Category Archives: English Writing Instruction

Writing well takes study and practice.

How to keep students writing this summer

For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic.  A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.

Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix.  Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results.  And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”

The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world.  (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.)  Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.

Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager.  They balk at reading books during the summer.  “It’s vacation!” they wail.

What to do?  Here are my solutions.

For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles.  Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer.  I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings.  Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.

Using news stories has many advantages.  It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about.  It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper.  It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book.  It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay.  Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.

The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them.  But this is my job.

For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer.  www.edconpublishing.com produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level.  Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions.  I assign these, one a week or one every other week.  After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.

Using booklets like these has advantages.  They introduce students to great stories.  They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read.  They offer students and me a common topic about which to write.  I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master.  We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.

Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books.  I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.

These days I interact with students via Zoom.  I find the results are good.  Students share their essays with me via Google drive.

It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer.  Perhaps you have found some other ways?  If so, please share them with me at this blog.  Or if your student needs a tutor, contact me.

Recap lessons immediately after they are done

Are you an online writing tutor? Or an online tutor of any kind?  If so, might I suggest a quick and easy tip which I have found useful?

Immediately after each lesson, write a recap of that lesson, including everything you and the student or students did in that lesson. 

Send copies of the recap to the student or students you have just taught and their parents if they are children.  This way they receive immediate feedback on the lesson.  And because the recap contains homework assignments for the next lesson, students and parents know what work students should complete for the next lesson.

Save another copy for yourself.  For each student or each class, copy the email sent to the student and parents.  Paste it along with the date you sent it in a folder named after the student or the class.  Paste the most recent recap at the top of a file.  If you send any additional information before the next lesson, add this to the top of the file with the date.  This recap helps you recall the past lesson and reminds you of the homework expected at the next lesson.

Since I teach writing online, in my recaps I include the writing we did during the lesson.  Students sometimes keep a copy from the class, but in case they don’t, they can copy from the recap and paste the writing  to a document and continue the work there.  Or in the recap I remind the student that the unfinished work is a google doc which they can easily access.

Here is an example of an email I sent recently:

Today ____ and I revised an essay he wrote on the film The Last of the Mohicans.  It was perhaps the best essay he has written for me in terms of organization.  That is because we organized the essay last week before he wrote it, and he followed the prewriting organizer.

Next he chose another topic (see below) and together we created a prewriting organizer for that topic.  He will complete the essay for next our next lesson.

Genre:  Persuasive

Topic:  Why Miss Kathy should visit Orlando, FL

Intro:

Thesis:  You should visit Orlando, FL, because it has Universal Studios and a waterpark.

Topic sentence 1:  One reason you should visit Orlando is because Universal Studios is there.

  • Harry Potter, Hogwarts world
  • Underground roller coaster

Topic sentence 2:  Another reason you should visit Orlando is because it has a great water park.

  • High, long sliding board/tube
  • Bumper cars in water

Conclusion

Because I include the essay outline in the recap I save for myself, I have a detailed reminder of the work we did in class and the work expected from the student.  I reread the recaps before the next lesson.  Sometimes in my own version I include work I must prepare for the next lesson, such as finding grammar worksheets on a particular topic or providing an answer key to a vocabulary quiz.

For me, this kind of recap is definitely worth the small effort it takes.

Neopronouns–what are they?

Today I heard a grammar term I have never heard before:  neopronoun.  If you don’t know what I am talking about, you might want to continue reading, because you will be hearing the term “neopronoun” in the future.student thinking about what to write

A neopronoun is a word created to serve as a pronoun without disclosing the gender of the person identified by the pronoun.

Take this sentence, for example.  “Chris ate dinner.”  Now suppose Chris is male.  To replace Chris with a pronoun, you could say, “He ate dinner.”  Or if Chris is female, “She ate dinner.”  But if Chris doesn’t want you to identify Chris as male or female, you could say, “They ate dinner,” or “It ate dinner.”  Or you could use a made-up word to mean a non-gender pronoun such as “Ze ate dinner,” or “Xe ate dinner,” or “Ey ate dinner.”  These made-up words—ze, xe, and ey, for example—are neopronouns.

Ze, Xe and Ey are subject pronouns.  But these and other neopronouns have object forms such as ze/zir/zirself, fae/faer/faerself, and innit/innits/innitself.  If you are wondering how to pronounce these new words, anything goes, at least for now.  With time, some of these neopronouns will stick and become part of our language while others will be quaint relics of our past.  Those that stick will develop standard pronunciations. 

These pronouns are being used by some transgender people (especially young people) to refer to themselves.  If I understand correctly, one transgender person might use one set of pronouns, and another transgender person might use a different set of pronouns. 

Related to neopronouns is the title Mx. (with or without the period and pronounced as “mix”).  You use it as a title for a person who does not want to be identified as male or female, or for a person who considers itself/themselves/xeself? non-binary.  This term dates back to the 1970s and has been included in some recently published dictionaries.

And what is non-binary?  People who identify as not exclusively male or female refer to zirselves as nonbinary.

If all this seems strange to you, I can remember when the title “Ms” was introduced in the 1970s.  What a hullaballoo it created.  Now, it’s as accepted as Mr., Mrs., and Miss.  Soon, perhaps ze or innit will be that acceptable, too.

Rules Hemingway wrote by

Did you watch the new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway which premiered on Monday?  If so, you heard Hemingway say “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” came from the Kansas City Star stylebook. He reported for the Star 1917 to 1918.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Here are some of those rules:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.  [Use active verbs.]
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang.  Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh.
  • Watch your sequence of tenses.  [Be consistent.]
  • Don’t split verbs.  [Put adverbs before a verb phrase.]
  • Be careful of the word “also.”  “Also” modifies the word it follows, not the word it precedes.
  • Be careful of the word “only.”  “He only had $10” means that he alone had $10.  “He had only $10” means $10 was all the cash he had.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Avoid using adjectives, especially extravagant ones.
  • Use “none is,” not “none are.”
  • Animals should be referred to with the neuter gender unless the animal is a pet with a name.
  • Break into a long direct quote early in the quote to identify the speaker.
  • Avoid expressions from a foreign language.
  • Collective nouns take singular verbs.

Jane Austen’s naming style

We writers can learn to compose better by reading the work of recognized authors.  One of my favorites is Jane Austen.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the names Austen uses, and what I can learn about naming my own fictional characters from her novels.

Austen (1775-1816), chooses names from common English first names for her main male characters such as Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice), Charles Musgrove Sr. and Jr. and Charles Hayter (Persuasion); John Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, and John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility) and John Knightly (Emma); William Collins, Sir William Lucas, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and William Elliot (Persuasion); and George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and George Knightly (Emma).

Similarly, Austen reuses common names of women for important characters:  Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion) and Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Mary Elliot Musgrove (Persuasion), Mary Parker (Sanditon), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Kitty Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice); Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma); Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon); Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Georgiana Lamb (Sanditon); Anne Taylor Weston (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion).

Why does Austen repeat the same names when so many others exist?  Tradition is one reason.  Austen writes about “three or four families in a country village” where traditional values are shown by fathers passing down names to their sons and mothers to their daughters.  Names hold communities together. 

(I am reminded of the naming tradition in the Irish hamlets my grandparents came from.  Children would be known by their own first name as well as their father’s and grandfather’s names.  I would have been known as Kathy Tommy Johnny.)

Love of family is another reason Austen repeats names of characters within a family.  Isabella Knightly (Emma) names her children Henry (after her father), John (after her husband), Bella (perhaps after her mother), Emma (after her sister), and George (after her brother-in-law).  Characters’ respect for the royal family is another reason for choosing names.  Many men in Austen’s books are named George. (George I, George II, and George III all served as kings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austen was writing.)

Sometimes Austen shows who the outliers are in her books by giving them unusual names, such as Augusta Elton.  Women of fashion are named newer names such as Louisa, Caroline and Lydia.

Almost none of Austen’s characters are known by nicknames.  Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy, Eliza) and her sister, Kitty, are exceptions.  The novels come from a time when people addressed each other by their family names (Mr. Collins, Mrs. Dashwood) or by their titles (Sir William, Lady Catherine).  In a culture of such formality, nicknames were used only at home, and not always then.

In the months before her death in 1816, Austen began Sanditon, a novel set in a fictitious seaside resort which was literally financed and built by characters who come from elsewhere and are not bound by tradition.  For this book, Austen breaks with the traditional names she uses in her earlier books and gives many of her characters names she hasn’t used before such as Clara, Esther, Arthur, and Sidney.  The names seem to say change.

What worked for Austen might not work for us.  But what we can learn is that none of her characters are named randomly.  The name of each character serves a purpose.

For more information see http://www.JASNA for an article in issue 19 of Persuasions by Susannah Fullerton as well as several online articles.