Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pausing for Parts of Speech

Verlyn Klinkenborg shared the following exercise in Several Short Sentences about Writing (60).

Copy or print out a couple of pages by an author whose work you like....
Gather some colored pens or pencils.
Choose one color and circle all the nouns.
Pause to consider them.
Then choose a different color and circle all the verbs.
Pause again.
Ditto the articles, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.
Anything left over?
There shouldn't be.
This will clarify the parts of speech, and it will help you see how the author uses them.
Please reread that last sentence--the purpose statement--especially after "and."

Make this exercise less about stubbornly trying to identify every last word and more about appreciating the choices the author makes with words. In fact, feel free to nix  parts of speech from the list if some of them are new or burdensome to your student. The goal is to pause, observe, enjoy...and eventually imitate.

I wanted to attempt this exercise myself, so I casually paged through several chapter books to find a paragraph. I soon realized it wouldn't be as easy as it sounds and decided to drop my post.

Then I came back to it. I opened Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, copied the first page I saw, and began circling, first the nouns, then the verbs, until I ended with the prepositions.

This is *not* easy. When I moved onto a new color and a new part of speech, I would find ones I missed from the last color. It forced me to consider and reconsider words. At first, I followed instructions and paused to study words. Then I got swept away by the pursuit and forgot to pause. When I was finished, uncircled words remained.

The take-away?  Do this yourself before requiring it of your children! Or at least do it alongside them. And don't forget to pause.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Frog and Toad: Synonyms

Last week we used Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad Are Friends to take a closer look at punctuating dialogue. This week, let's use it to experiment with synonyms.
Frog ran up the path to Toad's house.
That's the first sentence of the first chapter.

Let's replace a few of the words and observe the shades of meaning.

  • Frog dashed up the sidewalk to Toad's cottage.
  • Frog scurried up the trail to Toad's cabin.
  • Frog scampered up the walkway to Toad's abode.

How about another one?
He knocked on the front door.

  • He banged on the front door.
  • He tapped on the front door.
  • He rapped on the front door.

With your students, start with Frog and Toad Are Friends or another easy reader. Find sentences to remodel several times, giving your kids the chance to pull from the deep well of vocabulary in their heads. If necessary, dip into a thesaurus. Compare the new sentences with the original one. What effect do the new words have on the sentence? Which sentence gives the clearest image?

For an added challenge, retell a chapter from the book, replacing as many words as possible.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ben Carson

Ben Carson, former pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has a great story. It's one to motivate an unmotivated student. It's one to encourage a discouraged homeschooling mama. I'll say no more but leave you to listen and enjoy.

This is the same story in a different setting.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Adjectives out of Order

Typically, when we use adjectives, we place them before the noun. 

Like this:
"I respond, but really I'm thinking about Plutarch showing off his pretty, one-of-a-kind watch to me" (Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire, 83).

Is it possible to place them after the noun?

In Harry Noden's Image Grammar, he talks about five brushstrokes to add power to writing. One of them is Adjectives out of Order, a tool writers use to vary the rhythm of their sentences and to give emphasis to the adjectives.

When writers shift adjectives behind the noun, they make possible a third adjective. So, instead of writing, "The elderly, tired, unsure woman shuffled to the counter," they write, "The elderly woman, tired and unsure, shuffled to the counter."

Notice in the examples below that commas surround the adjectives, unless they are at the end of the sentence in which case they are preceded by a comma.

Khaled Hosseini uses Adjectives out of Order often.
"I sat in the back row, carsick and dizzy, sandwiched between the seven-year-old twins who kept reaching over my lap to slap at each other" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 83).
"The wind, soft and cold, clicked through tree branches and stirred the bushes that sprinkled the slope" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 112).
"Words were exchanged, brief and hushed" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 114).
"He'd sit at the kitchen table with his flyswatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall, buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 366).
"His hair, short and brown, stood on his scalp like needles in a pincushion" (Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, 183). 
"Classy prose does not leap, complete and fully formed, from anyone's typewriter or computer or quill pen" (Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 38).
"She was very tall for a woman, slender and graceful, and moved slowly down the gangplank with the stately self-consciousness which happened to be the fashionable gait for a lady at the moment" (Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain, 54). 
"The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 13). 

If you'd like your students to focus on Adjectives out of Order, you'll find a thorough resource here.

For more mentor texts, go here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Stories, One Pattern

Who: Writers in the elementary years

What: After analyzing the parts of a story in two similar picture books, students write their own story with the same pattern.

1. If necessary, review the parts of a story, specifically character, setting, problem (or conflict), and plot. (These are not complicated stories, so the discussion can be brief and basic.)

2. Give students a story map.

3. Read The Enormous Carrot by Vladimir Vagin and discuss with students each of the blocks in column 1. Students fill in the boxes as thoroughly as possible. (Think of this as a note-taking or prewriting exercise. Complete sentences are not necessary.) 

For the "Anything else?" block, take time to appreciate anything unique the authors did in telling their stories (e.g. alliteration, repetition, smallest to biggest or biggest to smallest, etc.).

4. Read Berlioz, the Bear by Jan Brett and fill in the second column. 

5. Notice with your students that, while these stories have differences, they are fundamentally the same. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Are your students aware of other authors who have used the same pattern to tell their stories?

6. Now it's time for students to brainstorm a story of their own. Invite them to begin mapping their story in the third column.

7. Write, revise, and edit the story, preparing it to share with others.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Frog and Toad Teach Punctuation

How do you teach your students the rules associated with punctuating dialogue?

I mean, are they important to know? Can we ignore them?

I have The Jesus Storybook Bible within reach. Let's see how dialogue looks without punctuation. Hang on!

Saul! Saul! said the loud voice. Why are you fighting me? Lord? Saul answered who are you? I am Jesus said the voice. When you hurt my friends, you are hurting me, too. Saul's whole body trembled. Go to the city Jesus said I'll tell you what to do.

That obviously won't work. We need the rules for clarity.

But how do we teach them without crushing our students with tedium?

What about using Frog and Toad Are Friendsan easy reader by Arnold Lobel?

That sounds random, I know. The idea developed when I read that a professor teaches punctuation with Lobel's book. I don't know what his or her method is; I don't know the age group the professor teaches. An Internet search produced nothing. But the notion intrigued me. I borrowed a copy of the book from my library to see if I could get into the mind of that professor.

The first thing I noticed was the dialogue. I looked at Frog's and Toad's lines, trying to find a pattern in their structure.

I found six categories.

Category 1: Said first
Toad said, "Frog, you are looking quite green."

Category 2: Said last
"Today you look very green even for a frog," said Toad.

Category 3: Said in the Middle of a Sentence
"Then you get out of bed and let me get into it," said Toad, "because now I feel terrible."

Category 4: Said in the Middle of Two Sentences
"Don't worry," said Frog. "We will go back to all the places where we walked. We will soon find your button."

Category 5: An Exclamation
"Here is your button!" cried Frog.

Category 6: A Question
"Does Toad really look funny in his bathing suit?" they asked.

With those categories, I designed an assignment for students.

My objectives:
  • Students will connect rules to real reading.
  • Students will stretch their observation skills as they search for and evaluate the various categories of dialogue.
  • Students will apply what they learn to their own sentences.
  • As a bonus, students will write rules they observe.

You can treat the papers as a worksheet, or you can cut around the six rectangles and paste them in a Writer's Reference notebook.

You will find the sheets here. If you find them helpful, will you please let me know?

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Absolute Phrases

Absolutes add to a sentence, spicing it with specific and vivid description. In Harry Noden's words, absolutes "add to the action of an image" (Image Grammar 6). To identify them, look for nouns paired with participles. (Notice the bold pairs in the examples below.)

Khaled Hosseini uses absolutes often in his captivating prose.
"We would sit across from each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 3).
"I can still see Hassan up on that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly round face..." (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 3). 
"He was standing by the front door, dressed in white, hands tucked under his armpits, breath puffing from his mouth" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 44). 
 "Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault" (W. C. Heinz, "Death of a Racehorse").

For more mentor texts, go here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

An Olympic Project

With a week down and a week to go in the Sochi Olympic Games, are you ready for your kids to research and write about them?

When the Games were in China, I certainly was. To justify the many hours in the basement watching TV, I asked my girls to work together on an alphabet project. Their task was to think of a relevant topic for each letter of the alphabet, divvy up the letters, research and write short pieces about their topics, and display the finished pieces on a tri-fold display board.

My passive observers suddenly became active learners. They were required to think, observe, research, write and revise, cooperate, and display their learning creatively.

To help you begin, I've listed the topics my girls chose to highlight. The words in bold are applicable for any Olympic Games.

A rchery: a brief explanation of the sport and some of the winners in 2008

B ird's Nest Stadium: information about the size and cost of the stadium, and the time it took to construct it; a picture of the stadium

C eremonies: a description of the opening ceremony

D ecathlon: an outline of the two days of events

E questrian: a brief explanation of the sport

F encing: bullet points explaining the event as well as a picture of the gold medalist

G ymnastics: descriptions of four events

H istory: a short story of a fictional man who won the first games in 776 BC

I nspiring story: a true story highlighting the humility of one of the athletes during competition

J ohnson, Shawn: a short biography of this admired gymnast

K ey competitors: short biographies of favorite competitors in the Games

L ocation:  interesting information about China, including language, currency, time difference, population, famous landmarks, and popular religions

M otto: the motto of the Olympics

N ow and then: a Venn diagram comparing the original and 2008 Olympic Games

O ath: the oaths that the competitors and judges must pledge

P helps, Michael: a short biography of this accomplished swimmer

Q ualification: the process athletes go through to compete in the Olympics

R ings: a drawing of the Olympic Rings

S ponsors: two descriptions of commercials

T riathlon: a brief explanation of the event

U nderwater sports: a bulleted list of interesting information

V ictories: the medal count for the top three countries

W ater cube: a brief introduction to the location where the water sports occurred

eX tra special Olympics: a brief introduction to the Special Olympics, including its beginnings

Y ip yip hooray: a sentence telling how many world records and how many Olympic records were broken

Z illions of fans: quotes from friends (gleaned through e-mail) about which of the games is their favorite and why

Too much to accomplish in the next week or two? Invite another family to work with you. Or adapt the project to fit your students and the time you have available. (One possibility is to use the letters from SOCHI OLYMPICS, WINTER OLYMPICS, or simply OLYMPICS.) The point isn't to re-create what we did but to connect learning with current events. And to have something to show for all those hours in front of the flat-screen.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Vision for Writing

Please, please share this vision for writing with your students. Spectacular! You might even need a tissue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Grammar of Nonsense

Last night at a grammar presentation, I was asked to read an excerpt from Anthony Burgess's A Mouthful of Air. It began simply enough, but then I arrived here:

When I corkled the veriduct in morful wurtubs and, prexing the coroflock, chonted the furpool by crerlicoking the fark, wottled the duneflow by fonking the raketoppled purnlow and then asserticled the prert (in both slonces) through a clariform rarp of werthearkers.

Do I need I tell you what an exhausting sentence that is to sight-read? Try it...aloud!

Once home, I silently read and reread the sentence. Something is not right. I translated it and found the same problem. The first word seems to be the culprit. Eliminate when and all is well, unless, of course, I lack proficiency in the grammar of Nonsense.

My translation:

When I noticed the child in dirty overalls and, assuming the worst, beckoned the teacher by ringing the bell, called the principal by banging the office door and then led the students (in both classrooms) through a long list of questions.

I wonder if students can translate the sentence from Nonsense to English. Can they spot which words are verbs, nouns, and adjectives? What about participles? While they may not be able to explain the grammar, my hunch is that they can feel it.

If they need a little boost, they can do it in steps.

Step 1: Figure out the part of speech for each unrecognizable word.
Step 2: Rewrite the sentence with blanks, placing a clue (a part of speech) beneath each line.
Step 3: Read the result.

Try it yourself first and include your translation in the comments. Then let me see theirs!

And, if that is a hoot for you or your students, you may like playing around with Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" as well.

P.S. The idea for steps came from my daughter who saw what I was doing, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "It's like a mad lib, only there are a lot of blanks." Well, okay then.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Diary of a Critter

Who: Students in the elementary years

What: Write a diary from the perspective of a critter, as Doreen Cronin did in Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Fly, and Diary of a Spider.

1. Simply enjoy Cronin's books: the illustrations, the humor, the brilliant use of personification. (If you want to review personification or show your students examples of personification in movies, watch the video below. While you're at it, do a little Editing-on-the-Go and see if you can spot a spelling and grammar error. Tsk. Tsk.)

2. Notice similarities in each of the books. We'll start with the obvious: they are all diaries. (Phew, I'm glad we figured that one out!) They are written in first person. They mix fiction and non-fiction. (One excellent example is the June 7 entry of Diary of a Fly. Fly is nervously anticipating his first day of school (fiction) when he asks (fiction): "What if I'm the only one who eats regurgitated food?" (non-fiction). They have scrapbook pages, including pictures and captions. Anything else?

3. Brainstorm possible critters to study. Actually, anything non-human will be fine. Find books and websites about the topic. Read and study, recording interesting and important information on this sheet*. I recommend setting sources aside when it's time to write. Otherwise, it's very tempting to use another person's words with minor tweaking here and there.

4. Plan the diary. This sheet* might be helpful.

*I found these sheets at Writing Fix. For some students, they provide needed support. If your students can run with their ideas, no props necessary, by all means let them. Don't mush them into a mold.

5. Revisit the planning sheet (or first draft). Ask questions for revision. Is the order of the entries logical? Can any words be strengthened?  Can any sentences be reworded to make them flow better? Have you read the entries aloud to hear how they sound? Are there any words or sentences that confuse you or make you stumble?

6. Check the conventions: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. 

7. Ready the text for sharing with others (illustrations, a fun scrapbook page, a cool font, whatever will announce to potential readers that they must pick it up).

I'd love to see your favorite entry in the comments. Please share!

Note: Although the planning sheets come from Writing Fix, I did not take this lesson from there. It came from my own thinker. : )

A Second Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Woe Is I, Jr. Lessons: Wrapping It Up

I have written lessons to accompany Woe Is I, Jr., a grammar handbook for kids. You can read my introductory comments here.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12

Congratulations! You have completed twelve chapters of grammar study. You are practically an expert.

Actually, let’s check to make sure. Remember the Grammar Glossary you completed in the Introduction? Return to it now, this time filling in the column on the right.

And one more thing: at the beginning of this supplement, you pitched your tent on a line. Where do you put it now? Leave a comment to tell me which way your tent moved--or if it stayed put.


I leave you now with this quote from Carl Sandburg:

Additional Resources

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sentence Stalking #8

In Mechanically Inclined, Jeff Anderson teaches sentence stalking, a way to use mentor texts of any length to draw students' attention to an author's craft, the goal being to highlight what is done well rather than to take kids on an error hunt. This time our goal will simply be to imitate a style. Students whose sentences all sound the same may find this exercise helpful.

A mole, tired from tunneling along, discovered the mitten and burrowed inside.
 As soon as the hedgehog disappeared into the mitten, a big owl, attracted by the commotion, swooped down.
The bear, tickled by the mouse's whiskers, gave an enormous sneeze.

These three sentences, all quoted from Jan Brett's picture book The Mitten, have a similar structure. Do you see it?

A MOLE, tired from tunneling along, discovered the mitten and burrowed inside.
 As soon as the hedgehog disappeared into the mitten, A BIG OWL, attracted by the commotion, swooped down.
THE BEAR, tickled by the mouse's whiskers, gave an enormous sneeze.

No need to get bogged down with terminology. Observe the pattern; then use it as a springboard for students' original sentences. Include their best ones in the comments!

Note: For more Sentence Stalking, click the label in the sidebar.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Blog Worth Visiting

All because of a pin, I stumbled onto Wonder Farm, a website written by homeschooling mom Patricia Zaballos who "loves to write and wants others to love it too." I was immediately wowed by both her writing and content.

The pin was about writing workshop. What's there not to like about writing workshop?! It's an excellent way for students to write the content they want in the format they want for an audience of peers who give personal feedback. She had my attention.

I saw a post describing a method of research using post-it notes. Someday, and hopefully someday soon, I will find a student to test it.

Then I saw her eight-part series: "Becoming a Writing Mentor to Your Child." Now here is a campground where you can pitch your tent awhile. She writes lengthy posts explaining her philosophy on nurturing student writers, including practical tips for application.

Come with me. I'll take you on a quick tour.

In the first post, Zaballos contrasts a teacher and a mentor. During my homeschooling years, my teacher hat has constantly beckoned me. I've had to intentionally resist it and wear my mentor one instead. Which hat do you wear?

In part two, she contrasts two approaches to learning writing: scope and sequence, on one hand, and osmosis in a language-rich environment on the other. This one came easily for me from Day 1 of parenting; bathing my girls in words was one of my favorite parts of their younger years. On which side of the spectrum do you find yourself?

In the third post, Zaballos shares three "gems" she learned from Verlyn Klinkenborg, author of Several Short Sentences about Writing. I had never heard of this book before reading her post, but you can bet I've already placed a hold on it at the library. The gems further illustrate what it looks like to be a writing mentor, especially helpful to those of us who didn't grow up with one.

Typically, homeschooling moms think they must appropriate the "eye for an eye" philosophy when dealing with spelling and grammar. We all had to suffer through pages of spelling lists and grammar exercises, so of course our children should, too, right? Not if you want to mentor your kids. Zaballos shares her views and tips on spelling in the fourth post. Then, in the fifth part of the series, she does the same with grammar.

In part six, Zaballos offers a mother of reluctant writers advice for engaging her kids in the writing process. One of her more intriguing ideas is list-making. Seriously. Did you ever consider building paragraphs (and an essay!) from a list?

We learn in part seven how to offer positive feedback to students' writing because, after all, don't we all thrive more when we see what we're doing right rather than focus on what we're doing wrong? She continues in a similar vein as she wraps up the series with an eighth post.

If you've ever read something and thought, "Man, I wish I had written that!" you know how I feel now. This is good stuff. Really good stuff. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Poem of Excuses

Who: Students in the elementary grades

What: Joining poet Bruce Lansky, children gripe, groan, and grumble as they write their best excuses for why they can't write a poem.


1. Show Lansky's poem to your students, so they can read it aloud and count the excuses. (It must have been one of those "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad" days to write a poem!)

Here is Lansky's poem:

Forget it.
You must be kidding.
I'm still half asleep.
My eyes keep closing.
My brain isn't working.
I don't have a pencil.
I don't have any paper.
My desk is wobbly.
I don't know what to write about.
And besides, I don't even know how to write a poem.
I've got a headache. I need to see the nurse.
Time's up? Uh oh!
All I have is this dumb list of excuses.
You like it? Really? No kidding.
Thanks a lot. Would you like to see another one?
-Bruce Lansky

2. Set students loose to outdo Lansky's excuses with doozies of their own. If it helps to have a planning sheet, you can find one here.

3. Include your students' best excuses in the comments. I may need one or two of them if I ever have to write a poem.

Note: I found the original lesson here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Woe Is I, Jr. Lessons: Chapter 12

I have written lessons to accompany Woe Is I, Jr., a grammar handbook for kids. You can read my introductory comments here.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11

1. Read chapter 12.

2. Write two messages from a deserted island, one appropriate for an English teacher, one for a peer.

3. Will you share one or both of your messages in the comments?

Go to Wrapping It Up.

free clip art
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