Archive for Tag: writing topics

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tabloid Fever: Rousing Students’ Zeal for Emotion Vocabulary

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

College Life– I’ll put that one in pile A.  Recycling– Pile B.  Male-Female Communication– That one should probably also go there in pile A.  Fast Food– I’ll add that to pile B, at least for now. Celebrity Gossip– Definitely pile C.

ESL Lessons and Newspaper/ Magazine Articles: Piles A, B, and C

Like many of you, I suspect, I have developed an ESL teacher’s eye for newspaper and magazine articles.  Even when I read one out of personal interest or idle curiosity, I speculate by reflex about how I might use some of it in an ESL lesson.  I tear out and stockpile articles, or pages from articles, that strike me as worthy reading material.  In pile A go the current, student-relevant, and interestingly controversial pieces.  Pile B contains pieces on significant but comparatively stale topics, pieces I usually consider “emergency reading material.”  The pieces that end up in pile C are worth less or worthless; I can’t always decide.  We’re talking gutter press, basically.  The pages in pile C present scandalous or shocking news and they are loaded with hyperbole.  Ordinarily, I’d use pile C items only to illustrate variety in media language.

But that changed recently…

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Auxiliary Topics for Students’ Journals

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

I love black cats. I love black cats. I love black cats.” This is how one of my fellow EFL student’s English journal entry started, and continued.  The same line echoed on for an entire page, and, believe it or not, that redundant block of sentences was actually submitted as a weekly journal assignment.  In all fairness, however, the prompt for the assignment, which read: “Write on anything you’d like.” (and which had been used all semester long) was sort of begging for it.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, that instructor’s journal entry comments showed little more creativity or compassion.  They took one of two forms- “Interesting entry!” or “Thank you for sharing!”.

I think that course must have set some kind of dye, because I had, as a learner of English, a kind of aversion to journal assignments afterwards.  Truth be told, I’ve had a kind of aversion to assigning journal writing as an instructor of English.

The big issue in my mind is how to make journal writing constructive. Some of the questions that have plagued me are:

“Do I grade them on those assignments?”

“Do I really ignore even the most glaring mistakes?”

“How often do I assign journal writing?”

“Do I make specific in-text comments, or do I make one summary comment at the end, or do I make both?”

“What topics do I use?”

“Do I in fact have time to read and comment on all entries if journal writing is just one of many components of the curriculum?”

Though I’ve answered each of these questions more than once, I can’t say that I’ve come up with many usable conclusions.  I’m still very much in the middle of the process of discovering what works.

However, I have determined one rather surprising thing: my students, on the whole, value journal writing not only as a safe, personal, and meaningful monologue (or dialogue), but also as a potential learning tool.  I think this is positive, and helpful.

Students clearly appreciate not having their journal writing corrected, but they also seem to expect to be taught, directed, or challenged.

Below are some alternatives to the prompt “Write on anything you’d like.”  As they must, they allow for the free flow of creative ideas, but they also direct students in one or two tasks as well as challenge them a bit.  I’ve substituted these topics now and then for prompts focusing on students’ narratives, responses to readings, or reflections on a theme.

Task-oriented journal writing topics: I’ve asked students to…

1. imagine that a classmate did not quite understand the meaning of, let’s say, an idiom that I used in class and explain it to that classmate in writing, thinking about how they understood it, about what examples they would give to illustrate the meaning, and about what helped them memorize the phrase; or

2. record progress on a group project they are working on, thinking about how much they have done, what the biggest difficulties have been, what aspects of the project have been fun or have given them a sense of pride; or

3. re-read their first or second journal entry and select a few sentences which they consider a bit weak and improve those sentences, adding more details, replacing some words with more advanced or exact vocabulary, or rewriting with the use of a “freshly learned” sentence structure; or

4. brainstorm and cluster ideas for their next paper, and ask me (in writing) any questions they have about that assignment; or

5. look for a short text (story in the textbook, a brief article, a letter to the editor) and imagine that they are a co-writer, think about what they might add to the text, and create a paragraph that could be inserted into the text.

Last semester I informally polled my students to check which three of our task-oriented journal topics they’d suggest that I use with my students next semester.  The winners were… (drum roll… drum roll…): “help a fellow student understand some material”, “improve your old journal entry”, and “co-author an article.”  I’ll gladly be following their advice.

Do you assign journal writing in your classroom?  What works for you?

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?