Trashy antecedent shows who needs help

Many students commit gaffes in writing because their knowledge of grammar has not been honed to the level of precision required by writing. This mini-lesson assumes that:

  • Students recall the definitions of subject and direct object and can identify subjects and direct objects.
  • Students recall the definitions of noun and modifier and can identify nouns and their modifiers.
  • Students have been exposed to the idea that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun.

In this activity, which should take at most 6-8 minutes, students write to learn more about manipulating nouns and direct objects in their writing.  Begin by showing students these two sentences and reading them aloud:

In the U.S., we generate five million tons of gift-wrap waste each year. Get creative and make your own.

Watch and listen for smiles and snickers. Those responses identify students who have an intuitive understanding of English grammar. The ones who aren’t amused must be taught normal English sentence patterns.

Say something like this:

Both sentences imply some information that isn’t written out in words but that most readers can figure out. In the first sentence, for example, the pronoun we doesn’t have a noun to which it refers. Even without the antecedent being written, I’m sure you know who the word we refers to. If you had to put a noun in place of we, what might you use? [Get responses.]

The second sentence also has some implied words. Write no more than four sentences in which you tell what unwritten words are implied and how you figured out what the writer meant.

Give students one to two minutes to write. Then ask students what they discovered about who is being addressed and what that person is supposed to do. If you are lucky, most of your students will probably have figured out that:

  1. We in the first sentence means U.S. consumers. The sentence pattern is subject-verb-direct object: We generate waste.
  2. In the second sentence, the writer is giving an order to one or more individual consumers. We know that because the writer says your.
  3. The writer is ordering the consumer to (1) “get creative” and (2) make the consumer’s own something.
  4. The writer doesn’t specify what that something is, but even though the sentence construction makes it sound as if the reader should make waste the only sensible conclusion is that the writer expects the reader to make gift-wrap.

Students who lack an intuitive feel for grammar won’t have realized that there is a disconnect between what the writer expects readers to do and what the sentence construction and rules of English grammar tell readers to do. You need to make that disconnect clear.

Present the grammar

1. A direct object is a noun or a pronoun.

2. When a pronoun is used as a direct object, the noun for which it substitutes is usually the last noun before it, as in these two sentences:

                        Clarice donated a fat check. It covered the cost of the roof repairs.

If the noun for which the pronoun substitutes isn’t the last noun before the pronoun, you may confuse your readers.

Provide reassuring context

Tell students that most of us have to work at following the rules that readers have learned to expect writers to follow. We’ll all mess up sometimes, and we all need to keep an eye out for mistakes we’ve made before, especially if they are mistakes that make people snicker.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni


Informal writing prompts: English to algebra

Word problems are real problems for many students.  Introducing students to algebra by having them write math problems as English language sentences may help students learn to “read” algebra problems.

Sign: Informal Writing PromptsBy the time they reach seventh grade, students should have no difficulty with the math in this set of informal writing prompts, but they may be totally freaked out by being asked to write math problems in English sentences. As with other write-to-learn activities, your focus should be having students learn rather than having them get “a correct answer.”

I recommend that you display the informal prompts one at a time to students and read each one while students follow along. Since fewer than 40 percent of today’s students grades 8 through 12 can read at grade level, they need all the reading help you can give.

Informal prompt #1.

Here’s what to say: Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5. Write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the smallest number to produce the largest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write.  (The answer is: Multiply 2 by 5.)

Oral follow up: Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Informal prompt #2.

Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5, write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the largest number to produce the smallest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: Divide 10 by 2.)

Oral follow up:  Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Oral follow up: Show me using subtraction what it means to divide 10 by 5. (Answer: 10 – 5 then 5 – 5. There are two units of five in ten.)

Informal prompt #3.

Now for some detective work. Look at the sentences you already wrote. In a short sentence, tell me what word or words other than the numbers themselves appear in every sentences you wrote earlier. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: The word by is in both sentences.)

Informal prompt #4.

Looking again at the three sentences you have already written, how can you identify the number that is the multiplier or divisor in each of the sentences? Explain in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write. (Answer: The word after by is the multiplier or divisor.)


(Many students will guess that the word that comes after by is the multiplier or divisor but that doesn’t mean they are consciously aware that one of the meanings of the word by is “use the number that follows me as a multiplier or divisor depending on the sense of the sentence.” You need to help students recognize “the sense of the sentence.” Students have to use logic to figure out whether the sense of the sentence calls for multiplication of division. If they don’t grasp that idea through the written and oral discussion, they may get it using manipulatives.)

Ask students in which of their first two sentences is the word following the preposition by a multiplier. Ask how they know that word is a multiplier.

Ask students how they know the word they wrote after the preposition by in the second sentence is a divisor.

Next, have students do something hands-on, such as drawing a diagram or using manipulatives, to show:

  • multiplying 3 by 4
  • dividing 12 by 3
  • dividing 12 by 6

If you teach older teens or adult students, to let them save face tell them to show how they’d teach those mathematical computations to a neighbor’s kid or to their own child.

Finally, give students five or six equations and have them write them as English sentences, specifying the operation to be performed, like this:

25/5 = 5 (Answer: 25 divided by five equals five)
6 x 3 = 18 (Answer: Six multiplied by three equals 18.)

If this activity doesn’t result in a  light bulb moment for your students, wait two weeks and try it again with different numbers. Sometimes you need to present an essential concept multiple times before your presentation coincides with the students’  readiness to grasp that information. That’s one of the hard facts of life in the teaching profession.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

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.


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 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