Thursday, May 12, 2011

Basic Skills and Writing--10-minute Essays

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?

Ten-Minute Essays
My father told me about the ten-minute essay. He was a lawyer and when he was in law school, one of his professors assigned ten-minute essays at the beginning of class on the details of specific legal cases. The students were required to analyze and draw conclusions about the cases—in ten minutes. The professor would read the essays at night and return them corrected during the next class. He corrected everything, including grammar. My did said, “That’s where I learned to write.” Of course, the professor simply labeled the mistakes and the students were expected to understand why they were mistakes.

Why Ten-Minute Essays?
It was a great idea that I applied in my English classes. At first, I put quotes on the board and students responded to the quotes, usually explaining them. That was about all the time they had. Later, I encouraged my students to choose their own topics. At first, I just marked mistakes, labeling them, “sp.” for “spelling,” “r.o.” for “run-on sentence,” “frag.” For “sentence fragment” and so on. But then I had an idea. What if I actually corrected their mistakes? Students had often complained that they did not understand the labels for my corrections and the label did not tell them how to correct the mistakes. I continued to label the mistakes, but in addition to “sp.” for spelling, I actually corrected the spelling. In addition to “r.o.,” for run-on sentences, I actually corrected the run-on sentence. In addition to “frag.” for sentence fragment, I actually completed the sentence. I was demonstrating to them how to resolve those basic problems and giving meaning to the label.

Two labels that students never seemed to understand how to correct were “awk.” and “clar.” Of course, “awk.” meant “awkward expression” and “clar.” meant expression that was not clear. For “awk.,” I smoothed the expression. For “clar.,” I clarified the meaning. In both cases I showed the students how I resolved the problem.

Students wrote their ten-minute essays every day at the beginning of class. The activity had the advantage of settling students and putting them immediately to work. The ten-minute essays helped them form the habit of writing. I corrected them every night. The following day, I returned the ten-minute essays, students read my corrections and asked questions about any corrections they did not understand. That night, they rewrote their corrected essays in order to help them visualize their writing as correct writing. With each corrected essay, I awarded the students extra credit.

Next Blog: Teachers’ Questions about Ten-Minute Essays.

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