When shouldn’t scientific method be used?

I’ve been giving you informal writing prompts for several weeks. Today, I have a formal writing prompt suitable for high school juniors and seniors and for first-year college students.

The prompt requires students to use information from outside the English curriculum to which all students should have exposed by the time they reach high school. If you’re an English teacher reluctant to have students write on a topic that sounds like it belongs in the science curriculum, you could partner with someone on the science faculty to assign a paper that can be turned in for credit in either or both courses.

The prompt

Identify three questions in your major field for which the scientific method is entirely inappropriate. In your response, discuss at least two characteristics of the scientific method and explain precisely why each of those characteristics makes the scientific method an inappropriate way to investigate each of those three questions.

Please confine your response to no more than 650 words.

Notes on the prompt

Responding to this prompt is easy once students get over the shock of being asked to identify questions in their major field. They may never have thought of physical education or ceramics as fields that have questions. Writing the actual response should take no more than an hour once they identify some questions in their fields.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Word choice: an informal writing prompt

Here is a message sent by the property manager of an apartment building to its residents for you to display and read to your students:

Tuesday the 16th a building inspector will be coming to the property. He may need to access a certain amount of apartments. I will not know what apartments until the day of the inspection.

Tell students: In no more than two sentences, identify what errors, if any, you find in that message and how to correct them. You have one minute to write.

Oral follow-up

The error is that the word amount should be number because apartments are countable. Amount is used to signify the size of something whose components are not, for all practical purposes, individually countable.

We measure things that cannot be counted by the amount of space they occupy. The word that means “the amount of space something occupies” is volume. If we want to know how much water is in a bucket, we don’t count individual waters. An amount of water in a bucket could be measured in teaspoons, cups, liters, gallons, etc., not in the number of individual drops of water in the bucket.

Whether or not you choose to do the follow-up in class, college the written work so you can see both how students are doing at applying grammar knowledge and whether they are making any progress at expressing themselves quickly in writing.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Students read too little nonfiction

I recently heard someone mention a high school senior with a 96% average and I wondered if the kid can read or write.

My pessimism was fueled by reading the 2021 edition of What Kids are Reading from Renaissance Learning Inc.

I examined Renaissance Learning’s 2021 report for students grade 9-12, since they will soon be in the college/adult learners group I teach.

what students read
Data from Renaissance Learning Inc. 2021 edition. http://www.renaissance.com/wkar

Then I compared those students’ Lexile scores on nonfiction reading material to the 50th percentile numbers on Lexile grade level charts. I used the Lexile scores established 30 years ago because they make it easy to compare how today’s students compare to yesterday’s students.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their peer of 30 years ago.

I looked at students’ nonfiction reading skill because that is a employability marker. Students who read at the 50th percentile for their grade are at the middle of the pack. Half the students in their cohort read less well, and half read better. The 50th percentile isn’t good enough to get a kid into Harvard, but it will get kids into trade school programs and then into decently paying jobs (minus student debt).

My analysis wasn’t sophisticated or deep, but it was depressing.

Typically, three-quarters of the titles on the fiction list were available in both English and Spanish, which could mean a significant proportion of students are not reading those books in English. That wouldn’t be a problem as long as students are getting plenty of practice reading English nonfiction.

On an annual basis, high school students read roughly as many books, both fiction and nonfiction, as the number of nonfiction books I read every two months. Such a small amount of reading may leave students unprepared to tackle the nonfiction reading needed in the working world.

Most distressing of all the information in the Renaissance report is the Lexile rankings of students. Not one of the cohorts of students grades nine through 12 is reading as well as the lowest half of students at their grade level as established in the Lexile scores used for comparing the reading skills of students over time.

What scores mean
Students are reading in the bottom half of their historical peer group.

Sources:

What Kids are Reading: 2021 edition from Renaissance Learning Inc. http://www.renaissance.com/wkar

https://hub.lexile.com/lexile-grade-level-charts

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: spelling bye Chirstine

Today I have another informal writing prompt for you to use with teens or adults. It uses a notice posted by a work-seeker.

Here’s an image of the posted notice (the phone number has been removed) which you should display and read aloud to students.

Here are the directions to give students.

First, in no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in this notice and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 1 minute to write.

Now, in one or two sentences, based just on what you’ve noticed, what do you think is the likelihood the writer will land a job, and why do you think that? You have 1 minute to write.

Here are the errors.

With a little luck, students will have found bye should have been by and Aid should have been Aide. Probably Chirstine should have been Christine. although I suppose it’s possible that someone is named Chirstine.

Why use informal prompts?

This is the sort of prompt that you can give at the beginning of a class to get everyone’s attention. Like all informal prompts, it requires students to respond immediately, so their responses will let you do a quick assessment of their spelling and editing skills. Moreover, you’ll be able to do quick assessments regularly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wrong word after linking verb

Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes. Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:

The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.

Now ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors. Give them 60 seconds to write.

The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different.

If students don’t find the error—or if they identify something as an error that isn’t an error—you can give them a miniature lesson on words that follow linking verbs.

Compare these two sentences:

  • Marlene looks fatly in that red dress.
  • Marlene looks fat in that red dress.

Also compare:

  • I feel awfully today.
  • I feel awful today.

Here’s a hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural). Here’s an example of how that works: “Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Short informal writing prompts such as this go a long way toward helping students master grammar and punctuation problems. What’s more, because the writing is timed, informal prompts also help students learn to write more quickly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A writing prompt: experience shapes expectations

I’m currently writing a set of books about how to visit in nursing homes. Each book covers very similar topics, but each is written for a different group of readers.

As I’ve started getting feedback from readers in my target groups, I’ve been particularly struck by the fact that, based on our prior experiences, each of us has a somewhat different picture of what we regard as normal nursing home procedures. Although I was not surprised to see differing perspectives, I was surprised to realize now readily I forget that every person’s unique experiences incline that individual to expect that certain behaviors are the norm in certain situations.

As I mulled that over, I decided that teen-age and adult students could profit from writing about how experience shapes not only present expectations but also inclines future behavior in certain directions.

Working thesis and writing skeleton™

I would give students this working thesis to explore: Prior experience shapes present behavior.

Novice writers could use a writing skeleton™ like this to plan an essay on that topic:

  1. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person One’s prior experience with __A__ shapes Person One’s present behavior.
  2. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Two’s prior experience with __B__ shapes Person Two’s present behavior.
  3. I know that prior experience shapes present behavior because Person Three’s prior experience with __C__ shapes Person Three’s present behavior.

That skeleton probably won’t produce great writing, but it will enable fledgling writers to organize their thoughts and force them to look beyond their personal experiences.

More advanced students could modify the writing skeleton™ to discuss a particular individual, such as an historical figure, or to discuss some current events. 

Students could also use the writing skeleton™ to develop a personal essay.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Find the error: An informal writing task

I pluck sentences I find in written materials that individuals and businesses actually distributed and put those sentences into informal writing tasks that give students practice in finding and correcting writing mechanics errors. Informal writing tasks are more realistic than publisher-created exercises because, like real-world writing situations, they don’t tell students what types of errors to look for.

Here’s a script for a two-minute informal writing task for high school or adult students.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

I’m going to show you a sentence from a story by Vanessa Romo which appeared Nov. 19, 2020 in the NPR—National Public Radio’s—news feed. The sentence appeared under the headline “Tyson Managers Suspended After Allegedly Betting If Workers Would Contract Covid.” Here is the sentence:

[Display and read aloud] “The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.”

In no more than two sentences, identify any errors you find in the sentence. You have one minute to write.

Now that you’ve identified the error, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the error. You’ll have 30 seconds to write.

You’ll notice I say to “display and read aloud” rather than merely give students the item. I do that to help weak readers and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Students should find that “without requiring them to quarantine” is misplaced. Being quarantined is not required before people can test positive for a coronavirus. Quarantining is required for:

  • People who have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and
  • People who have been exposed to other people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence should read like this: The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants without requiring them to quarantine after some had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence indicates that anyone exposed to corona-infected people should be quarantined.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Writing prose and cleaning toilets

A neighbor whom I know well enough to greet by first name—hers and mine are the same—said to me yesterday, “You must really enjoy writing.”

“I enjoy it about as much as I like cleaning the toilet,” I replied.

Toilet with plunger and brush beside it.
I’d as soon clean a toilet as write.

She recoiled. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

Horrible, perhaps, but true.

Writing is my work. It’s not something I do eight hours a day for the fun of it.

I enjoy having written. When I finish something that accomplishes what it was supposed to do—introduce students PERT charting or drill sales people on the characteristics on an oncology drug—I feel good about my work. But the actual act of writing anything but a humor piece is work, and sometimes even being funny is a chore.

I can sympathize with students who moan about how hard writing is because writing is hard for me, too. But I refuse to allow students to dodge writing because it’s hard.

Writing is work.

Work is hard.

I don’t love writing.

Students don’t have to love writing either, but students must learn to do it and you and I must teach them how to do it.

We must teach students that not every piece of writing has to be art.

We must teach them to recognize when what they’ve written fulfills the assignment.

We must teach them that “good enough” is usually good enough.

We must teach them most writing they will be required to do in their lives will be a lot like cleaning toilets: something almost everybody can do, that almost nobody likes to do, and which they will often not be able to avoid doing.

Please excuse me now. I have to go write.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Applaud stick-with-it writers

I don’t like writing.

I like having written; that is, I like being finished with a piece of writing, having the desk cleared, the early drafts in the shred basket, the pencil stubs in the trash.

But writing—putting one word after another in an order that’s that’s more or less sensible—is not my idea of fun.

I’ve been writing a book nearly all day every day for several weeks.

I’m heartily sick of the whole thing.

Worse, I’m now at a point where I know I’ll have to start going through the manuscript with an outsider’s perspective, seeing needs to be clarified, what is beyond repair and needs to the scuttled, what examples need to be swapped out for better ones, what lovely phrases don’t fit in their context, perhaps—as too often happens—seeing that the whole thing needs to be reorganized.

As writers go, I’m not very different from my students: They don’t like writing either.

It’s not fun for them.

They get sick of writing long before they finish.

They do their best writing and see that it’s not as good as they’d hoped it would be.

And bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts, they stick with it anyway. They inspire me to try to learn to write better, too.

Join me in giving a round of applause to our students who don’t give up on learning to write, no matter how tedious or how difficult it is for them.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Words whose spelling-meaning links must be taught: SYDLS

Everyday English speech is cluttered with simple words whose appearance—that is to say, their spelling—must be drilled into students so they don’t mistake one familiar word for another similar-sounding word when they write.

I tell my students they must know, for example, when to use bare and when to use bear. The reason they must know the correct use of those simple words, I tell them, is “so you don’t look stupid.” I refer to such similar-sounding familiar word pairs or word trios as “SYDLS words.” 

This week, I’ve seen dozens of SYDLS mistakes in, of all places, a course developed by the Smithsonian in conjunction with The Great Courses entitled America’s Founding Fathers. The course embeds the professor’s lecture into the video as subtitles. It appears that someone transcribed the lecture from an audio recording, but no one checked the transcription for accuracy. The transcription includes such SYDLS as these:

  • “unregulated as to some,” in a discussion of finances, instead of unregulated as to sum
  • “enact bands on the importation of slaves” instead of enact bans
  • “The principle states” instead of the principal states.

(I also saw justice tenacity” instead of just as tenaciously, which is a mishearing, although not a SYDLS.)

I have a file box of over 300 SYDLS word sets. I teach the most common ones the way I take vitamins: one a day. I try to give students some mnemonic device to help them remember one half of a pair of confusable terms. Sometimes that’s a drawing, like this:

Simple mnemonic for when not to use the spelling alter.

See how the two As in altar are used as like sawhorses to create an altar?

Sometimes it’s just suggesting a link between a word and its spelling. For example, the word principle is used in settings where the idea of a rule could be substituted without destroying the meaning of the sentence entirely.

If you aren’t already dropping daily hints to your students about correct use of common words, I suggest you put that on your to-do list. It requires relatively little work on your part to make sure your students don’t often look stupid.

Postscript: Aside from the SYDLS, America’s Founding Fathers is a great course. I’d love to sit in Allen C. Guelzo’s classroom without benefit of subtitles. He really is a master teacher.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni