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Sketch and Write

By Gaetan Pappalardo

“Rigor without pleasure is usually a losing proposition; it runs against human nature.”
—Thomas Newkirk

I credit the hours of diagraming sentences to the yellow sweat stains on my catholic boy Oxford. Uncomfortable and sweaty, I trudged through worksheet after worksheet under the iron fist of the nuns. Some students learn to write in this environment.  I didn’t. However, it taught me discipline. Thirteen years of catholic school taught me to persevere through boredom, academic distraught and catholic guilt. And that discipline waited in my subconscious for a long time. It waited for a partner. It waited for love.

Tennis.  Writing.  Guitar. Teaching.

These “loves” came later in life. I loved them so much that I was willing to suffer in order to succeed (That’s called grit –– The new buzz word that teachers are supposed implant in kids. I know, right?).  Discipline collided with love and the end result was/is success.

Here’s my formula–– Discipline + Love = Grit = Success

Most of the time when I create a system for my classroom I always think, “If I was in third grade, would I like this?” That’s where the Sketch and Write was born.  It’s a word study/editing/revision/ technique that incorporates art.  Now I know that not all kids love art or writing freedom, but it does hook the ones that do.  That’s the love part.  The discipline part comes with the expectations and value you put on the work as the teacher.

Here’s the Sketch and Write

Gaetan 3

Paper:  I use a four-cell chart.  It looks like a comic (Score!).  Above the chart are four lines for the four words of the week (see illustration).

Words: Your choice! But here are some options.

  • Words from the story/book of the week (If you’re using an anthology or reading program).
  • If you’re reading program is reading workshop, you can have students pull words from the book they are reading (This is more work, but it’s differentiation at it’s finest).
  • Content words from Science or Social Studies.
  • Writing craft/style words: Speakers tags, adjectives, action verbs, etc…

Cheat Code: When we are discussing the words, the class will come up with a “cheat code” for the vocabulary word. Cheat code is video game lingo, so the kids love it, of course. A cheat code is a synonym or phrase that will help define the word.  We place the cheat code under the each word at the top of the page (See picture).

Sentences: You’ve picked the words and discussed the definitions (whole class or one-on-one).  Now what?  Students use the word in a sentence/write a micro story in each box.  Some students will write stories across all four boxes. Some kids will explain the word instead of using it in context. It all depends on your chosen expectations.

Illustrations: “Yes, you’re allowed to draw during school! Go nuts!”  That’s my default speech in September when I introduce the Sketch and Write. Plain and simple ––kids illustrate the sentence. This isn’t complicated, but it’s meaningful, fun, and memorable.

Gaetan 2

Gaetan 1

Now What?

The Sketch and Write may seem like a pretty straightforward activity –– nothing mind blowing. You might be saying, “I can just give them the words and definitions and be done with it.” True. But here’s the thing –­– If you believe in student centered learning and writing workshop, then you believe that kids need choice, time to write, time to create, and time to edit/revise their own writing (not a made up sentence with three hidden errors).  Right?

Now that your students have created the foundation of the Sketch and Write, it’s time to modify, add-on, etc…

Micro Edit

 The Sketch and Write allows students to edit their own writing.  Of course it might only be one sentence you are editing, but heck they’re eight-year-olds. Work on mastering that one sentence –– Capital letter, end mark, spell check, makes sense? That’s the groove of editing for my students. Say it with me, it’s fun –– capital letter, end mark, spell check, make sense?  It’s unintimidating and personal. Can you feel the love?


When a beginning writer revises, I want him/her to think of three possible revisions –– cut, add, or rearrange –– three easy words for kids to remember. The Sketch and Write’s small package is a great way to teach and practice revision skills.

  • Use a simile in your sentence
  • Cut “waste words” from your sentence
  • Turn your boring verb into an action verb


Not all students love art. But sometimes I prove them wrong.  It’s like the poetry phobia. Not all students like poetry until they find a poem or poetry technique they like/or can write.

  • Illustrate in the style of certain artists
  • Just use pencil (sketch and shade)
  • Use color (crayon/marker)
  • Paint

What about the vocabulary words?

  • Discussed and reviewed while reading the story
  • Used in writing workshop
  • Kids can trade papers and “quiz” each other by hiding illustrations, reading the sentence, or using the cheat code.

The Finale!

At the end of each semester my students compile all of the Sketch and Writes they’ve completed and make an illustrated vocabulary book they can bring home or keep in school.  My school has trimesters, so we end the year with three books.  Let them design and illustrate the cover.  All love, man.

Gaetan Pappalardo is a fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and a founding member of this blog. He loves to write, read, and spend time with his family. Gaetan presents at local, state, and national conferences. If you see him at ILA or NCTE,  you will probably find him with guitar in hand; and perhaps, Barry Lane will be standing right beside him with guitar in hand!


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gaetan, I love this piece because it is what writing workshop should look like and because this piece has your voice – I almost could hear you speaking the words! Engagement – not compliance….YES! A personalized stamp!


    March 30, 2017
  2. Emily A #


    I identify with your experiences in the Catholic school system. My nine years were also laced with worksheets, boredom, and academic frustration. My learning was not personalized nor was it authentic, especially when it came to vocabulary. The Sketch and Write, however, directly personalizes the learning process for students. It provides meaningful engagement with the content in an atypical context. Most importantly, the Sketch and Write is a flexible tool that can be used for word study, editing, and revisions. Such inherent diversity makes the Sketch and Write a great learning tool for students at any grade or ability level.


    March 27, 2017
    • Gaetan #

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Emily. Hope the Sketch and Write can be of use to you.


      March 30, 2017

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