On Writing and Wizardry: Background knowledge more powerful than magic wand

Unless you happen to be a wizard, Jesus, or maybe a close relative of Harry Potter, new writing probably won’t magically appear on a blank page in your writing notebook.

…new things are not created out of nothing but usually grow out of what is already known or understood.

Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar

Clark is on to something. In fact, he is on to what should be the foundation of writing instruction. New things do not grow from nothing. Hmm… If you want a plant, you need seeds and water and sun; if you want a painting, you need paint and canvas and brushes; and if you want a new writing piece, you need thoughts and words and phrases.

How might this look in the classroom?

Have you ever taught the “million dollar word” mini-lesson. Oh, you know the one: “Here are some 5 cent words. Let’s replace them with million dollar words.” The teacher then might send students off to dig through word lists and thesauri in a search for new and exciting words. And off they go!

Your heart nearly skips a beat! This is working! Look how excited they are to find new words! But wait…

During the twenty-four-hour period when my canine expired, my household was vastly melancholy.

Katie, age 9

Our response? What the (insert original expletive; do not replace with one you found in thesaurus)?

When we ask students to replace 5 cent words with words they have never heard, we are asking them to create something from nothing. New vocabulary is learned and understood in layers, but we are asking students to skip the beginning of vocabulary acquisition and go straight to application, which creates confusion and does nothing to push the student forward as a writer.

Rather than ask students to use a thesaurus to learn new words, model and direct them to use this powerful tool as a reminder of words they already know (Clark, 2010).

“Depressed! I could use the word depressed instead of sad! My mom is depressed a lot at night… that’s why she drinks so much wine.” — Katie

On the day my dog died, my family was so depressed.

Katie’s revision

New things grow from things that are already known and understood. Our friend Katie has now applied a word she already knew — the next layer in vocabulary acquisition. Her revision is now clear and meaningful.

This simple tweak will not only help students maintain a sense of voice in their writing, but will also lead to deeper thinking and revision as applied to the rest of the piece. Not to mention, the writing will now make sense, which is always a good thing.

New things do not grow from nothing. This should be the foundation of all writing instruction.

It’s the reason students so desperately need opportunities for thinking, listening, and speaking during every phase of the writing process. It’s the reason teachers should never abandon the read-aloud. It’s the reason random writing prompts are often confusing and frustrating for students. And it’s the reason reading and writing instruction should never be separated.

Author: Darren Victory

Darren Victory is a fourth-grade reading and writing teacher and literacy consultant. Prior to entering the world of education, Victory spent 15 years as a writer and editor for various magazines and newspapers. Mayonnaise makes him gag and he’s terrified of canned biscuits. He currently lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with the two loves of his life — Netflix and a somewhat alive house plant.

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