Category Archives: Language & literacy

18 years of compliance training

I inadvertently stumbled into a Twitter discussion about school activities, such as most homework assignments, that seem to exist for no other reason than, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here’s an extract:

The conversation suggested that requiring compliance by students is bad.

I don’t think complying with such things as instructions to print one’s name on a document infringe on civil liberties or turn students into automatons: It might be regarded as a simple courtesy.

By the same token, I don’t think complying with school rules has much of an effect on students’ “real lives” outside school.

In fact, as I said, my observations of students in work settings has led me to think the fact that something is required in kindergarten or high school or college is likely to lead students to assume they can safely ignore it elsewhere.

I’ve written several posts over the years about my observations of ex-students’ behaviors outside classrooms when they attempt to enter the workforce. Taken together,  they may suggest it’s not compliance or the lack thereof  that’s a problem.

I’ve pasted the leads of three of them below with links to the entire posts.

Top writing requirement: Read the directions

Teaching students to adapt their writing to the situation never was easy, but is is becoming increasingly difficult. Within a few minutes’ time, we expect students to turn from texting friends to writing research reports to blogging—and to meet the different requirements of each of those situations.

One of the ways we can help students learn to navigate between writing situations is teach them that when directions are provided, they should read and follow those directions, regardless of what they’ve been taught was the appropriate thing to do. Read more of this post.

Work experience as education

Do you want to know how to prepare your students for an entry-level job? The best way to learn what students need to know is to do different entry-level jobs yourself.

Unless you already know somebody at the business, you’ll have to fill out a job application, just as your students will unless they, too, get their jobs through networking or nepotism. Completing a job application requires what the Common Core State Standards refer to as reading informational text. Read more of this post.

Dear applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send. Read more of this post.


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Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

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.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

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:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

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.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

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.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. 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.

[Students write.]

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.

[Students 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.

[Students 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.

Comments? questions?

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Be an amazing writer: Read like one.

When it comes to reading, there are two ditches modern-day web writers may fall into. Both are notorious, unrefined, and dangerous — especially if you want to be more than an ordinary writer.

On one side, you have the ditch of never-ending digital content where you spend all your time reading online.


On the other side, you have the ditch of “made-for-loneliness” wonkism where all you do all day is read about one topic — and one topic only.


There is nothing wrong with these two approaches to reading if you have no ambition to be a great writer. However, if you aspire to be an
exceptional writer, follow these sophisticated reading habits.

Read all this great post from Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger.

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A cautionary message

Probably nothing about public education irks the general public more than graduates who can’t spell.


Warning cone shows a passerby corrected spelling of CAUTION by adding the U wrote DUNCE on the backfront

The person who noticed the U was omitted from the word caution on the warning cone in front of a Bainbridge NY business added it.

Then he or she added a comment about writer: DUNCE.

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Differing perspectives

Reading Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education today I felt as if I’d stumbled into a foreign country.

The English teacher says, “Engage in an ongoing reflective conversation with the texts of your life.”

The journalist says, “Write what you know.”

I think I want to go back to journalism.

I understand that language.

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Guidelines help students analyze literature

screencapture from top of Guidelines for Reading and Analyzing LiteratureA useful literature resource  is Guidelines for Reading and Analyzing Literature compiled by Dr. Tina L. Hanlon, associate professor of English at Ferrum College in Virginia.

Hanlon breaks the process down into five steps, which she presents on a single web page:

  • First Impression
  • Types of Literature
  • Literary Techniques
  • Themes
  • Evaluation and Review

Hanlon uses lists and bullets to guide someone unfamiliar with literary analysis through the process.

The resource is appropriate for:

  • AP English Literature and Composition classes
  • IB programs
  • Concurrent enrollment (high school + college credit)  programs
  • College students

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Writing for an Audience of Others

The author of a message is responsible for making sure the recipient understands it.

In everyday conversation, we supply information through our gestures, facial expression, and vocal tone to supplement the information we provide in words. Those supplements are not available to writers.

Writers must learn to put all their information into words.

Readers can supply writers with something words on paper can’t: a sense of writing as a means of communicating with people different from themselves.

Readers who are too much like the writer are likely to read into writing information and connections the writer should have supplied but didn’t.

Writing for an audience of others—an audience of readers who are not part of the writer’s cohort of classmates, family, and Facebook friends—helps students understand their subject better. Those others won’t be willing or able to provide the information and connections the writer assumed all readers would know.

And writing for an audience of others also teaches students the world doesn’t revolve around them—which is very useful knowledge indeed.

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Keywords help struggling teen readers

Secondary students struggling to read at grade level need help that doesn’t make them appear dumb or babyish. A tip I picked up from a textbook publisher can help.

Before you assign students to read a nonfiction passage, set them the goal of discovering the keyword in the passage. Be sure students understand that the keyword  may be just a single word or it might also be a phrase such as “raising goldfish” or “web applications for creating infographics.”

After students read the passage and correctly identify the keyword, have them identify at least three details that support their choice. You can use informal writing instead of oral responses if you wish.

Besides aiding reading comprehension, the technique helps students develop skills for research and writing.

Middle and high school teachers may wish to click for more simple tips for improving students’ reading comprehension skills in any subject area.

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Free Cambridge literary terms glossary

The Cambridge University posts online  a free one-page glossary of literary and grammar terms its English faculty use in their online classes.

The first section of the glossary is terms used in the analysis of verse, which are less familiar to students than terms used other literary genres,  The second section explains grammar terms.

English and composition teachers could list the resource in a syllabus or on a course/department website for their students.

The list is short enough that it won’t overwhelm. Hyperlinks expand the brief entries.

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Free Online Linguistics Glossary

Linguistics, the study of language, is a a neglected but vital part of English language arts.

It’s also an area that excites many students. Teachers ought to expand their linguistic knowledge for that reason, if for no other.Snip from web page of linguistics glossary

Like other sciences, linguistics has its own vocabulary. If you don’t know a morpheme from a motor bike, the LinguaLinks glossary of linguistic terms is a good place to find definitions of those specialized terms. The glossary is available free to anyone, no registration needed.

LinguaLinks  is not a site for K-12 students. Use it for your professional development.

If your grammar terminology is shaky, you can get help understanding terms like clause or verbal noun from LinguaLinks.

The glossary is also useful for anyone who must teach reading.

The glossary is part of the LinguaLinks Library developed by  SIL International, which the organization sells. The organization’s website is worth a look for ideas on using language topics to make school meaningful to students from diverse backgrounds living in a global community.

SIL began in 1934 as the Summer Institute for Linguistics. The nonprofit organization’s  “works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners as they discover how language development addresses the challenging areas of their daily lives.”


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