Category Archives: Language & literacy

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.

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Holidays and pronouns always get me down.

Whatever holidays you are celebrating this month, I hope that their pronouns agree with them.

Bank window with holiday decorations.

Local bank window with decorations for several holidays and a sales pitch.

Best wishes,

Linda Aragoni

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Snake oil and double meanings

cover of The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic GossIn our era of fake news, it is useful to introduce students to the way words can be used to deceive.

In the 1900 bestselling novel The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic Goss, which I reviewed over on GreatPenformances blog, one funny scene presents a patent-medicine salesman’s sales pitch for worthless cures.

The snake oil salesman has gathered a clutch of people around and is reading testimonials from satisfied customers:

‘Dear Sir: I was wounded in the Mexican war. I have been unable to walk without crutches for many years; but after using your liniment, I ran for office!’ Think of it, gentlemen, the day of miracles has not passed. ‘I lost my eyesight four years ago, but used a bottle of your “wash” and saw wood.’ Saw wood, gentlemen, what do you think of that? He saw wood! ‘Some time ago I lost the use of both arms; but a kind friend furnished me with a box of your pills, and the next day I struck a man for ten dollars.’ There is a triumph of the medical art, my friends. And yet even this is surpassed by the following: ‘I had been deaf for many years, stone deaf; but after using your ointment, I heard that my aunt had died and left me ten thousand dollars.’ Think of it, gentlemen, ten thousand dollars! And a written guarantee goes with every bottle, that the first thing a stone-deaf man will hear after using this medicine will be that his aunt has died and left him ten thousand dollars.

If I were to use this, I’d probably have students read it and then pose some informal writing questions about the text:

  • When you read the paragraph, what do you visualize the speaker doing? How does the salesman act?
  • What would you say is the salesman’s attitude toward his audience? On what do you base your impression?
  • How would you describe the audience? Is your attitude the same as the salesman’s?
  • The text doesn’t tell you how the audience responds. What you do think their response would be?
  • How would you describe this passage : descriptive? expository? persuasive? comic? serious? sad? Why did you choose that description?

I think it would be fun to have the class ham¹ act the role of the salesman, maybe shoot a video of the re-enactment.

The Redemption of David Corson is available as Project Gutenberg  eBook #14730. The paragraph quoted above is in chapter 12.

¹ ham  is a word with a double meaning.

 

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Things you see when you haven’t got a red pencil.

It’s too close to Thanksgiving to do any heavy brain work. Here are two published tidbits to amuse and/or annoy.

Headline from regional newspaper:

School beefs up security after shooting roomer.

I’m afraid I laughed out loud at the roomer’s misfortune.

My sister sent this:

A recent hospital newsletter reported one of our docs was going to the Syrian boarder.

My sister speculated that it might be the doctor’s turn to collect the rent.


Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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Critical communication skills

I’ve been thinking about what skills people need to communicate well verbally besides such things as are generally in the syllabi for English composition/ELA classes. (I’m using I am verbal to mean both written and oral words.)

I’ve only come up with a few that I don’t think are study topics in those classes but which seem to be very important. They are the ability to:

  • Recognize when language is being used figuratively.
  • Recognize when the change of a word’s function signals a change in its meaning.
  • Craft an analogy to explain a complex idea.
  • Build a list of three or more items using parallel structure.
  • Condense a complex concept or process into a fraction of its original length without changing its essential meaning.

Can you suggest other communications skills that ought to be on my list?

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Parallel structure repair needed

I read the help wanted ads in the local free distribution newspaper every week.

I’m not looking for a job.

I’m looking for a laugh that I can turn into an informal writing prompt.

Here’s an ad that, alas, is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it does contain a sentence that will make a good writing prompt about parallel structure. The sentence is marked with a blue box.

Help-wanted ad includes paragraph with parallel structure problems.

Read the paragraph within the blue box.

To help students sort that out, have them rewrite the paragraph with the qualifications as a bulleted list, like this:

The right candidate must have:

  • proven track record of sales performance
  • solid work ethic
  • detail oriented
  • know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

Once the sentence is laid out in visual list format, students will see the structural problems that previously may just have “sounded funny” to them.

The first two items in the sentence/list are noun phrases, but detail oriented is not a noun phrase nor is know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment.

Inserting an article at the beginning of each item in the list may suggest a way to make the items structurally parallel.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • a detail oriented
  • a know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

The item might be corrected by (a) revising the third element in the list and (b) putting a hyphen between know and how, thus turning it into a noun, like this.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • know-how for  delivering customer service in a fast paced environment.

That’s not too bad, but a correction that shortens the last element might be better.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • customer service know-how for a fast paced environment.

With the items arranged so they are structurally parallel, it’s easier to see if the individual items convey idea the writer intended.

For example, is the company looking for someone who knows how to provide customer service in a fast-paced environment or someone who has experience delivering customer service?

Converting a sentence containing a list of items to a bulleted  list is a simple trick for a spotting a parallelism problem and figuring out a solution.

Try it yourself.

If it works for you,  teach it to your students.

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Misplaced modifier: Can you keep up?

Cover shows potter hand-shaping a bowl.

The 2011 edition of the book.

I’m getting ready to update my 2011 book Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching, and I’ve been gathering some fresh errors to use in the new edition.

Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching shows teachers how to use informal writing to teach students to spot, correct, and perhaps even avoid writing mechanics errors lumped under the heading grammar.

Such errors are notoriously difficult to cure.

Cover shows potter reshaping clay.

2nd ed. cover for Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching.

Having students wrestle with sentences that appeared in general-circulation publications—figuring out what the writer intended to say, what the writer got wrong, and how to repair the damage—works better than anything else I’ve tried.

My students have two favorite types of real-life errors: Those errors that are:

  •  laugh-out-loud funny
  • made by professional educators

I found an advertisement this week that I think my students will enjoy:

CAREER/EDUCATION Advancement. Looking for a job? Or, more information on higher education? Want to know what local businesses are looking for when hiring? Commerce Chenango and Morrisville State College, presents a “College & Community Job Fair” on November 8, 2017 at Morrisville State College-Norwich Campus- 20 Conkey Ave. Running from 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m., attendees will be able to talk one on one with representatives from corporate, small business, government and nonprofit organizations as well as College & University recruiters. Visit www.commercechenango.org/jobfair for more info.

I don’t think I’ll be attending the College & Community Job Fair.  I’m really not up to six hours of running, and I’ll probably be too busy turning the advertisement into an informal writing prompt for teaching grammar topics.

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Commas à la carte for the punctuation-challenged

Today’s lesson is on commas.

Don’t freak out.

It has pictures.

A pair of commas work like a little cart or wagon.

A red wagon

Imagine the wagon wheels are the commas in the sentence.

You put the sentence content between the commas onto the cart.

If you can pull the cart into a new place within the sentence or move it out of the sentence entirely and still have the sentence make sense, the commas belong there.

If you can’t move cart without destroying the sense of the sentence, the commas don’t belong there.

Let me show you how this works.

Here’s a sentence culled from the local school district newsletter:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled, Wonders, for our students in grades PK-3.

Put the comma-separated content on a cart and see what happens.

the title Wonders is on the cart.Goodbye, Wonders.

When the cart content is removed, what remains is this:

You may have heard that B-G is piloting a new ELA program entitled for our students in grades PK-3.

Does that make sense?

Of course it doesn’t.

That means the commas didn’t belong in the sentence.

There endeth the lesson for the day.

 

 

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Collateral damage of the classroom

Have you noticed that educators’ messages have grown increasingly unintelligible lately?

Perhaps it’s a reaction to Donald Trump: For every single-syllable word he uses, educators are popping-off with a four-syllable one just to show who wins the IQ competition.

Whatever the reason, it’s getting to the point where you need a translator to understand messages from the school.

I found some of the following descriptions in educational journals.

I pulled one from a local school district newsletter.

I made some up.

Can you tell which is which?


The school says:

[name of student] was reaccommodated to facilitate individualized dialogic experiences as a pragmatic step toward embracing behavioral methodologies directed toward enhancing academic success.

The translator says:

[name of student] was sent to the office and told if he didn’t shape up, he’d flunk.

The school says:

[name of student] exhibits periodic withdrawal of attentiveness which constitutes a significant contributing factor in his failure to thrive in an academic environment.

The translator says:

[name of student] is flunking because he doesn’t pay attention.

The school says:

[name of teacher] impacts her students by providing a nurturing and positive environment in collaboration with parents to provide a foundation for students to reach their highest potential.

The translator says:

[name of teacher] does fun projects during the schools and sends students’ academic work for homework.

The school says:

[name of administrator] is committed to building a trusting culture in which school improvement is a constant priority and to shaping the future of our precious students.

The translator says:

[name of administrator] lets staff alone unless they mess up spectacularly.

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Use cell phones to teach editing

Editing and teaching editing are not my favorite activities

Learning editing and editing are not my students’ favorite activities.

But neither of us enjoys being laughed at when we’ve let some silly mistake slip by us.

To help students realize the importance of editing their work for errors, I have students snap three shots with their cell phones (or grab screen shots) of errors. I ask students to submit each of their items with a single-sentence caption that indirectly indicates what the error is.

Below are three sample visuals.

ad in which chauffeur is misspelled

Any gifts for moms who spell chauffeur correctly?


ad containing misplaced modifier

I don’t think I know anyone with unwanted space.

ad for a two-sided box

This two-sided planter box is a one-of-a-kind item.

 

This is a simple activity that can lighten up a classroom and make the point that people notice errors.

Your students might even make news: A 9-year-old  shocked her teacher by finding 15 apostrophe errors in 15 minutes in a market in West Yorkshire.

 

 

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