Category Archives: Language & literacy

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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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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