The Power of Words

The Power of Words (NZLA Conference in Wellington, 2 October 2017)

power of words

Four keynote speakers sparked the passion and love of literacy teaching and learning among the gathered audience. They were Ralph Fletcher, Kyle Mewburn, Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey. All four SHARED THEIR COMMITMENT to growing a love of literacy among children through interest and engagement, humour, curiosity and composition. In this post I am going to focus on Kyle Mewburn and Ralph Fletcher in their quest to engage boys in reading and writing. So many of us, who love teaching literacy have at some time or other grappled with or wondered about how we can get those boys in our class who aren’t interested in reading or writing to engage and see the magic in both.

“Words are like souvenirs by which you remember stories” (Kyle Mewburn). They are building blocks, taonga, magic and they sing. Kyle told the audience in his unique style, it was his calling to give kids ways of expressing themselves using rhyming dialogue, “Crinkled, crumpled, Mrs Fizzletum” and to encourage them to have fun with words, “Howdy-dumble, Andy Apple Crumble!” (from Kiss! Kiss! Yuck! Yuck!). Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s most eclectic and prolific writers and HE certainly kept the audience entertained with his often zany stories about life. Kyle insists that to develop a love of words in children they should be used and played with verbally as well as on paper. In his workshop he continued to make us think about words in a new way – having fun with them and playing around with the construction of sentences. Our first exercise was to participate in an insult joust! Some of you might be holding up your hands in horror at the very thought but fear not my friends – this was fun and totally controlled by the teacher. Make up pre-prepared cards which contain titles, adjectives and nouns. Get individual children to select 3 cards (one of each) and square off with a jousting partner. The winner is the one who makes their insult sound the most convincing (judged by the audience) eg. “Sir Lancelot is a weaselly toe rag!”  Think about this, ‘How might your literacy lessons change if you focussed on developing a love of words as a goal?’

Kyle believes that children need to develop their word powers using narrative power (strong verbs / bristling sentences), descriptive power (incisive similes / hyper detail) and emotive power (explosive detail / physical / psychological). When it comes to boys, they like action packed fast paced narrative, super charged subject matter, relatable characters (friendships), boundless humour, gross elements and lists (lots of lists) so let them write like that.

So how do we get children to develop a belief that they can be a writer just like they can be a soccer player, a netball player or an artist?


Ralph Fletcher believes we should teach children to be inquisitive and find interesting things about ordinary lives. He encourages teachers to let children write organically rather than being genre driven. Included in his core beliefs about writing are that writers need … time, choice, response and responsibility. What does that mean in classroom practice? They need you, the teacher, to allow this to happen within the class literacy programme.

In order to have choice children need the time to record and gather their ideas for writing. When children notice things, when they are moved by things, when they wonder about things, we (as teachers) need to help them sow those THESE seeds as triggers for writing. A Writer’s Notebook is the perfect place to germinate those THESE seeds. Ralph Fletcher is an exponent of the Writers Notebook and he uses them as “a playground where writers can goof around!”

We teach them to listen to the talk of the world. Ask them to listen to conversations and “snatches of talk” of those around them – write down those sparkly words in their writer’s notebook. Ralph suggests that the camera (on your phone or ipad) can also function as a writer’s notebook as you capture things around you. Children, as we know, are great at capturing images from their unique child’s eye that takes an ordinary thing and makes it quite extraordinary. Ralph believes writers need to show their identity so he asks children to pay attention to their senses and their heart when they are collecting and recording ideas in their writer’s notebook.

I wonder

Ralph has spent much of his time investigating boys learning and their writing. He is the author of many books for teachers but two notable ones you might be interested in are Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and The Writing Teacher’s Companion. “Topic choice emerges as a crucial issue. The subjects many boys like to write about (war, weapons, outlandish fiction, zany or bathroom humor) often do not get a warm reception from teachers. Ralph argues that we must “widen the circle” and give boys more choice if we want to engage them as writers”. He urged us to build on their strengths, take the long view and enjoy their writing!

So many gems from two very inspiring educators. From now on my CTs will be jousting with insults, goofing around in their writer’s notebooks, recording their own seeds of inspiration and curiosity, and using their cameras to engage their heart and senses. How about you?

Leigh Johnson