Writing skill depends on word-awareness. One simple way I’ve found to build word awareness among students of any age or background is to require students each week to find one four-letter word that can be used as two or more parts of speech, thereby giving the word different meanings.
Presented in grammar-speak it sounds rather complicated, but it’s really simple enough for elementary students and English-language learners to understand. The key to making it work is to have students do the activity every week for at least a half year. Students need at least that much time to develop the habit of paying attention to words they run across outside of books as well as inside them.
Essentially what you do is:
Show students one or two examples of common words that have different meanings when used as different parts of speech. (Someone might cart (verb) junk to the landfill in a cart (noun), or bump (verb) her head going over a bump (noun) in the road.)
Require students to turn in each week an example of a four-letter word that has different meanings when used as a different part of speech, showing an example of each of the meanings in a sentence.
Each week, show a few examples turned in that week, being careful to give all students equal opportunity to have their work presented as a good example. (If possible, use this activity to interject a bit of fun between more intellectually demanding activities.)
It’s not necessary for you to teach the grammatical terms for the different parts of speech before you show students what they are to do. You can slip in the terms and their definitions as you show the examples.
Here are some common English words that you might use to show students how a word can be used in different ways with different meanings:
Done regularly, this simple activity can help students learn both vocabulary and basic grammar terms with a minimum of effort on your part.
Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.
Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.
Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.
If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.
(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)
If you are going to teach online, whether you teach online occasionally or regularly, you need to plan to spend far less time presenting material and far more time getting student feedback. In the online classroom, you need to deliberately solicit student feedback multiple times during each day’s class. Even if you have technology that lets you see every student, it’s not easy to scan 29 photos to see who didn’t understand a word you said. It’s much better to have some way to get feedback in writing from each student during each class.
Identify two or three ways of getting feedback during class so you can experiment to find which work best with your students and your subject. Look for the simplest technology, not the sexiest. You want something that students can have open at the same time they have your instructional program open.
You could have students use something as simple as a text file in which they can respond to questions you pose during class. If you give students a standard way of slugging those files (last name and class date might work), you can pull all submissions from one student into a folder. Then, without spending a lot of time or effort, you can respond to each student individually on a regular basis. One personal response a week to each student may be all you need to keep students engaged.
Explanation and apology
Readers of this blog and/or my GreatPenformances blog may have encountered posts that are obviously incomplete. Since both blogs are hosted at WordPress.com, I suspect the blog host is experiencing problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have copies of every text document and graphic image, so in some cases there’s no way for me to repair the posts. I’m sorry if you’ve looked for items and found they weren’t all there.
English modifiers are supposed to cuddle close to the nouns they modify. When they stray, they almost always elicit a few snickers and sometimes totally mislead readers.
The two-sentence example I have for you to use as an informal writing prompt for teens and adults is appropriate in both English and journalism classes, since it was a National Public Radio news item.
The news item
Display this news item to students and read it aloud to begin the informal writing activity. You may want to put the title in larger print or in boldface so students recognize the first line is a title rather than a complete sentence.
“Indonesian Navy confirms submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.”
“The Indonesian Navy on Saturday announced debris from a missing submarine has been found deep in the Bali Sea, ending hopes of finding any survivors among the 53-person crew.”
The informal writing prompt, part 1
Once you’ve read the displayed item aloud, ask students to identify in one sentence any part of the news item that is not immediately clear to someone skimming the item. Give them 30 seconds to write their full-sentence response.
Next, without asking for any oral responses, go to the second part of this informal prompt.
The informal writing prompt, part 2
Display and read this material for students: “Compare these two sentences:
The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.
The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after hitting an iceberg.
Now, write no more than three sentences in which you:
Compare the differences in the two sentences,
Identify which of the sentences makes better sense, and
Say why that sentence makes better sense.
(You’ll probably need to repeat the directions at least once.) Give students two minutes to do that.
Take another two minutes to have students explain orally why the original headline wasn’t immediately clear.
For journalism class use
If you are using this item in a journalism class, you could ask students how to make the brief news item easier for readers to grasp quickly. Inexperienced reporters invariably want to use alternatives to said. They also typically put the most important information at the end of the sentence instead of its beginning.
Newspaper readers expect the most important information to be at the front of a sentence and they expects an attribution after a quote to end with the word said. By meeting those expectations, journalists allow readers to skip over some words and still get the gist of a news story.
According to the National Public Radio newsfeed yesterday, “The CDC says toss onions if you don’t know where they came from to avoid salmonella.”
You may be as astonished as I was to learn that onions not only are smart enough to recognize that salmonella infections are dangerous, but also that onions migrate to avoid being contaminated by those vile, rod-shaped bacteria.
Today’s informal writing prompt will let you and your students see if they can recognized a misplaced modifier when they see one, or whether they are dumber than onions.
Here’s the prompt:
“I’m going to show you a summary that appeared in a radio broadcast’s news feed. (Display and read item.)
” The CDC is, of course, the Centers for Disease Control. “Now write your reaction to that item in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write.”
That’s all that necessary. A prompt as short as this is appropriate when (1) you have other informal prompts to use in the class period and (2) want to remind students of some rule they know and should use in their writing. You can take another two minutes to ask for oral responses if you choose, but if you’re rushed, just collect the day’s informal writing at the end of class to skim in a free period.
Leave it for philosophy classes to debate whether tossing is appropriate action to take against onions who, through no fault of their own, may have become infected by salmonella.
How well you teach writing to teens and adults boils down to whether you use practices that facilitate students’ learning or whether you use practices that either don’t help students develop writing skill or actively inhibit their developing writing skill.
Writing isn’t learned in the same way a subject such as history is learned by accumulating facts and concepts and making them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Students certainly have to master some facts and concepts, but a student only learns to write when that students puts the pieces together to produce an image that looks like the idea in that student’s mind.
Choose best practices instead of poor ones
You facilitate students’ mastery of writing by choosing teaching practices that help all students learn to write. Below are what I think are the top 10 most important choices you can make as a writing teacher if you want all your students to become competent writers:
Number 1: Concentrate on teaching your average students. Don’t focus just on your best students. Average students will make up the majority of your students. Your best students will need little, if any, help. The poorest students require short periods of help frequently and positive reinforcement for small successes.
Number 2: Coach and mentor all your students. Don’t coach and mentor only your best students.
Number 3: Give every student individual attention. Don’t concentrate your attention on your presentations. You can accomplish a great deal in a one-minute chat with a student.
Number 4. Teach for realistic tasks. Don’t teach to artificial tests.
Number 5. Focus on having students learn to write. Don’t focus on having students enjoy class.
Number 6. Teach to authentic tests. Don’t teach to bubble tests.
Number 7. Evaluate according to students’ writing skill. Don’t evaluate by students’ enjoyment.
Number 8. Stress interconnections of content. Don’t teach pieces of content in isolation.
Number 9. Demand competence from all students by the course end. Don’t accept not-yet-competent work from some at the course end.
Number 10. Respond to student writing. Don’t correct student writing.
There are other practices that will make it easier for you to teach a group of teens or adults to write competently, but I’ll save them for other days.
One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.
Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.
Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”
Then say something like this:
“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”
Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:
Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.
Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.
Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.
“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”
“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”
“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny? Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”
If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.
Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.
Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.
Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.
Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for TheNew York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”
Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.
The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management.
The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.
The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.
O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.
One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.
A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.
The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history. O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit.
Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.
Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?
The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.
Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.
Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.
Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices.
Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.
Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books
Here’s an informal writing prompt that will let you see whether students know what you mean when you talk about the function of some grammatical or punctuation term.
When we talk about grammar and punctuation, we often use the term function. In no more than three sentences, explain the meaning of function. To make your explanation clear, give an analogy to the function or functions of some physical object. You have 90 seconds to write.
This simple prompt will let you know whether students understand the terms you expect them to know. If they don’t understand the terms you’re using, you need to teach those terms as vocabulary.
Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”
I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.
I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.
It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.
If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.
If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”
If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.
If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.