According to the National Public Radio newsfeed yesterday, “The CDC says toss onions if you don’t know where they came from to avoid salmonella.”
You may be as astonished as I was to learn that onions not only are smart enough to recognize that salmonella infections are dangerous, but also that onions migrate to avoid being contaminated by those vile, rod-shaped bacteria.
Today’s informal writing prompt will let you and your students see if they can recognized a misplaced modifier when they see one, or whether they are dumber than onions.
Here’s the prompt:
“I’m going to show you a summary that appeared in a radio broadcast’s news feed. (Display and read item.)
” The CDC is, of course, the Centers for Disease Control. “Now write your reaction to that item in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write.”
That’s all that necessary. A prompt as short as this is appropriate when (1) you have other informal prompts to use in the class period and (2) want to remind students of some rule they know and should use in their writing. You can take another two minutes to ask for oral responses if you choose, but if you’re rushed, just collect the day’s informal writing at the end of class to skim in a free period.
Leave it for philosophy classes to debate whether tossing is appropriate action to take against onions who, through no fault of their own, may have become infected by salmonella.
One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.
Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.
Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”
Then say something like this:
“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”
Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:
Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.
Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.
Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.
“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”
“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”
“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny? Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”
If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.
Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.
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.
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 verblook 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.