You’ve heard it before: If you want to be a good writer, read.
This simple lesson plan can be used for any age group in your creative writing class or workshop, English class, or library class. As you work through it, keep your target age group in mind and adapt it as needed for the age or purpose of your group. The main purpose of this lesson is to bring out the technique of examining good reading material to help students grow in their writing.
Hey – even if you’re not a teacher, you can use this as a guide for brainstorming about books you like in order to get more ideas for your own creative writing!
Before You Begin
Assemble a good reading list for your target group. You can find reading lists galore in the reference section of your local library. Or you can do a search on the Internet using terms such as “reading list,” “book list,” “favorite books,” etc., and perhaps using an age or grade group or genre label.
My favorite to use with school-age students is 100 Best Books for Children which can be found on the Internet. This is one of many lists out for the public. You might also enjoy browsing through the Amazon.com lists, arranged by genre and age group.
I also did a quick search through our own Associated Content and found several articles that talk about specific age groups or genres types. Some titles I found are “Best-Loved Books: A Unique Reading List for Gifted Students in Grades 6-12,””Great Books for Your Summer Reading List,””A Reading List of Favorites,””Genre Bending Mystery Reading List,””Keep Your Teen Reading This Summer.” (I saw a lot of summer reading lists!) There really are many resources available to you with very little effort on your part.
With your reading list at hand, you’re ready to begin the lesson.
What Are Your Favorite Stories? Why?
On a chalkboard or large chart paper, write book/story/genre categories in columns. For school age children, primary through middle school, you might want to just write the basics: Fiction, Nonfiction (though nonfiction usually doesn’t enter into this discussion very well). One that I often use: Everyday Life, Fantasy, Special Characters (such as Arthur, Ramona, etc.) Feel free to ask your students for category names, too. The results might surprise you, and they will feel more like they have some control over the lesson.
For older students such as high school or college students or adults, go with genres, as many or as few as you like: Realistic Fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Historical Novels, Romance, etc. Whatever you perceive your group is into. This group is really good for contributing category labels.
Then ask the group, “What are your favorite books or stories? Where on the chart shall we write them? Why are they your favorites?” This will lead to a good discussion, depending on the interest level of your group. I have found that people want so much to talk about books they like – and dislike – that it should make for a lively talk.
If the discussion starts to flag, and even if it doesn’t flag, but you still have plenty of time, get out your reading list and mention some more titles. I’ve found that when I’ve done it in that order, students say things like, “Oh, I forgot that book! I love that story!” This will allow you to have more guidance in the lesson, and give you more material from which to teach.
What Makes These Stories Good? What Can We Learn from Them for Our Own Writing?
Ask your students these questions and see if they can analyze what makes the stories good ones. Don’t be afraid to also discuss stories that aren’t so good, and see if you can figure out why. Use these analyses – and write down the results – to accumulate a list of attributes of good writing. Students may want to take notes in their journals for future reference.
Encourage students to examine their own writing for the positive and negative attributes from your discussion, and make changes and improvements as they go along.
Some Additional Points
Below are some simple points I usually make near the end of the discussion with Middle School students, using the chart labels Everyday Life, Fantasy, and Special Characters. Use this as lesson script, if you like.
> Good everyday stories are good because we want to read about events that could interest us that we can relate to but also learn from.
>Fantastic stories (i.e., fantasy) are fun, if they are well-written, because they allow us to branch out beyond our experience. But, if they have realistic elements, especially in the characters, we enjoy them because we can identify with them.
>Special character stories that are well-written are fun to follow, especially in a series, if the character is one that we can recognize in ourselves or in people we know. And if they are animals, it can be fun because we can laugh at the character in a safe environment without hurting someone we know.
> The point of this lesson is that you have plenty of material in your life from which to draw for really creative writing! You can do it! The people who write the best stories write from their own experiences. Even the fantasy writers write out of their familiar experience but soup it up out of the imagination to write something that is a bit unreal, but still something readers can identify with.
One Important Pointer
Regardless of your age group, don’t be afraid to trust your students to come up with some really great book or story titles, and to be able to do an effective analysis of what makes them good. I’ve enjoyed success with fifth graders talking about their favorite books. They know what they like and why! And they love taking what they learned and applying it to their own writing.
Make sure you follow up this lesson activity with a writing activity related to what you did so it doesn’t grow cold.