Slice of Life: Thinking About Word Choice and Mood with Sixth Graders

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When you walk into a yarn shop, you are faced with a dizzying array of colors and textures. There are yarns almost as fine as thread to yarns as thick as a pencil and everything in between. When I decide to knit something, a lot of decisions have to be made. Which weight yarn is right for my project? What color and texture should I use? All of these choices affect the “mood” of the finished hat or scarf or sweater.

On Friday, I brought an assortment of different yarns into the sixth grade ELA classes. As I shared the yarn with the kids, we talked about how different each skein was from the other. I asked the students which yarn they thought would be the best choice for a hat for Dad or a blanket for a new baby. They intuitively understood that the function of the finished product influenced the yarn choice.

I pointed out that, just like knitters make choices about yarn, authors choose particular words to achieve an intended effect, and these choices influence how a reader reacts to a piece of writing. To illustrate this, I shared the first stanza of William Blake’s “The Echoing Green.”

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

(You can read the rest of the poem here.)

As soon as we finished reading I asked them to write down a word describing their mood. Then I sent them back into the poem to find which specific words Blake used that evoked that mood. They shared their ideas with their partners, then with the whole group. I was impressed with the variety of words they chose to describe their mood, but even more impressed with how they were able to cite specific words and phrases to support their ideas. We repeated this process with the other two stanzas to see if the mood was consistent throughout the poem.

Analyzing “the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone,” as the CCSS calls for sixth grade students to do, can be tricky. These students have just started reading Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s profound and thought-provoking novel. Babbitt is a master of evoking mood, but her word choice can be subtle, so my sixth grade colleague and I have been working on ways to develop this challenging skill.

The kids did a great job with the work we began on Friday. I’ll be visiting them several times over the next few weeks to continue this work, including looking at several poems that have many words in common but evoke very different moods.

 Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday throughout the year and every day during the month of March. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.