The Do Re Mi of Writing

My father is a classical pianist and Beethoven scholar. I have vivid childhood memories of hearing him warm up for his nightly piano sessions by practicing his scales as I drifted off to sleep. Some nights he'd practice the scales loudly, while other nights he'd practice softly. Some nights the notes of the scales blended, while other nights the notes had a more staccato sound. The routine of practicing scales helped him ease into his piano practice and focus on the essential nuts-and-bolts of his musical craft. Practicing scales helped him develop a strong musical vocabulary so that the composure of music became possible, like this piece of his:

[wpvideo Bhif6fuO]

Just like music is a craft, writing is a craft. Thinking about my father practicing his scales as a path towards composing music, I began wondering what 'scales' writers practice as a path to composing a piece of writing. And just as musicians practice their scales in different ways while warming up to play - with tension, softly, legato, staccato - I wondered about the different ways writers practice their 'scales' while warming up to write.

Many writers and writing teachers have wondered the same thing: E.B. White and William Strunk in Elements of Style, William Zinsser in On Writing Well, Don Murray in The Essential Don Murray, Donald Graves in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work. These writers and teachers of writing focus on the moves, the routines - the scales, if you will - that help young writers develop their skills.

So as the end of the school year approaches, we can reflect on all the writing tools and moves - the scales - we've taught across the year and rally students to practice them as warm-ups before they craft their final pieces of the year. We can ask ourselves,

What scales could your students practice?

What are the ways they could practice these scales?

What sorts of compositions are crafted from this practice?

Types of Scales.

There are plenty of scales you might practice at the end of the year (see the above writing VIPs for many ideas). For instance, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark provides concrete and practical writing tools that students to practice. Some of my favorites include take it easy on the -ings, begin sentences with subjects and verbs, and set the pace with sentence length. 

At the end of the year, look across your student writing and see what scales your students haven't been practicing as much as they should, could, or would. Lessons you've taught across the year that beg to be reprised. Then, students can take 5 minutes before writing in their notebooks or drafts and practice some scales that have become a bit rusty.

Here is a list of scales from a group of early elementary teachers when discussing grammar and mechanics lessons that had yet to stick:

  1. capitalizing proper nouns
  2. commas in a series
  3. simple, strong sentences
  4. using (but not overusing) adjectives
  5. compound sentences

Whether you choose a convention or a craft move (and of course the two are intertwined), reflecting on a short list of scales for your students to practice will help you define what it is you want them to hold onto this year.

Ways to Practice Writing Scales.

First off, you will want your students to practice with something they have already drafted, or are in the process of writing. We do not hand piano players worksheets where they identify scales, they actually play the piano. We want our students to actually write when practicing - on topics they care about, on pieces that come from them. It could be that they are starting fresh and will practice their scales on the next part of their text or a new entry. Or perhaps they will go to yesterday's work and practice there.

Next - you will want some variety. My father used many different ways to practice his scales, yes, to improve technique, but most likely, to avoid boredom! The same will apply to practicing writing scales. Vary the ways students practice, such as:

  • Quick, rapid fire practice: Try a scale 5 or 10 times down the page in a notebook within a time limit, like composing quick compound sentences.
  • Partner practice: Pairing up with another student co-writing or co-practicing a scale aloud 5 or 10 times, like sentences with alliteration or metaphors.
  • Repeated practice: Trying a scale, like the use of a dash, 5 or 10 times across the week as you write.

Here is an example of what a quick, rapid fire scales practice might look like, let's say on a new entry for an information book on cats, because cats.  The "scale" practiced here is Roy Peter Clark's suggestion to start sentences with subjects and verbs, specifically verbs:

The author of this entry does not take responsibility for the cat facts herein.

By practicing starting sentences with verbs a few times before writing, this move finds its way into the entry a few times, and makes the author way more comfortable with the move before she has to use it in a "real" piece of writing.

Full disclosure! 

As a child of a classical pianist, I took many a piano lesson, naturally. And, as piano student, I resisted practicing my scales, again, naturally. Resisting, even hating, practicing is such a common experience it should be categorized as part of the human condition (you know, like Love. Loss. Hating practicing the piano).  This piano teacher accurately captures this truth in her aptly titled post, Why Kids Hate Practicing

Instead of fighting human nature, we can think of creative ways to sell the importance of practice to our students. Here are a few helpful connections:

Selling the Daily Practice of Writing Scales 

  1. Share video of famous singers warming up. There are videos online from Michael Jackson to Christina Aguilera to Justin Bieber - all warming up by practicing their scales. Ask your writers, "If singers warm up  by practicing their scales, what scales or exercises might you do as a writer to warm up to get ready to write?"
  2. Share examples of athletes practicing their version of scales - drills - to warm up. Brainstorm a list with your class: How do basketball players practice? How do soccer players warm up? What exercises or drills do dancers, boxers or football players do? There are many videos online you can show your students. Here is one about soccer.
  3. Share testimonies from piano teachers on the importance of daily practice and scales. Again, there are tons of videos available online with a simple search of "practicing piano scales," like this one from jazz pianist and teacher, Peter Martin. Martin demonstrates different scales and different ways to practice scales as a part of the daily routine of a pianist. [wpvideo UNJDGyEg]

The best part is, the practicing of scales helps create a better full-length performance. Soccer players, vocalists, pianists and writers all become stronger by practicing, warming up and applying their practice to their final piece, whether it be a song, a game, or a piece of writing.

After all, practice makes perfect.

-Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Making Our Teaching Stick                     Tiny Detail: Have Students Practice "Scales" for Writing