Informal writing prompts: How to make them, how to use them

Last week I gave you six sentences and one sentence fragment from my collection of errors appearing in public places. Today I’m going to show you how I turn such items into informal writing prompts when I teach writing classes.

Informal prompts should multi-task

Traditional, publisher-created exercises that contain just a single error are inefficient and unrealistic materials for training workers in today’s marketplace where both accuracy and speed are required. For that reason, I design each of my writing prompts, whether formal or informal, to work toward achievement of at least two of my course objectives. Typically, my informal prompts have students identify errors in a sentence or short paragraph and write the item correctly in full sentences.

Of the seven items I gave you last week, five contained misplaced modifiers. Misplaced modifiers are the errors I find most often in students’ writing and in professional writers’ work, including my own. Misplaced modifiers are typically caused by writing long sentences quickly without rereading one’s writing slowly.  They are errors that often can be kept from the public (or from the teacher) by making time to reread the material.

When using informal writing prompts:

  • Allow students to see and hear the prompt.
  • Time the responses.
  • Require answers in full sentences.
  • Collect and skim responses, but don’t grade them.
  • Have students answer one informal prompt each class unless they’re answering a formal prompt that class period.

Note: You’re not limited to one informal prompt per class. You can use several for different purposes.

Informal prompt: Assault inside a newspaper

The first quote I chose to use for the basis of an informal prompt is a sentence whose source I’ve mislaid:

Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.

To use that as an informal prompt, I’d first display the quote and read it aloud. Then I’d say, “In no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors in that sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”

After 30 seconds, I’d give the second part of the informal prompt: “Now that you’ve identified what’s wrong with that sentence, rewrite it so that is clear and correct. You have 30 seconds to do that.”

Students usually snicker when they hear the quote. They know that Joe Biden and Donald Trump were political opponents. The two men didn’t have a slugfest either at the Wall Street Journal building or inside the pages of the newspaper.

Although most of my students will be able to rewrite the sentence correctly, few will be able to identify the error by name. Most of my adult students think of modifiers as single words. They don’t think of phrases and clauses as modifiers because misplaced, lengthy phrases and clauses rarely appeared in the publisher-created exercises they used all their through school.

Informal prompt: Using masks

In an ideal world, students would know by the end of seventh grade that word groups we refer to as phrases and clauses can and sometimes do perform the same kinds of grammar jobs that single words do. Since they don’t know that, I give them ample opportunities to learn to identify word groups that function as modifiers.

In another quote I pulled to use as an informal writing prompt, the misplaced modifier is also a group of words:

While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday. (Source: Wayne Davis, NPR, 11-0-8-2020)

I would use that quote in the same way I did the previous one, allowing a little more time for writing since the quote is longer, and it contains two errors.  (The rewritten quote will still sound awkward, but focus on the modifier issue so as not to lose three quarters of your class.)

Informal prompt: Delayed postings

The sentence for analysis in this third informal prompt is more muddled than that of the prior one. Here’s the item:

Please note, reviews will be moderated/scanned for any malicious activities, so these will take some time to appear.

To use that as an informal prompt, I’d first display the quote and read it aloud. Then I’d say, “In no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors in that sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”

After 30 seconds, I’d give the second part of the informal prompt: “Now that you’ve identified what’s wrong with that sentence, rewrite the item in whatever way you choose just as long as your revision is both clear and correct. You have 60 seconds to do that.”

Having been prompted to look for an error, my students usually see that these refers to reviews and not to malicious activities. Most will just replace these with reviews. Occasionally, one of my better-read students will realize that moderated and scanned are not opposites, as the use of the virgule suggests, and will break the item into two sentences, one about reviews not appearing immediately and one about all reviews being scanned for malicious activities.

Informal prompt: Hurricane activity

The final informal prompt I have for you today is a puzzler. The purpose of using the writing prompt is to allow students to discover some rules of sentence construction that they may never have realized were rules.

Here is the quote I’d display and read aloud to students:

After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.  (Source: Matthew S. Scwartz, NPR, 11-08-2020)

Then I’d say, “In no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors in that sentence. You have 60 seconds to write.”

When the timer rings, I’d tell students, “You now have two options. Option 1: If you identified the error or errors in that sentence, rewrite the sentence to correct the errors. Option 2: If you couldn’t identify the error in the sentence, explain in no more than two sentences why you couldn’t identify the error. You all have one minute to write.”

Add class discussion to expand understanding

I don’t always have students discuss their responses to informal writing prompts in class, but in this case, I’d certainly follow up the writing component with oral discussion. Here purpose of the post-writing discussion is to show students that there’s more to correcting writing than fixing grammar or spelling. It is often necessary for editors to dip into their general knowledge to find a way to fix a writing problem.

Unlike the prior examples in this blog post, this sentence’s problem is not a misplaced modifier. The problem is that the construction of the sentence makes the introductory clause “after making landfall in Cuba early Sunday” look as if it should refer to the subject of the main clause, which is Florida.

Students who choose option 1 probably have correctly identified the error, but they can’t correct it because there’s no noun in the rest of the sentence that could have made landfall in Cuba early Sunday or any other time. Students who chose Option 2 may also have figured out what the problem is, but they don’t have the terminology to explain what they sense is wrong.

A few students will have figured out from the phrase “made landfall” that the sentence is about a hurricane. If they are interested in hurricanes or live in Florida, they may know what hurricane the sentence refers to, but even with that knowledge, they need to totally rewrite the sentence so it makes sense.

Wrap-up

Spending five minutes a day on informal writing is a good investment. It allows you to drill students on problem areas without detracting from other material you have to teach and to provide that drill while simultaneously giving students writing practice. If you’re not using informal writing as a teaching tool, you’re working harder than you need to.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni