Three Points I Pull from “They Say I Say” in My 7th & 8th Grade ELA Classes

They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)


I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.

While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.

This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.

Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:

  • The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
    • quote only relevant passages
    • frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
    • don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
    • try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
    • blend the author’s points with the writer’s
  • Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
    • anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:

“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”

    • use the provided templates for entertaining objections
      • Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
    • use the templates for informally introducing objections
      • Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
    • use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
      1. Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
  • Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students.  Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
    • The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
    • It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
    • It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
    • It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing  their essays.

Another bonus: They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.

Check out and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).

Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.

Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing.  Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.

New book for my classroom!

Flying Lessons & Other Stories | Edited by Ellen Oh

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New book! Yay!

Last week I ordered Flying Lessons & Other Stories from Amazon for my classroom library. I had learned about the book by visiting the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog a couple of weeks ago as I was researching and reading for two posts I wrote, Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder and A Source for Native American Lit.

Flying Lessons was included in a list on the AICL blog of Best Books for 2017 by native writers or illustrators. It was the only book listed under the heading “For Middle Grades.” The specific Best Book status was for the short story entitled “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” The author, Tim Tingle, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Like other authors mentioned on the blog, Tingle’s story is honored for its accurate portrayal of native people, their traditions, cultures, and beliefs.

Flying Lessons & Other Stories contains ten short stories and poetry by ten diverse writers, including Kwame Alexander, Grace Lin, Walter Dean Myers, and Jaqueline Woodson, among others.

Ellen Oh,  co-founder and president of We Need Diverse Books, edited the collection of stories. This organization, according to its website, exists to advocate “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”  In the words of Walter Dean Myers, as quoted in a section of the book entitled “Why We Need Diverse Books,” young people need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they rea.d

So far, I’ve read only a few selections from the book: Tingle’s story, Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha,” Jacqueline Woodson’s “Main Street,” and the collection’s namesake, “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani. I feel that the book will be good for reading aloud during class, and also a source of mentor texts that contain effective examples of realistic dialogue, descriptive settings, and captivating opening lines. I’ll be reading more stories from the book over the next week.

I struggle to find engaging short stories for middle school students. Since I usually start the school year off with memoir writing, I feel that this book will provide relevant, contemporary storylines and characters that my students can identify with.

One regret: I do wish the book had a more interesting cover. Because of its text-only design, I already know I’ll have to really talk up the book to get my students to check it out. Books with photographs or colorful pictures or illustrations always get more attention.

As I work more with the book in my classroom, I’ll relay to you how my students receive it. In fact, having a few of them write a short review will be beneficial for them and you.

It’s fun to add new books over the summer when I actually have more time to read. Thanks for checking out this post. Follow my blog for more book reviews as I discover new reads!