Informal writing prompt: trees coming down

Again today, I have an informal writing prompt built on a message actually sent by a business. That means this writing prompt is an authentic writing task, similar to those students are likely to encounter in nearly every type of work. The prompt is could be used in classes from grade 8 through first-year college.

Here’s your script:

I’m going to show you a four-sentence message that contains some errors and ask you to identify the errors by writing one sentence about each of the four sentences in the message.  This is the message:

memo about tree-cutting
This is the message that was actually sent.

Please identify the error or errors in the message sentence by sentence. As you make clear which sentence you’re discussing, you don’t need to write your sentences in the same order in which they appear in the message. You have two minutes to write.

[After the two minutes] Now I want you to rewrite the message to make it shorter and clearer. You have one minute to write.

Optional group activity

To get maximum value from this informal prompt, you could have students work in small groups for five minutes, to discuss what they changed and why they made those changes.

Students should notice grammar errors

Every student should notice that the second and fourth sentences are actually sentence fragments. Every student should also notice that the third sentence begins with the pronoun that cannot logically refer to the preceding noun: buildings don’t get loud; sounds do.

A few students may quibble over whether “multiple trees” is redundant and whether “will be taking down” should be “will take down,” since the activity appears to not be scheduled to start before tomorrow.

Students should identify the point

The point hidden of the message is: “Expect loud noise tomorrow morning when trees are cut on the front and back sides of the building.”


FYI: Next week I plan to take a break from posting informal writing prompts to recommend three fascinating literary nonfiction books. Two are about famous people and one is about a man who was tremendously influential but is barely remembered today. 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni 

 

Informal writing prompt: wrong word after linking verb

Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes.

Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:

The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.

Then ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors.

To turn this informal writing prompt into a miniature grammar lesson, add two or three minutes of teaching. The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different. Compare:

Marlene looks fatly in that red dress.
to
Marlene looks fat in that red dress.

Also compare:

I feel awfully today.
to
I feel awful today.

“Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural).

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Advance notice: an informal prompt

Today I have another informal writing prompt suitable for teens or adult students. Like most of my favorite IWPs, this uses a real-life communication. It will take less than five minutes of class time.

Step 1, show and read

Here’s the notice you display and read for students:

photo of two sentences of a notice to renters.
I’m just glad it doesn’t say “rechoirs notice.”

After you’ve shown that message and read it to students, say this: In no more than two sentences, say what errors you see in that message.  You have 30 seconds to write your responses.

Next, say this to students

Besides the errors you spotted, are there any other aspects of this notice that are unclear to you or that sound odd to you? If this notice had been sent to you, what action do you think you would be expected to take? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 90 seconds to write.

Wrap up

Say: While you’re turning in your writing, tell me what you thought about these two sentences.

With a little luck, a few students will see that though spelling errors can make you look silly, they are a less serious problem than failing to make yourself clear.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

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:

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.)

Mini-lesson.

(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

Teach metaphors using informal writing

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

That teaching is your job.

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

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

Informal writing prompt 1

Here’s what you tell students:

Dolores is older than she looks.

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

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

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

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

Class discussion of part 1

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

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

Allow up to 5 minutes for this discussion

Informal writing prompt 2

Here’s what you say:

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

Allow 1-2 minutes for oral sharing.

Informal writing prompt  3

Here’s what you say:

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

Segue to teach about metaphors

Here’s what you must cover:

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

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

Informal writing prompt 4

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

Here’s what you say

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

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

In no more than four sentences, explain:

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

You have two minutes to write.

What’s next?

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

Miscellaneous suggestions

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

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

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

Trivia

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

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.

Visual informal writing prompt: figure of speech

Door mat with right bottom half of design and the ME of welcome worn off.

Many people, including some of your students, probably have difficulty distinguishing between terms that are used literally and those that are used figuratively.

An image such as the photograph above of a welcome mat missing two of its letters and about a quarter of its decorative design offers a way to open a discussion of figurative language.

Ask students to write in 15-30 seconds, depending on their ages, what they literally see.

That image, of course, literally shows that people have worn out a welcome mat.

Next have students write in 60-90 seconds, what they think caused part of the doormat image to disappear.

Students should have no difficulty explaining that repeated use—people coming in and going out—wore off the image.

To get them to understand the figurative use off “wore out a welcome,” you have to make them think about the word welcome by another short, informal writing prompt, like this:

If I told you that my neighbors had worn out their welcome, would you think I meant they had worn the design off the welcome at at their home, or would you think I meant something else? In no more than four sentences explain what you think I meant and how you arrived at your answer.

After students have written their responses, you could have them look up the meanings of welcome in a good dictionary to see if they support or contradict the students’ analysis.

After that, you’re ready to introduce that phrase “figure of speech.”