Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Make ‘Em Laugh: Expanding Students’ Descriptive Vocabulary

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


If you were asked what mode of writing you enjoy teaching most, what would you say? Argumentation? Comparison? Process? I’d probably choose two: narrative writing and descriptive writing. To justify my choice, I’d most likely mention the inherent versatility of these two modes. Each can be used at several proficiency levels, each can incorporate a variety of grammar structures, and each can be employed to facilitate the expansion of students’ vocabulary.

The Usual Road

Narrative as well as descriptive writing can accommodate and foster the use of expressive vocabulary. Yet there’s often a problem with these modes. They seem to allow too easily the use of vague vocabulary. Students writing in these modes choose verbs like “go,” “see,” “say,” and “think” frequently and verbs such as “meander,” “peek,” “ramble,” and “reflect” rarely. The tendency seems to hold even when students know two or three viable synonyms for “go,” “see,” etc. Nevertheless, students can be cajoled into using suggestive verbs such as “meander” and “peek” as well as graphic adjectives such as “cozy,” “dank,” and “agile.”

But how to cajole? That is the question.

I’ve often instructed students to refer to the senses, use color words, create similes, and avoid certain non-descriptive words when writing descriptive pieces. I’ve utilized the old “show me, don’t tell me” technique when instructing students in narrative writing. I’ve even created the “imagine the movie set” approach to get students to think about the finer details of what they have seen or imagined. I’ve used all these older and newer methods to pretty good effect, I think. They’re concrete enough, and students tend to respond to them.

Still, one alternative stands out in my mind as both natural and effective: the way of humor.

A Road Less Traveled

The way of humor is easier than many think, and it can result in the instinctive reaching for dictionaries and the desperate snatching of explicit words. The key instruction is this: Try to make your reader laugh.

Out of a combination of pedagogical intention and curiosity, I added a few potentially comedic themes to a list of writing topics recently. One theme for a narrative paragraph read “How Lucy Flunked out of Kindergarten.” One for a descriptive essay was “The Worst Restaurant in Town.” More than a few students have chosen one of the comical themes in the list since then, and several have reported that they naturally “spiced up” their papers with graphic images and vivid details in order to amuse the reader. Amused the reader has been, and I’ve been chuckling too.

Reading one “How Lucy Flunked” paper, I learned that Lucy wore some rather strange clothes to kindergarten, but the fact wasn’t expressed as dryly as that. No sir. Lucy’s ankle-length skirts always had ten rows of safety pins in them, and most of the safety pins were unfastened so they nicked other kids. (I was told that “safety pin,” “unfasten,” and “nick” were the words the student really needed to include, and so simply had to look them up in a dictionary!)

From a “Worst Restaurant” paper I learned that the restaurant floor wasn’t just “dirty,” but…,well, I’ll spare you the description of the substances that were splattered on the floor, the foreign matter that was hiding in the corners, and the smells drifting around the place. Oh, yes– it was quite an unappealing scene, but one which was “beautifully” detailed!

I have to say that I’ve been somewhat inspired by such successes. I think I’ll continue along this road awhile. The way of humor feels good and works well.

Have you used any writing tasks that incorporate humor?


Comment from Claire
May 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Thanks for the great ideas Ela. I look forward to using them in my next ESL composition class in the fall.

Comment from Ela Newman
May 26, 2010 at 12:16 am

That’s great, Claire! I hope they come in handy. I’m planning to experiment with humor a bit more as well. I think I’ll add some “comedy” to my list of prompts for a process paragraph, and perhaps replace topics such as “How to Make a Friend” with “How to Lose a Friend,” etc.

We’d love to hear about how your students responded to humor-based writing activities. Keep us posted!

Comment from Reeka
May 26, 2010 at 3:39 am

I checked your blog and really liked it.
I’m glad I’ve found it, it’s really useful.
I’m just about to start an English teaching blog, if you have some time you could take a look at it and tell me you opinion.
Thank you: Reka

Comment from Ela Newman
May 26, 2010 at 10:28 am

Hello, Reeka! I’m glad to know that you’ve found my latest blog useful. I’ll definitely have a look at your website. Good luck with your big project!

Comment from Ogusan
May 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Thanks for having me notice the importance of humor in writing as well as speaking. In the coming summer I am supposed to hold a seminar for English teachers’ license renewal.Then I’m going to talk about project-based teaching.I’d like to put humor-based writing as one of the project work.It’ll be fun.

Comment from Ela Newman
May 27, 2010 at 2:58 am

Thank you for your comment,Ogusan. Only recently have I begun to notice that students tend to use more descriptive vocabulary while working with humor-based tasks, and I hope to discover other (maybe even less known) advantages of using comedy in an ESL classroom. I’m sure the English teachers you will be working with in the summer will have many fun ideas to share.

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