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.

Connotation, denotation: What’s the difference?

Before you begin teaching your ELA students the difference between denotation and connotation, I suggest you show them that they already know something about that difference even if they don’t know that they know it.

With this three-item set of informal writing prompts, you can lay the groundwork for teaching in under five minutes and give students some writing practice at the same time.

Guide to using informal prompts

When you use these or any other informal prompts, I recommend that you display the prompts so students can follow along as you read them aloud. Use a timer, preferably one with an audible tick, to provide a sense of urgency. Have students respond as soon as you’ve read them an individual prompt.

Collect and scan the students’ writing. It will give you valuable feedback about students’ mastery of content and writing skills.


Informal prompt #1

Think about the nouns dream and fantasy. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #2

Think about the nouns explorer and adventurer. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #3

Think about the nouns tinkerer and inventor. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.


By the time students have finished responding to the three prompts, they will be primed to learn the terms connotation and denotation and to apply them to the comparisons they’ve analyzed.

After you’ve presented your material on connotation and denotation, you may wish to have students do a final 1-minute writing. Here’s the fourth informal prompt:

Optional: prompt #4

Look back over the responses you wrote to the three prompts at the start of class.  If one of your responses doesn’t look too good in light of what you learned today, write a new response to that prompt. You will have 1 minute to write.

Teach metaphors using informal writing

Being able to unpack metaphors is essential to reading anything more complicated than Dick and Jane books. Bright students who are exposed to literature from an early age pick up that skill. Others, equally bright, who grow up in homes without reading material other than the backs of cereal boxes need to be taught.

That teaching is your job.

Instead of giving a reading assignment about metaphors or lecturing about metaphors, I suggest you use the sink-or-swim approach: Give students an example of a metaphor and have them write an analysis of it in class before you even mention the word metaphor.

Below are step-by-step directions to show you how to set up a short lesson using informal writing to keep students engaged.

Informal writing prompt 1

Here’s what you tell students:

Dolores is older than she looks.

I’m going to show you a quote from a novel by Stephen King. You may not know Stephen King’s name, but you probably have seen films based on King’s books, such as The Shawshank Redemption, It, Pet Sematary, and Misery.

The name of the novel the quote comes from is Dolores Claiborne. In the book, Dolores is under suspicion for the murder of her employer, an elderly woman who left her fortune to Dolores. The entire book is what Dolores tells investigators.  Here is something Dolores says near the end of the book:

“…most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

In no more than three sentences, explain what Dolores means. You have two minutes to write.

Class discussion of part 1

After students have written their explanations, they will be ready for class discussion about what they wrote. Ask/get students to say:

  • What bills does Dolores mean? (duck bills, dollar bills, advertising posters, drafts of proposed legislation, the Buffalo Bills…)
  • How did you decide which kind of bill Dolores meant?
  • What do choices have to do with bills?
  • What do bills and choices have to do with being human?

Allow up to 5 minutes for this discussion

Informal writing prompt 2

Here’s what you say:

Now that you’ve discussed Dolores’s comment, write one sentence that says in different words what she meant. You have 30 seconds to write.

Allow 1-2 minutes for oral sharing.

Informal writing prompt  3

Here’s what you say:

Why do you suppose Stephen King has Dolores phrase her comment in terms of making choices and paying bills? Please respond in no more than three sentences. You have one minute to write.

Segue to teach about metaphors

Here’s what you must cover:

  • Metaphors are comparisons that imply that this thing is like that thing.
  • Metaphors are different from similes.
  • Similes are comparisons that say clearly this is like that.
  • Metaphors depend on the connotation of words—their emotional and cultural connections—to convey their meaning.

After you’ve presented that information, have students go back to the Dolores Claiborne quote again and do a final informal writing.

Informal writing prompt 4

This final prompt requires students to pull information from the earlier writing and discussion.

Here’s what you say

(NOTE: If necessary, adjust the terms in the first sentence to correspond with the terms your students used in their oral comments.)

As you’ve discussed today, Dolores says being human means taking responsibility for your choices, but she uses metaphors for the terms responsibility and choice/choosing. As I explained, metaphors depend on their connotations—the emotions and cultural connections that those words set up.

In no more than four sentences, explain:

  • How do the connotations of the term make a choice differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?
  • How do the connotations of the term pay the bill differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?

You have two minutes to write.

What’s next?

You may want to spend some more class time discussing students’ responses to the question about connotations of the terms. Personally, I’d probably collect the informal writing so I could see each student’s work and move to a different activity for the rest of the period. Students require multiple exposures to the concept of metaphor before they can recognize a metaphor, let alone unravel it’s meaning. Multiple mini-lessons over weeks are more effective than one lesson, even if the lesson is splendid.

Miscellaneous suggestions

I recommend that you use whatever technology you have so that students can see the writing prompts. I highly recommend that you read the actual prompt aloud while you display it for students. That’s for the kid who has trouble with distance vision and the one who has trouble reading.

Time the writing. If possible, use a timer with an audible tick. You want to get students in the habit of working against the clock. The poorest writers are the slowest off the starting block and waste the most time. The audible tick helps to make them aware they are wasting time.

Collect informal writing at the end of the activity or class. Review it. It’s your feedback on how well you taught.

Trivia

Dolores Claiborne was the bestselling novel in America in 1992; it was made into a film three years later. My review of Dolores Claiborne is scheduled for March 14, 2020 at GreatPenformances. Spoiler alert: I give it an A.

Why fiction has value: informal writing prompts

If you believe the 20th century novels, there was a time at least one student in each high school and college English class aspired to produce the great American novel.

Today we’re hard pressed to find one student in each high school and college English class who’s even interested in reading a great American novel.

rounded squares of varying sizes suggest need to analyze meaning of unfamilar content
A visual analogy: The shapes look familiar but what are they supposed to mean?

Introduce today’s students to fiction

When we “introduce a novel” or “introduce long fiction” to today’s students, we need to forsake the language of Literature with a capital L and speak to the students who speak the language of bits and bytes and augmented reality.

Unlike technical documents, good literary fiction is rarely obvious. In fact, part of the attraction of literary fiction is identifying and interpreting the clues to what the story means.

Many of today’s students are familiar with analyzing computer code to see how it delivers its message. We need to seduce them into learning to analyze linguistic codes to see how a work of fiction delivers its message. With luck, some with learn to enjoy the process.

Instead of lecturing, I like to give students verbal puzzles embedded in informal writing prompts to get their little grey cells moving.

Informal prompts about fiction

Here’s the sort of thing I’d use in introducing fiction reading to literature-phobic students. I begin with a quotation, which gives students a tiny bit of close reading. I chose a quote from Stephen King because he’s a living author—so much more relevant to students than old, dead guys—and because even students who hate to read are likely to know his name from the film versions of his books.

In “The Body,” one of the novellas in his book Different Seasons, Stephen King writes about why people write fiction. He says this:

The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings…even the ones that sell millions of paper backs.

Informal writing prompt #1. What does Stephen King mean by “-ed endings”? In your answer, give two or three examples of the sort of verbs King means. Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

This informal prompt can be answered just with grammar knowledge. Students don’t need to know anything about fiction to get it right.

Informal writing prompt #2. Why do you think King ignores the present when he talks about the purpose of writing fiction? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #2 requires an understanding of different ways of defining the word present. Here, again, no knowledge of fiction is required.

Informal writing prompt #3. Why does King say “get ready for some future mortality” instead of just saying “get ready for the future?” Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.

Prompt #3 is the tricky one. King uses the term “future mortality” because there’s nothing certain in the future other than death. It’s the only event that’s likely to happen to everyone. Even the most irreligious typically want their deaths to be mourned by the people whose opinions they valued. By extension, then, the purpose of fiction is to give guidance in how to live.

I don’t expect students to figure this prompt #3 out in an hour, let alone a minute. I just want them to try to figure it out on their own before presenting them with fiction to read.

Other informal prompt options

You needn’t use my informal writing prompts. You could look up quotes on fiction at GoodReads.com or some similar site, or pull some out of your own reading to get students thinking about the value of fiction.

What’s important is that you include both prompts to which students can readily respond with a correct answer and some that present a puzzle with no obvious correct answer. Easily answered prompts encourage techie-type students to experience success in something to do with fiction. Puzzling prompts gives them a mental itch to find out the answer.

Informal writing prompt starters

I collect assorted short items for use in informal writing prompts on grammar and editing. Here are three recent acquisitions.

An advisory from Microsoft says this:

You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.

A newsletter from WSKG public broadcasting, reported:

[NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo] still wants a permanent property tax cap, an end to cash bail and other criminal justice reforms, and a ban on plastic bags in the budget.

The Washington Post‘s subscriber newsletter contained this item on March 26, 2019:

Kamala Harris: Our teacher pay gap is a failure. Here’s how we can fix it.

If I were to use one of the items as an informal prompt, I’d ask students to do three things, presenting the tasks separately:

  1. Figure out what the writer intended to say.
  2. Rewrite the item to convey the intended message.
  3. Identify the type of error(s) in the original item.

Before you ask, there are two reasons why identifying the type of error is the last task. One reason is that for most students labeling the error is the most difficult of the three tasks. The other reason is that putting the correct label on an error is the least useful of the three tasks.

Informal writing prompt: fix the message

This message from Microsoft appeared on my computer screen prior to a software update: “You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.”

Since it took me four tries before I got the the download to install, I wondered what message Microsoft was trying to convey.

Like me, you would probably have been surprised if you had learned you needed to perform unnecessary actions to complete a software installation.

Let’s turn this bit of bewilderment into a two-part informal writing prompt about precise language that is suitable for use in English class or in a business/computer/technology class.

Part 1. Show students the sentence quoted above and have them explain in 1–3 sentences why they do or do not think the sentence is well-written.

Part 2. Direct students to write a more precise message to the computer user based on their knowledge of how computer updates work.

Teach self-editing via informal writing

The typical English class grammar exercise contains a single error for students to correct. The typical written assignment by an English class student, however, often contains multiple errors.
Rather than having students do single-error exercises, it’s more realistic—and far more effective—to have them

  • edit real-life examples of writing, and
  • describe the impression that poorly written work leaves on them.
I like to use short, informal writing sessions—usually less than five minutes—to provide those experiences.
There’s never a dearth of examples of writing that shouldn’t have appeared in public without editing, and they are free.
Here’s an example of how I use informal writing in lieu of single-error exercises.

The informal writing session

These two sentences appeared in the high school principal’s column of a school district newsletter:

(Display and read aloud.)

To help all of us and to benefit our state aide as it relates to student attendance, please make every effort to first get your child to school, and second follow the school procedures when they need to be absent. Proper procedures include notifying the Attendance Office of any absence with a phone call, but as important, is following up with a signed note explaining the absence.

In no more than three sentences, identify what you believe are the three most serious problems with that passage. Be as specific as possible.  You have one minute to write. (Time students as they write.)
Now that you’ve identified the problems, your task is to fix them.

(Display and read aloud.)

Do whatever you think will best accomplish these four tasks:

  • Target the information to the intended audience.
  • Make the text easier to understand.
  • Eliminate any spelling errors.
  • Eliminate any grammar errors.

You will have three minutes to do your revision.

Formative evaluation

Sometimes I use the informal writing to get students’ attention before teaching some topic that’s suggested by the errors in the writing. In such cases, I might have students write informally a couple more times during the class period, responding to information I present.
Alternatively, I might take five minutes to have the class discuss their observations orally before going on to a different topic for the day.
Either way, I always collect informal writing and use it for formative evaluation.
© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Pronoun reference: Analyze these sentences

I was reading a history of World War I and came across two sentences that I had to read three times: Twice to figure out the pronoun reference and a third time to figure out whether the pronoun reference is correct.

The two sentences could be turned into a good informal writing prompt about pronoun references.  Give students 30-60 seconds to respond to this prompt:

“Meanwhile, General Sir Ian Hamilton had been given the command of the MEF by Kitchener on 12 March. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

The grammatical rule for pronoun reference is that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun. Does the pronoun he in the second sentence follow that rule?  Explain your reasoning in no more than three sentences.

Follow up with this 30-60 second writing prompt:

Rewrite the first sentence so that there’s no doubt to whom he in the second sentence refers.

Using grammatical terms, identify what’s different about your rewritten sentence and the original sentence.

The he in the original second sentence is Hamilton.  The first sentence is written in passive voice.  Apparently Jenny MacLeod or her editor made the pronoun he in the second sentence refer to what would have been the last preceding pronoun if the first sentence had been written in active voice. I don’t know whether that’s normal practice in Britain, or just an oddity.

 

If you put the sentence in normal, active voice order (subject, verb, object), the two sentences would read:

 

“Meanwhile, on March 12 Kitchener had given General Sir Ian Hamilton command of the MEF. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

 

You could use this set of informal writing prompts to introduce or review information about active/passive voice or pronoun referents or as a quick exercise in editing for clarity.

The quoted sentences are from Gallipoli by Jenny MacLeod, which is part of the Great Battles series published by Oxford University Press.

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Give authentic analogy practice via writing prompt requirements

When a message’s content is complex or unfamiliar to readers, good communicators look for analogies to take the mystery out of tough concepts.

When teachers want to assess students’ understanding of course content, like other good communicators they scrap worksheets and multiple-choice exams in favor having students develop and use analogies.

An analogy is a type of example or illustration that works by a comparison between something very familiar and something unfamiliar.

Why give analogy practice

Creating an analogy allows students to demonstrate:

  • content mastery
  • effective communication with a target audience.

Students may think they understand a concept or precedure until they are forced to attempt to explain that content to someone else. A failure in that communication situation acts as formative assessment for the communicator—one that is more effective with students than any test score or teacher comment.

Students need analogy practice because many of them will not think of developing analogies without prompting.

Asking students to develop an analogy as part of a writing assignment forces them to engage in a higher level of thinking than they might otherwise do.

Unfortunately for us writing teachers, crafting writing prompts that give students analogy practice is not easy. It requires that we know our content and our students. In other words, we have to know the same things we expect of our students in order to teach them.

Whew! No wonder teachers get the big bucks.

Use analogies yourself

When you teach, use analogies to explain new concepts whenever you can. Analogies, like anecdotes, help students understand concepts by putting the concepts into a familiar context. They compare something unfamiliar to something familiar.

I use analogies to explain such things as transition sentences and the structure of an introduction.

If students have seen you using analogies regularly, they will be more comfortable with attempting to create their own.

Point out analogies in students’ texts

English courses that emphasize literature are more likely to discuss similes and metaphors than analogies. However, analogies are common in nonfiction material. You will find them in students’ history, science, and technology texts where analogies are used to help simplify complex ideas.

You may need to use texts from those other disciplines for teaching the reading comprehension activities that afford opportunities to point out analogies.

If you teach English language arts in a school that adheres to Common Core State Standards, you may have no choice but to help students master reading of complex texts that include analogies.

Instead of viewing that as an unpleasant chore, look at it as a chance to hook the student population turned off by literature by showing them how the material they read uses the same literary devices as classic novels and poems.

Require analogies in students’ writing

Once you’ve introduced students to the concept of the analogy, give them practice creating analogies as a means of developing an expository paragraph.

To build in the analogy practice, you will need to require analogies and explain in your writing prompts how and why students must create an analogy.

I suggest you have younger students develop a “paragraph essay” using an analogy. (Don’t use that term, however. Essay is so nebulous a term that it is meaningless even to most college-educated adults.)

Here’s a paragraph writing prompt that calls for an analogy:

“Paragraph Essay” ELA prompt

A topic sentence and a thesis sentence have a great deal in common. Write a paragraph in which you use an analogy to explain at least two aspects of the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis statement.

Stop right now and think about how you’d answer the question.

What analogy did you come up with?

I said the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis sentence is analogous to the relationship of a room to a whole house.

The logical process needed to come up with an analogy is not terribly different from what a student would use to come up with the answer to a bubble-test analogy question like “cat is to  kitten as  cow is to _____.”

Although the writing prompt may look harder than a bubble test question, students see it as more relevant to their experience than standardized test questions. They know that people are asked to explain stuff every day, but nobody takes bubble tests outside of school.

As students mature, you can ask them to develop one paragraph of a multi-paragraph I/E text through analogy and use other strategies for other body paragraphs.

Activate knowledge to spark the cognitive process

If you want your students to learn what you want them to learn, it’s smart to activate their knowledge base before you begin delivering content.

Activating the knowledge base is educator jargon for prompting students to think about the topic you want them to learn before you introduce the topic.

Activating students’ knowledge base is to teaching methods what dangling a worm in the water is to fishing: You call attention to your bait in the expectation the fish will latch on to it.

Bait your hook with attractive activators

You have many options with which to bait your lesson hook. My personal favorite is informal writing prompts because they force every student to rise to the bait. If you choose informal writing:

1. You could prompt students to reveal facts they know about the topic. 

All the "facts" students know may not be correct, which provides secondary bait. It’s also possible that students know nothing on the topic, which might prompt curiosity to fill that knowledge gap.

2. You could bait your lesson hook with an informal prompt to reveal experiences students have had that are relevant to the lesson you’re going to cast before them.

3. If you expect students already have some information, correct or not, on the lesson topic, you could bait them to reveal their attitudes toward the topic.

4. You could bait your hook with an invitation to students to reveal their assumptions about your lesson topic.

Land students in the cognitive processes

Once students have risen to the bait, all you have to do is pull them in.

I say "all you have to do," but there’s nothing easy about pulling students in. It requires determination, strategic knowledge, skills developed through long practice, hard work, and a bit of luck thrown in.

The important thing is that you do land students smack in the cognitive process.

Get their "little grey cells" functioning.

Get their neurons passing messages.

Get students thinking, for as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham says in his book Why Do Students Hate School?:

Quote: Whatever students think about is what they will remember.