads those entries to chose a seed idea.

I remind children of their work in the personal essay unit, when they observed their lives and then pushed their thinking in their notebooks by writing, "The thought I have about this is…" or "This makes me realize that…" In this unit, children can pause as they read to observe what is happening in the text and then develop an idea using the same conversational prompts. I teach children that their thoughts can be extended by using phrases such as "another example of this is," "furthermore," "this connects with," "on the other hand," "but you might ask," "this is true because," and "I am realizing." If we hope children will write literary essays in which they articulate the lessons they believe a character learns in a story or name the theme or idea a text teaches, then it is important to provide children with strategies for generating these sorts of ideas.

After children have collected reading responses in their writer's notebooks for at least a week, I remind them that they already know how to reread a notebook in order to find a seed idea. In the essay unit, students found seed ideas, and they'll need to do something similar now. I encourage students to search for a portion of an entry that tells the heart of the story in one or two sentences. I ask them to look for a seed idea that is central to the story and provocative.

I also help children generate possible seed ideas. Some children find it helpful to write inside this general structure: This is a story about [identify the character] who [has this trait]/[wants/cares about such-and-so] but then [what happens to change things?] and s/he ends up [how?]. In other words, I encourage some students to try writing a sentence or two in which they lay out what the character was like at the start of the story, what happened to change things, and how this was resolved at the end: "Because of Winn-Dixie is the story of a lonely girl, Opal, who befriends a stray dog, Winn-Dixie. The dog helps Opal make friends with lots of people." "'Spaghetti' is the story of a lonely boy, Gabriel, who learns from a tiny stray kitten to open himself to love." We also encourage children to think of a story as containing an external as well as an internal storyline, and to write an essay which highlights the internal (and therefore, sometimes the overlooked) story.

It is important to help each child revise her seed idea so that it is a clear thesis, making sure it is a claim or an idea, not a fact or a question. I help children imagine how they can support the thesis in a few paragraphs. Usually for children in grades three through five, the first support paragraph will show how the child's claim was true at the start of the story, and the next support paragraph(s) will show that it was true later in the story as well. It may be that the first support paragraph shows how the claim was true for one reason, the next, for a second reason.

Once children have planned their "boxes and bullets" for a literary essay, they will need to collect the information and insights they need to build a case. We encourage each child to make a file for each topic sentence (and each support paragraph). For example, if the child's claim is "Cynthia Rylant's story 'Spaghetti' is the story of a lonely boy who learns from a tiny stray kitten to open himself to love," the child might title one file "Gabriel is a lonely boy," and another "Gabriel learns from a tiny stray kitten to open himself to love."

I also teach writers how to cite references from a text and how to "unpack" the ways these references address the relevant big idea. Before this unit is over, we teach children that writers of literary essays use the vocabulary of their trade, incorporating literary terms such as narrator, point of view, scenes, and the like. We may also teach students to write introductory paragraphs that include a tiny summary of the story and closing paragraphs that link back to the thesis and that link the story's message to the writer's own life, or to another story, or to literature as a whole.

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