Break It Down: Scaffolding Style

All right.  The kids “got it.” They saw that Capote has a distinct writing style and that his style has something to do with lists and parenthetical remarks and sensory detail.  Is that all they’re expected to know? That the author—any author—has a style?  Or do I want more?

Of course I want more.

I want my students to recognize what style is and be able to articulate the stylistic elements in any author’s work.  I want them to distinguish one author’s style from another’s and describe the differences using the appropriate language.  What I want is analysis: a higher level thinking skill. Not so easy as simply recognizing the author has a style or that there are differences in writers’ styles.

It’s a skill that has to be taught—and in the beginning, students will benefit from some “scaffolding.”

So, once they’re “hooked” (See my blog post “A Matter of Style”), I provide my students with a checklist prepared by teachers at a school in Seattle, Washington—the Lakeside School—called Checklist: Elements of Literary Style. Yes, I thieved it. (I prefer to say “borrowed.”  After all, when people put items on the Internet, it’s an invitation for others to use them, not unlike the teacher down the hall pulling something from her file cabinet and saying, “Try this!”) I noticed, when I searched online again for the checklist, for this blog, that another teacher has borrowed it, too. Like me, she gives credit where credit is due.  Frankly, it would be hard to improve upon this checklist, so thank you, English teachers at the Lakeside School!

Pause now to go to this site:

http://teachers.lakesideschool.org/us/english/ErikChristensen/WRITING%20STRATEGIES/LiteraryStyles.htm

I also provide the students with a handout (below) that can be simplified by including fewer categories, depending upon the age and stage of the students or the characteristics of the particular author whose style they are analyzing, or by combining two categories (like #3 and #4):

Element of Style Example or explanation
1. Sentence structure
2. Pace
3. Diction
4. Vocabulary
5. Figures of speech
6. Use of Dialogue
7. Point of View
8. Character development
9. Tone
10. Word Color/Sound
11. Paragraph/Chapter Structure
12. Time Sequence
13. Allusions
14.  Experimentation
15.   Metafictional techniques

The students’ task—independently, in pairs, or in small groups, depending again upon all the variables of instructional planning and strategy—is  to examine the designated writer’s work—and find examples in the text of each of the elements on the checklist—if they apply.

For example, students will note that the sentences in “A Christmas Memory” are long (#1), full of lists and adjectives and subordinate clauses. The pace (#2) is slow, with much description—sensory images like the stove, the tipsy dancing in the kitchen, the tinfoil stars ornamenting the trees—and emphasis on the setting (the South—pecans, pine trees; and the Depression—FDR was the President, it cost a dime to attend a movie).  His diction (#3) is expansive—he’s long-winded and that contributes to the affectionate feeling he has for Sook and his lingering description of these Christmas memories. His vocabulary (#4) includes some unusual and/or multisyllabic words—for example, inaugurated, dilapidated, mingle, sacrilegious, skinflint, prosaic—but these alternate with simple words that describe images and scenes that are easy to understand and with figures of speech (#5) such as like a drunkard’s legs, blaze of her heart, turned our purse inside out that are easy to visualize. There is not much dialogue (#6), but lines such as “It’s fruitcake weather!” move the story along and signal significance.

And so on.

More sophisticated students might write for Truman Capote that his portrait of Sook (#8) is almost a caricature of an eccentric and solitary older woman, perhaps a simple-minded one, but by inserting his own parenthetical comments (#15), he not only softens our judgment but endears her to us.

The checklist provides a scaffold for students when they attempt to describe style.  It’s  a difficult literary concept—more difficult by far than outlining the plot or figuring out point of view or even determining theme—so the checklist and companion worksheet break the task up into manageable pieces.

Done often enough, the exercise will help students develop their understanding of what style is and, with practice, come to identify its characteristics with the same automaticity with which they identify the stages in plot development or analyze character.

Furthermore, the language of the checklist plus the examples they find in the text will provide the students with the support they need when their teacher—could that be me?—asks them to write a formal analysis of an author’s style.

Whatever the skill you want students to learn, break it down, break it apart. Make the goal attainable.

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