W2W children running backpacks home

Literacy in three words


     Voice, Pictures, and Flow. That’s all they need to know.” This quote from Georgia’s most beloved author, Flannery O’Connor, intrigued the fire out of me. I heard it from former graduate students of Miss O’Connor in my first year teaching a Language Studies for Teachers at the University of Georgia. All were graduates of Baldwin County High School and former editors of their student publication, The Rainbow Review. They were among 20+ former O’Connor students who became published authors.

     Voice, Pictures, and Flow commanded my full attention. They aligned with my first serious research at the University of Minnesota on how humans learn language. We are born with an innate capacity to learn language – speaking, listening, writing, and reading, in that order.

       What is amazing is how these three words capture the essence of literacy and how best to achieve it. They tell educators that literacy is first of all knowing-how to use language effectively. Knowing-about the language arts has its place in learning for literacy, a supportive role to knowing-how.

    So, why is 80% of literacy instruction focused on knowing-about – about conventions, about figurative language, about paragraphs, about text structures, and about topic sentences? All of these things are good to know-about, but giving them first billing explains why student reading and writing scores have shown no significant growth in the last three decades. And these three words can save students from this overwhelming know-about content.

      Start with the phrase, mental picturesand let it precede all of the terms for ideas or concepts – anecdote, argument, event, explanation, graph, equation …. Mental pictures move students inside their heads, the place where writing begins. All of the other terms tie them to the surface of writing, the vehicle.

      In class, have students draw a line between the mental pictures that begin to appear in their minds as they read an assigned text. You’ll hear easy-peasy or a more current synonym in response to this unusual task. They’ll discover that a mental picture may equal a paragraph but not as often as expected, especially in narrative prose. Immediately, you’ll hear students talk about what the text means and how it means different things to different readers. To begin writing, simply have students reverse the order. When students start from mental pictures as they write, questions like How long does it have to be? fade away.

Let writing voice precede all of the terms for writing style – mood, precise word choice, sentence variety, tenor …. Students all agree that they have voices, but few claim to master mood, precise word choice, or tenor in writing.

When students focus on the mental picture in their thoughts, their mind produces words. It talks. That’s the inner voice we can help students be still and hear. They write what they are thinking.

Let writing flow precede terms for organization – pattern, sequence, structure, transitions …. All students know when their writing flows. If it doesn’t, they wad up their paper and throw it away.

       O’Conner’s three words can revolutionize the teaching and learning of literacy. They keep the horse before the cart. They ensure that student writing begins inside their heads before their hands move to the page or keyboard.

It’s our choice –

the know-how literacy of three words – VoicePicturesand Flow

– or –

the know-about literacy of countless lessons, books, and programs.

How students …


  • drcombs@writingtowin.com on August 9, 2022

    This looks beautiful, April. Aren’t you proud?


  • drcombs@writingtowin.com on August 9, 2022

    This looks beautiful. Aren’t you proud?

  • נערת ליווי תל אביב on August 29, 2022

    Itís hard to come by knowledgeable people on this subject, however, you seem like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks

  • April Turner on September 8, 2022


  • April Turner on September 8, 2022

    Yes I am!

Leave a Reply