Category Archives: research on writing

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

Does studying music help with learning English grammar?

Is there a connection between musical rhythms and grammar?

child playing violinResearcher Reyna Gordon* thinks so.  She is training students in music, hoping that by doing so they can learn complex English grammar.

In music and in grammar, human brains get used to certain patterns, according to Gordon.  For example, when a person says a subject and a verb in a sentence, the listener expects to hear an object of that verb next.  Young children learn this pattern of expression subconsciously as they are learning words themselves.

When children start to speak, it is in single words—”Mom,” “Dad, “mine.”  By two years old they are speaking in phrases and little sentences such as “Teddy’s hat,” “Give me” and “Me want.”  Little sentences become longer ones, morphing from simple sentences to compound sentences joined by “and.” By five years old, most children have evolved their ways of expressing themselves into complex sentence patterns.

But some children never reach the complex pattern stage, says Gordon.  A small percentage of the population has what is called “specific language impairment.” They continue to express themselves in phrases and in short, simple sentences.

gordon thinks training such children to listen to and to produce musical rhythms can help them expand their English grammar.  This is because the same parts of the brain which are involved with understanding musical rhythms are involved in understanding English grammar.  By exposing children to music patterns, Gordon hopes to expand their grammar patterns.

Other research has shown a strong correlation between studying music and learning languages.  Children who study music before seven years old can process subtle differences in sound better than other children, and this helps them learn languages, both their mother tongue and foreign languages.

For more on Gordon’s research, go to https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25195623.

*Director of the Music Cognition Lab in the Department of Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/K/.

How do I know if my child has dysgraphia? If she does, can she get special help and accommodations from her school?

Dysgraphia is a writing disability.  Children have trouble handwriting: writing fast enough, forming letters clearly, and holding a writing tool.

In order for a student to qualify for special education services, the student must have a disorder named in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Dysgraphia is not named.  However, dysgraphia is described under the category “specific learning disability.”  An assertive parent or teacher could make a case for the child’s being formally tested by a licensed psychologist or school psychologist.

Signs of dysgraphia are many, making it hard to diagnose.  But here are some common signs.  Not all children will show each sign, and showing one or two signs does not mean a child has dysgraphia.

  • Has trouble with letter spacing and spacing between words.
  • Writes letters which go in all directions.
  • Writes letters of various sizes within the same word.
  • Writes letters and words which jam together.
  • Leaves words unfinished and omits words.
  • Has trouble writing on lines.
  • Holds a pencil awkwardly.
  • Holds the arm, wrist and shoulder awkwardly when writing.
  • Writes slowly.
  • Loses her train of thought before she has finished a sentence.
  • Has trouble thinking and writing at the same time.
  • Says words out loud while writing.
  • Has trouble following directions.
  • Has more trouble spelling when writing than when speaking.
  • Mixes upper case and lower case letters in the same word.
  • Finds her own handwriting illegible.
  • Complains of a tired or cramped hand.
  • Erases more than usual.
  • Prefers to leave out details.
  • Won’t write some ideas because “everybody knows that.”
  • Speaks far better than writes.

Children with undiagnosed dysgraphia fall behind their classmates, taking longer to finish written assignments or refusing to add details.  They become frustrated, leading to problems following a teacher’s directions and socializing with other children.

Next blog:  What can a parent or teacher do to help a child with dysgraphia?

Is it okay to use bullets in academic writing? My kid’s seventh grade teacher forbids it.

That’s too bad because research shows that bulleted items are well-read.

  • Perhaps it is the white space preceding a bullet or following the bulleted item that draws the eye. White space is known to make writing look friendlier and less intimidating.
  • Or perhaps it is the brevity of most bulleted items that lures the reader.
  • It could also be the obvious organization that bullets imply.

Using bullets (called glyphs) is common in business and technical writing.  Bulleted items can be lists of words, sentences or paragraphs.  Go online and you can find many sites that offer advice on how to use bullets.

More recently bullets have become accepted in academic writing, but to be sure, check the style manual a discipline or teacher recommends.

This is a fifth grader's organizer for a story she wrote about meeting Harry Potter.

This is a fifth grader’s organizer for a story she wrote about meeting Harry Potter.

I checked the SAT website to see if bulleted items are allowed on the new SAT essay, but I couldn’t find an answer.  However, the rules explaining the new essay used several sets of bulleted items.

When doing power point presentations, students should use bullets in their slides, not sentences.  For example

Bears eat

  • berries
  • honey from bee hives
  • bird seed from bird feeders
  • fish

Students create Power Point projects all the time.  They need to learn this useful skill.  On science project presentations and on posters, bullets are more apt than paragraphs and are better read.

At your next teacher meeting you might ask your son’s teacher why she doesn’t allow bullets.  She might think that bullets are not formal enough for academic writing.  Wrong.  Or she might think that some students would turn in a laundry list of bullets rather than write fully developed paragraphs.  Right.  She would be better off teaching the proper use of bullets than forbidding them entirely since eventually almost all students use them.

Is there an ideal election ballot?

Is there an ideal election ballot, one written and designed clearly so that it is easy to read and use?

Yes.  It has ten features.*

2016-election-ballot

  • The ballot uses mostly lower case letters. Why? ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS ARE HARDER TO READ compared to lower case letters.
  • The names on the ballot, instructions, and other words are aligned to the left, not centered. With left-aligned type, it is easy for the eye to find where the next line begins.  With center-aligned type, the eye has to work to figure out which is the next line.
  • Font size matters. For ballots on a touch screen computer, type should be at least 25 point.  For optically scanned ballots, type should be at least 12 point.  Voters should not need magnifying glasses in order to read the ballot.
  • Fonts should be sans-serif (a lettering style without those little tabs at the tops or bottoms of letters). Sans-serif type faces are cleaner and therefore quicker to read than serif styles.
  • Optically scanned ballots should have instructions at the beginning and page numbers on every page. Touchscreens should offer continuous instructions (for example, at the top of each screen), language options, and a navigation system which is identical on every page of the ballot.
  • Instructions should be presented in simple, easy-to-understand English (or other language). So should ballot initiatives, changes to constitutions, and proposed changes to tax law.  Sample ballots should be available at polling stations so that voters can read complete written instructions and law changes before entering the polling booth.
  • Visual instructions, such as an arrow indicating to turn the page at the bottom of a touchscreen ballot, should be obvious and consistent.
  • Only informational icons, such as a stop sign at the end of the ballot, should be used—no elephants or donkeys.
  • Color, boldfacing or boxing should be used consistently. For example, if instructions are in color or in a shaded box on page one, they should appear the same way throughout the ballot.  However, color cannot be the only way to call attention to important information.
  • Layout and text size should be used to indicate importance of information. For example, on the page of Presidential candidates, the words indicating a vote for President should be bigger and more obvious than the names of candidates.  The candidates’ names should be bigger and more obvious than their party affiliation.  Also, all candidates’ names should be presented equally in font size and darkness of font.

* Design for Democracy, a strategic initiative of AIGA, the professional association for design, developed these guidelines.  AIGA worked with the US Election Assistance Commission and did testing on potential voters to develop these guidelines.  Because holding elections is a function of the states and not the federal government, each state is free to create its own ballots according to its own criteria.  After the election of 2000, many states changed their ballots to make them clearer, easier to use and less likely to be challenged.

 

How many words are too many words?

“Write concisely” always appears on rules for good writing.  And some writers follow that rule.of-mice-and-men-book-cover

  • John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has 29,150 words. He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, has 26,601 words. He too won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Agatha Christie, the best-selling writer of all time, wrote novels averaging between 40,000 and 60,000 words, with female murderers’ stories usually using fewer words than male murders’ stories.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, required reading in many American high schools, has 47,094 words.persuasion-book-cover
  • K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel has about 77,000 words but her fifth and longest one has about 250,000 words—more than three times as many as her first.
  • Jane Austen, the second most widely known English writer today (Shakespeare is first), wrote Persuasion, considered her best novel by many critics, with 87,978 words.

But other writers have ignored the advice to write concisely, and they have done well for themselves.

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has 183,858 words.
  • Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has around 349,700 words English translations and his War and Peace has between 561,000 and 587,000 words, depending on the translation.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has 418,053 words. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

gone-with-the-wind-book-coverIs there an optimal number of words in novels?  It turns out publishers think so.

  • 20,000 to 55,000 is best for middle grades novels.
  • 60,000 words is best for young adult fiction.
  • 80,000 words is best for most general adult fiction, mystery fiction, and literary fiction. (Memoirs, which are nonfiction, also top off at 80,000 words.)
  • 110,000 words is the ideal length for sci-fi fiction and fantasy fiction.