Lesson I Love: Key Word Focus Strategy

One of the challenges of teaching English Language Arts is keeping it fresh. Class can sometimes have a rinse and repeat vibe, which ironically, is not fresh. You make the work, you do the work, you grade the work. Students read the book, discuss the book, write about the book. Or some version of this anyway. But I do love how we lay a foundation in reading, writing, thinking, and speaking and are then challenged to continually create opportunities to practice, hone our skills, determine our strengths and weaknesses, explore our passions and interests.

Because I teach AP Literature, one skill my students and I visit and revisit is close and careful reading. Students need to be able to uncover meaning, dig deep, notice and note subtleties and craft moves that make the meaning, take a position, and then write about it all eloquently. Tall order, eh?

To me, there’s no sense in beating kids over the head with devices or elaborate, prescribed annotations. I’ve written a bit about this here — how annotations should not simply be a scavenger hunt for literary devices or a hoop to jump through. And for my students, I also don’t want text annotations to become their only focus and detract from the goal: discovering meaning and making meaning.

One fun and meaningful way I’ve found to break the monotony of the read, notice, discuss, write cycle is a strategy first introduced to me as text rendering. Essentially, text rendering is a study of keywords and how they contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1

Identify the most important sentence/s in the text.

Step 2

Identify the most important phrase or clause of the sentence.

Step 3

Identify the most important word of the phrase or clause.

Step 4

Connect the keyword to meaning. Use it as an entry point to understanding, a jumping off point for analysis, or as a way to drive discussion.


Like most strategies that work, keyword study is simple. What I like best about this strategy is that it builds close-reading habits of mind and makes students especially attentive to diction and connotation.

Here’s how I like to introduce the strategy in my class…


And here are some insightful student models from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

You might also consider having students post their key words to drive discussion, challenging them to include their key words in a thesis statement, or looking for patterns and trends among the key words.

Finally, here’s one way I like to extend this activity to give students an opportunity to sit with their key words a bit longer and make meaning in an inventive way. Like sketchnoting or mind-mapping, illustrating can lead to new discoveries about the text.



WVCTE is wondering how do you keep curriculum fresh in your classroom? We’d love to find out!

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I’d love to hear from you! — Karla 


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