Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Magic of Three in Student Writing

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at, but the ones that have to do with education are here.

One of the reasons that I have been wanting to revise some of our realistic fiction units is because of the number three. Many of our teachers discovered a formula that they could give students for story writing that would almost always meet standard on state narrative writing assessments. The main character has a problem. He/she tries once to solve it, tries a second time, and then success on the third try. Stop and think how many of your favorite narrative stories follow this formula. Hmmm. Not too many! When I think of my favorite stories, I don't go straight to fairy tales. Stop and think what realistic fiction books could serve as mentors for this formula. Hmmm. I don't have one.

As a non-proponent of three's in story structure, I am surprised that I fell for the magic of three in our work session with Christine Holley, one of our district's Staff Developers from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. (We are incredibly fortunate in our district to have several visits from Staff Developers during the school years and I wrote about this one already once before.) Christine and Mary Ehrenworth wrote From Scenes to Series, one of the books for first-grade in the Units of Study that Heinemann published last year. One of the sessions in this unit emphasizes the importance of patterns in fiction writing, and they point out Cynthia Rylant's use of 3's in Henry and Mudge- The First Book. When I analyzed this pattern closely using The First Book, I found that actually, Cynthia Rylant even uses patterns of 4--the pattern of three is especially strong in Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat. That being said, think about the following lines from The First Book:

Then they looked at their street with no children. 
Then they looked at Henry’s face. 

Then they looked at each other.

He loved the 
dirty socks. He loved the stuffed bear. He 
loved the fish tank. But mostly he loved 

Henry's bed.

He couldn't smell 
Henry. He couldn't smell his front porch. He 

couldn't smell the street he lived on.

Now, think about challenging young writers to try out using patterns of repetition, emphasizing three. In a recent pre-assessment, one of our first-grade writers wrote:

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Emma and she liked to find things. One day she found a hat. It had a little heart on it. The next day, she found a girl playing hide and seek. Emma said can I play too, please. Yes, said the girl.

What if she had this lesson? What a great way to help her learn to stretch her writing, add some development, and really add voice. I could see her adding: 

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Emma and she liked to find things. One time she found a conch shell. One time she found a hat with a little heart on it. And one time she found a girl playing hide and seek.

In this case, yes, I have done the work, and I would not tell a student exactly what to do--I am just demonstrating how effectively this trick impacts writing and I think that this is an easy enough concept for young writers to try out.

Even though the work that we were doing was with first-graders in mind, I will also share that I have used a similar lesson with fourth-graders, as well, and it has been SO effective at helping them to write more creative informational books. For example, one fourth-grade writer strung together three "Imagine a person who..." in a row and she had a wonderful hook!

Happy Slicing!


  1. I can see this as a wonderful strategy in all our genre studies, Melanie - thanks!

  2. This was already on my agenda for the coming week, courtesy of a session las Saturday at TC. Serendipity!

  3. When we look deeply at texts we can discover these "tricks" of authors and pass them on to students. I've noticed lots of repetition in texts and it lifts the writing every time. Thanks for these insights.

  4. Oh, I agree with you about the formulaic use of three! Love how you've envisioned using it to really develop writing and add voice. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  5. I love the pattern of three in writing. I use it often in my own. Aimee Buckner of Choice Literacy has a minilesson for her fourth graders on the pattern of three.

  6. It sometimes seems like magic, but really so simple, isn't it? And students, even younger ones, can imagine 3 or 4things! Or add 3 or 4 facts/explanations. Thanks!