Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study

In Content-Area Writingauthors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zimmerman and Nancy Steineke make a distinction between writing to learn or to think and writing to demonstrate what was learned or thought. Writing to learn, they say, is usually short, spontaneous, exploratory and personal—that is, it’s writing that helps the writer probe, discover, understand or clarify something for him or herself. Writing to demonstrate learning, on the other hand, is more substantial, authoritative, polished and planned, and it’s aimed for an audience.

This fits nicely into my own belief that writing is both a tool and a product. It helps the writer figure out what he thinks then allows him to convey it to others. I worry, though, that we don’t always make this distinction clear, both for ourselves or our students, especially when it comes to graphic organizers, which Daniels & Co. list as a writing-to-learn strategy that can help writers map and cluster ideas. Students, I think, often see graphic organizers as products or assignments to be quickly dispatched and completed rather than as tools to push thinking. And I have to wonder whether they do so in part because we set them up that way.

This was brought home to me and the teachers I worked with in the second grade author study of Tomie dePaola I wrote about several weeks ago. To helps students keep track of individual books, consider how the elements of a story worked together to support the author’s message, and eventually discover patterns across the books they read, we designed two graphic organizers aimed at helping students think deeply. The first was a large attribute chart where the students could note the elements of each story, with a final column left for whatever connections and observations they might notice and make between books. The second was a Venn diagram that we thought would support the comparing and contrasting of the books for that final column.

Both were designed with the best of intentions. And both didn’t work quite as intended because the students seemed to view them as products to complete, not as tools to deepen their thinking. And so we had to push our own thinking to revise and refine these tools.

With the attribute chart, for instance, what the teachers and I noticed was that the students saw each of the columns as separate and discrete. They could identify the elements—the characters, the setting, the problem and solution and sometimes even what they called the lesson. But they weren’t thinking about how the elements were connected and how they contributed to the overall effect of the story. In particular, they weren’t considering how the kind of person a character is affects how they do or don’t deal with their problems, nor how the way those problems get solved can shed light on the themes or lessons of the story.

Instead they tried to pin adages, such as “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” on the stories. And while sometimes those sayings did, indeed, fit, they didn’t always capture the richness of the stories, nor the various things the students had noticed. And so we made two critical decisions. The first was: No more canned adages or maxims. We’d encourage students to use their own words and consider how the lesson was embedded in the story, not something tacked on at the end, which we made more explicit by adding a question beneath the element headers, like this:

The second was that we wouldn’t reduce each book to just one lesson or theme. Instead we’d open the door to multiple interpretations in acknowledgement of the fact that different readers notice and attend to different things and that even simple picture books can’t always be summed up in one idea. Here, for instance are transcripts of two different interpretations of Tomie dePaola’s The Art Lesson:

We had to go back to the drawing board, as well, with the Venn Diagram because, not seeing the organizer as an opportunity to stretch thinking, the students simply took what was on the attribute chart and plugged it into the organizer. And, as you can see, the results were superficial:

Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and Andy by Tomie dePaola

To counter this, we decided to put them into groups with a basket of books at each table and ask them to talk solely about what similarities or patterns they noticed recurring across the books. Then once they had a chance to trade ideas, we asked them to individually jot down what they’d noticed on a sticky note. And this time their thinking was far more insightful.

Adelita and Gopher tried to solve their own problems. For example, Adelita tried to make Javier come to her, and Gopher tried to find the right colors to paint the sunset.

Both characters Adelita and Little Gopher have a helper to solve their problems. For example, Esperanza helped Adelita to the party and the dream vision let Little Gopher to go to the hill and paint the sunset.

Through this process, students came away with a deep understanding of Tomie dePaola as an author. They saw how in seemingly very different stories—from original tales like the Strega Nona books to retellings of Indian legends and Irish folktales to the more autobiographical stories—he kept circling some of the same ideas or themes: The need to be true to your own self, even if that path is hard; the great gift of having people who help and support you; the consequences of meddling with what you don’t understand; the need to give back to others what they have given to you; and the importance of advocating for yourself.

At the very end of the unit, students watched a video of Tomie dePaola talking about his life, and they literally gasped at the connections they heard between his life and the themes in his books. This allowed them to also circled the writing truth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently articulated when he wrote:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has ever been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded  and humbled in just that way before.”

As for those graphic organizers: At best they served as a pre-assessment, showing us what the students could already do and where we, as teachers, could push in. What helped far more was setting up the students with opportunities to talk—and with us, as teachers, having a deeper vision of where that talk could lead.