Word Choice–BIG in the Common Core

Word choice gets major emphasis in the CCSS–not only in the writing standards, but also in those for language. The Standards stress clarity above all else, and this makes perfect sense. If we can’t make ourselves understood, what’s the point of writing at all? But here’s the catch: How on earth do we teach people to write clearly?

3 Steps to Better Word Choice

Traditionally, clarity has been taught through marginal comments, not all of them kind. Perhaps you recall receiving some of these sprinkled on the margins of your own writing: Awkward! Unclear! Give an example! Say what you mean! A colleague remembered one of her college professors writing this: Just spit it out! Well, at least he was clear.

While no one would cite labeling, shouting, and name calling as the top three instructional techniques, sometimes it IS difficult to know how to help students who cannot seem to express their thoughts clearly. We want to suggest a couple of things that can help:

1. Whenever possible (and it isn’t ALWAYS possible, we realize) encourage students to choose their own topics. This increases personal investment, upping the odds that the writer will either (a) know something about the topic already, or (b) like the idea of researching it. A lot of vague writing results from the writer simply not knowing much about the subject, and so relying on generalities and repetition to fill the page.

2. Encourage students to talk to each other (in pairs or small groups of three) about their topics prior to writing. (Sidebar: We often ask students to share work after they write, but sharing prior to writing can be even more valuable.) Students can take about five minutes each to introduce their topic to this small audience, summarize what they find interesting, and ask listeners what they’d like to know. This kind of oral rehearsal gets the writing engines humming, and clears away many linguistic cobwebs before they can ever drip onto paper. It is time well spent.

3. Have students practice revising other people’s vague writing. Where will you find examples of this? Oh–everywhere. Look around: newspapers, business PR documents and announcements, advertisements, boiler plate letters and memos from government offices or other agencies, textbooks, editorials, reviews–a very large percentage of the writing all around us could use revision. Start today making a collection, and within a month, you’ll have numerous ready-to-go lessons that will engage students because they represent real writing. If nothing else, students will learn this important lesson: Just because it’s published, that’s no sign it’s well-written.

Preparation for Testing

Much of the upcoming testing based on the CCSS will be performance-based, not multiple choice. What does that mean? In the case of writing, it means students may be asked to write original pieces or revise others. They may be asked to come up with a lead or ending for an existing piece–or suggest ways of making unclear writing comprehensible. So–why not begin now?

One Example

Here’s a real piece of writing that I received a few years ago from a district (that will remain anonymous) asking for volunteers to help sort out budget difficulties and make recommendations to the local School Board. I was quite stunned to receive this note, finding both the tone and the content a little surprising, but saved it to use as a word choice lesson–and after waiting a couple of years (I didn’t want to appear to be pointing fingers), I took it to a high school class so they could try revising it. In the next post, I’ll share the results of that lesson. But meanwhile, here’s the memo:

It may be in your objective interests to know that we are in the process of doing a budgetary analysis (through a procedure known as conjoint analysis) to determine how funds may best be spent to meet the impending needs of teachers, students, and others within the community. Conjoint analysis is best understood as a critical technique employed by marketing firms to develop products whose salient characteristics comply with a company’s primary market demands. A clear example is the recent revival of the Volkswagen. Key to this process is assembly of a voluntary committee to facilitate decision making. Only 4 hours of your time are required! Please give consideration to this request. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated!

If you decide to use this with students, these are my suggestions:

1. Print the copy out, double spaced.

2. Read the memo aloud first, and ask your class for reactions.

3. Try, as a class, to determine the primary message: What is the writer trying to say?

4. Also identify the audience. Who will receive this? Are the message and tone appropriate for that audience?

5. Pass out the copies of the memo, and encourage students to read it more than once. They should begin thinking of ways to revise it, and mark it up any way they wish.

6. Have students work in teams of two to create an actual revision. There are NO RULES other than to retain the central message. They may delete anything at all, add sentences, revise any wording, etc.

7. When they finish, have them read their revisions aloud to themselves first–and make any finishing touches. Then, ask for volunteers to share their revisions aloud with the class as a whole, and discuss results.

Note: This is not an easy task. It calls for thinking, and that will be at the heart of CCSS assessment. Students will be required to think, plan, and problem solve. This particular activity is suitable for high school students and many middle schoolers–it would be a challenge for most elementary level writers, but advanced elementary writers could give it a go. If you decide this particular memo is too hard for your students to tackle, find an example more suited to their reading level and follow the same steps. Keep the sample fairly short. The one I have shared here is about the maximum length I would ever use. A sample of two or three sentences in length might be appropriate for young writers. 

Advantage to This Type of Practice

Students do most of their revision and editing practice on work they have written themselves. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near enough practice to promote proficiency because students simply do not write enough. If they were writing several pages a day, every single day, that amount of practice would come closer to meeting what’s needed for real improvement. But that isn’t realistic in most classrooms, and even if it were, there would still be a problem: As writers (and readers), we simply do not see our own text the way we see that of others.

This isn’t a matter of pride–imagining we’re better writers than we really are. No, there’s a very simple explanation. The intended meaning of everything we write lives in our heads, even if it stubbornly resists showing up on the page. And so, we often wind up reading what we meant to say, rather than what we said. To make matters even more complicated, as we reread our own writing, we always know what’s coming–we wrote it, after all. So there’s little motivation to read our own work attentively, hanging on every word, as the saying goes. We skim and skip along, often leapfrogging over whole passages. No wonder we often fail to notice missing words or punctuation, misspellings, repeated words or phrases, grammatical lapses, and whole departures from logic.

But–there is hope. By practicing on the work of others, students develop a much sharper eye–and ear–for catching problems or inconsistencies. Practicing revision is, in fact, such an effective technique that you almost cannot do too much of it. With routine practice in revision of others’ work, expect to see significant improvement in students’ ability to revise their own work.

A challenge . . . Even if you’re not teaching right now, try revising the previous memo yourself. That way, you can compare your revision to that of the high school students (which we’ll post shortly). It’s fun–and such comparisons teach us many embedded lessons about revising well.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, we’ll share a follow-up post containing a high school revision of the conjoint analysis memo. Expect to be surprised!! And in weeks to come, we’ll discuss Conventions and the Common Core, and post reviews of some new books that have captured our attention this year. Thanks for stopping by, and if you enjoy our posts, please share our blog address with friends. Remember, for the best writing workshops combining traits, standards, writing process and workshop, and literature, please call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.