Category Archives: writing problems

Why are “how” questions harder than “why” questions?

A sixth grade student I was tutoring this past week commented that he would much rather answer questions that asked “why” than “how.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Because you can start a ‘why’ answer with the word ‘because,” but I don’t know how to start a ‘how’ answer,” he said.

I looked through a 2016 New York State sixth grade exam to find out which kinds of questions comply with the Common Core State Standards, and here are some of the questions I found:

  • “Why are the results of the survey important?”
  • “How does Trina’s mood change?”
  • “Why does the relationship between Julianna and her father change?”
  • How does the father’s idea that Juliana needed to start looking at the whole landscape relate to his description of a painting?”

Then I thought of my students’ written answers to these questions, and sure enough, the “why” questions were responded to better than the “how” questions.

Both “why” and “how” questions require students to analyze a text, a harder task than recalling knowledge or proving understanding, according to Bloom’s taxonomy.  So in that sense, they begin at about the same difficulty level.

A “why” question usually requires one reason although two or three reasons might contribute to a more complete answer.  For example, the question, “Why was George W. Bush elected US President in 2000?” can be answered with one idea:  He gained enough electoral college votes to win.  More could be said about the popular vote and the Florida debacle, but it is not required.  The electoral college information suffices.

But the question, “How did George W. Bush win the election in 2000?” requires more information, especially about the Florida recount and the involvement of the US Supreme Court.

Usually “how” questions require a sequence of information—more than one idea—or a comparison of information.  A “why” question requires one idea only.

For example, in the “how” exam questions listed above, to describe how Trina’s mood changes, the student must describe three things:  her mood at the beginning, the event which changes that mood, and her mood at the end.

To describe how a father’s advice that Julianna must look at the whole picture relates to his painting, the student must first describe the fragmented way Julianna is talking about her boyfriend’s eyes, hair and cheek color, and then relate the fragmented way her father talks about painting a cow, a meadow or sunshine, and then relate both conversations to the father’s statement that putting it all together is when the magic happens.

My student’s insight taught me that I need to discuss with my students what kinds of information are required to answer “how” questions.  To prepare them better for their exams, together we need to respond to more “how” questions, first discussing the kinds of information needed to supply a complete answer.  In this case, it is the thinking through of the answer rather than the actual writing which is difficult for students.

 

How to encourage kids to write

The best way to improve your writing is to write more.  Writing is a skill which improves with practice.  But how do you get kids to practice writing?

The blog Daily Writing Tips offers ten ways.  Let me paraphrase a few of them.

Encourage students to read, read, read.  Reading isn’t writing, true.  But if students read widely, they encounter all kinds of writing styles.  Subconsciously they discern what is good writing.

Encourage students to write stories for younger kids. If students are in third grade, have them write for kindergarteners, using themes and words kindergarteners understand.  By doing so, students consider audience, style of writing, how complicated to make the plot, what kinds of characters to include, the setting—all elements of stories.

Encourage students to keep going even if they know there are mistakes.  Professional writers don’t stop to fix every mistake as they write.  No, they know they will go back later and fix mistakes.  Once students are in the “flow” of writing, they should push on.

Encourage students to keep journals and to share those journals.  With partners or in small groups they can share their writing and receive feedback.  Positive feedback is so important to motivate a student to keep writing.

Encourage students to ask for help.  Some parents think students should write alone and confer with a teacher only when the writing is done.  Wrong.  Conferring during the writing process allows students to ask questions about verb tenses, a better way to say something, the meaning of a word, and plot possibilities.  The teacher becomes not the judge but the helper.

And I would add an idea of my own.  Write with students.  Ask them questions as you write, so they can see you welcome their help.  Share your writing when it is done, warts and all.  Model the behavior you hope they will use with you.  Let them help you.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

Lots of activities shut down for June, July, and August, opening your schedule to study with experts and learn how to solve some particular writing problems–even your fear of writing.

One place you might start is at your public library.  When I visited Orlando last week, I picked up an Orange County Library System magazine, where I found five summer writing opportunities offered by that library system:

Write a novel this summer—A published author teaches “character development, plot, creating conflict, point of view, dialog, setting [and] voice.”

Writing backstory in fiction—An author-editor teaches you how to include cultural nuances and family histories “without losing the flow of the story they’re telling.”

World-building for fantasy—Another author shows how to create “believable and compelling worlds for your characters.”

First page workshop—A literary agent shows how “to polish your first page until it shines.”

Story development—A screenwriter / author explores how to come up with a good story idea.

I looked up the NYC library online, and I found it offers 19 classes on how to write during this summer, available at various branches.

My own public library system, in Gwinnett County, GA, offers several writing opportunities in June.

Memoir writing workshop–A published author shows how.

Writer’s Group–Walk-in advice from a group of writers to one another.

Writer’s workshop–A  writer of young adult fiction gives feedback for the first five pages of your book-in-progress.

Poetry writing–“Learn the essentials of expressing yourself through writing and performance.”

But libraries aren’t the only good places to flex your writing muscles.  So are your local bookstores.  The Barnes & Noble near my house has a Tuesday evening writers’ group open to everyone.  Bring copies of your latest effort, read it aloud, and learn from the feedback of published writers and wannabes.

If you’re not sure where to find writing opportunities in your community, ask your public librarian.  Librarians are trained to find almost everything.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

What is a weak thesis?

Many students don’t know the difference between a weak thesis and a strong thesis.  Here are some clues that show that an essay’s thesis is weak:

A thesis is weak if it is already known to be true, so there is nothing new to be explored.  For example,

  • Smoking is bad for human health.
  • Benjamin Franklin was an 18th century inventor.
  • The New England Patriots are a great football team.

A thesis is weak if it is a personal belief, not something to be investigated.  For example,

  • Summer is the best season.
  • Middle school is harder than elementary school.
  • Abraham Lincoln ranks number one among US Presidents.

The thesis is weak if it is too broad to be thoroughly investigated.

  • Hurricanes are dangerous storms.
  • Nancy drew books appeal to girls.
  • Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.

The thesis is weak if it does not make a claim needing to be proven.  For example,

  • Dr. Seuss wrote popular children’s books.
  • Being a police officer is both good and bad.
  • In chess, each piece moves in particular ways.

The thesis is weak if it is not controversial, not a statement over which people can disagree.

  • Barak Obama was the 44th President of the US.
  • No human being has lived for 130 years.
  • Alex Fleming’s discovery of penicillin mold was one the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century.