Monday, May 23, 2011

Research: Different Cultures and the Meaning of Writing

Question: Does the term “writing” have different meanings in different cultures?

Answer: Yes. And it will be helpful if we take  the trouble to define what we mean by “writing,” before we can discuss it.

Quote: “Previous research in writing has suggested a set of categories for describing the discrete acts involved in the activity of writing: terms such as planning, drafting, revising, and editing are the most common ones used.” P. 175.

Comment: There are cultures and cultures. For example, the culture of early elementary school in America in which “writing” is interpreted as “handwriting.” And then there is the culture of foreign countries. When I was a student at Syracuse University, two students from India had been trained to memorize a piece of information and then were required to write it. That was what “writing” meant to those students, not the writing process. Yes, I think it is important to define what we mean by “writing” before attempting to discuss how to teach it. RayS.

Title: “Viewpoints: Cultures, Text Models, and the Activity of writing.” Alan C. Purves and William C. Purves. Research in the Teaching of English (May 1986), pp. 174- 197.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Research: Spelling

Question: What list of words will suggest whether people know how to spell?

Answer: exaggerate, conscientious, accommodate, questionnaire, auxiliary, aggravate, occurrence, sergeant, embarrass, irresistible, vengeance, grievance, mischievous, calendar, existence, apparel, indispensable, temperament, etiquette, prophecy.

Words were selected from a list of difficult words identified by Simpson (1945).

Comment: These words represent a whole host of spelling problems, from the indefinite vowel (calendar) to multi-syllable words (accommodate) to pronunciation different from spelling (sergeant), to mispronunciation (mischievous), to prefixes (irresistible) and combinations of problems.

You can use this list of words in several ways. Ask students why each word is difficult to spell. Ask them how they would go about learning to spell each word. For ideas on how to organize a spelling program in this era of spelling checkers, consult Harry Shefter, Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling ( and Chapter 15 in my book, Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris, 2004. RayS.

Title: “Learning to Spell: Three Studies at the University Level.” JE Ormrod. Research in the Teaching of English (May 1986), 160-172.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Research: Describing the Writing Process

Question: What is one way to describe the writing process?

Answer/Quote: “This research was guided by the Hayes and Flower (1980) model of written composition. This model proposes three major writing processes—planning, translation, and reviewing. The function of the planning process is to set goals and to establish a writing plan which will guide the production of text. The translating process acts under the guidance of the writing plan to produce written text. The function of the reviewing process is to improve the quality of text.” P. 121.

Comment: Interesting. My view of the writing process consists of brainstorming the topic, constructing the thesis, writing the first draft based on the thesis with topic sentences beginning paragraphs, constructing the introduction, revising and editing. I think this description of the writing process—“planning, translating, and reviewing”—might, at first, be more easily understood. I like it. RayS.

Title: “Composing Written Sentences.” DS Kaufer, JR Hayes and L Flower. Research in the Teaching of English (May 1986), 121-140.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Standard Written English--10-Minute Essays (04)

The following information is reprinted from my book, Teaching English, How To…. (Xlibris, 2004).

Question: How can teachers help students learn to correct basic mistakes in grammar and to use Standard Written English?

Answer: Ten-Minute Essays

How I Used Ten-Minute Essays to Demonstrate Standard Written English.

Contractions: I changed contractions into complete words.

“There” and “It”: I replaced “There” with the actual subject of the sentence. “There are six ingredients in this salad.” “This salad contains six ingredients.” (Use of “There” as the first word in the sentence also leads to grammatical mistakes as in “There is six ingredients in this salad.”) I also avoided beginning a sentence with “It”:”It was a great achievement.” “His achievement was truly outstanding.”

Needless Repetition: I eliminated needless repetition of words and expressions. I demonstrated three methods for “tightening” students’ expression: Sometimes dropping one of the words worked. Sometimes substituting a synonym worked. Usually re-writing the sentence was the best method for eliminating unnecessarily repeated words. By the way, needless repetition is one of the hallmarks of conversational writing.

Demonstrative Pronouns: I demonstrated how to provide clear references to the demonstrative pronoun, “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” For example: “The team members worked hard to improve their foul shooting. This practice helped them to make more than 70% of their free throws.”

“Thing” and “Get:” I substituted specific nouns for “thing” and more precise verbs for “get,” “getting,” and “got.”

Parallel Structure: What occurs on one side of the coordinate conjunction must also occur on the other side of the conjunction. “He likes to hunt and fishing.” Corrected: “He likes hunting and fishing.” “He likes to hunt and to fish.”

Dangling Modifier: “Coming home, the steps tripped him up.” Corrected: “Coming home, he tripped on the steps.” In the dangling modifier, the subject appears to be “the steps.” The steps were not coming home;  he was.

Misplaced Modifier: “Ms. Smith, the explorer, described her trips through the jungle in our social studies class.” Corrected: “In our social studies class, Ms. Smith, the explorer, described her trips through the jungle.” Place the modifier as closely as possible to the word being modified.

Active vs. Passive Voice: I encouraged use of the active vs. passive voice.  Instead of “It has been decided that all employees will be administered drug tests.” Mr. Jones, the CEO of the company, has directed the medical staff to administer drug tests to all employees.” “It has been decided….” hides the person or persons responsible for the decision. Also, the active voice is simply more direct and clear.

Why Demonstrate Standard Written English?
The purpose of this approach to the ten-minute essay was not to eliminate conversational use of language in writing. Conversational English has its advantages. An informal style invites the reader to join the writer in a somewhat intimate partnership. The purpose of the second round of 10-minute essays was to make students aware of how to write formal Standard English. I wanted to prepare students for the times they would need to use Standard Written English. The purpose of Standard Written English is clear, precise expression.

During the three weeks in which I used the ten-minute essay, the students wrote during the first ten minutes of class. Involving students immediately at the beginning of class settles them down and puts them immediately to work. The ten-minute essay helped students to form the habit of writing. In the first three weeks, I focused on basic skills in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. In the second cycle of three weeks, they learned to distinguish between informal and formal Standard Written English. Inevitably, the mistakes or the characteristics of informal English occurred less frequently and often not at all. The students said that they gained confidence in their writing from this exercise.

Was all that effort worthwhile? Absolutely. RayS.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Standard Written English--10-Minute Essays (03)

The following information is reprinted from my book, Teaching English, How To…. (Xlibris, 2004).

Question: How can teachers help students learn  to use Standard Written English?

Answer: Ten-Minute Essays

The Ten-Minute Essays and Standard Written English
The second time around in the school year, I had another purpose for the ten-minute essays: to demonstrate the meaning of Standard Written English.

What Is Standard Written English?
For me, one of the most important questions I had to answer for students was what I meant by “Standard Written English.” Most of the students in the beginning used informal, conversational expression in their writing. They wrote as they spoke. They really did not understand what I meant by “Standard Written English.” I tried to explain to them that the more they wrote as they spoke, the farther they were from Standard Written English.

The characteristics of conversation are the use of contractions. Needless repetition of words. The use of “there” and “it” as the subjects of sentences. Failure to use clear references for the demonstrative pronouns, “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Imprecise word choice, represented by the noun “thing,” and the verbs, “get,” “getting” and “got.” Problems with dangling and misplaced modifiers, and problems with parallel structure. I also emphasized use of the direct, active voice rather than the indirect, passive voice.

With the second round of the ten-minute essays, I began to show students how to use Standard Written English.

Next Blog: How I Used Ten-Minute Essays to Demonstrate Standard Written English.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Basic Skills and Writing--10-Minute Essays (02)

The following information is reprinted from my book, Teaching English, How To…. (Xlibris, 2004).

Question: How can teachers help students learn to correct basic mistakes in grammar and to use Standard Written English?

Answer: Ten-Minute Essays

What are My Readers’ Questions about 10-Minuted Essays?
How could you find the time to mark and correct 10-minute essays for five classes? I did not use ten-minute essays for the five classes all at the same time. I used ten-minute essays in the first class for three weeks, then for three weeks with the second class, etc. When the cycle of five classes was completed, I started all over again with the first class, this time for a different purpose, from correcting basic grammar to learning to use Standard Written English.

Did students have to complete the essays in ten minutes? No. They wrote for the ten minutes and then I stopped them, in mid-sentence, at the end of the ten minutes. The amount of writing was relatively short to enable me to be able to mark and correct them in the evening.

Did you assign complete essays? Of course. The ten-minute essays were just a small part of my writing program. I usually assigned ten full-length essays a year along with a research paper. In the regular writing course, I taught the writing process, consisting of brainstorming the topic; formulating the thesis; writing a first draft based on the thesis, with paragraphs begun by topic sentences, when needed, and ending with the summary paragraph; writing the introduction; and concluding with revision and editing.

What was the purpose of the ten-minute essays? The first purpose of the ten-minute essays was to demonstrate to students how to correct basic mistakes in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. The second purpose was to help students understand the labels that I put on their mistakes. A third purpose was to deal with individual mistakes that did not require the attention of the entire class. Having learned what the various labels meant and how to correct the mistakes, students were prepared for the full-length compositions that I assigned in the regular writing program where I used only labels.

What about the classes that had not yet written ten-minute essays when they had to write full-length essays? I was especially careful to explain the meanings of my labels before they rewrote their drafts.

Aren’t you just doing the work for the students? I demonstrated how to correct mistakes that I labeled while recognizing that the students might not understand those labels. I showed them what the labels meant and how to correct the labeled mistakes. I modeled behavior that I expected of the students when they wrote.

What did you do if some of the students had someone else write their ten-minute essays at home and slipped them in as their own? I assigned topics.

What effect did this daily writing have on the students? Gradually, the students’ ten minutes of writing began to produce fewer and fewer mistakes. Sometimes their 10-minute essays would be mistake-free, In their evaluations students wrote that the corrected ten-minute essays gave them confidence that they could write in almost any situation.

Next Blog: The Ten-Minute Essays and Standard Written English.