Informal prompt: Amount v. number

Today I have an informal writing prompt based on a published source for you to use with teens or adults. Here’s the published sentence that you show and read to students:

The New York Fed suggests, as one might imagine, these trends are related to the fact that many industries that have been hit the hardest — hospitality and retail, for instance — employ a higher amount low-wage workers, while high-wage workers often have more flexibility in their jobs and can work remotely.

Here are the directions you give students:

In no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in that published sentence and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 30 seconds to write.

Turn responses into a mini vocabulary lesson

Tell students, “There are actually two errors in that sentence. The one that’s easiest to spot is the missing word of. The other mistake is a wrong word. Amount is a term that applies to items that are not countable. For example, you can have an amount of trash, but you can’t have 19,592 trashes. Workers are countable. Someone can find out how many workers there are by counting them: one, two, three, four, etc. The term used to refer to countable items is number.

“To show that you understand the difference between when to use the word amount and when to use the word number, write one sentence on any topic other than employment figures in which you use both amount and number correctly. If you want to use your creativity to present a profound truth or to make people laugh, you may do that. You have one minute to write.”

Put informal prompts to work every class period

Informal prompts as brief as this used at least daily, give students practice in focusing their thoughts and writing quickly. The responses don’t need to be graded, though you should skim them to see how well you’re getting your points across. I recommend that you respond in writing once a month to something each student turned in, just so students know you’re paying attention. One short, specific sentence will be enough.

The source of the quoted sentence is Tim O’Donnell, “High-wage workers are getting all the jobs.” February 9, 2021 in The Week’s Speed Reads.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni



Define globalization neutrally

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

This cross-curricular writing prompt is designed to make students consciously aware that even definitions can be slanted. The prompt could be used in social studies courses, media courses, or ELA courses.  At the high school level, teachers of two different courses might use the prompt, which reduces students’ workload while increasing students’ perception of the importance of the assignment.

A formal writing prompt for teens and adults

Globalization is a term we hear nearly every day. What is globalization? Consult at least a half dozen reputable sources for their definitions. Do the definitions provided by each source agree? If they don’t agree, are their definitions totally at odds or do they disagree over a few specific points? Does the wording of the various definitions suggest an inclination to regard globalization either positively or negatively?

Your assignment

Based on your analysis, craft what you believe to be a definition of globalization that is neutral; that is, a definition that is neither enthusiastic about globalization nor totally opposed to it.

Using the neutral definition you crafted, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how according to that definition globalization either is or is not good for America. Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to sources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650 words].

Suggestions for success

This assignment is as much about how carefully you read as it is about how well you write. Don’t assume that people whose position you agree with define globalization in the same way you do. Also, don’t assume that people with whom you disagree define globalization the same way you do. One reason political arguments can get heated is that, without realizing it, two people often use the same terms with different meanings.

You may work with a partner or group if you want to increase the number of sources you examine and have the benefit of more than one point of view. It is probably unwise to have more than a dozen sources or more than four people in your group. With too much material, you’ll never get through the assignment.

If you work with a partner or group, each person should write his or her own text. Having each person write certain paragraphs is rarely successful, and assigning one person to do the writing is unfair to everyone.

A note to PUSHwriting readers

If you use this prompt, you’ll need to be prepared to suggest reputable sources that students can consult. Dictionaries alone are unlikely to be adequate and most students’ nonfiction reading won’t include publications about world trade and international economics. They’ll need to be pointed toward sources that won’t overwhelm them, but will provide different perspectives. In preparing to prepare students for the prompt, you’ll probably need do more work than they will.

This prompt previously appeared on another of my websites which is no longer live. A post which linked to the prompt has been removed.

Photo by JP Valery at Unsplash.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Word choices influence perceptions

I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those  students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.

Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog on October 27, 2020.)

The prompt: Payroll situations or people?

Charlie peeps out from the O in TomIn Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.

Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.

The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”

Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”

Here’s your writing assignment:

Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.

In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.

Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than [750] words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Informal writing prompt starters

I collect assorted short items for use in informal writing prompts on grammar and editing. Here are three recent acquisitions.

An advisory from Microsoft says this:

You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.

A newsletter from WSKG public broadcasting, reported:

[NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo] still wants a permanent property tax cap, an end to cash bail and other criminal justice reforms, and a ban on plastic bags in the budget.

The Washington Post‘s subscriber newsletter contained this item on March 26, 2019:

Kamala Harris: Our teacher pay gap is a failure. Here’s how we can fix it.

If I were to use one of the items as an informal prompt, I’d ask students to do three things, presenting the tasks separately:

  1. Figure out what the writer intended to say.
  2. Rewrite the item to convey the intended message.
  3. Identify the type of error(s) in the original item.

Before you ask, there are two reasons why identifying the type of error is the last task. One reason is that for most students labeling the error is the most difficult of the three tasks. The other reason is that putting the correct label on an error is the least useful of the three tasks.

Bigger isn’t better when it comes to vocabulary

Using a long word doesn’t make you look smarter.

The long word can make you look dumber.

In this help wanted ad, for example, unless the employer was offering a virtual position, using figurative instead of the shorter word figure reversed the intended meaning:

FIGURATIVE MODEL needed for sculpture class at Johnson’s Sculpture Park, Maryland, NY. 607-638-5544.

What the employer wanted was a literal figure model.

A teacher on Twitter gloried in giving her students a plethora of choices.

Plethora was originally a medical term referring to a fatal blood condition. A plethora is an excess of choices;  a plethora is so many choices that it overwhelms.

You may think using plethora may sounds smarter than saying several or many, but giving students a plethora of choices isn’t a positive accomplishment.

You know the feeling you get when you look at your choices in the cereal aisle of the world’s biggest grocery store under one roof? That’s what giving them a plethora of choices will do to students.

Many teachers say they teach argumentative writing rather than argument writing.

Argumentative writing doesn’t make you look smarter than argument writing. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Argument writing generates respectful, polite, reasonable, and emotion-free discussions of differing perspectives.

Argumentative writing is angry, emotional, unreasonable, sometimes vicious, and always disrespectful.

Choose the shortest, most common word that conveys your message.

Thinking about proficiency in writing

Seth Godin posted thoughts about quality on his blog today. He says that at the workplace there are at least three different ways to define quality:

  • The outcome satisfies the requirement.
  • The outcome goes far beyond what’s required.
  • The outcome shows the worker put in a lot of effort.

In New York State education regulations, students who do passing work are deemed proficient. In my dictionaries, proficient means expert. An expert is not just satisfying the requirement; he’s going beyond.

That’s why it bugs me when I see a rubric that labels the middle of the scale proficient.

On my mental rubric, the mid-point of the Writing Quality Scale isn’t proficient but competent.

Competent writing satisfies the requirement.

Writing that goes way beyond what’s required is proficient.

Writing that shows the writer put in a lot of effort is not yet competent.

I can teach not-yet-competent writers to be competent writers.

I can give competent writers time and encouragement to become proficient writers.

But I can’t turn out proficient writers.

Proficiency requires a discipline and dedication that the writer has to provide. If someone has a bit of talent, achieving proficiency may be a little bit easier than for someone without talent.

But in the end, proficiency is up to the individual.


Are school activities fun or meaningful?

Attentive class
Despite all the hype about making better use of visual content in education, most educators still rely on language to communicate their messages. When educators talk to audiences beyond the education community, they often choose the same words they would use with other educators. Those choices can significantly undermine the case for education.

One such word is  fun.

Foreign language teachers have been discussing ramifications of  “fun activities” in foreign language classrooms. Joanne E. O’Toole, assistant professor of  curriculum and instruction at the State University of New York at Oswego, offered this insight:

I have spent much time trying to understand why some people view foreign language education as dispensable or less important than other content areas.  One contributor I have discovered is the perception others have of the nature of the language classroom.

Our beginning courses can be viewed as lacking weight because they are composed of so many “fun” activities (i.e., games, songs, food, etc.), just as our  advanced courses can be viewed as too weighty because they are “no fun at all.” This “fun-based” dichotomy can negatively influence educational decision makers, students, and parents.

My perspective is that conversations about what happens in language classrooms should not be about degrees of “fun” but rather on meaningfulness and the opportunities provided for worthwhile learning.

Therefore, I have replaced the word “fun” with the word “meaningful” when I talk about what we do in the foreign language classroom. This reminds me to make the meaningfulness of activities I use explicit, such that others understand the value the activities contribute to overall language and cultural learning.

Meaningful activities take a range of forms that evolve with the students’ proficiency levels; there is no dichotomy. Meaningfulness can be easily understood and valued by all those with whom we work and the students we teach.

In other words, one very powerful advocacy move I believe we all can make is this semantic shift. When we talk about what we do as “meaningful” rather than “fun,” we advocate for the value of language teaching and learning.

Dr. O’Toole’s analysis fits with what research tells us students want in courses in every discipline: activities that are meaningful and challenging rather than activities that are fun.

Her analysis also makes good sense from a public relations standpoint. Hearing his school taxes support “fun activities” is likely to raise the ordinary taxpayer’s blood pressure to a dangerous level. Such wording may lead to a resounding “NO!” vote on a school’s budget proposal, while an identical tax levy to support “meaningful activities” might pass without opposition.

Thanks to Dr. O’Toole for permission to reprint her remarks.
Photo Credit: “Attentive Class” by Ruthibabe

Is the tech use infographic reliable?

An infographic on students’ use of technology is zooming around cyberspace this morning. Twitter users among the ed tech and digital-tools-in-the-classroom gurus are retweeting that “Twitter enabled classrooms produce better grades.”

Come on folks, let’s apply those 21st century information analysis skills you’re always saying students need to use.  I don’t expect tech-obsessed Matthew Panzarino over at The Next Web to read analytically for education information, but I do expect educators like Miguel Guhlin to pay attention to the nuances.

The source of the infographic is If you visited the site, you know it’s a directory of online educational programs that’s supported by those programs’ advertising. The About page gives no information about the site owners. Those two facts alone should set off alerts that the information may not be reliable.

Did you notice that the individual facts on the infographic are not cited? Does that suggest anything to you?

Did you check the references listed on the infographic? They are not hyperlinks, so you have to retype the URLs. If you do get to the sources, what do you find?

One source listed is EducatedNation. EducatedNation should not be confused with the NBC News site EducationNation. EducatedNation is a blog whose about page says it “consists of two writers,” whose names are not given.

The EducatedNation piece consists primarily of a news release from CourseSmart™, a company that sells digital textbooks and other digital course materials, about results of a study done for them by Wakefield Research. Most of the facts on the infographic are from this news release.

The next largest source of information for the infographic is the Pearson Foundation. You’ll remember Pearson as the greedy, publicly traded, for-profit educational publishing company that Web2.0 educators are always criticizing for taking money away from public education.

Got that?

The two main sources of the infographic are companies that sell the products the infographic describes.

I’m pretty sure educators would think there was something fishy about a study commissioned by a drug company that found the company’s new pill was the greatest discovery since aspirin.

It’s instructive to compare Wakefield’s summary of the study results, posted to its blog, with the CourseSmart™ spin on those results. CourseSmart™ focus is that digital devices are about to take over the world and educators shouldn’t be left behind. Wakefield says “hardcopies still reign supreme” while predicting “a shift toward more digital textbooks among college students can be expected in the future.”

The section of the infographic that Twitter fans are emoting over says:

Students in classes that use Twitter to increase engagement have been found to average 5 grade points higher than those in normal classes.

I spent over an hour finding the original source for that. I thought it might be Rey Junco blog listed in the sources, since Junco specializes in students of social media in higher education. However, it turned out that the URL cited on the infographic leads to  another infographic that is based on Rey Junco’s study comparing students in college classes using Twitter and those in regular college classes.

Once more, ed techies, ask yourselves whether as educators you’d let students get away with such sloppy work as wrongly attributing a source. If you do and your students end up in my first year English class, there will be hell to pay.

(If you are one of those cutting-edge, think-outside-the-box folks who says we should get rid of grades entirely, you should also ask yourself why the fact that a technology improves grades make the technology seem valuable to you. I know you won’t ask yourself that, but you should.)

Finally, what you’ve been waiting for, the place where I finally say finally.

The introduction to the infographic says:

While it’s no secret that college students are addicted to technology, the specifics of their gadget usage have never been scientifically studied — until now. While the extent of students’ dependence on tech might be a tad alarming, there’s good news too: much of their screen time is spent learning.

Notice, please, that infographic doesn’t say students are spending screen time learning course material. In fact, the material emphasizes that using digital technologies mean students spend less time studying.

Also notice that all the data on the infographic is about college students behavior.  No matter how many times you retweet the link to the infographic, you cannot make the data apply to a third grade class  in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Testing, choice and Diane Ravitch

As her office was being repainted in 2007, Diane Ravitch, who had written extensively on American education for roughly 40 years, sorted papers and thought about why she was feeling increasingly pessimistic about America’s educational system. She realized that theories she had championed were failing dismally in practice.

Ravitch decided to find out what had gone wrong. The result of that exploration is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

In this book,  Ravitch writes about the American public education system as an inside-outsider.  She’s an insider by virtue of having been an assistant secretary of education in the George H. W. Bush administration and a Clinton appointee to the board that oversees federal testing. Yet she’s an outsider because she’s never been employed in K-12 education.

Part autobiography, part history, and part sales pitch, Ravitch’s book combines the virtues and flaws of all three genres.

What Ravitch tells is a story of a system in which politicians and a public bought snake oil solutions to  reverse the “rising tide of mediocrity” detailed in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk. They were unwilling to do the tough work of developing a national curriculum that spelled out what every child should be learning at every grade level.

Ravitch is at her best when writing in the third person. There her admitted passion for public education is restrained by her historian’s training. She writes lucidly, connecting the dots, giving a feel for the people as well as for the cultural context of events. Her prose is a pleasure to read.

When she brings in her personal experience, however, issues get muddy.

I understand why Ravitch feels she needs to include autobiographical material in view of her recent conversion to anti-testing and choice position—and she’s undoubtedly correct in that feeling—but the participant-observer material  puts my critical senses on high alert.

The most astonishing and disturbing material in the Ravitch’s book, to my mind, is her revelation of the extent to which scholars fail to see facts that people outside education take for granted.

For example, as Ravitch explores how the national curriculum movement that began as a result of the Nation at Risk report became derailed when Lynne V. Cheney attacked the history standards for political bias, she says:

Unfortunately, the historians . . . who supervised the writing of the history standards did not anticipate that their political views and their commitment to teaching social history through the lens of race, class, and gender would encounter resistance outside the confines of academe.  (p. 17)

Later as she discusses the foundations that are pouring money into public education, Ravitch says of the Walton Family Foundation, established by Walmart founder Sam Walton, “It simply doesn’t make sense that a family worth billions is looking for new ways to make money.”

In both these observations, Ravitch fails to see patterns of behavior that non-historians would find perfectly predictable: unpopular ideas encounter resistance; people who do something successfully tend to continue doing it.

Ravitch’s focus is on major metropolitan school districts, particularly New York City and San Diego. The big city focus is, in many respects, entirely understandable. School leaders in cities set the tone, and often the curriculum, for the nation.  We in rural America are jerked around by the policies and procedures established by metropolitan America.

That  said, however, I would have liked to see Ravitch acknowledge that the upheaval in education nationwide plays out somewhat differently in rural areas.

In rural areas, teaching may be a high-paying job compared to others available. If the poor pay of teachers in cities poses one challenge for public education, the relatively good pay of teachers in rural areas poses a different challenge.

For example, where I live in Chenango County, NY,  the median family income was $42,257 in 2008, according to the US Census Bureau, and 14.2% of the population was below the poverty level.  The average teacher’s salary in Bainbridge-Guilford School District in which I live is $54,516. In this type of pay disparity, choice and testing certainly have an impact on public schools, but the impact is expressed differently than in cities.

Also, instead of charter schools as visible reminders of dissatisfaction with public education, in rural America homeschools are a largely invisible expression of dissatisfaction. More significantly, foundations are not rushing into rural areas with money to fill in the gaps for poor students.

I don’t know whether The Death and Life of the Great American School System will change anyone’s mind about choice and testing. My guess is that Ravitch is going to be pretty lonesome for some time to come. That is not a criticism of the author or the book. It’s simply an acknowledgement  that Diane Ravitch is one of very few people willing to say publicly, “I was wrong.”