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

Two errors in two sentences: an informal writing prompt

Here’s a notice sent by a business to its customers that you could drop into a class session to give students grades 7 and up practice in spotting and correcting errors. Simply display the item, read the item aloud, and then assign students the task of finding any errors in it and telling in no more than two sentences how to correct them. They should be able to find the errors and write their response in no more than one minute.

Informal writing prompts such as this allow let you break up a class with activity that makes students focus on doing something other than listening. By using found materials rather than publisher-created materials, you can have an inexhaustible supply of activities with no financial outlay.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Back to basics: A post-pandemic step forward

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, parents of public-school students were generally happy with the programs offered by their schools. When schools closed abruptly and parents were expected to monitor children’s work, some parents enthusiastically praised teachers for doing every day what the parents found difficult to do two days in a row.

Other parents who hadn’t opposed art, music, physical education, or foreign languages as long as they were taught by a teacher became vehemently opposed to those subjects when the task of teaching them fell to parents who were doing their regular jobs from home.

How taxpayers will feel about public education after the pandemic remains to be seen.

I suspect the amount of money available for the teaching/learning component of public education post-Covid will be far smaller than previous allocations. School boards, like many other government bodies, have a tendency to prepare for a repeat of the crisis just past, so upgrades to, for example, ventilation in school facilities, may be given priority over upgrades to curriculum.

I also suspect any retrenchment will mean a “back to basics” approach if that hasn’t already become the norm by then.

Some people in the education community (other than myself) are already thinking in terms of concentrating on basics.

Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post, had a column two weeks ago about the need to return to teaching essentials when the pandemic is over, and as early at last summer, teachers began talking about how teaching had to change beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

Sarah Schwartz, outlined “5 Steps for Keeping Kids on Track This Fall” Aug. 5, 2020 at EdWeek.org. Her first two points were:

  • Focus on the most important work of the grade, trimming the curriculum to cover only the essential standards.
  • Figure out what students will need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

Schwartz implies, but doesn’t explicitly say, that to begin repairing the damage to students’ educations caused by the pandemic, teachers should teach only what students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully complete grade-level work.

That will probably mean creative writing with be scuttled in favor of mundane, required, expository nonfiction.

shelves of books
Nonfiction books aren’t just reference books, and they aren’t just boring reading.

Personally, I believe expository nonfiction is the writing schools should teach even without the impetus of a pandemic. Expository nonfiction is required writing. Everyone, including Markus Zusak and Amanda Gorman, must write expository nonfiction. Outside the walls of a classroom, nobody is required to write nonfiction or poetry. Consider:

  • The cover letter with your job application was (or should have been) expository nonfiction.
  • The lesson plans you’re required to file must be prepared as expository nonfiction.
  • Your master’s thesis about novelist Mary Cholmondeley will be expository nonfiction.
  • The school board’s justification for cutting the creative writing program will be expository nonfiction.
  • Your letter to the editor of the local paper saying it’s barbaric to deny students the privilege of learning to write fiction and poetry will be expository nonfiction.

If I’m right about changes ahead in K-12 programs in schools after the end of his pandemic, you would be wise to start preparing now by evaluating everything you do for the rest of the school year to determine the least you must teach and the best way to teach that minimum of essential content so that every student in your class masters it. Warning: It is far more challenging to teach every student until every student masters a predetermined set of information and skills than it is to present to all students information and skills you expect only a few of them to master.

As Schwartz implies, in addition to enabling students to learn when the Covid-19 virus is under control, you’ll also need to support students who have social-emotional problems caused or exacerbated when schools were closed during the pandemic. If you thought learning to present on Zoom was a challenge, wait until the kids who didn’t learn on Zoom come back to the classroom.

Then you’ll find out what a real challenge is.

Unless you’ve slashed all the unessential material from your curriculum and rebuilt the remaining material so that students can experience success at learning, you won’t have the time or the emotional energy to address your students’ social and emotional needs in the coming year or possibly for several coming years.

Photo credits: classroom scene by neonbrand-zFSo6bnZJTw-unsplash, nonfiction bookshelves by Linda Aragoni,

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Histories of the famous and forgotten

Literary nonfiction with non-ELA appeal

photos of covers of 3 history texts
These three nonfiction books have very different approaches to historical story-telling.

I remember high school history texts as bland prose about dead people who didn’t seem to have led very interesting lives. The first quarter of this year, my literary nonfiction reading has been primarily histories that are anything but bland prose about people who didn’t lead interesting lives. What’s even better, the topics of the histories lend themselves to use in classes other than English. An English teacher and a teacher in another discipline could each assign the same book and perhaps even accept the same written assignments based on the books.

The Vagabonds by Jeff Guinn

An investigative journalist before he turned to writing nonfiction books, Jeff Guinn knows how to bring out the personalities of the men, warts and all, while sticking to facts, being respectful to his characters, and keeping the story rolling.

Cover of "The Vagabonds"
Ford and Edison ready to go on vacation.

Guinn’s use of the story of fiddler Jep Bisbee to open and close the book about the late lives of the three super-successful businessmen adds to the poignancy of the story.

The Vagabonds could be used by students of history, business, and technology as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read it easily.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 306 p.

Barnum by Robert Wilson

Barnum: An American Life is a biography of P. T. Barnum, the man who created “the greatest show on earth, the Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  Born in 1810 in a small town outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum grew up in a rural community in which people did whatever they had to do to keep body and soul together. Barnum quickly learned that the way to make money was to give the public what it wanted.

Male figure is entering a huge circus tent.

He tried his hand at various get-rich-quick schemes before discovering his real talents lay in selling what we’d today call infotainment. He became a master of the art of self-publicity and never missed a chance to get his name in the papers.

Barnum suffers the problem that all biographies suffer: the biographer has to start with the lead character’s birth and stick to the facts until he dies. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of Barnum’s life ended long before his death.

To get English classes interested in Barnum, I think teachers would need to give students writing topics that would force them to draw comparisons between what Barnum did to promote his business ventures and what businessmen do today to attract free publicity and to keep the news media’s interest.

Barnum could be used by students of history, business, advertising, and marketing as well as English. Students grades 10 and up should be able to read Barnum, although it’s not fun to read the way The Vagabonds is.

Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson. 2019, Simon & Schuster. 341 p.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

Historian Harlow Giles Unger’s The First Founding Father is about a man most people have never heard of, Richard Henry Lee. He was one of the Virginia Lees, a family noted today for the Lee that fought against the United States, Robert E. Lee.

The First Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger
A portrait of silver-haired Richard Henry Lee

The wealthy and scholarly Richard Henry Lee was born in America, educated in England. He was respected by both the colonies’ aristocratic leaders like John Adams and the working classes’ leaders like Patrick Henry. From the mid-1760s through the Revolutionary War his opinions carried great weight.

As the book’s liner notes say, he was “first to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights to protect Americans against government tyranny.”

Lee seems to have been a man who thought far in advance. Even when he was fighting for American independence from England, he saw that the country needed to get rid of slavery to ensure its national survival in decades ahead.

Unger details how a man of such importance and influence was marginalized and eventually written out of the history books.

Although Unger is a scholar, his writing is not difficult to read. (It’s easier, I think, than Barnum.) If you use the book, make sure you make students read beyond the summary in the introduction.

Obviously, The First Founding Father could be used by students in history classes as well as English, but Unger touches on events that might be used to explore business topics as well. The book’s first chapter, for example, talks about the Virginia colony being divided between the Tidewater aristocrats and the upland farmers and backwoodsmen. It might be interesting to have students explore whether s similar class division exists in the state in which they live today.

The First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence by Harlow Giles Unger. 2017, DaCapo Press. 306 p.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: trees coming down

Again today, I have an informal writing prompt built on a message actually sent by a business. That means this writing prompt is an authentic writing task, similar to those students are likely to encounter in nearly every type of work. The prompt is could be used in classes from grade 8 through first-year college.

Here’s your script:

I’m going to show you a four-sentence message that contains some errors and ask you to identify the errors by writing one sentence about each of the four sentences in the message.  This is the message:

memo about tree-cutting
This is the message that was actually sent.

Please identify the error or errors in the message sentence by sentence. As you make clear which sentence you’re discussing, you don’t need to write your sentences in the same order in which they appear in the message. You have two minutes to write.

[After the two minutes] Now I want you to rewrite the message to make it shorter and clearer. You have one minute to write.

Optional group activity

To get maximum value from this informal prompt, you could have students work in small groups for five minutes, to discuss what they changed and why they made those changes.

Students should notice grammar errors

Every student should notice that the second and fourth sentences are actually sentence fragments. Every student should also notice that the third sentence begins with the pronoun that cannot logically refer to the preceding noun: buildings don’t get loud; sounds do.

A few students may quibble over whether “multiple trees” is redundant and whether “will be taking down” should be “will take down,” since the activity appears to not be scheduled to start before tomorrow.

Students should identify the point

The point hidden of the message is: “Expect loud noise tomorrow morning when trees are cut on the front and back sides of the building.”

FYI: Next week I plan to take a break from posting informal writing prompts to recommend three fascinating literary nonfiction books. Two are about famous people and one is about a man who was tremendously influential but is barely remembered today. 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni 


Informal writing prompt: 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.

Then ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors.

To turn this informal writing prompt into a miniature grammar lesson, add two or three minutes of teaching. 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. Compare:

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

Also compare:

I feel awfully today.
I feel awful today.

“Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

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).

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Reasons to read paper books

The Bainbridge, NY, Public Library put a blurb in the local Chamber of Commerce newsletter promoting reading as a hobby.  The item reads:

Research shows that reading an actual real paper books:
• helps you fall asleep
• reduces stress & lowers blood pressure
• fights depression
• helps improve memory and focus

I suspect reading “an actual paper books” does not improve memory of the content of the books over which the reader fell asleep.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Teach students to correct at the end

Poorer writers spend more time worrying about writing mechanics as they compose than good writers do. In fact, the better the writer, the more likely she or he is to leave those corrections until after their draft of that day’s work is completed.

text block: nowhere near the endStudents writers’ thoughts typically wander far afield between sentences. Writing seems to them to take forever because most of their “writing time” is spent thinking about things other than the topic about which they’re supposedly writing. To get students to think like writers, you need to get them to think consecutive thoughts on a single subject quickly and put those thoughts on paper quickly without crossing out and rewriting.

 I use informal writing prompts on course-related topics to teach students how to speed draft, that is, how to put their ideas (typically two or three sentences) on paper quickly. Then after students have written their short responses, I typically have them check their work for just one particular type of error that I choose from the grammar and punctuation errors their class members make most often.

Sign: almost the endBy forcing students to write responses to informal prompts quickly and following the informal writing with a requirement to check that work for some error I specify, I accustom students to editing their work before they close their writing session.

© Linda G. Aragoni

Advance notice: an informal prompt

Today I have another informal writing prompt suitable for teens or adult students. Like most of my favorite IWPs, this uses a real-life communication. It will take less than five minutes of class time.

Step 1, show and read

Here’s the notice you display and read for students:

photo of two sentences of a notice to renters.
I’m just glad it doesn’t say “rechoirs notice.”

After you’ve shown that message and read it to students, say this: In no more than two sentences, say what errors you see in that message.  You have 30 seconds to write your responses.

Next, say this to students

Besides the errors you spotted, are there any other aspects of this notice that are unclear to you or that sound odd to you? If this notice had been sent to you, what action do you think you would be expected to take? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 90 seconds to write.

Wrap up

Say: While you’re turning in your writing, tell me what you thought about these two sentences.

With a little luck, a few students will see that though spelling errors can make you look silly, they are a less serious problem than failing to make yourself clear.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni



Informal prompt: Amount v. number

Today I have an informal writing prompt based on a published source for you to use with teens or adults. Here’s the published sentence that you show and read to students:

The New York Fed suggests, as one might imagine, these trends are related to the fact that many industries that have been hit the hardest — hospitality and retail, for instance — employ a higher amount low-wage workers, while high-wage workers often have more flexibility in their jobs and can work remotely.

Here are the directions you give students:

In no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in that published sentence and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 30 seconds to write.

Turn responses into a mini vocabulary lesson

Tell students, “There are actually two errors in that sentence. The one that’s easiest to spot is the missing word of. The other mistake is a wrong word. Amount is a term that applies to items that are not countable. For example, you can have an amount of trash, but you can’t have 19,592 trashes. Workers are countable. Someone can find out how many workers there are by counting them: one, two, three, four, etc. The term used to refer to countable items is number.

“To show that you understand the difference between when to use the word amount and when to use the word number, write one sentence on any topic other than employment figures in which you use both amount and number correctly. If you want to use your creativity to present a profound truth or to make people laugh, you may do that. You have one minute to write.”

Put informal prompts to work every class period

Informal prompts as brief as this used at least daily, give students practice in focusing their thoughts and writing quickly. The responses don’t need to be graded, though you should skim them to see how well you’re getting your points across. I recommend that you respond in writing once a month to something each student turned in, just so students know you’re paying attention. One short, specific sentence will be enough.

The source of the quoted sentence is Tim O’Donnell, “High-wage workers are getting all the jobs.” February 9, 2021 in The Week’s Speed Reads.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni