From August, 2014

Analyzing Author’s Voice and Expressing Voice in Writing

As I was planning with Carrie Eneix for a lesson involving voice, the two of us realized that we weren’t really sure what “voice” meant.

I researched online and realized that many other people have struggled to define voice to students and explain how to use it in writing (see links to articles about voice at the bottom of this post).

Here is the definition used in the lesson is:

An author’s distinctive use of language to express his or her persona. 

After researching, I added this definition, too:

Another way of describing voice is that it is the narrator’s personality as established through the
choices they make in his/her writing.

Then, Carrie suggested that we also add a formula like this:

Diction + Syntax + Imagery + Other Literary Devices = Voice (author’s personality) 

We combined these definitions with a bell ringer activity, a lesson analyzing voice in a piece of literature, and a practice writing exercise.

Bell Ringer

Students are given two paragraphs (lyrics from Kanye West and Carrie Underwood songs) and asked to annotate for diction, imagery and syntax in each (see bottom of post for a handout for students and Power Point for the bell ringer).

The class discusses what they annotated, and then answer the question:

What is the author’s personality?  How do you know?

Afterward, the teacher models how to write a thesis statement stating the author’s voice for paragraph one (Carrie Underwood’s lyrics).  Students are asked “What evidence do you have to support this statement of voice?”

Then, in groups, students write a thesis statement about voice for the Kanye West paragraph and find two pieces of evidence to support (diction, syntax, etc.).

After this activity, the teacher models finding a word from paragraph one with connotative and denotative meaning.  Then, students have to define the connotative and denotative meaning for a word in paragraph two.  Two good choices are “storm cloud” and “cold wind.”

Analyzing Voice in Literature Lesson

After the bell ringer activity, students read and annotate a text for elements of voice: diction, imagery, and other literary elements. Then, they fill out a graphic organizer with this information (see bottom of post).  This leads to the following Check Your Understanding (CYU):

  1. Describe the voice of the narrator. Then, explain how the writer’s diction, imagery and other literary elements create this voice.
  • Begin with a clear thesis (what do you think the voice of the piece is?)
  • Include multiple direct quotes
  • Include transitions and a concluding statement  

This CYU will be used as a formative assessment to gauge how well students are able to identify and articulate the elements that create voice in a narrative.

Using Voice in Writing

Another goal of the unit is to have students write a reflective narrative.  Therefore, exploring the voice of others as a model is important, but they also need to practice creating voice in writing for themselves.  In order to do this, an extension activity was created as follows:

WRITING PRACTICE: Imagine you’re in a stopped elevator and you have been for three hours. You are hungry, thirsty, and you have to go to the bathroom, when you get a call from your agent telling you that you have just missed an appointment with a major recording executive. Write one paragraph in the voice of Kanye, Beyonce, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry, Eminem or some another popular recording artist. Be sure to use diction, imagery and syntax appropriate to your character. 


To make the connection between students’ final reflective narrative and the lesson, students might be asked the following question:

What voice do you want to use for your reflective narrative?  How will you use diction, syntax and imagery to portray this voice?  

This can be a class discussion topic so that students can share ideas on how to establish voice.

Resources for the lesson:

Additional links about voice:

Membean: Directions and Suggestions

Membean Logo

Membean is the vocabulary acquisition program we are using this year in all grade levels for ELA.  

It is a learning tool that helps students learn and remember words. In addition it enables each teacher to monitor and comprehend an individual student’s learning.  Here is the information to create classes, have students login, and tips and suggestions for using in the classroom and grading.  

Creating Classes

  1. Go to:
  2. Enter your name and password
  3.           Password and email will be the same: Firstname_Lastname_SchoolInitials (EX: Brandi_Smith_PHSN) 
  4. Click on the large white box in the middle of the screen that says “CREATE YOUR FIRST CLASS”
  6. Select “CREATE CLASS”
  7. When the class shows up in the dashboard, write down the “CLASS CODE”
  8. This code is what students will use to get into the class, each period has a different code

Directions to Login to Membean for Students

  1. Go to:
  2. Enter the class code in the box for “CLASS CODE”
  3. Answer the question: “HAVE YOU USED MEMBEAN BEFORE” with yes or no
  4. Fill in “MY DETAILS”
    1. Make sure password is at last six letters
    2. Email is optional
  7. Pause here. We need to talk about calibrating
  8. Select the green button in the top left of the screen, “CALIBRATE FIRST”
  9. After calibration is over, you will be given a score between 1-5. This is your starting vocabulary level.  This is the benchmark from which you will improve throughout the year.
  10. Select “LET’S GET STARTED”
  11. Select “NEXT”
  12. Read the instructions and select “NEXT”
  13. Read the instructions and select “NEXT”
  14. Select “LET’S BEGIN”
  15. Pause here. We need to talk about the parts of the page
  16. Select “NEXT” and from here, begin your practice session

Best Practices for Practice and Grading

  • How often and for how long should students be training in Membean?

Students should be using Membean a minimum of 30 training minutes per week. Training should occur at least twice, and up to four times per week.  Three 15-minute sessions every week is optimal – this adds up to 45-minutes per week.  

Students in remedial or ESL programs should train more frequently but for shorter sessions each time. 

Teachers may want to consider differentiated homework. There’s no particular reason that every student should be assigned the same time goal each week, and Membean could be used as a differentiation tool.

  • How should Membean be used to grade?

Membean recommends that students be given one grade based upon the time spent in training and another grade based upon quizzes, each equaling approximately 50% of the final vocabulary acquisition grade for the quarter.

If a teacher assigns the recommended 45 minutes per week for each student, then he or she might decide to give students one point per minute for a total of 45 points. If a student only studies for 30 minutes that week, then they would be given a 30/45 for the week. In addition, the two-week quiz grade might be based upon a percentage out of 100 correct.

Some teachers have also decided that they only want to put quizzes in the grade book, but that they will mandate students finish the allotted amount of practice before they are allowed to take the quiz.   

As a final recommendation, vocabulary acquisition should be about 10% of the final quarterly grade.

How to Introduce to Students 

  • Calibration is a big deal! Try your best. Calibrating is what helps to determine what words you will learn. Also, there are both fake and real words in the calibration test, so be honest.
  • Membean training is a PRACTICE tool. You are answering questions, and you should try your best. However, the goal is for you to learn, so don’t worry if you miss questions. That is why you are practicing. In addition, you will be exposed to the same words multiple times until you learn them. If you don’t get it the first time, you will have another chance.
  • Vocabulary levels may be lower than expected; many English teachers scored around a three as a benchmark, most students start at a 1-2 level.
  • The “CONTEXT” page has the following features for students:
    • The microphone symbol can be used to hear the word pronounced
    • The “WORD INGREDIENTS” shows the prefix, suffix and root words
    • “MEMORY HOOK” shows possible ways for students to remember words
    • There are also sometimes videos, songs, sentence of context etc. on this page


Tips for Unpacking Assessments: Marking the Text and Using Visual Aids


Ellie Wiseman is using multiple visual aids to help students understand the unit, including this poster that lists the unit title, major assessments, essential questions and building skills.

In the Springboard Curriculum, each unit begins by having students examine what they will need to know and do for the first major assessment (known as the Embedded Assessment, or EA).  The process used is known as “unpacking.” Teachers will “unpack” approximately two assessments per quarter in English classes.

The goal of unpacking is to make very clear to students the purpose of the lessons and the expectations for the summative assessments.  Ideally, teachers will facilitate the unpacking of “skills and knowledge” through a combination of close reading of the rubric and/or assignment description and then the creation a visual “map” to be displayed in the room. The strategies used and the look of the unpacked EA might be different, but ultimately, the important thing is that teachers refer to the expectations often and link lessons explicitly to those expectations.

Stop Light

Mandy Bruney is posting the unpacked EA and then connecting it to the daily lessons via the learning targets. Each lesson, she will write the learning target on a sentence strip and begin the lesson by placing it on the red, yellow, or green poster depending upon how the class feels about the target. Then at the end of the lesson, she will move the learning target to where students feel they ended the lesson.

This helps teachers to answer the question, “Why are we doing this?”  It also helps students see how the learning is meaningful and relevant to them.

The rest of this post is also available as a printable handout (at the bottom of this post) teachers can use as a reference when unpacking assessments:

Steps to Unpacking Standards for Embedded Assessments:

  1. Begin with a close read of the assignment and/or rubric
  2. Close read a second time and “mark the text”
  3. Continue with a class discussion and visual representation of the EA (stop sign, web, mountain etc.)
  4. Display the unpacked EA in the room and refer to it after lessons to see what skills students are mastering

Note: While you will go through the process with each class individually, only one “unpacking poster” needs to be displayed in the classroom for reference

Marking the Text Ideas:

Circle the skills (verbs) and underline the knowledge (nouns) in the “proficient” category or the embedded assessment description (or both). The proficient category is where the students tend to group (according to the bell curve); instruction is targeted to the proficient. Later, you can look at the adjectives in the “exemplary” category if you choose to do so.

Some teachers have also just unpacked with what students are going to do “write a topic sentence” for example. They could also be written more in the form of learning targets (I can…).

Modifications/Additions for Marking the Text:

  • QHT: Use the “Q, H, and T” symbols to mark the text (rubric or assignment description)
    • Q-uestion (don’t know it at all)
    • H-eard of it (but may not know a lot about it)
    • T-each the lesson on it (I got this)
  • Color Coding: Use red, yellow, and green markers or colored pencils to circle what students will need to know and do for the EA
    • Red: Never heard of it
    • Yellow: Heard of it, but I need more information
    • Green: Comfortable with this idea

Methods for Unpacking:


Christine Billirakis used the web to unpack the definition essay for eleventh grade and listed out what students would need to do by category on the rubric.

  • Web- Web out the skills and knowledge, starting with the EA in the center, then skills, then what students need to know to accomplish skills
    • Example: Essay based on an interview (the EA) would be in the center of the web. “Write” would be in the first bubble from the center. “Narrative Essay” would be in the bubble off of “write.”
  • Mountain- List out the skills and knowledge as “I can” statements on note cards and place them at the bottom of the mountain. Move the note cards after each lesson.
  • Stoplight- List out the skills and knowledge and have students place the skill as green, yellow, or red on the stoplight.
    • Put the skill on note cards, have posters of each color, and then place the skills on the appropriate color for students overall levels at the beginning of the unit and move them after each lesson
    • Students can also have their own “stoplights” on paper to keep
  • Spokes and Clouds- “Spokes” are what students need to do and “clouds” are the knowledge they need to get there
Wiseman listed the description of the Embedded Assessment on the poster and will later go in and create the "skills and knowledge" portion with students.

Wiseman listed the description of the Embedded Assessment on the poster and will later go in and create the “skills and knowledge” portion with students.

  • Backpack- The backpack functions like the web, but there is more of a visual connection to the unpacking concept

**Note: Some start with the web and move to the stoplight or some other visual representation that can show movement

Collaborative Group Unpacking:

Renee Jackson broke students into groups and used the jigsaw strategy to have each group examine a portion of the rubric, write out the skills and then present to the class.  I wrote the lists on the board for other students to copy as they presented.

Renee Jackson broke students in her ninth grade English classes into groups and used the jigsaw strategy to have each group examine a portion of the rubric, write out the skills on a graphic organizer, and then present findings to the class. I wrote the lists on the board for other students to copy as they presented.

  1. Silently read prompt or rubric and mark text
  2. Share out the findings in small groups as a list (skills and knowledge needed)
  3. Have each group present results and list these out on one group web (or other visual representation) together

Other Ideas:

  • Unpacking could include drawings of the skills and knowledge to more incorporate visual learning
  • As part of unpacking, students could rephrase the EA in their own words
  • Teachers could use an online resource such as Mindmap to create individual student webs
  • Teachers may have students write skills and knowledge on post its (one per sticky note) to put on a group stop light, mountain etc.

Using the Unpacked EA in the Classroom:

  • The teacher may have students rank themselves on learning targets building to the EA before and after lessons that deal with each skill (see learning targets sheet as a possible resource)
  • Teachers may put the lesson number beside the skills and knowledge listed on the unpacked EA as lessons are completed
  • Teachers may put color coded stickers (red, yellow and green) on the unpacked EA as lessons are completed that match students perceived mastery of content

Additional Resources: