How To Visualize Tone In Writing



Teaching students how to identify the tone of a piece of writing is difficult. Teaching them how to use words to shape the tone of a piece of their writing is challenging.  At the recent NCTE National Conference in Atlanta, I had a chance to attend a session led by 3 children’s book illustrators.  The focus was on using illustrations as a tool for writing.  As I listened to their insights on the process they use to create illustrations and interpret  the author’s text, I had a lightbulb moment.  What if students could view their words as the tools to draw pictures in the mind of their readers? And, like illustrators, how might they use color tones to help them understand the actual tone of their writing?

I found Erin E. Stead’s thoughtful comments to be most helpful in shaping my own ideas on how to make tone visible.  She looks at the ideas and emotions of a story and chooses a color palette. This made me wonder. What if students selected a color palette for a text they are reading or writing as a way to help them visualize the emotion of the piece? Could they go one step further and actually change the font color or ink color of the words that are creating the tone? What if they made a word palette to use as they developed their own writing? Erin also suggested students begin a picture reference library.  Imagine if students collected images that made them feel happy, sad, curious, angry, excited, and used those images as a starting point to develop tone in their writing? They could add to this collection quotes from literary or informational text that also made them feel a certain emotion.  Finally, Erin talked about the role of pictures in helping to create tone.  As an illustrator, there are times where she strikes the author’s words because she can draw them instead.  This made me think about storyboarding as a way for students to be intentional about the tone they want to set in their own writing.  Once the drawings are complete, they can become the jumping off point for students to use words to create the same tone. I liked Erin’s idea that sometimes the pictures themselves become the text, allowing the reader to put their own sound into the story.

Julie Kuo, illustrator of the book, The Sound of Silence, shared how colors can create noise in an illustration. She uses visual devices like volume that can be turned up and down.  Julie challenges herself to consider how a shape or line would look like if it were angry or frustrated. What color would it be? How does she feel when she draws it?  I liked this exercise. What if students played with words in this same way, as devices that can turn the volume of their text up or down? What words would make the text more happy, more angry, more silly?  Can the students look at a piece of text and illustrate it? Julie Kuo feels that an illustration is a way to compress words or add a new angle to the text.  I feel that an illustration might be an entry point for students to begin to understand the tone of the story or text.  Asking students to explain why they chose a particular color palette and subject to illustrate the text allows them to do a type of close reading and analysis.

Brendan Wenzel, illustrator of They All Saw A Cat, added to the conversation around color and tone.  He keeps a mood board that is full of colors and images that are inspiration for his illustrations.  As teachers, I think that we can help students curate a collection of words and images that can act as mentor texts for being mindful of tone in their own writing.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to have students create their own set of crayons or colored pencils that were labeled with sounds and emotions instead of color words.   

Our ELA standards begin to specifically address tone in 5th grade, but students as young as kindergarten can begin to understand how words and pictures can make a reader feel happy and sad, silly or frustrated. I am now looking at illustrations through a new lens.  Teaching about tone has become much more colorful!

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