Informal writing prompt: no euthanasia on Facebook

A story on National Public Radio this morning suggested a 1-minute informal writing prompt about the correct placement of modifiers.

THE NPR report was about a 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank who had broken into more than two dozen homes around South Lake Tahoe, CA, and was responsible for 152 incidents of  what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife call “conflict behavior.” Conflict behavior is what the CDFW says happens when a “severely food-habituated bear” like Hank breaks into people’s homes.

The NPR story reported that “the Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.”

Informal writing prompt

Here’s how to turn that sentence from the NPR news story into an informal writing prompt. First, display and read the sentence:

The Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.

DNA evidence shows Hand the Tank didn’t work alone. By Jonathan Franklin, February 24, 2022, NRP News

Next ask students to identify any parts of the sentence that doesn’t sound right to them. Tell them to write their response in no more than two sentences. Depending on your students’ ages, give them between 30 and 60 seconds to respond.

Depending on their literacy skills, students may notice any, all, or none of these problems:

  • The prepositional phrase on Facebook is misplaced. Facebook was where the bear protection group expressed their relief.
  • It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have posted to Facebook a video of an animal being euthanized or even a photo of a euthanized bear.
  • Relief of Hank not being euthanized should be relief that Hank wasn’t euthanized.  

Wrap up the informal writing by giving students 30 seconds to write one thing they learned from examining the sentence.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.

Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.

sign has the word touch misspelled
What’s wrong with the note on this plant pot?

Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.

grocery store bags make dumpster mess
Is this an effective message?

If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.

(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Modifiers should cuddle up to nouns

English modifiers are supposed to cuddle close to the nouns they modify. When they stray, they almost always elicit a few snickers and sometimes totally mislead readers.

icon representing a submarine
Did debris cause this sub to sink?

The two-sentence example I have for you to use as an informal writing prompt for teens and adults is appropriate in both English and journalism classes, since it was a National Public Radio news item.

The news item

Display this news item to students and read it aloud to begin the informal writing activity. You may want to put the title in larger print or in boldface so students recognize the first line is a title rather than a complete sentence.

“Indonesian Navy confirms submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.”

“The Indonesian Navy on Saturday announced debris from a missing submarine has been found deep in the Bali Sea, ending hopes of finding any survivors among the 53-person crew.”

The informal writing prompt, part 1

Once you’ve read the displayed item aloud, ask students to identify in one sentence any part of the news item that is not immediately clear to someone skimming the item. Give them 30 seconds to write their full-sentence response.

Next, without asking for any oral responses, go to the second part of this informal prompt.

The informal writing prompt, part 2

Display and read this material for students: “Compare these two sentences:

  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.
  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after hitting an iceberg.

Now, write no more than three sentences in which you:

  • Compare the differences in the two sentences,
  • Identify which of the sentences makes better sense, and
  • Say why that sentence makes better sense.

(You’ll probably need to repeat the directions at least once.) Give students two minutes to do that.

Take another two minutes to have students explain orally why the original headline wasn’t immediately clear.

For journalism class use

If you are using this item in a journalism class, you could ask students how to make the brief news item easier for readers to grasp quickly. Inexperienced reporters invariably want to use alternatives to said. They also typically put the most important information at the end of the sentence instead of its beginning.

Newspaper readers expect the most important information to be at the front of a sentence and they expects an attribution after a quote to end with the word said. By meeting those expectations, journalists allow readers to skip over some words and still get the gist of a news story.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Two sentences for informal writing prompts

More than two years ago, I clipped a page written by a school superintendent in his district’s April 2019 newsletter. My intent was to use it later as an informal writing prompt. I think August 2021 is later, don’t you?

Here’s how he began his message:

With the approaching spring season at B-G, comes the start of Phase 2 of the multi-year Capital Project. The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and will begin this next phase hopefully in April.

The Blue and White: Bainbridge-Guilford
Central School District School News & Notes, April 2019

Those two sentences suggest two questions that you could pose to students as triggers for informal writing. After reading the sentences aloud as students follow along, ask them these two questions to which they must respond in writing. Allow time for them to write their response to one question before you ask the second question.

Question 1. After reading the first sentence carefully, identify the simple subject and the simple predicate of the sentence. If you have difficulty finding them, it may be helpful for you to rewrite the entire sentence in normal subject-verb-object order and then identify the simple subject and simple predicate. You have 90 seconds to write.

Question 2. In the second sentence, identify what that the adjective hopefully modifies. Decide if the word hopefully is correctly placed in that sentence. In no more than two sentences, explain why you think the word hopefully is or is not used correctly there. You have one minute to write.

Discussion

The first question may give students difficulty. I know I read the writer’s first sentence a couple times before I figured out what the writer was talking about. The simple subject and simple predicate are “start comes.”

As if that’s not confusing enough, the reference to “the approaching spring season” is strange: spring is nearly over in April. Furthermore, the coming of spring does not bring about the second phase of the capital project. The superintendent was trying to say “Phase II of the multi-year capital project is about to start.”

Question 2 attempts to get students to look at the word hopefully. The construction of the superintendent’s sentence has the district beginning Phase 2 of the capital project hopefully. People running projects almost always do begin hopefully and often lose hope as the project goes on. To make his intent clear, the superintendent could have said , “The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and hopes to begin Phase 2 in April.” For even more clarity, he could have said this month instead of in April, which might have been understood to mean April of the next calendar year.

Tell your students that when they realize they’ve used the word hopefully, it’s smart to see if there isn’t a simpler way to write that sentence. I hope that helps.

© 2021 Linda Aragoni

When shouldn’t scientific method be used?

I’ve been giving you informal writing prompts for several weeks. Today, I have a formal writing prompt suitable for high school juniors and seniors and for first-year college students.

The prompt requires students to use information from outside the English curriculum to which all students should have exposed by the time they reach high school. If you’re an English teacher reluctant to have students write on a topic that sounds like it belongs in the science curriculum, you could partner with someone on the science faculty to assign a paper that can be turned in for credit in either or both courses.

The prompt

Identify three questions in your major field for which the scientific method is entirely inappropriate. In your response, discuss at least two characteristics of the scientific method and explain precisely why each of those characteristics makes the scientific method an inappropriate way to investigate each of those three questions.

Please confine your response to no more than 650 words.

Notes on the prompt

Responding to this prompt is easy once students get over the shock of being asked to identify questions in their major field. They may never have thought of physical education or ceramics as fields that have questions. Writing the actual response should take no more than an hour once they identify some questions in their fields.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: spelling bye Chirstine

Today I have another informal writing prompt for you to use with teens or adults. It uses a notice posted by a work-seeker.

Here’s an image of the posted notice (the phone number has been removed) which you should display and read aloud to students.

Here are the directions to give students.

First, in no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in this notice and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 1 minute to write.

Now, in one or two sentences, based just on what you’ve noticed, what do you think is the likelihood the writer will land a job, and why do you think that? You have 1 minute to write.

Here are the errors.

With a little luck, students will have found bye should have been by and Aid should have been Aide. Probably Chirstine should have been Christine. although I suppose it’s possible that someone is named Chirstine.

Why use informal prompts?

This is the sort of prompt that you can give at the beginning of a class to get everyone’s attention. Like all informal prompts, it requires students to respond immediately, so their responses will let you do a quick assessment of their spelling and editing skills. Moreover, you’ll be able to do quick assessments regularly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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.

Now ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors. Give them 60 seconds to write.

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.

If students don’t find the error—or if they identify something as an error that isn’t an error—you can give them a miniature lesson on words that follow linking verbs.

Compare these two sentences:

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

Also compare:

  • I feel awfully today.
  • I feel awful today.

Here’s a 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). Here’s an example of how that works: “Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.

Short informal writing prompts such as this go a long way toward helping students master grammar and punctuation problems. What’s more, because the writing is timed, informal prompts also help students learn to write more quickly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Find the error: An informal writing task

I pluck sentences I find in written materials that individuals and businesses actually distributed and put those sentences into informal writing tasks that give students practice in finding and correcting writing mechanics errors. Informal writing tasks are more realistic than publisher-created exercises because, like real-world writing situations, they don’t tell students what types of errors to look for.

Here’s a script for a two-minute informal writing task for high school or adult students.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

I’m going to show you a sentence from a story by Vanessa Romo which appeared Nov. 19, 2020 in the NPR—National Public Radio’s—news feed. The sentence appeared under the headline “Tyson Managers Suspended After Allegedly Betting If Workers Would Contract Covid.” Here is the sentence:

[Display and read aloud] “The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.”

In no more than two sentences, identify any errors you find in the sentence. You have one minute to write.

Now that you’ve identified the error, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the error. You’ll have 30 seconds to write.

You’ll notice I say to “display and read aloud” rather than merely give students the item. I do that to help weak readers and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Students should find that “without requiring them to quarantine” is misplaced. Being quarantined is not required before people can test positive for a coronavirus. Quarantining is required for:

  • People who have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and
  • People who have been exposed to other people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence should read like this: The plaintiffs say managers also continued transferring employees between plants without requiring them to quarantine after some had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The corrected sentence indicates that anyone exposed to corona-infected people should be quarantined.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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