Saturday, March 8, 2014

Where Does Voice Live in the CCSS for Writing?

Throughout the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by All participants aim to write a post every day for the month of March. When my posts relate to education, you will find them here. Otherwise, find my SOLC posts at

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation that was really a sales pitch for Zaner Bloser writing products. As a district, we are deeply committed to the philosophy and products of the Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins out of Teachers College. However, I went to the presentation because I am always interested to hear what else is out there. 

Aside from offering a delicious lunch and unlimited free samples of the materials, the presentation offered several important reminders about how to think about writing. Scott had a handout and an engaging presentation. More than anything, his thoughts about voice in writing are resonating with me. To me, voice is the difference between good and great writing. All four of my daughters write. One of them is structurally close to perfect. However, her writing reads sort of like an encyclopedia. She enjoys writing lab reports and her reflections about her learning are clinical. The other three talk through their writing. I laugh when I read their writing, and when I have to, I wade through the run-on sentences because I enjoy what they are saying, even when they are writing lab reports...

I have wondered and struggled with the limited acknowledgement that the Common Core State Standards gives to voice as an important feature of writing. The fourth anchor standard calls for students to “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” I have always considered this standard to be the one that addresses voice, but Scott pushed my thinking. 

Let’s think about this sentence: I had a good time at the party down the street.  There’s not much voice there. However, what if I change it up to: I had a blast at the barbecue at the Pazzannis' house. I think that there is much more voice coming through in the second sentence and all I have done is made my words more specific. If I were going to expand on this sentence and develop some sort of a narrative piece, then I’m addressing the third writing standard, of developing “real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.” Isn’t it the well-chosen details that give the second sentence more voice?

As a writer and teacher of writing, I would have said that a great way to teach voice to students is to get them to verbally rehearse their writing, and then try to write what they’ve said. However, I am changing my thinking. What if my mechanical daughter learned to change up her sentence structure more? What if she paid attention to the length of sentences and the precise use of punctuation? What if someone challenged her to use not only precise words, but also interesting words? I'm wondering if those changes would coax out the voice that I know and love...

I believe in trait-based writing. Our district’s rubric does not exactly match the traditional traits--ideas, organization, fluency, word choice, conventions, and voice-- but it is close. Scott’s point was that teaching students about the traits of writing--about selecting ideas that matter, details that are relevant, words that make impressions, and transitions that flow--leads to the emergence of voice. I agree.

I have seen many analytic rubrics scored with voice being the only meeting expectations trait. Is this possible? Really, really possible? Or have we just tried to find a place to honor a struggling writer? I am going to be on the lookout for the answer to this question and I am interested in any thoughts that help me wonder more about this!


  1. I think that voice is one of the hardest writing skills to teach. Somewhere between the "real" kid and the kid's written words, that voice is lost...or maybe just hiding. We use rehearsal, too, as a writing strategy. I also have some of my kids who struggle the most use their iphone to record their thoughts first - it's a way to capture their thoughts, their voice. Great post, Melanie!

  2. I have struggled with the teaching of voice. My students usually read that to mean writing that is more informal. However, when they do choose a topic about which they are passionate, the voice comes naturally with the appropriate register.

    But i don't yet have a clear steady voice in my writing yet, though I hope to begin to develop it though this challenge. I like how you got something out of the presentation besides a good lunch!

  3. I agree with Tara, I think voice is very difficult to teach. I do see it happen naturally for some children though and those examples seem to help guide students understanding of what makes a story interesting. And, I completely agree that voice comes through in may ways, word selection being a huge one.