15 signs your child could benefit from a writing tutor

Does your child have poor grades in writing?

Does your child hide his writing or “forget” to show you it?

Does your child leave writing homework until the last moment?

Does your child not finish his writing homework?

Does your child’s school writing consist of a word or a phrase, not sentences or paragraphs?

Does your child balk at writing complete sentences?

Does your child’s teacher seldom require long written responses?

Are almost all tests multiple choice answers only?

Does your child show frustration, uncertainty or fear when writing?

Does your child’s teacher check only that the writing is done without offering feedback on the contents and execution?

Are your child’s writing assignments really grammar or editing assignments?

When your child writes, are the ideas illogical or incoherent?

When your child writes, are there many punctuation, grammar or word usage mistakes?

When your child writes, does he use general, vague vocabulary, not specific vocabulary?

When your child writes, do many sentences contain a single subject and a compound predicate?

All of these are signs of a weak writer, a student who is not practicing writing enough to become a proficient writer.  If this is your child, he or she could benefit from one-on-one instruction from a qualified writing tutor.

Why use dashes?

Dashes are used to separate groups of words (My three brothers—Mike, Tom and Pat—live in different states), not to separate parts of words the way a hyphen does (merry-go-round).

According to William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in “The Elements of Style,”

“A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

Two kinds of dashes exist, the em dash and the en dash.  The em dash, like the letter “m,” is twice as long as the “en” dash.  An em dash is created by typing a hyphen twice and then immediately typing (no space) a word.  This omits the space between the two hyphens and creates a single horizontal line.  An en dash is technically longer than a hyphen, but a hyphen is commonly used as an en dash.

Use an em dash:

To highlight words interrupting the middle of an independent clause. For example,  I take my three favorite courses—algebra, biology and world history—before lunch.  Or , Sorry, but I can’t meet you—I’m flying to Virginia in the morning—but I’d love to see you when I return.

To indicate interrupted speech in dialogue. For example,
“Suppose we—”
“Hey, it’s my turn to decide.”

To emphasize a sentence. For example,  I will bring the chocolate cookies to the shower—if only Bill would stop snacking on them!

To end a dateline in a news story. For example,    Orlando—Hurricane Dorian stayed out to sea east of central Florida.

Use an en dash to show a range of numbers and to connect items of equal meaning.  For example,

Please annotate pages 1–22 before our next class.

I work from 8 a.m.–5 p.m.

Notice the difference between the male–female brain size.

 

To use the em dash or to abuse the em dash

The dash, or rather the em dash ( — ) , is getting lots of press lately.

First, what is an em dash?  It is a double hyphen ( — ) without the space between the two hyphens, and with a space on either side separating it from preceding or subsequent words.  It is called an em because it is the length of the letter “M.”  There is also an en dash ( – ), basically a hyphen.

If you’ve read the poetry of Emily Dickinson, you’ve seen the em dash used instead of other punctuation.  Some of her original editors tried to repunctuate Dickinson’s poems to make them conform to standard English.  The editors removed her em dashes, and replaced them with commas, periods and question marks.  Today’s editors publish the poems as Dickinson wrote them.  Here, for example, is a poem of hers showing her use of the em dash.

They shut me up in Prose —

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet —

Because they liked me “still” —

 

Still! Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason —

In the Pound —

 

Because the em dash can mean almost any kind of punctuation you want it to mean, it is both under fire and embraced, depending on your stance.  It is under fire because it is seen as unspecific punctuation.  The writer is just too lazy, or in too much of a hurry, to choose the correct punctuation, say critics.

But those who embrace the em dash point out that it takes extra work to use it since there is no em dash key on keyboards.  On my keyboard, for example, to make an em dash I must end one word, double hyphenate, and start another word, all without spacing.  Then I must go back and insert spacing before and after the em dash.

Proponents say the em dash is embraced because its captures the way people talk — in a breezy, hurried fashion, unconcerned with formalities.

Grammar books say the proper use of the em dash is to show when a thought is interrupted.  (Mrs. Smith was climbing the ladder — lightning! — so she quickly descended.)  Grammar rules say that if you use one em dash in a sentence, you must use a second to show where the interruption ends, unless the interruption ends the sentence, in which case you use a period.  To avoid confusion, you should use only one pair of em dashes in a single sentence, and not use them in adjoining sentences unless you are trying to show traits of a scatterbrained or highly distractible character.

I can still remember the first time I saw an em dash used.  I was a preteen or young teen reading John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and noticed em dashes all over the text.  They were new to me, so I tried to figure out why they were used.  Since I associated JFK with glamor and style, I associated those attributes to em dashes as well. In the ensuing years, I have used — perhaps overused — em dashes, thinking of them as a witty, polished writing tool, much like a semicolon.

 

 

 

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.

11 Tips for Writing a Blog

Write short.

  • Short sentences.  Short paragraphs.  Short blogs.  Why?  Many times your readers are using phones to read your blog.  Long sentences and paragraphs discourage, especially if they appear in small typefaces.  But if an idea demands more text, go for it.

Include white space.

  • The space between sentences.  The space between paragraphs.  The space where a headline or subheading ends.  Why?  Your writing will look friendly, not intimidating.

Include bullets.

  • Why?  Bullets insert more white space.  They indicate a list without ordering the elements.  They shorten a line of type and make it easier to read.

Sound like you. 

  • When you write, pretend you are talking to a friend.  Let your voice come through. Why?  Blogs are personal.  If readers like your personality, they will keep coming back.

Use hyperlinks. 

  • If you mention something you’ve already written about, hyperlink it.  Why?  A hyperlink makes it easy for your reader to move from one item of interest to another.  And it gives you more page views which can raise your profile in search engines.

Use graphics.

  • Why?  Like white space, graphics break up your text and make it friendlier.  They can keep a reader reading and add additional information.

Respond to blog comments.

  • Why?  To encourage more comments.  To show you are a real person.  To connect with readers.

Post to social media.

  • Why?  To attract more readers.  To encourage readers to share your posts.  To develop a wider network.

Post when you have something worth saying.

  • Your blogging schedule need not be set in stone, but it should be fairly regular.  Your posts should be relevant, not time wasters.  Why?  You should respect both your own time and your readers’ time.

Write professionally.

  • Correct grammar errors.  Be concise.  Use topic sentences.  Why?  You want readers to respect your ideas, but if they are focusing on your errors, they will lose confidence in you and your ideas.

In your headlines, use numbers.

  • 12 ways to do this.  3 main points to avoid.  Why?  Numbers are hard facts.  They are specific.  They draw readers in.

What’s an action verb? What’s an active voice verb? Are they they same?

A reader said she is confused about active voice verbs and action verbs.  Are they the same?

Sometimes.

Let’s start with action verbs.  In English there are three kinds of verbs:  action verbs, linking verbs and state of being verbs.

  • In a sentence with an action verb, some kind of action is stated or implied by the verb. Some examples are “Ani ate dinner.”  “Lizzy considered her options.”  “The plan worked.”
  • In a sentence with a linking verb, the subject is linked to a noun, a pronoun or an adjective which comes after the verb. Often the verb is a form of the verb “to be” but it can be other verbs replaceable by the verb “to be.”  Some examples are “My dog felt [was] hot.”  “The tests sound [are] hard.”  “That man is my father.”
  • In a sentence with a state of being verb, the existence of something is noted. Sometimes a form of the verb “to be” is used, but not always.  For example, “Washington, D.C. is in the US.”  “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are at home today.”  “Jefferson lives.”—words attributed to John Adams on his deathbed.

Some action verbs are active voice verbs, and some are passive voice verbs.  Linking verbs and state of being verbs cannot be made into passive verbs.

  • In a sentence with an active voice verb, the subject does the verb. For example, “Davis eats an apple.”  “The dog had barked for hours.”  “The treaty did not solve the problems.”
  • In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject does not do the verb. The object of the subject does the verb.  Sometimes the object / actor is named, but sometimes the object / actor is not named.  For example, “The assignments were completed.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]  “An apple is being eaten.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]   “The medal was won by the Swedes.”  [By whom?  The Swedes.]

So to recap, action verbs can be either active voice (when the subject does the verb) or passive voice (when someone other than the subject does the verb).  Linking and state of being verbs are neither active voice nor passive voice.

Fun picture books for beginning readers, plus learning activities

Are you looking for funny stories for your beginning reader? Silly stories using easy-to-read CVC and sight words?  With silly pictures to make kids laugh? And learning activities to reinforce the phonics?

We’ve made them!

Click on the image above for more information on these beginning readers.

Years ago, when my kids were learning to read, that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t find them. So I started writing them. My sister, an art teacher, made them even funnier with her cartoon-like drawings. We tried them out on our kids and later my students, improved them, and now they are available for you to use with your beginning readers.

The story themes focus on little kids’ lives.

• A six-year-old receives a yo-yo for her birthday, but her father wants to play with it.

• A baby brother wants to do what his kindergarten-age brother does, but he’s too little.

• A wild child makes a mess while the babysitter gabs on the phone.

• A preschooler talks his grandfather into playing with his toys.

• A five-year-old devises ways to hide her father’s bald head.

After each story are several pages of game-like learning activities to reinforce the words and ideas of the stories.

My sister, Anne Trombetta, the illustrator, and I, the author, are teachers with masters’ degrees. We’ve applied educational research to devise story lines, words, activities and art to engage new readers.

Please check out our early reader picture books. We hope you’ll not only buy  them, but tell us how your little reader responded to the silly stories.