July 20, 2012

Deep Feedback and Deep Word Use

....Was reading a Mother Jones article about private vs. public universities and how well they teach writing, critical thinking, and the like. Of course there is the familiar argument about how we can't really teach sophistication, and the differences in how your papers are attended to, and by who (professor or TA), but what pranced out at me was mention of how paltry the actual deep feedback is, for written assigments, with  budget cutbacks.

That is what is sorely needed - a mentor, a teacher, a trusted adult, with whom to talk about your writing with. Sigh!

Pity the middle school Language Arts teachers, who subscribe to Educational Journals, read the articles that their guest in-service providers hand out, take summer intensives in how to better teach writing to hormonal media-soaked pre-teens, and YET, they don't have the time to really spend with them, one-on-one, discussing the revisions needed in their writing, create deep goals for their writing improvement, and simply have time to READ all those papers! Okay run-on sentence award there, for me.

Someday there will be a way to tape record comments of a teacher while they skim a paper, with some futuristic mind-reading software, and the student then uses those to create a revision, which then gets read by a Grad Student who is doing an in-service project as part of their teacher certification.  In the meantime we need smaller classes and great teachers and bigger budgets and (refrain of song repeats here)

And how I wish this Scrabble sentence were true!
This summer I am also awash in reflections on the Vocabulary Deficit. For BOTH the students whose families have "means", as well as the foster kids who I am overseeing the interventions for this summer, I see serious gaps in vocabulary, as we read fiction, non-fiction, and everything in between. I am shocked at the limits of their understanding of academic language (aka "book words" or the ability to draw from sophisticated lists of synonyms for what they are reading - or what they are writing).

I mean, I don't spend time with them on a word like "cabaret" or "arid" but when a soon-to-be 7th grader doesn't know what "finite" or "prohibitive" means, we may be headed for a roadblock or two in assigned readings in 7th or 8th grade. Duh. 

Oh, if I am in a thunderstorm kind of day, July mood, with fewer clients than I would like to have this month, and cleaning even the tops of door jambs to pass the time, forgive my melancholy. But the vocabulary gap is real. As is the dearth of adult feedback to our budding next generation of writers. 

As one of my favorite bloggers says, "Today I don't have any upbeat tips, just words strung together to make you think, and smile."

July 8, 2012


I have harped on my students about strong verbs until I feel like a repetitive robot. I have practiced choosing the precise noun, and they roll their eyes when I look at their writing and ask, "What KIND....(?)" of bug, or desk, or dog or game.

And then there are adjectives. Not so harpy about those, but they do have their place. Tons of blogs about writing warn, "Not too many adjectives; no one will take you seriously" and other such platitudes. Well, I think kids need to learn that when you are short of verbs in a couple of paragraphs, you had better have some adjectives. I have done my own research in children's novels, with a sample of 16, and it is true that J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Rick Riordan, and others use this rough math equation.

Adjectives are the words that create the most hilarity in Mad Libs. They are what make-up about 1/4 of our English Language. They are what make poetry leap off the page. They are also what sports reporters use well.  Or overuse. 

"The flimsy pitch reeled through the suspenseful air."
"There were even hints of their lethargic 118-108 victory Sunday against an undermanned and injured Sacramento team."
"Wimbledon, the oldest of the Grand Slam events, remains beautifully suited to Federer's Swiss army knife of a skill set."

You decide.

Adjectives are what kids can struggle with because they know they want to say, "The Waterpark was awesome," but their teacher - or someone like me - has told them that "awesome" is a tired word. So they reach into their lexicon of words and can't quite find a synonym. 

Time for the Thesaurus? Maybe. Remember, that is not a tool to be used without adult supervision, because just dunking a fishing rod into there and retrieving the first word encountered results in sentences like this, from one of my students, an almost 6th grader:

The slides at the Waterpark were majestic and we had a jocular day.

The cost of trying to avoid awesome and fun.

Using the Visual Thesarus is a great strategy, and so much more motivating (!) yet still it needs a tag attached to it: "Do not use without Adult Supervision." Caveat: $19.95 a year.

So....what do the new Common CORE Standards say?

Here is a snippet from Grade 6-8:
Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.

My kid-friendly version of that is "Show Don't Tell" and "...use words that will make your readers see what is in your imaginative mind."
And, of course, I show them how their favorite authors use precise words. Wimpy Kid doesn't count as a model, though. Wimpy words. Imprecise. Okay, okay, not every page. I am such a curmudgeon about that series.

Ooops. I was supposed to be talking about Word Precision and Adjective Use.

I am sticking with my rough equation.
Paragraphs need either solid strong verbs, OR precise adjectives, but not both.

And precise nouns are always called for.