When will your students use analogies?

Analogies are an extremely powerful device for explaining complex or foreign ideas.

People who work in STEM fields, social sciences, and business use them extensively.  Too often, however, analogies don’t get adequate attention in English class.

To help students discover the power of analogies, I suggest a formal writing prompt that asks students to predict how they might use analogies.

Start by having students view one of these short videos explaining how analogies work. Both sites are oriented toward law students, but the explanations are easy to understand:

FYI:  Only part of the video at study.com is available without signing up for an account, but the accessible portion is adequate for this assignment.

After students have viewed a video clip, give students five minutes in class to brainstorm situations in which they have either (1) had someone use an analogy to help them understand something, or (2) used analogies themselves to explain something. (Hint: Require brainstorming in full sentences; collect the responses to use as formative assessment.)

Give students this formal prompt either as homework or, better yet, have them respond to it at your next class meeting:

Think about the job you have or the one you’d like to have. Identify between two and five situations in which you might need to explain something—a product or a process, for example— to a customer who is unfamiliar with it.  (If in your job you deal with patients, students, or clients rather than customers, use the appropriate term for your situation.)

In an I/E text, discuss two or three such situations in which you could use an analogy to help the person understand your explanation. If you have actually used an analogy in such a situation, you may use the story as one of your examples.

Please keep your response to no more than 650 words.

Teaching good English to global citizens

Most people say good English means using

  • Correct grammar.
  • Correct punctuation.
  • Correct usage.
  • Correct spelling (of words in written work).
However, most people would be hard-pressed to identify precisely which rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage must be followed in writing and speaking or which words must be spelled correctly for the writing to be in “good English.”
Many times correctness is more a matter of appropriateness than of compliance with a grammar rules.  If the audience readily understands the message and is not offended by the language in which it is presented, that message is correct enough.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is hard to know what is appropriate language. 
Many times an audience is global rather than local. 
Many times writers/speakers do not know in advance who will be in their audience.
Many audiences do not know how to access—or do not have access to—references to help them interpret non-standard language such as abbreviations, idioms, and jargon.
In a global economy, our students will have to work with many people who will not understand the breezy, informal, idiomatic, and often sloppy language use that characterizes American culture.
We must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of correctness, much closer to textbook rules, than we might have demanded in their speech and writing 10 years ago.
Fortunately, we do not have to teach (or know) all the rules for comma placement. We need to know and teach those rules that, if violated, are most likely to impede communication of a message.
We have to teach fewer rules of “good English” but teach them far more thoroughly to equip students to live in a global society.
Research into the writing people do reveals a high concentration of a very few errors.
Most of those repeated errors are violations of rules taught in elementary school, such as confusing its and it’s or failing to mark the boundaries of a sentence with a capital letter and closing punctuation.

Recommended rule sets

With my students, I use the five standard English rules taught in elementary school and the 20 rules on Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list as the 25 rules of good English.
We must teach those few rules thoroughly, until they are as much a part of our students’ mental processes as their elbows are parts of their bodies.

©2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni. This material appeared at EzineArticles.com,  Aug. 29, 2008— June 15, 2012.

Teaching writing operations

If you are going to turn writing students into student writers, you have to teach them to write without thinking about writing. Without procedural automaticity, writers can’t focus on the content of what they want to say.

Make students compare writing to other skills

Students are more willing to put in time learning to write if they can see the similarity between what they must do to write competently and what they must do to become competent at some other skill that matters to them.
Learning to write operationally—that is, to be able to do writing as a few sets of interconnected steps that don’t need to be mentally triggered, physically performed, and mentally monitored as independent tasks—is essential for our students if we expect them to become competent writers.
Rather than tell students that, I use writing prompts to force not-yet-competent writers to discover a connection between learning to do writing and learning to do some other skill that they see as immediately more important to them than writing. 

Begin with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead

For this prompt, I begin with a quote from philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics. (Quoting Whitehead always impresses the department chair.)

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

After presenting the quote, I ask students what civilization means.  Then I ask them what advances  and operations mean in the context of the quotation. My students usually start with a dictionary and elaborate on its definitions.

Focus attention on small aspects of civilization

Because civilization is a huge topic, I tell students I want them to think about some tiny aspect of contemporary civilization they are familiar with and use their experience with it to illustrate how being able to do more tasks without consciously thinking about them improves its overall quality.
For example, if they play clarinet or chess, draw or do wood turning, work in food service or bookkeeping they undoubtedly have some tasks they must do routinely that can be considered that activity’s operations.

Give the writing assignment

I assign students to show from their personal experiences or personal observations that some small activity of contemporary civilization improves when participants in the activity are able to do more tasks without conscious thought.

Give planning aids along with the writing assignment

To support not-yet-competent writers, I give them a working thesis and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly figure out what they might be able to write about. All they have to do is fill in the blanks.
The working thesisI know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do.
Writing skeleton™ point 1: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to _A__ without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 2: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to B without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 3: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to C without thinking about it.
Given the introduction described here and the planning aids, most teens and adults will be able to produce a 500-600 word rough draft in an hour. The drafts won’t be great writing, but each draft will drag students through the entire writing process.
Repeatedly dragging students through the writing process is what teaching writing requires.