Harness the Power of Words in Teaching Writing

Those of us who teach writing know that words are powerful. All too often, however, we slouch into using comfortable terminology rather than exerting ourselves to find words that will clearly communicate to our students ideas and attitudes we want them to adopt.

We need to train ourselves to think like marketers and advertisers, using language that conveys precise information to our audience, leading them to believe that being able to write competently is both desirable and achievable.

Here are three ways writing teachers can harness word power:

Avoid confusing terms

Many terms in the English/communications teachers’ vocabularies have two or more meanings; sometimes the definitions are even contradictory. For example:

  • A thesis can refer to a single sentence or a book length manuscript.
  • Narrative and exposition are different ways of organizing writing, but narrative writing often includes expository paragraphs.

Such dual meanings can easily bewilder students.

Probably the single biggest source of confusion for writing students, however, is grammar terminology. Many grammar terms are used today to mean what they meant to students clutching quill pens, not what they mean to students scrolling iPads.

For example, students are told that a verb shows “action or state of being” even though the only place they have encountered the word state it referred to a geo-political entity, like Nebraska. Other grammar terms whose everyday contemporary use is different from their original meanings include run-on, tense, and perfect.

Seize alternative language

If students find a term vague or confusing when they first encounter it, their bewilderment is a signal that teachers should look for alternative language. Telling students that an essay is a short piece of nonfiction, for example, does not help them distinguish an essay from a newspaper article or from a travel brochure.

If you teach in a school that uses Common Core State Standards you probably know the CCSS avoids the term essay, preferring terms that describe the content of the writing: arguments and informative or explanatory text. Common Core also avoids the term thesis statement (or thesis sentence), using the term claim instead.

Alternatives to bewildering language could be a circumlocution that uses language students already. Calling an introductory element “a fragment that appears ahead of the main sentence” is an example of such a circumlocution.

Inventing a term that students will understand is another option. I use the term writing skeleton™ instead of outline because I found students associated outlining with identifying points in already-written content. By changing my language enabled them to see how outlining can be used to structure writing they plan to do.

Use positively emotional words

Way too many terms we use in education have unfortunate connotations in the wider world; those connotations scare students in the classroom. By choosing terms that students will hear as positive, useful, and achievable, we can reduce class-induced stress to manageable levels that won’t interfere with learning.

For example, we tell students they must meet terminal objectives, which sound deadly, when we could talk about ultimate objectives, which sound superior to others. Or we urge students to use critical thinking, which sounds nasty, when we could talk about smart thinking or reliable thinking or genuine thinking. Each of those sounds honest and useful.

By matching our terminology to the needs of our students, we can avoid many of the perpetual problems of teaching writing—which would be good for them and us.

[2014-04-25 removed broken link]