Sentence Fluency—"Painting with Words"

Reading Comprehension
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Individual, Sharing Writing, Editing


  • Students of all abilities will increase the complexity of their writing/sentence structure by first modeling Steinbeck (“painting with words”) and then the writing of their classmates.
  • Students will learn to listen to the writing exercises of other group members and recall what images stood out as particularly powerful.
  • Students will be able to write their own powerful sentences (“painting with words”) by describing an original setting.


To increase the level and complexity of students’ writing, students can improve their sentence fluency by emulating the sentence structure of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and those of their classmates. This can work with all levels of students’ writing abilities. Essentially, students will learn to “paint” with words and create powerful sentences.

Throughout the year, as the students grow more sophisticated and experienced, the assignment can become longer than a few sentences.

The writing exercises will address descriptive and narrative writing styles.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Students’ Travels with Charley notebooks

Estimated Time

  • 2 – 3 class periods.


Break the class into small groups and explain to students that they will take turns reading sentences from the below excerpt of Travels with Charley (Steinbeck’s description Ruby Bridges entering school. Advise them to listen closely as they will, as a group, be writing several sentences (descriptive and narrative) and imitating the sentence structure of Steinbeck.

The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. The two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school (194-195).
  • After student groups have read the excerpt from Travels with Charley, have them discuss which sentences were particularly powerful and were truly an example of “painting with words.”
  • In their groups, students will rewrite/impersonate several (or all) of Steinbeck’s sentences emulating his sentence structure and imagery. Students in the group will be responsible for dividing the work to be done. Tell students that this is a fun activity and no one should feel intimidated. All students should work together.
  • Students will then take turns reading out loud their emulation of Steinbeck’s opening paragraph and discuss which images were powerful. This is a non-judgmental activity, and there are no “wrong” responses.
  • While still remaining in their groups, students will individually write several sentences describing a setting near their home (a park, shopping mall, a street, a school playground, and so on). As an alternative, students may describe the classroom/something in it. Time permitting, students may go outside for this exercise. Keep in mind the “painting with words” sentence structure model.
  • Students will then share their writing with each other by reading out loud to the group. Students must listen carefully and may take notes.
  • The other group members will then emulate/impersonate the writing/sentence structure of each member in the group.
  • All group members will read out loud their emulations of other group members.
  • Time permitting, each group may rotate to other groups and share their writing.
  • Time permitting, individual students may read their “Painting with Words” exercises for the entire class.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Have students finalize their own “Painting with Words” exercises and post them on the classroom walls for all to see, read, and enjoy.
  • For the artistically inclined, students may add illustrations to their “Painting with Words” exercises.
  • Consider From Words to Pictures
  • Consider Ruby Bridges and Desegregation


  • The main purpose of this activity is to improve student writing, particularly creative, descriptive writing.


  • Teachers can have students write an evaluation of the project and what they have learned.


  • During the exercise, teachers will monitor the process, making sure everyone is on task and is participating. Participation grades can be issued daily.
  • A final group/individual grade may be issued after the exercise.
  • A test on “Painting with Words” is an option. The test could include:
  • ~Giving students a passage from Travels with Charley and having them rewrite it by emulating Steinbeck’s style.
  • Having students write their own passage using the “Painting with Words” model.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,2,3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1,3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 9
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1,2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4,5,6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 2,3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5
  • ~Range of Writing: 10

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