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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 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.)
(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 byin 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
If you want your students to learn what you want them to learn, it’s smart to activate their knowledge base before you begin delivering content.
Activating the knowledge base is educator jargon for prompting students to think about the topic you want them to learn before you introduce the topic.
Activating students’ knowledge base is to teaching methods what dangling a worm in the water is to fishing: You call attention to your bait in the expectation the fish will latch on to it.
Bait your hook with attractive activators
You have many options with which to bait your lesson hook. My personal favorite is informal writing prompts because they force every student to rise to the bait. If you choose informal writing:
1. You could prompt students to reveal facts they know about the topic.
All the "facts" students know may not be correct, which provides secondary bait. It’s also possible that students know nothing on the topic, which might prompt curiosity to fill that knowledge gap.
2. You could bait your lesson hook with an informal prompt to reveal experiences students have had that are relevant to the lesson you’re going to cast before them.
3. If you expect students already have some information, correct or not, on the lesson topic, you could bait them to reveal their attitudes toward the topic.
4. You could bait your hook with an invitation to students to reveal their assumptions about your lesson topic.
Land students in the cognitive processes
Once students have risen to the bait, all you have to do is pull them in.
I say "all you have to do," but there’s nothing easy about pulling students in. It requires determination, strategic knowledge, skills developed through long practice, hard work, and a bit of luck thrown in.
The important thing is that you do land students smack in the cognitive process.
Get their "little grey cells" functioning.
Get their neurons passing messages.
Get students thinking, for as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham says in his book Why Do Students Hate School?:
My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.
Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.
Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:
In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.
Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.
I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits. You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]
You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.
Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits. You have 90 seconds.
Step 3. Give correct answers. Students grade themselves.
Step 4. In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader. You have two minutes to write.
Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.
Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.
I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.
One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.
The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.
FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk. A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.