I’m about to take a
to a totally new expository writing project: a series of short, illustrated expository nonfiction about how to have pleasant experiences visiting in a Whether you go to visit a resident who is part of your or as a call on someone as theiror, as I did, spend time making new acquaintances as athere will be a book from the series to meet your unique needs.
You can get monthly reports on my progress (or lack thereof) by giving me your email address and promising not to gloat if I make a fool of myself.
Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules. To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.
If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.
Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.
Enough theory. Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.
A five-question set
For the five numbered items below, indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.
_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.
A second five-question set
Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.
_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.
One single question
11. Look carefully at this statement:
Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.
To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.
Use the results as formative assessment
You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.
When preparing formal writing prompts, whether you’re creating them to use as learning assessments or as content teaching tools, it’s important to strike the right balance between how challenging the course content in them is and how challenging the required writing is.
If you’ve taught for more than 27 minutes, you know some content in your courses is a lot harder for students to understand than other content. Similarly, some kinds of writing tasks are harder for students to do than others.
By writing tasks, I’m not talking about surface features such as grammar and punctuation, but about whether a particular topic can be both thought about and written about following basic thesis-and-support pattern, which you might call by the misleading term “five paragraph essay”. A topic that can be both thought about and written about using the thesis-and-support pattern is the easiest type of writing. Writing that requires modifying that basic pattern in order to plan a response using one of the vastly more complex presentation formats, argument or narrative, is much more difficult.
Getting the balance right matters
When using writing as a teaching and/or learning assessment tool, you want to avoid overburdening students with writing challenges that require such concentrated thinking that there are few little gray cells left over for dealing with the challenges of your course content.
However, being cognizant that students must learn to write prose several notches above Fun with Dick and Jane, you want to encourage students to master at least the most common types of informative/explanatory texts, such as comparisons, cause and effect, and how-tos, so you’re not embarrassed to admit they are your students. (On YCTWriting.com, I plot informative/explanatory texts on a continuum between argument and narrative. You will find it on this expository essay page.)
Visual representations of balance in prompts
Try to imagine that all the difficulties a student could tolerate in one assignment—both writing difficulties and course content difficulties— should fit in a single container. In the graphic below, writing challenges are indicated by pink boxes, course content challenges by green ones.
Acceptable proportions of writing and content challenge
There are three ways of packing those three different sizes of two types of challenges in a single container. You can have a moderately difficult writing challenge and a moderately difficult course content challenge, like this:
Students can usually cope with an assignment that combines an easy writing challenge and difficult course content, like this:
They can usually also cope with a difficult writing challenge if it’s accompanied by an easy course content challenge, like this:
What does not work is a writing prompt that poses both difficult writing challenges and difficult course content challenges. That combination earns a thumbs down.
Plan all your formal writing prompts so their writing difficulty to content difficulty ratio earns a thumbs up.
(A version of this post appeared previously on the PenPrompts.com blog; the web host ate the graphics, so I moved the content here.)
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
Learning enough about any skill to be able to profit from additional study of that skill requires 100 hours of practice, according to researchers. After 50 years of writing expository nonfiction and teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction, I’ve figured out how squish those required 100 hours’ writing practice in 15 weeks.
It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The general procedure
Maintain a single focus. To turn non-writers into competent expository writers in 15 weeks you and your students must do nothing in those 15 weeks except activities that are an essential part of the process of expository nonfiction writing. Don’t ask students to write narrative—even nonfiction narrative—or to write arguments or to read anything other than expository nonfiction. Adding those elements doesn’t make the course interesting: they make the course difficult. Focus every class session on having students respond to that week’s writing prompt(s).
Ready 20 writing prompts. You will need to have 20 writing prompts prepared before the course starts. You won’t have time to prepare prompts during the course. Each prompt should be on some aspect of communication, which is, after all, what English classes are supposed to teach. There are enough potential communications topics to give every student at least moderately interesting to write about a few times a semester.
Embed each writing prompt in a lesson. Each writing prompt should be delivered within a self-contained writing lesson (see below). Use the same format for each lesson to keep things as simple as possible. Each prompt should enable students to plan, research, draft, revise and edit their responses in a maximum of five hours. (Five hours work on each of 20 writing prompts yields the desired 100 hours.)
Make class time writing time. Students can’t improve their writing until they first know what the process of writing looks and feels like. Except for those few early days of the course when you are presenting the writing process, have students spend most of their class time on task(s) to prepare them for that week’s writing prompt, such as:
figuring out what question the writing prompt is asking
phrasing a working thesis to responds to that question
developing a writing skeleton™
rippling to identify information sources for their responses to that week’s writing prompt
Teach while students prepare to write. Except during class periods when students are writing their texts, you should use class time for teaching. Circulate through the room. Look at what students are doing. Read. React. Confer with individual students about their work. Ask students if they could have avoided a particular problem by doing something differently earlier in the writing process. Give help where it’s needed.
Push students to complete entire tasks in class. Don’t hesitate to require student to submit a copy of their work by the end of a class period if that’s what it takes to keep them working.
Require students to write under test conditions. Devote at least one class period a week to having students compose their responses to that week’s writing prompt under whatever test conditions (handwrite/keyboard) you’ve established for the course. You need to get students used to producing complete clean drafts under pressure. On a topic for which they have prepared, teens and adult students should be able to produce 600 handwritten words in longhand or on a keyboard in an hour.
Do group instruction once.
Present the writing process 3 times. In the first three of the 15 weeks, lead students three times through the entire process of responding to an expository writing prompt. The first week, go through the process carefully using students’ first week writing prompt as the demonstration material. Repeat the procedure the next two weeks with those weeks’ writing prompts as demonstration material. Each time, before you give students the writing lesson which includes the following basic information for that particular writing prompt, talk students through how to
figure out what question they are being asked,
phrase a working thesis that responds to that question, and
develop a writing skeleton™ for that working thesis.
After that, the information in the writing prompt should provide enough guidance for most students. If a student has difficulty understanding the directions, you can deal individually with that student. You’ll find a discussion of eight essential strategies for student writers at my yctwriting.com site.
The writing lesson below shows how material that students need in to know to complete each assignment is included in the writing lesson. Here ripple strategy is explained in detail, providing students with a reference, should they require one.
Evaluate with a checklist
Use a simple checklist to tell students how they performed. Every item on the checklist should be (a) essential to the expository writing process, and (b) worded in such a way that the only possible responses are yes or no. Ideally, your checklist should be arranged in order of the importance of that item to the entire writing process. Thus, my six-item checklist starts with “The writer’s thesis is clearly stated in the opening paragraph” and ends with “The writer ‘does the evidence waltz’ in each body paragraph so the presence and significance of the evidence to the writer’s thesis is clear.”
During the 100 hours students are working to develop basic writing skill don’t even think about any of the finer points of writing. After everyone in your class has mastered the basics, then you can begin helping them learn ways to modify the basic expository pattern and to make their writing more powerful. Until you have all your students capable of responding to a writing prompt on a subject about which they are knowledgeable in a clear, coherent text don’t even think about having them write anything more interesting.
Is preparing those lessons too much work?
I have two collections of writing prompts that you can buy. Both collections are available from my E-junkie shop.
Ready, Set, Write! is contains 20 complete writing lessons for not-yet-competent teen and adult writers. They aren’t simplistic, but they simplify the writing process.
Bullying Begins as Words contains prompts five prompts for not-yet-competent writers plus five for competent writers and five for proficient writers.
When you buy either collection you get an e-book containing all the prompts and teacher information for each prompt, plus a handbook you can use with any of my PenPrompts collections. Within a few days after your purchase, you will receive information about where to download individual copies of your prompts authorizing you to reproduce the prompts for use with your students as long for the rest of your teaching career.
Everybody’s heard about the 10,000-hour rule. That’s the rule that says to become a top-notch practitioner of a skill, whether that skill is playing tennis or violin, making ceramics or taking x-rays, a person needs to put in 10,000 hours practicing that skill.
What everybody ignores is that those 10,000 hours of practice are done only after student of the skill has mastered the basics. Basic skill mastery has its own rule, the 100-hour rule.
Most skills require 100 hours of practice using the basic procedures and techniques of that skill to become adept enough to profit from additional study.
Learning a skill requires doing the skill
Nobody masters a skill just from reading about it, or just from hearing lectures about it, just from discussing it in a small group, or just from watching YouTube videos about it. Skill mastery requires the learner to do the entire activity repeatedly.
Practicing some critical, small part of the process in isolation may be necessary, but skill mastery comes only by practicing the skill for its intended purpose. That means the violist must practice playing entire pieces, the baker must practice baking entire pies, the writer must practice writing entire documents.
Sometimes a person masters a skill on their own, simply by trial and error. But all too often when errors exceed successes, people lose heart and quit trying to master the skill. Most people require assistance from others who have already mastered the skill.
Teaching a skill requires distillation
To give learners the 100 hours of appropriate practice they need to master the basics of a skill may not require someone who put in the 10,000 hours’ work to master the basics. People who are really good at a skill aren’t always good at teaching that skill to others: They know too much. They overwhelm the novices. They forget how long it too them just to get to the point that they didn’t have to think about what to do next.
Someone may have only 1,000 hours or only 300 hours beyond the basic 100, but if that person can distill into a few simple steps what the newbie needs to learn, that person can probably do as good or better a job teaching newbies than the expert, providing that person can distill what the newbie must learn into a few short, easy-to-understand sentences. As long as what must be learned as information is short and clear, the procedure it describes can be complicated and delicate. That’s why my program for teaching writing consists of only eight sentences totaling 33 words. The first sentence is here.
Skilled teachers help learners 10 ways
Whether the skill they need is bricklaying or baking, trigonometry or writing, skilled practitioners can help. To be helpful, a skilled person—a.k.a. the teacher—needs to be able to perform 10 tasks for the learner:
Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
Schedule regular practice sessions until each learner has spent 100 hours practicing the basics of the skill.
Every teacher who wants students to master a skill must be ready, willing, and able to perform each of those tasks—and then do them as learners require.
Next week, if things go as planned, I’ll show you how to provide required 100 hours’ writing practice to teens or adults in 15 weeks.
I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.
Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog GreatPenformances.wordpress.com on October 27, 2020.)
The prompt: Payroll situations or people?
In Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.
Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.
The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”
Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”
Here’s your writing assignment:
Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.
In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.
Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than  words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].
A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”
Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.
What argument means
An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:
the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
the opposition’s evidence for its position,
the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.
To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.
Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.
Force a change of perspective
Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.
Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.
After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.
If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.
Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.
Novelists seem to have an uncanny knack for telling the future in the present tense. While reading bestselling novels of the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how often writers of that decade mention ideas and activities that are only now becoming strong enough to attract public attention.
Future foretold in the present tense.
Here are a few observations from the 1990s that I scribbled in my notebook.
Comparing the early 1990s with the Cold War years, in his 1993 novel The Scorpio Illusion Robert Ludlum writes, “We’re no longer dealing with people who think anything like the way we used to think. We’re dealing with hate, not power of geopolitical influence, but pure, raw hatred. The whipped of the world are turning, their age-old frustrations exploding, blind vengeance paramount.”
Michael Crichton in his 1994 novel Disclosure says, “We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”
In the political novel Primary Colors, the famous author Anonymous has a 1996 presidential candidate leveling with low-income voters about their futures: “Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re gonna have to exercises a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”
In Executive Orders, another 1996 novel about the presidency, Tom Clancy reflects that “admitting error was more hateful to [Washington leaders] than any form of personal misconduct.”
A question for novel-reading English teachers
Here’s a question for your readers of this blog who are English teachers, your book clubs, and perhaps your students:
What themes in today’s fiction do you predict will be featured every news cycle 25 years from now?
Educators are like generals: They spend most of their time preparing their troops for the previous war.
No where is that tendency more obvious than in composition classes where even today writing teachers are preparing to fight to their last drop of red ink for the compound-complex sentence.
That war was lost years ago.
Compound-complex sentences drowned in mud-choked prose in the late 1980s. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video. What-shall-I-write decision paralysis has been replaced by operational goals that drive writing.
Today’s writers fight a guerrilla war, strategically aiming precisely chosen words at clearly defined targets and making a quick exit. The 20-page essay with footnotes and annotated bibliography has been replaced by 1½-page hyperlinked texts supplemented by graphics and/or video.
Instead of polysyllabic words and strings of clauses, today’s student writers need a larger repertoire of smaller, more precise terms suited to shorter, more readable sentences.
Instead of memorizing a different strategy for each type of message they must deliver, student writers need to master one strategy for all the writing they must do. And they must have extensive practice using that strategy in different writing situations so that it isn’t rendered unusable by unpredictable circumstances or events.
Above all, student writers must be able to improvise to accomplish a writing task for which they haven’t been given reproducible forms and templates and checklists.
If you’re still fighting the war for writing complexity, it’s time to surrender your red pen, ditch your kit full of all types of essays, and take aim at simplicity.
The war for clear, concise writing is waiting to be won.