Practicing Writing: The Ten-Minute Essay and Standard Written English (4)
Question: How did I, RayS., help students understand the difference between an informal style and standard written English?
Answer: The ten-minute essay (continued).
What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, From Passive to Active in High School English.
With the second round of the ten-minute essays, I began to show the students how to use standard written English.
I eliminated contractions.
I replaced “There” with the actual subject of the sentence. “There are six ingredients in this salad.” “This salad contains six ingredients.” I also avoided beginning a sentence with “It”: “It was a great achievement.” “His achievement was truly outstanding.”
I eliminated needless repetition of words and expressions. I demonstrated three methods for “tightening” their expression: Sometimes dropping one of the words worked. Sometimes substituting a synonym worked. Usually rewriting the sentence was the best method for eliminating unnecessarily repeated words.
I demonstrated how to provide clear references to the demonstrative pronouns. Example: “The team worked hard to improve their foul shooting. This practice helped them to make more than 70% of their free throws.”
I substituted concrete nouns for “thing” and more precise verbs for “get,” “getting,” and “got.”
I encouraged use of the active vs. passive voice.
Parallel Structure: What occurs on one side of the coordinate conjunction must also occur on the other side of the conjunction. “He likes to hunt and fishing.” Corrected: “He likes hunting and fishing.” “He likes to hunt and to fish.”
Dangling Modifier: “Coming home, the steps tripped him up.” Corrected: “Coming home, he tripped on the steps.” In the dangling modifier, the subject appears to be “the steps.” The steps were not coming home, he was.
Misplaced Modifier: “Ms. Smith, the explorer, described her trips through the jungle in our social studies class.” Corrected: “In our social studies class, Ms. Smith, the explorer described her trips through the jungle.” Place the modifier as close as possible to the word being modified.
Why Demonstrate Standard Written English?
The purpose of this approach to the ten-minute essay was not to eliminate conversational use of language in writing. Conversational writing has its advantages. Its style invites the reader to join the writer in a somewhat intimate partnership. The purpose of the second round of 10-minute essays was to make students aware of how to write formal standard English. I wanted to prepare students for the times they would need to use standard written English.
During the three weeks in which I used the ten-minute essay, the students wrote during the first ten minutes of class. Involving students immediately at the beginning of class settled them. The ten-minute essay helped students to form the habit of writing. In the first three weeks, I focused on basic skills in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. In the second cycle of three weeks, they learned to distinguish between an informal style and formal standard written English.
Results? In the first cycle of three weeks, inevitably, students’ mistakes occurred fewer times. In fact, frequently their ten-minute essays became mistake-free. In the second cycle of three weeks, they began to form the habit of using standard written English.
Ultimately, the students told me that the ten-minute essays helped to give them confidence in writing.