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

Collect grammar errors to prompt writing

I collect grammar errors.

I turn those grammar errors (and other writing mistakes) into informal writing prompts that force students to quickly identify the error or errors in the item and recommend corrections.

Writing errors frequently appear in print because writers were in a hurry. Given a second look at what they wrote (or shown the same error in publisher-created exercises which tell students what type of error to look for) those writers probably would have spotted the error right away.

Here are some recent additions to my collection

I thought this item contained a grammar error, but in view of the furor over 2020 election postings to social media last year,  perhaps it just told the truth:

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

Here is a second item that definitely has a problem:

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

A third item comes from the Bainbridge NY Free Library. It offers:

Book Bundles for kids with activity ideas. (Source:  Bainbridge Connects, Vol. 7 Issue 1, 2021)

A store sign at the Sidney NY Great American has a problem:

Do not attach leashes to poles on our sidewalks. Great American will not be held responsible for their actions.

Florida got in trouble by going to Cuba in this from National Public Radio:

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)

Nov. 8, 2020 was a bad day at NPR. Another NPR reporter said this:

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)

Misplaced modifiers aren’t the only errors I find

Lest you think the only errors that appear in print are misplaced modifiers, the Bainbridge, NY, Free Library offered a list of the benefits of reading that began this way:

Research shows that reading an actual real paper books: [bulleted list followed] (Source: Bainbridge Connects, Vol. 7 Issue 1, 2021)

Here is a second item with problems other than a misplaced modifier:

From last March through the present, many students are not doing work when they are learning from home. (Source: The Blue and White: School News & Notes, Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District, December 2020 • Volume 40, No. 2, p.8.)

It would be a gross exaggeration to say my students enjoy responding to informal writing prompts on grammar problems, but they do get a kick out of seeing that people who know better make the same mistakes they do and often making them for the same reason: Not taking time to review what they wrote.

Informal writing prompts require you to do more prep work than you’d need for handing out a worksheet, but once you craft them you can use them for years. And they provide students with writing practice in addition to the value of the content on which they focus.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Found: An informal writing prompt

To grow students into competent writers requires drudgery, and I don’t mean drudgery just for students. You and I have to give students daily writing practice, which means we have to come up with topics for students to write about every day.

Being a naturally lazy person, I collect short pieces of writing to use as writing prompts. My special favorites are examples of bad writing because

  • It’s easier to find examples of bad writing than to find short pieces of good writing (I told you I’m lazy), and
  • From their responses to other people’s writing mistakes, students understand why they need conquer their own bad writing habits.

Here’s a photograph of a sign on the door of a room used for group activities in an apartment building:

The challenge of challenging students: Have you met it?

I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. From the entry, I could see a woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a Covid-protective mask and face shield, seated at a table in the hallway. The woman recorded my name, the purpose of my visit, took my temperature, and sent me on to the doctor’s receptionist. I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s job could be done by a reasonably intelligent fifth grader. She must be bored nearly to tears.

After my appointment, I noticed that the clerk who had signed me in had a tablet on her desk propped up at reading angle. As I zipped up my coat, I asked her what she liked to read, and she said fantasy fiction was what she most enjoyed. She’d just finished a fantasy novel and didn’t have anything else on her device to read.

Lady in Civil War era hat and dress
Paperback edition of the novel

I said I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and that I’m currently rereading a 1980s novel that had fascinated me when I read it as part of my GreatPenformances survey of the twentieth century’s bestselling fiction: Helen Hooven Santmyer’s  “…And Ladies of the Club.”  It’s a novel about a dozen women in a small southern Ohio town between the Civil War and FDR’s election in 1932, their families, and about how America and Americans changed over those decades.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is over 1,000 pages of small print. It’s not difficult reading, I told the clerk, but it does require you to pay close attention. I’ve found I need to draw family tree diagrams to keep the characters straight. The book fascinates me not only because it’s about a rural community that wouldn’t have been very different from our village in the same period, but also because so much of the national politics of the period sound very much like the political news we get on TV every day.

When I finished my book pitch, the clerk surprised me by asking, “What’s that title again?”  She wrote down the title and the author’s name and said she thought she’d like to read that book.

I’d gotten lucky.

I hadn’t recommended a book the clerk would enjoy: I’d unwittingly offered her a challenge, a book that would require all the mental skills she didn’t need to use in her clerical job. She could accept the challenge or not as she chose.

For me, the most difficult part of teaching teens and adults is identifying challenges for each student that they accept as having personal relevance to them. I wish I knew a sure-fire, never-known-to-fail way to produce personally challenging writing activities for each of my students, but I don’t. For me, it’s always a lucky shot, hit-or-miss, never “results guaranteed.”

What about you? Have you mastered the challenge of providing appropriate challenges to teens and adult students? If so, would you share your insights?

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Nonfiction about why people misread and misinterpret the world

Literary nonfiction books, aside from true crime and biographies, are rather hard to find and those I do find are rarely books I’d pick for use in writing classes. 

Today I’m going to introduce you to three nonfiction books that, unlike books such as Harry Truman’s Great Adventure or The Fever of 1721, are not literary nonfiction: They include narrative but are not themselves narratives.

covers of the 3 books to be discussed
Three books, different topics, same color scheme

My three choices deal in very different ways with how individuals or groups of people incorrectly perceive and misinterpret the world either because of their prior experiences or because of the way humans’ brains work. As the author of one of the three books says:

quote from Wilson's "Redirect"
Wilson’s Redirect, discussed below, is about changing behavior by story editing.

The End of White Christian America

Cover of "The End of White Christian America"
Symbolically, “White Christian America” is set against a black background.

The End of White Christian America is a history of white Protestant churches’ influence on America’s national policy and the country’s ideals with particular emphasis on the churches’ role throughout the twentieth century and into Barak Obama’s second term.

Author Robert P. Jones set out to discover why white Protestantism, hugely influential in the first 240 years of American history, faded. He found that during the 20th century, Protestant churches divided into two groups according to their theology, beliefs about race, and what Jones calls “accommodations to the modern world and science,” specifically their positions on evolution and racial issues. 

Jones says: “This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes.” His findings may help students bewildered by what may seem to them to be hysterical behavior over what they may consider to be settled issues of science, race, and gender. 

The End of White Christian America. Robert P. Jones. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, © 2016. 322 p.  Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change

White Protestant America might be different today if its adherents had had psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Redirect.

"Redirect" had broken directional arrow. rWilson’s work builds on the long-known fact that how people interpret events has much more influence on their behavior than the events themselves. What’s more, human brains jump to make sense of what just happened to their owners, and they do it so quickly people don’t realize that what their brains report is an interpretation of what happened not an observation of what happened. From that foundation, Wilson built techniques he calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”

Redirect has multiple applications in a school setting. Several chapters deal with prevention issues:  pregnancy prevention, prevention of abuse of alcohol and drugs, violence prevention, discrimination prevention. There’s also a reading group guide.

Redirect is particularly useful for writing teachers because in the first chapter it gives a simple tool—perfectly suited to use in writing classes—for shaping students’ behavior in positive ways. To use the tool, you need to view students’ situation from their perspective and get them to redirect their narratives about that situation, which is pretty much what you need to do to teach students to write.

In a writing class for adult students who are parents or who supervise employees, Redirect could be used as nonfiction reading. While it’s not as engaging as narrative nonfiction, it’s well-written and should be well within the reading skills of adult learners.

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Timothy D. Wilson. Back Bay Books; Little, Brown. © 2011. Paperback edition 2015. 297 p. Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and in audio CD

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives

Cover of "A Mind of Its Own"The cover of Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own shows a middle-aged, bald guy whose thought bubble reveals his brain tells him he’s a muscular, iron-pumping type. Inside, Fine describes in well-documented facts that human brains are so well built to put the best possible interpretation on any of its owner’s experiences that only a few people have anything like a realistic view of themselves.

Fine doesn’t delve deep into the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Her interest is on the observable human behaviors that brains trigger in their owners. Fine’s writing is witty and charming, but you can’t speed-read it. Just because her writing isn’t academic and dull, doesn’t mean it isn’t thorough and precise.  You need to pay attention.

Chapter 7, “The Weak-Willed Brain: The Prima Donna Within” holds ideas of particular relevance to teachers because we phrase many of the tasks we give students  in ways that disassociate will, determination, mind, imagination, behavior, conscious effort, think, and even make up your mind from the congregation of cells we call the brain. Fine deliberately connects those terms to the brain.

For example, she says, “The conscious is not every good at multitasking,” and “the will is feeble, drained by emotions; it is thin-skinned, and has woefully limited powers of concentration.”  Because of those limits, she says, when you need to change behavior (your own or those of a student), you should concentrate on one behavior at a time.

Fine’s book is relevant to older teens and adults and might be used in the second semester of a two-semester course as background reading for writing prompts. It’s certainly is a good book to have on your classroom shelves for students to browse.

A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Cordelia Fine. W. W. Norton. © 2006. First published as paperback 2008. 243 p.  Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle, and MP3 formats.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

 

 

When is more practice all that’s needed?

Ball player and musician each practicing .
What’s the point at which practice will improve writing skill all by itself?

Underlying most educational programs is an assumption that beyond a certain point all that’s necessary for students to become better at that subject is more practice. Whether or not that assumption is true across the curriculum is debatable, but I find the premise useful in teaching writing.

Students don’t need to know a lot of stuff in order to learn to write nonfiction. Most of what they need to know is really about how to plan a piece of writing. Unlike something like grammar, where the rules are the same for every sentence, planning a piece of writing is tough because very writing assignment is different. That’s why learning to write seems like such a long slog for students and their teachers. But once students master the skill of identifying a single assertion to discuss and picking three reasons why that assertion is true, they’re two-thirds of the way to being able to pull together a document that focuses on that single assertion and mostly makes sense.

I know that even in a half year course that meets three full hours a week in person or online, I can’t get a group of adult students to all write comfortably. A couple students may have enough previous experience to write quite well, but the majority will still have to push themselves to complete each writing assignment. The best I can do—what I’ve decided must be my goal—is for each student to write three competent papers in a row.

When a student can write three consecutive papers that are competent work, that tells me that all that student needs get better at writing is more practice. They don’t need me any more. They can get that writing practice in other courses and in other subjects.

What for you is the point at which all your students need only more practice—without additional input from you—in order to become better writers? Define that point and you’ve defined your goal as a writing teacher.

When you reach that goal post, you’ll no longer have to drive students through the basics. Instead, you’ll be able to talk to each student as one writer to another. That’s when teaching writing becomes fun.

©2020  Linda G. Aragoni

Two thoughts on visuals for online teaching

You don’t need a live video feed to teach online.

Live video might actually hinder students’ learning by giving them too many things to look at. Visuals for online learning must give students some place to focus their attention during an oral presentation and reinforce the message of that presentation. You don’t want students wondering whether they should focus on the presenter, the whiteboard on which the presenter writing, the notes they were told to download before the presentation, or the fly on the presenter’s head.

Visuals for online teaching should teach.

If what you’re teaching lends itself to graphic images, that’s fine. Use them. But if what you’re teaching doesn’t lend itself to images, use the computer screen as the equivalent of the classroom white board or overhead projector.

The best visuals are mnemonic devices underscoring the lesson’s main takeaway. They don’t need to be works of art. They need only to communicate a message clearly. There’s nothing wrong with using text instead of images providing you limit the amount of content students must read at one time. Display text should reinforce your teaching, not be your teaching.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

I’m thankful I learned something

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about what teachers and students have to be thankful for in 2020, which has been a bummer by just about every standard you could think of. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’m going to suggest that between now and Christmas, teachers ask students  to identify something they’re glad they learned this fall in their classes. What students learned may have little to do with the course content, but a great deal to do with students’ attitudes toward learning in general and academic learning in particular.

Let me tell you a story.

Although I was a psychology major as an undergraduate, the class in which I learned most about psychology wasn’t a course in psychology. It was a course in algebra. The professor had chosen a newly published program-instruction text in which we were to learn bit by bit how to do algebraic calculations.

I worked hard and got a C on the first test. Unsatisfied with a C, I  got tutoring from my roommate, a chemistry major, and from the math major down the hall.

I got a D on the second test.

I redoubled my effort. My roommate and the math major helped. The professor gave me additional help.

I failed the final exam.

Programmed instruction isn’t how I learn best. I’m someone who learns best when I start out knowing what I’m supposed to learn and why that knowledge is important. What I got in the algebra course was procedures without any context about what they were used for.

That algebra course was undoubtedly the most significant academic course I’ve ever taken. It taught me the importance of initially teaching students a subject using methods that fit the way they learn best. After college when I was hired to write instructional materials, I understood the importance of making sure that I provided both the big picture for learners like myself and step-by-step instruction for learners like the others in my algebra class who got the big picture by assembling the fragments.

What’s the story got to do with you?

This fall you may have some students in your classes who stumbled through distance learning the way I blundered through algebra. You can’t undo the unhappiness that students may have experienced because of the unfamiliar and, for some, unsuitable technology. You can, however, ask students to identify something they learned about themselves, and particularly about how they learn, that will be useful to them in the future.

I suggest you have students write about what they learned in 2020 about how they learn best. Ask them to reflect on how well their learning strengths and weaknesses fit the technologies they were required to use for classes. And, most importantly, ask them to identify one way they can turn what they learned—even if they hated every minute of their learning time—to their benefit in the future.

You, dear teacher, might benefit from doing the same writing assignment as your students.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Wandering modifiers, wondering readers

Head of person with superimposed question mark
What’s this supposed to say>

One of the few bright spots in the current political turbulence is the way misplaced modifier production has ramped up. I collect those that amuse me and often have students attempt to figure out what the writer intended to say, where the writer messed up, and, if possible, revise the sentence to fix the problem.

Here are three that other teachers might want to have their students attempt to untangle:

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

“After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.”

“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.”

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Feedback is only half of teaching writing

Until students write competently, most teacher feedback is usually more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not because the advice is bad, but because the writers are already drowning in advice that they aren’t yet capable of following. What keeps a student from writing better isn’t lack of information; it’s lack of practice.

Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don’t know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. Giving feedback is no substitute for giving students adequate time to practice writing.

Students need both.

Ball player and musician each practicing .
The best advice is worthless without practice in applying it.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni