Standard Lesson

Cut up, Cover up, and Come Away with Ideas for Writing!

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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Portal writing (Leigh, 2010) is a strategy for revision where students isolate and mask selected words from a text (e.g., poem, short story, personal narrative) in order to re-see their story from a different perspective. Re-seeing is important because a portaled piece of text can re-engage writers on the page where an original piece of writing may have lost its story appeal. Often, students will abandon pieces of writing that start out as good ideas but somewhere during the drafting stage lose interest. Portaling a piece of text can help students look closely at their own use of language, giving students a reason to revisit their abandoned stories and re-engage in writing them.

In this lesson, students rework their forgotten/abandoned drafts by cutting and covering up selected words. By creatively manipulating text, they explore portal writing, a strategy for envisioning a new story or story direction.


Leigh, S.R. (2010). Portal Writing: An Independent Writing Strategy to Help Writers Re-See their Writing.

Presentation at Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning: Estes Park, CO.


Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Katie Wood Ray states that "Crafted places in texts are those places where writers do particular things with words that go beyond just choosing the ones they need to get the meaning across.  The ‘special skill or art' to writing is knowing more and more of these ‘particular things' to do with words" (28).

In this lesson, students learn a new way to approach their abandoned writing using Portal writing.  Through this approach, students look closely at their own use of language, giving them a reason to revisit their abandoned stories and re-engage in writing them.


Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Newspaper articles (features, hard news, obituaries, sports reports, etc.)
  • Black or dark, felt-tipped markers (chisel-tips are best)
  • A poem/piece of prose of your choice
  • Writer’s Notebooks or loose leaf paper
  • Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon
  • Optional: Other masking media besides markers (e.g., rubber stamps and ink pads, stickers, colorful papers and glue sticks)
  • Optional: The Humument by Tom Phillips




  1. Obtain a copy of the book Newspaper Blackout by American writer Austin Kleon. A book about how to discover poetic forms in newspaper writing, Kleon draws the reader in with his unique and creative ways of redacting words with black marker from different sections of the newspaper. If you cannot find a copy of Newspaper Blackout, you can print examples of his blackout poems from his website at Another option is to locate Tom Phillips’ book The Humument, an equally evocative, vibrant, and colorful text where Phillips uses different masking media to cover up text.
  2. Provide each student with:
    • a writer’s notebook (e.g., store-bought or assembled using folders and a variety of lined and unlined loose-leaf paper)
    • a chisel-tipped marker (chisels are better than pointy tips because they will cover large areas)
    • a newspaper article (the length of the article does not matter)
  3. Before beginning this lesson, make sure that there has been a fair amount of free writing/creative writing/story writing done in class.  This lesson relies on students using a piece of their own writing that they have abandoned, so it would be beneficial for them to have multiple pieces to choose from before beginning this process.


Student Objectives

Students will:

  • talk about their writing, in particular the stories they want to portal.
  • experiment with masking and isolating text (i.e., words and/or phrases) so that they can experience seeing stories emerge from existing stories.
  • write their own stories, practicing writing from their portaled pieces as an opportunity to develop and extend ideas for their stories.
  • discuss the connection(s) between the original story, the portaled story, and the revised draft.


Session One

  1. Ask students to talk candidly about some of their stories that are still in draft form. Why do they think these stories are still incomplete? Can these stories be salvaged?
  2. Introduce the concept of Portal Writing. Explain that it is a writing strategy that can be used to discover story ideas within an existing story and using those new ideas as entry points for rewriting. By circling specific words and masking others with black marker (or other materials that can be used to cover text), we can see how a story can change entirely or remain the same only focused on a particular aspect of the original story. Remaining, circled words are what drive new writing, offer new direction. Although some students may retain the original theme of their story, their plan to write a new story may be more focused on a specific part. To illustrate, here is an example:
    • Original story was about family.
    • Portaled story focuses on a child in that family.
    • New story will be about being an only child.
  3. Other students may discover a better story through portaling, abandoning their original ideas. For example:
    • Original story was about a family.
    • Portaled story is about endurance.
    • New story will be about discipline in sports.
  4. Tell students that one way of seeing how this circling of words is done is through Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout and Tom Phillip’s The Humument.
  5. Distribute photocopied examples (i.e. three or four) from one or both books to students (or print examples from the web).
  6. Provide time for students to examine these examples and talk about them in small groups. Some questions to consider during the discussion:
    • What kind of words do you notice?
    • How are words isolated? Are they circled? Boxed? Etc.
    • What stands out to you? The marker? The words? The story?
  7. Provide a demonstration for students by portaling part a text with them (on an overhead or elmo). This piece of writing may be your own or someone else’s. Share with them which words you are portaling (i.e. circling) and why (e.g., “I am circling this word because I like the way it sounds” or “I want to circle this word because it reminds me of someone I know.”) This collaborative step is important because it will show students that there is no one correct way of portaling text.
  8. Distribute photocopies of the same text for each student. Ask students to portal this piece, encouraging them to pay attention to the words that hold significance for them. Distribute markers to students so that they may begin portaling the text, keeping in mind that they can:
    • Circle words
    • Box words
    • Make interesting shapes around words (e.g., blobs)
    • Create rivers by making white lines that connect words (see page 36 of Newspaper Blackout)
    • Isolate punctuation (e.g., exclamation points, periods) for developing mood or tone
    • Isolate sentences and/or phrases (not just individual words)
    • Isolate words that are in keeping with the theme of the story and/or
    • Isolate words that have nothing to do with the theme of the story
  9. Invite students to share their portaled texts, either in a small or whole group setting. Sharing is important because students need to hear how one singleton story can have multiple stories, offer multiple directions for writing. While this engagement is meant to be an enjoyable approach to looking at language, the purpose of portaling is to cause us to rethink a piece of text, whether the text is our own or someone else’s. To help ensure that students do not simply interpret this engagement as purely fun and nothing more, give each student a copy of the Portal Writing Reflection Questions and consider discussing them during share time.
  10. Ask students to select one story in draft form (a story they have started yet have lost interest in developing further) from their writer’s notebooks or writing folders and leave it open on their desks for you to collect. After school, make one photocopy of each story. Photocopying handwritten stories is important because once they are portaled, it becomes very difficult to see the original story. Tell students they will have the opportunity to portal this piece the next day.


Session Two

  1. Distribute a different newspaper article to each student. Ask students to portal this text, reminding students that they will portal their newspaper article by circling the words that stand out to them. Tell students they may also look for word combinations that create interesting images in mind (e.g., “cracked” and “salads”). They can select words that are in keeping with the theme of the article or they can select words unrelated to the theme. Tell them that it is not necessary to read the article before portaling it. In fact, reading it beforehand may get in the way of thinking creatively. Remind students that not all circled words have to be kept; they can always cover these up with marker later.
  2. In a whole group setting, invite students to:
    • Briefly share what their newspaper article was about.
    • Read their portaled version of the story so that students can hear if portaling it changed the story or remained the same yet focused.
  3. Engage students in a conversation about where their newspaper stories could potentially go now that they have portaled these texts. The following questions can start that conversation:
    • Do the words construct a different story? The same story?
    • Do the words magnify a person? A place? A mood? A voice?
    • Do you notice a word you did not notice before?
    • Does a word make you think differently about the story?
    • Can a word be used to change the title?
    • Is there a word that changes the meaning of the story?
    • Do any of the words you circled conjure up new words or images in your mind?
  4. Ask students to take out their photocopied story from yesterday.
  5. Have students meet in groups and talk about their draft. The questions below can guide student discussions.  You may wish to write these questions on a white board or chart paper for discussion.  These questions should generate a discussion about writing and story.
    • Why did you select this story for portaling?
    • What is this story about?
    • What was it supposed to be about?
    • What were your reasons for wanting to write this piece?
    • Why did you stop working on it?
    • Which part(s) do you still like?
  6. Remind students that not all drafts are meant to be finished drafts but that good stories can lie dormant in rough draft writing.
  7. Provide students in-class time to begin portaling their story. Be sure to pass out black or dark, felt tipped markers.  Ask students to finish portaling their text at home if they were unable to finish it in class.


Session Three

  1. Give each student a new copy of the Portal Writing Reflection Questions and allow them a few minutes to complete the questions.  Ask students to meet in their same groups to discuss what happened to their story after they portaled it. Groups should discuss the Portal Writing Reflection Questions.
  2. Tell students that while they discuss these changes and new directions in their writing, they should think about how portaling their writing helped refine their original story or provide a new direction for a different story. Encourage students to jot down (in their writer’s notebook or on the story itself) ideas shared among peers about what they can do with their story. Often in sharing our portaled texts, others can see story ideas that we may have missed ourselves.
  3. Offer students the remaining time to work on rewriting their story.  Students will need to come prepared to read a section of their writing in the next session.


Session Four

  1. Ask students to meet in their groups to share some of their writing. Depending on group size, time, and length of story, there may not be enough time for students to read their entire stories. Still, in reading a specific selection of text, students are being asked to think about their use of language by asking themselves, “Which part of my writing is effective and worth sharing today?” Invite students to share their process with their peers by explaining:
    • What their original story was about.
    • How the story reads after they portaled it.
    • How portaling their original story affected their plans for a third draft. Did the story change? If so, how? Did it stay the same? If so, in what way?
  2. Encourage students to offer their peers what author Katherine Paterson calls glow feedback (e.g., what worked well) and grow feedback (e.g., what the writer may consider for next time).
  3. Invite students to share with the whole group how they think portal writing supports them as writers.



  • In addition to poems and prose, look critically and reflectively at language in a variety of narrative forms (e.g., menus, maps, advertisements, recipes, etc.) that can easily be portaled for ideas for writing.
  • Consider introducing students to narratives written in other languages, too (e.g., Spanish newspaper articles, menus written in French, etc.). This holds cultural significance for students in your classes who speak more than one language.
  • When celebrating and displaying final written drafts, consider displaying the portaled draft beside it so that people in the school community can see the process that took place.
  • Invite students to experiment with portaling text on word processors.
  • Students can draw the words they portal as a demonstration of visual thinking. Drawn portals can also be used as an exercise to further develop story ideas.
  • Encourage students to access the web for text from well known writers of personal interest (e.g., Emily Dickenson, Ernest Hemingway, e.e.cumings, etc.), searching for texts that they would like to portal. Not all students will want to portal their own writing. In fact, some may find it easier to discover ideas for writing from outside sources.
  • Peruse Austin Kleon’s website in class. He offers a range of unique stories through his blackout poems.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Informally observe students actively portaling their writing in class.
  • Evaluate students’ contributions to group discussions by visiting each group and taking anecdotal records of students’ comments.
  • Collect three samples of writing from each student: 1) draft; 2) portaled draft; and 3) developing or revised draft where the connection between the portaled text and the revised story is developing or self-evident.
  • Collect the Portal Writing Reflection Questions from each student and assess for completeness.
  • Students can reflect and respond to the following questions in their writer’s notebooks: 
    1. What am I coming to know about the connections between portal writing and revision?
    2. How does access to portal writing affect my writing or my thinking about language in general?


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