How to do the nearly impossible:

Give 100 hours of writing practice in 15 weeks

Learning enough about any skill to be able to profit from additional study of that skill requires 100 hours of practice, according to researchers. After 50 years of writing expository nonfiction and teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction, I’ve figured out how squish those required 100 hours’ writing practice in 15 weeks.

It’s not easy, but it can be done.
row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

The general procedure

Maintain a single focus. To turn non-writers into competent expository writers in 15 weeks you and your students must do nothing in those 15 weeks except activities that are an essential part of the process of expository nonfiction writing. Don’t ask students to write narrative—even nonfiction narrative—or to write arguments or to read anything other than expository nonfiction.  Adding those elements doesn’t make the course interesting: they make the course difficult. Focus every class session on having students respond to that week’s writing prompt(s).

Ready 20 writing prompts. You will need to have 20 writing prompts prepared before the course starts. You won’t have time to prepare prompts during the course.  Each prompt should be on some aspect of communication, which is, after all, what English classes are supposed to teach. There are enough potential communications topics to give every student at least moderately interesting to write about a few times a semester.

Embed each writing prompt in a lesson. Each writing prompt should be delivered within  a self-contained writing lesson (see below).  Use the same format for each lesson to keep things as simple as possible. Each prompt should enable students to plan, research, draft, revise and edit their responses in a maximum of five hours. (Five hours work on each of 20 writing prompts yields the desired 100 hours.)

top section of a writing lesson showing its main parts
Top of a writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection. Note the prompt is within a lesson that includes suggestions to help students start the assignment.

Make class time writing time. Students can’t improve their writing until they first know what the process of writing looks and feels like. Except for those few early days of the course when you are presenting the writing process, have students spend most of their class time on task(s) to prepare them for that week’s writing prompt, such as:

  • figuring out what question the writing prompt is asking
  • phrasing a working thesis to responds to that question
  • developing a writing skeleton™
  • rippling to identify information sources for their responses to that week’s writing prompt

Teach while students prepare to write. Except during class periods when students are writing their texts, you should use class time for teaching.  Circulate through the room. Look at what students are doing. Read. React. Confer with individual students about their work. Ask students if they could have avoided a particular problem by doing something differently earlier in the writing process. Give help where it’s needed.

Push students to complete entire tasks in class. Don’t hesitate to require student to submit a copy of their work by the end of a class period if that’s what it takes to keep them working.

Require students to write under test conditions. Devote at least one class period a week to having students compose their responses to that week’s writing prompt under whatever test conditions (handwrite/keyboard) you’ve established for the course. You need to get students used to producing complete clean drafts under pressure. On a topic for which they have prepared, teens and adult students should be able to produce 600 handwritten words in longhand or on a keyboard in an hour.

row of small hour glasses

Do group instruction once.

Present the writing process 3 times. In the first three of the 15 weeks, lead students three times through the entire process of responding to an expository writing prompt. The first week, go through the process carefully using students’ first week writing prompt as the demonstration material. Repeat the procedure the next two weeks with those weeks’ writing prompts as demonstration material. Each time, before you give students the writing lesson which includes the following basic information for that particular writing prompt, talk students through how to

  • figure out what question they are being asked,
  • phrase a working thesis that responds to that question, and
  • develop a writing skeleton™ for that working thesis.

After that, the information in the writing prompt should provide enough guidance for most students. If a student has difficulty understanding the directions, you can deal individually with that student. You’ll find a discussion of eight essential strategies for student writers at my yctwriting.com site.

The writing lesson below shows how material that students need in to know to complete each assignment is included in the writing lesson. Here ripple strategy is explained in detail, providing students with a reference, should they require one.

a writing lesson developed by Linda Aragoni
A writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection for not-yet-competent writers.

row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

Evaluate with a checklist

Use a simple checklist to tell students how they performed. Every item on the checklist should be (a) essential to the expository writing process, and (b) worded in such a way that the only possible responses are yes or no. Ideally, your checklist should be arranged in order of the importance of that item to the entire writing process. Thus, my six-item checklist starts with “The writer’s thesis is clearly stated in the opening paragraph” and ends with “The writer ‘does the evidence waltz’ in each body paragraph so the presence and significance of the evidence to the writer’s thesis is clear.”

During the 100 hours students are working to develop basic writing skill don’t even think about any of the finer points of writing. After everyone in your class has mastered the basics, then you can begin helping them learn ways to modify the basic expository pattern and to make their writing more powerful. Until you have all your students capable of responding to a writing prompt on a subject about which they are knowledgeable in a clear, coherent text don’t even think about having them write anything more interesting.

Is preparing those lessons too much work?

I have two collections of writing prompts that you can buy. Both collections are available from my E-junkie shop.

  • Ready, Set, Write! is contains 20 complete writing lessons for not-yet-competent teen and adult writers. They aren’t simplistic, but they simplify the writing process.
  • Bullying Begins as Words contains prompts five prompts for not-yet-competent writers plus five for competent writers and five for proficient writers.
QR code for Linda Aragoni's e-junkie shop
Scan the code to visit my shop.

When you buy either collection you get an e-book containing all the prompts and  teacher information for each prompt, plus a handbook you can use with any of my PenPrompts collections.  Within a few days after your purchase, you will receive information about where to download individual copies of your prompts authorizing you to reproduce the prompts for use with your students as long for the rest of your teaching career.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Mastering writing: The 100-hour rule

Everybody’s heard about the 10,000-hour rule. That’s the rule that says to become a top-notch practitioner of a skill, whether that skill is playing tennis or violin, making ceramics or taking x-rays, a person needs to put in 10,000 hours practicing that skill.

What everybody ignores is that those 10,000 hours of practice are done only after student of the skill has mastered the basics. Basic skill mastery has its own rule, the 100-hour rule.

Most skills require 100 hours of practice using the basic procedures and techniques of that skill to become adept enough to profit from additional study.

Learning a skill requires doing the skill

Nobody masters a skill just from reading about it, or just from hearing lectures about it, just from discussing it in a small group, or just from watching YouTube videos about it. Skill mastery requires the learner to do the entire activity repeatedly.

Practicing some critical, small part of the process in isolation may be necessary, but skill mastery comes only by practicing the skill for its intended purpose. That means the violist must practice playing entire pieces, the baker must practice baking entire pies, the writer must practice writing entire documents.

Sometimes a person masters a skill on their own, simply by trial and error. But all too often when errors exceed successes, people lose heart and quit trying to master the skill. Most people require assistance from others who have already mastered the skill.

Teaching a skill requires distillation

To give learners the 100 hours of appropriate practice they need to master the basics of a skill may not require someone who put in the 10,000 hours’ work to master the basics. People who are really good at a skill aren’t always good at teaching that skill to others: They know too much. They overwhelm the novices. They forget how long it too them just to get to the point that they didn’t have to think about what to do next.

Someone may have only 1,000 hours or only 300 hours beyond the basic 100, but if that person can distill into a few simple steps what the newbie needs to learn, that person can probably do as good or better a job teaching newbies than the expert, providing that person can distill what the newbie must learn into a few short, easy-to-understand sentences. As long as what must be learned as information is short and clear, the procedure it describes can be complicated and delicate. That’s why my program for teaching writing consists of only eight sentences totaling 33 words. The first sentence is here.

Skilled teachers help learners 10 ways

Whether the skill they need is bricklaying or baking, trigonometry or writing, skilled practitioners can help. To be helpful, a skilled person—a.k.a. the teacher—needs to be able to perform 10 tasks for the learner:

  1. Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
  2. Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
  3. Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
  4. Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  5. Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
  6. Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  7. Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
  8. Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
  9. Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
  10. Schedule regular practice sessions until each learner has spent 100 hours practicing the basics of the skill.

Every teacher who wants students to master a skill must be ready, willing, and able to perform each of those tasks—and then do them as learners require.


Next week, if things go as planned, I’ll show you how to provide required 100 hours’ writing practice to teens or adults in 15 weeks.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Word choices influence perceptions

I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those  students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.

Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog GreatPenformances.wordpress.com on October 27, 2020.)

The prompt: Payroll situations or people?

Charlie peeps out from the O in TomIn Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.

Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.

The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”

Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”

Here’s your writing assignment:

Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.

In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.

Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than [750] words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Turn minds over to teach argument

A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”

hourglass with all sand in bottom
The sand has settled into inactivity.

Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.

What argument means

An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:

    • the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
    • the opposition’s evidence for its position,
    • the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.

To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.

hourglass with sand in top half
This has the sand moving again.

Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.

Force a change of perspective

Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.

Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.

After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.

If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.

Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Novel predictions for 2045

Novelists seem to have an uncanny knack for telling the future in the present tense. While reading bestselling novels of the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how often writers of that decade mention ideas and activities that are only now becoming strong enough to attract public attention.

Future foretold in the present tense.

Here are a few observations from the 1990s that I scribbled in my notebook.

front dust jacket of 1993 novel The Scorpio IllusionComparing the early 1990s with the Cold War years, in his 1993 novel The Scorpio Illusion Robert Ludlum writes, “We’re no longer dealing with people who think anything like the way we used to think. We’re dealing with hate, not power of geopolitical influence, but pure, raw hatred. The whipped of the world are turning, their age-old frustrations exploding, blind vengeance paramount.”

front dust jacket of DisclosureMichael Crichton in his 1994 novel Disclosure says, “We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

donkey on Primary Colors dust jacket
In the political novel Primary Colors, the famous author Anonymous has a 1996 presidential candidate leveling with low-income voters about their futures: “Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re gonna have to exercises a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”

American flag is dust jacket background
In Executive Orders, another 1996 novel about the presidency, Tom Clancy reflects that “admitting error was more hateful to [Washington leaders] than any form of personal misconduct.”

A question for novel-reading English teachers

Here’s a question for your readers of this blog who are English teachers, your book clubs, and perhaps your students:

What themes in today’s fiction do you predict will be featured every news cycle 25 years from now?

Prepare students to fight today’s wars of words

Quote: When your remote has 50 buttons, you can't change the channel any more.Educators are like generals: They spend most of their time preparing their troops for the previous war.

No where is that tendency more obvious than in composition classes where even today writing teachers are preparing to fight to their last drop of red ink for the compound-complex sentence.

That war was lost years ago.

Compound-complex sentences drowned in mud-choked prose in the late 1980s. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video. What-shall-I-write decision paralysis has been replaced by operational goals that drive writing.

Today’s writers fight a guerrilla war, strategically aiming precisely chosen words at clearly defined targets and making a quick exit. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video.

Instead of polysyllabic words and strings of clauses, today’s student writers need a larger repertoire of smaller, more precise terms suited to shorter, more readable sentences.

Instead of memorizing a different strategy for each type of message they must deliver, student writers need to master one strategy for all the writing they must do. And they must have extensive practice using that strategy in different writing situations so that it isn’t rendered unusable by unpredictable circumstances or events.

Above all, student writers must be able to improvise to accomplish a writing task for which they haven’t been given reproducible forms and templates and checklists.

If you’re still fighting the war for writing complexity, it’s time to surrender your red pen, ditch your kit full of all types of essays, and take aim at simplicity.

The war for clear, concise writing is waiting to be won.

I look at 1919 bestsellers for Fine Books blog

For the fifth year in a row, Fine Books and Collections Contributing Writer Nate Pedersen picked my brains about 100-year-old best sellers for a January post  for the magazine’s blog.

screen shot of blog post

Nate is one of the co-authors of Quackery, a nonfiction books which I profiled here December 27, 2019. I met him through doing the retrospectives and that’s how I discovered his book.

Reading vintage fiction has been my hobby for years, but doing it systematically was a fairly recent decision. This year I’ll finish reading all the bestsellers of the 20th century and reviewing them for contemporary readers at my blog GreatPenformances. After that, I’m going to go back to being unsystematic again, starting, I think with Charles Dickens and some Elizabeth Berg novels I’ve missed.

Practical nonfiction with a sense of humor

covers of 2 nonfiction books that beg to be picked upDespite their glowing reviews, the nonfiction books I read in the fourth quarter of 2019 turned out not to be literary nonfiction at all. Literary nonfiction is like novels: It must be read in chapter order.  The books I read are each practical nonfiction.

Despite my disappointment, I’m keeping two of them for my classroom library because of their potential to attract reluctant readers to nonfiction books. Rather than developing a theme, each of the books is a collection of anecdotes on a theme. You can read chapter 7, skip to chapter 13, and then read chapter 1 in either of these books.  That is part of their appeal: They need not be read from cover to cover; they can be picked up and sampled.

I Love It When You Talk Retro

comic-strip woman tells man "I love it when you talk retro"
This Sunday comics look is retro.

Ralph Keyes’s book I Love It When You Talk Retro explores terms and catchphrases that have remained part of the American vocabulary long after people have forgotten where the terms originated or to what they originally referred.

Necktie party, scuttlebutt, blow your wad, puppet state,  bandwagon effect, and Catch-22 are only a few of the terms that Keyes discusses in chapters devoted to words with common origins, such as terms from sports, terms from occupations that no longer exist, and terms from media of earlier centuries.

Keyes designed the book so it can be browsed, used as a reference book, or read cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend reading Talk Retro cover-to-cover, let alone asking students to read it cover-to-cover. It’s a book better read in multiple, short sessions.

You might have pairs or trios of students read a chapter and give brief slide presentation to the class about the origins of a few of the expressions that they discovered through their reading.

Talk Retro could certainly be useful in prompting a discussion of the importance of word choices in communicating with individuals outside one’s peer group.

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech. Ralph Keyes. St. Martins. 2009. 310 p.

Quackery

Vintage type and decorations set the stage for this history
Elaborate ornamentation is retro.

By contrast to I Love It When You Talk Retro,  Quackery is co-written by writers from a younger generation. Their language is very much Netflix and Hulu, not retro. Lavishly illustrated and split into small chunks of reading,  Quackery is a book with a high “Ugh, gross!” factor that would appeal to a middle school readers.

Lydia Kang, M.D., and Nate Petersen, a freelance writer, put together a fact-packed, 344-page book, about the crazy things people have done to cure illnesses, increase their lifespan or their libido, get rid of excess weight, or solve dozens or other real or imaginary problems.

Some of the quack cures described were simply mistakes. A few of the “quacks” followed their own advice, often with fatal results. Most of the quack cures, however, were deliberate, money-making schemes.

The books is chock full of interesting, albeit not particularly useful, bits history. For example, the cereal company founder, John Harvey Kellogg, invented a light booth in which someone stood naked while he/she  tanned and sweated under harsh  lights. Kellogg said the treatment cured diabetes and scarlet fever and helped prevent constipation. King Edward VII had booths installed at Windsor and Buckingham castles in England.

 The chapters of Quackery are mercifully short: Many of the descriptions are enough to make you gag, and that internal response is heightened by the use of pond-scum green edging on all the pages.

I’d put Quackery on a classroom shelf to attract seventh grade boys to pick up a book. It’s chapters are extensively illustrated with ads, vintage photos, illustrations from old books and periodicals of instruments and animals used in the various treatments, all of which would delight most seventh graders. Also, the topics are sufficiently scatological to appeal to seventh grade boys, as would the authors’ humor.

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen. Workman Publishing. 2017. 344 p.

Is virtual reality in your head?

cover of Crichton novel that suggested the writing promptWhile reading Michael Crichton’s novel 1994 Disclosure for my blog of reviews of the 20th century’s bestselling fiction, I ran across a sentence that I wrote in my notebook of things to think about.

Here’s  the sentence:

“We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

The term virtual reality was first used in 1982 in a science fiction novel, so Crichton’s use of the term just over a decade later to describe people’s thought processes was really very insightful.

4 icons each representing virtual reality
Each icon reveals a different aspect of Virtual Reality.

Our students probably have more experience with virtual reality than Crichton had in 1994 and have probably given the topic far less thought. I’m going to suggest a writing prompt that will force students to think about both the meaning of the term virtual reality and about human behavior.

Each icon at the left represents some aspect of the concept of virtual reality. Thinking about why the artist chose particular elements to draw may help students define virtual reality.

You may need to use informal writing to force students to examine each icon carefully enough to note the similarities and differences.

(Note: All four icons are available from thenounproject.com.)

Formal writing prompt about virtual reality

In his 1994 novel Disclosure,  which is set in a company that is building a virtual reality application, Michael Crichton says this: “We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Here’s the writing assignment:

Explain how a person’s ideas function like a technology-generated virtual reality environment. Illustrate how that process works by referring to three or more individuals whose ideas lead/led them to behave in ways that are/were significantly different from the behavior of people around them. Include an example drawn from at least two of these three categories:

  • A living individual
  • An person born in the 20th century who is no longer living.
  • A character from a literary work.

Try to avoid having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “good” or having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “bad.” (Too many similar examples are boring.)

One last note for teachers

Many students don’t complete assignments because they take too long getting started. For that reason, you might want to prepare the way for this assignment by having students write informally on several different days before you give this assignment about people whose behavior was significantly different from those around them.

You could start by having students think about a living individual whose behavior diverges from that of people around him/her. News stories provide plenty, ranging from Nikolas Cruz to Greta Thunberg.

For historical figures, students might find it easiest to think about prominent people in various fields: Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.