Contact us through this e-mail address with questions/comments about this lesson: Corbett@CorbettHarrison.com
From a grammatical standpoint, I believe verbs are the most important part of speech to learn a lot about when trying to improve one's writing. Dull verbs (or overuse of linking verbs) create dull writing, be it narrative, poetic, informative, or argumentative . I purposely teach my students to power-pack their sentences by showing them how to transform verbs into nouns (gerunds) and verbs into adjectives (participles). The lesson on this page is a great one for introducing students to the importance of using strong verbs during drafting or revising.
An Adaptable Lesson from the Harrisons' Classroom to Your Classroom:
|How this free-to-use lesson came to be online: My wife, Dena, and I taught English-- reading & writing, speech & debate, journalism & media studies--for 56 combined years before both officially retiring at the conclusion of the 2018-19 school year. We've had a lot of years to develop passion about certain teaching topics, and focusing on unique ways to teach writing has become a combined passion for both of us. After I earned my Master's Degree in Educational Technology way (way!) back in 1999, Dena and I decided to establish a website and begin freely posting our favorite lessons and resources that we created and successfully used during our time in the classroom.
We began this online task by--first--creating WritingFix in 1999, and there we began posting writing methodologies and techniques from our own classrooms. Two years after WritingFix had been established, we teamed with the Northern Nevada Writing Project for several years, and through their popular inservice classes, we began adding the ideas of many Nevada teachers who enrolled in those classes for recertification credit. When the federal budget floundered in 2008, the NNWP was no longer able to sponsor WritingFix in any way shape or form, but Dena and I keep the site online through user donations and our own monies..
In 2008, we began creating this newer website with writing lessons that specifically focused on our favorite topics and techniques for writing instruction: 1) the six writing traits; 2) writing across the curriculum, 3) writing lessons that differentiate, 4) writer's notebooks, and 5) vocabulary instruction. This "Always Write" website has been growing--month by month--since the summer of 2008. Below, you will find a lesson we posted to inspire a unique type of writing.
Thanks for checking out this month's lesson, and if you have any questions about it, don't hesitate to contact us using this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
an introduction/review that shows how action verbs improve writing
Fetching the Binoculars
students practice both writing badly and writing well about doing a simple action, exploring how verbs improve or weaken the writing
I dedicate this lesson to Nancy Thomas, a dear friend who graduated from our University with a teaching degree the same year I did. Nancy and I became fast friends in grammar class, where she struggled and I didn't, and she showed me how everyone can't be taught grammar in the same way. Knowing Nancy helped me to understand the importance of differentiating instruction when teaching the logistics of language--like grammar, parts of speech, and other writing conventions.
Quick Overview: Students will analyze a fun, action verb-packed paragraph from 2012's Newberry-winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt by the hysterical author, Jack Gantos. The paragraph "shows" the books main character getting some binoculars for his mother from his father's storage case in his garage and workshop, and it's fun to analyze how such a simple task can be acted out with such a variety of quality action verbs. Students will practice using good verbs by creating their own action verb-packed paragraph based on a simple task they do regularly at home.
Essential Questions/Objectives/Mentor Text Suggestions:
Basic: How do I spot an action verb? How do I identify a linking verb? How do I know it's not just a helping verb?
How do action verbs improve the quality of writing, especially from a reader's perspective?
Advanced: How might one describe a place that is very still using only action verbs?
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.*.5.B -- Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., cause/effect, noun/verb, subject/predicate) to better understand each of the words.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.*.3.B -- Maintain consistency in style and tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.*.10 -- Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.
Personal praise for the cited mentor texts: First, let's talk about the main book I use here-- Dead End in Norvelt. I personally loved this Newberry Winner. I don't think there are enough young adult novels out there that try to make me laugh out loud while reading them, so I appreciate Jack Gantos. The story is about an entire summer of being grounded when you're just a kid. It's a weird, wonderful tale about a weird and wonderful town that I share excerpts from all year long. I have already shared (as a read-aloud) the scene where the main character, while out on his first deer hunt, attempts to silently pass gas as a means of saving the beautiful deer his father has his hunting sights aimed at; because of that read aloud, there is now a lengthy list of students who want to check out my only classroom copy. In addition to being genuinely funny, the book also contains great descriptions of real stories from history that I know will spark an interest in researching them further; Gantos' well-written explanation of John F. Kennedy's herculean and heroic acts from World War II are fabulous, and his wonderful narratives focused on the coincidental July 4th deaths of both Thomas Jefferson & John Adams will fascinate the kids. And if that's not enough, the beautifully-written obituaries found in the town's newspaper, well, I'll be sharing those for a new lesson I am developing on writing tributes that praise people. This is a good book for a teacher to own! Lots of possibilities in its pages.
Brian Cleary's To Root, To Toot, To Parachute is a picture book I put on display or share from whenever we are reviewing action verbs. Here is a notebook lesson I created that imitates this mentor text's three-line poetry style. These are fun to write: Verb Invigoration Lesson
And finally, I've used Vicki Spandel's The 9 Rights of Every Writer as a personal mentor text for most of my career. She challenges teachers to create a classroom environment where students feel that writing is a privilege to practice, not an insipid chore. One of the rights from her book is called, "The Right to Write Badly," and when I have the students purposely write badly because of bad verb choice, it is this right from Spandel that is inspiring me. I personally use the "right badly" strategy often. When I feel frustration as a writer, or I am idea-less, I often choose to spend my ten minutes of daily Sacred Writing Time being silly with writing skills that I know are bad. Writing badly proves to me that I know how to write better than what I am putting down. I am inspired to purposely write badly from time to time, and it works with my students as well. By the way, The 9 Rights of Every Writer was part of my presentation at the 2019 NCTE Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. All my presentations from conferences remain on-line for teachers to freely peruse.
Setting the stage: Thanks to already teaching our Classroom of Logophiles lesson, my students are now quite skilled with discovering what we call "25-cent" words. Mostly, I find, they are discovering "25-cent adjectives," and this lesson is designed to shift their thinking towards verbs. Adjectives (and adverbs) give sentences fluff, which may or may not help the writing. But verbs, verbs give sentences power. As Ralph Fletcher says in Live Writing (which my fifth and sixth graders read cover to cover), "Invigorate your verbs!"
In my writing classroom, I forbid the words 'get' and 'got' and all their forms when my students write. I actually think it's wrong to forbid students words, but I always have a huge group of students who will use the laziest verbs they can (get and got, being incredibly lazy verbs because they mean too many things) unless I forbid a few words from time to time.
I don't forbid linking verbs or write them on gravestones and label them as classroom "dead words." My goodness, linking verbs are essential to writing; if I wrote only in action verbs, I'd probably drive you batty. The same thing goes for the word 'said,' whose use I have seen forbidden by some teachers when students write narratives. If I ever read a novel where only synonyms for the word said were allowed, I wouldn't read past the first chapter. Neither would you.
Synonyms are great in limited doses. "Showing writing " is great in limited doses. Action verbs are great in limited doses. Teach your writers to limit their doses with the tools you teach them to use.
My classroom mentor texts that helped shape this lesson:
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
To Root, To Toot, To Parachute
by Brian Cleary
The 9 Rights of Every Writer
by Vicki Spandel
To be honest , I don't truly forbid any words in my classroom; in conversation, classroom discussions, and heck, even in written dialogue, I allow my students to use the words get and got (and their various forms) as long as they understand that's why I'm letting them use those words in that instance. If we are working on quality sentences and written description, the "No get or got" rule goes into effect.
That's why--when I suddenly ask my writers just before starting our ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time--to write today using ONLY get and got as their verbs and to do it as much as they possibly can in ten minutes, they look at me funny. I insist that I am serious with this challenge; I tell them I think it will be easy for some of them but hard for others. Bad writers try to make writing easier for them by using lazy words, and got and get mean so many things, they are what I call non-specific action verbs. "I got mine!" could mean so many different things, so why befuddle your reader if you can learn to use better verbs.
For ten minutes, my students "Get down to it," and it's impressive for them to discover how many different ways they can twist using get or got into their writing, no matter what they're writing about. When they read it back to themselves or to their SWT Partners, they recognize it as weak writing, which is the point. I show them (once again) my copy of Vicki Spandel's The 9 Rights of Every Writer, explaining how this author believes all who are learning to write should have the right to write stinky sometimes. For fun. For reminding students of words or phrases you want them to use or not use--like get or got, in my classroom. Even great writers give themselves permission to just write terribly some days because it can feel therapeutic. Writing is hard. Anything you can do to make it feel lighter to one's head and heart is acceptable, as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, the sharing my students do when they share stinky or noisome writing is always a laugh riot. You'll most likely have a kid whose used got/get in every sentence, and that might deserve to be shared whole class. I'm always in a good mood when I'm writing if I do a purposefully stinky piece of warm-up writing.
At left, you can see a thumbnail image of a page I created for my writer's notebook that celebrates the idea of not using get/got even though that would be impossible. Feel free to share it with your students.
The lesson: Start the actual lesson by writing this sentence on the board: "I got the binoculars for Mom." Tell them it's not--in your opinion--the best sentence you've ever read or written. Ask them to talk with a partner and formulate as many synonyms (word or phrasal verb) for the word 'got' as they can based on the other context clue words in the sentence about the flashlight.
After sharing some of their best synonyms, talk about how vague the word got is. Share some different sentences side by side to show them how many different meaning the word can have.
- I got the flashlight. (meaning retrieved or fetched)
- I got really tired. (meaning became or felt)
- I got an 'A' on the vocabulary test (meaning earned or received)
- I got my parents mad at my brother last night. (meaning assisted in making)
- I got a new shirt. (meaning purchased or acquired)
- I got three of those! (meaning own or have in my possession)
And look how many different things got can mean in sentences like these:
- I got you! (meaning either tagged or supported or owned, as in a friend/partner, or...?)
- I got this problem. (meaning either possess or understand, as in math, or...? )
Explain for this writing challenge, they are going to attempt to write about some fairly simple actions without ever using the verbs get or got. This is the exact opposite practice we used when we wrote only with get/got in our writer's notebooks.
Time to share for the main mentor text! In chapter 14 (specifically on page 188 of my copy) of Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt, there is a ten-sentence paragraph about the book's narrator/protagonist getting (or fetching!) a pair of binoculars for his mother. To explain the paragraph briefly so you can read it out of context of the whole story, you can tell your students that in this part of the story the characters hear the town fire alarm and the fire (which is probably arson!) is visible but it's some distance from the house. The narrator's mom needs her husband's pair of World War II binoculars to see what's going on, and she asks her son to go find them. The binoculars are stored in the garage/workshop in a chest of war souvenirs. The J-3 mentioned in the passage is an airplane the father--who isn't home and doesn't like anyone going through his workshop--is attempting to restore; there is a picture of this J-3 soaring across the cover of the book, proving it's probably an important item to the whole story. With this contextual explanation in place, your students will be able to quickly navigate this paragraph.
Sorry, but I leave it to you to acquire (not get!) your own copy of that book's flashlight passage. I won't violate the copyright of a Newberry Winner!
Me? From my legally-owned copy of the book, I had my student aide type up the ten-sentence passage for this lesson so that I could double space it and make it easier for my student writers to circle words during the following activity. If you don't own your own copy of this great book, buy a copy or check one out from your library. It's a Newberry Winner! It should be easy to find. Again, the passage I use starts on page 188 of my copy of the book. It's worth looking for because it's one of the best verb-based passages I've found over the years.
Have students read the passage quietly to themselves first; then, have them work with one partner to see if they can circle every action verb used in the passage. There are 20 action verbs in this 10-sentence paragraph. I play this activity as a game because my kids are naturally competitive. For every action word the partners choose to circle that turns out to actually be a verb, they earn one point. For every word they circle that is not a verb, they lose two points. The highest point-earning partnerships earn silly stickers for their notebooks. A lame competition, but it works if you sell it...It worked for me for 30 years.
You may need to remind your students of a few verb facts before they begin reading:
- There are two verb types: action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive--probably don't need to tell them the difference for this lesson) and linking (or "state of being verbs," like was, is, are, etc.) verbs. For this activity they are looking only for the action verbs.
- Sentences must have--at least--one verb. Good sentences often contain more than one verb! 20 action verbs here, ten sentences--let them do the math!
- Helping verbs (like could, should, shall, will, etc.) help verbs, but they are not officially verbs by themselves. I repeat this like a mantra as the students attack this flashlight passage with their partners.
- Don't be fooled by verbs posing as adjectives. In this sentence--The girl was jumping rope at recess.--the word jumping is an action verb. In this sentence--The jumping frog won the contest at the fair.--the word jumping is being used as an adjective, and the word won is the actual verb of the sentence. One word can be many different parts of speech.
Years ago, I came to accept the fact that not all teachers know their grammar as well as others. I loved grammar in school. Loved. Loved. Loved it. It appealed to my logical brrain. If you are uncertain about finding the verbs in the passage yourself, below are the answers from this passage from Dead End in Norvelt. Please remember, grammar can be debate-able, and there are some sticklers out there who might call me on things like participles in the passage, but let's not go there with this. Let's keep this about being able to spot a lot of quality action verbs in a well-written passage:
- Sentence one's action verbs: grabbed, turned, started.
- Sentence two's action verbs: seemed, rise. The word was is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either. (Officially, seemed is also a linking verb, but let's not argue that point here.)
- Sentence three's action verbs: leaped, counting. The word were is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either.
- Sentence four's action verb: left.
- Sentence five's action verbs: slipped, pulled, trotted. The word were is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either.
- Sentence six's action verbs: lifted, leaned.
- Sentence seven's action verbs: kept. The word was is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either. Wrapped is an adjective in this sentence; the rifle is not wrapping anything, so it's not an action verb here!
- Sentence eight's action verbs: see, poking (out). Poking out is a actually phrasal (two-word) verb here; if they circle just poking, that's fine, but if they circle just out, then that's wrong.
- Sentence nine's action verbs: swung, make (out). Make out is a probably a phrasal (two-word) verb here too; they circle just make, that's fine, but if they circle just out, then that's wrong.
- Sentence ten's action verbs: grabbed, reversed.
I have partners exchange their circled passages with another set of partners. They correct each other's work and score for them. Passages are then returned. I ask, "Who's the winner?" and reward some extra credit stickers.
Next I ask, "What are the author's best three action verbs in this passage?" Reversed and trotted will just about always make the students' lists, but students will recognize that most of the verbs here are not what we call "25-cent" vocabulary words in my classroom. (For an explanation of this, see my Classroom of Logophiles lesson here at Always Write.)
I then challenge the partners to take one of the ten sentences with "less-than-25-cent verbs" and to rewrite or re-work it using 25-cent verb synonyms in place of the pre-existing verb. I discourage thesauruses for this; I'd rather hear what types of synonyms they know without needing any resource other than their partner's brains. If they do this quickly, challenge them to re-work a second sentence with a synonym. At the end, share the sentences with synonyms. Praise and write down the really excellent verbs they show you that they know.
Time for independent practice with an original topic On a different day, explain, "I'm going to show you four sentences--like the flashlight sentence we started with--that use got as their main verb. You are going to write--like Jack Gantos did--an eight- to ten-sentence paragraph full of action verbs that 'show me' the original sentence but never use the words get or got. Basically, you're going to take an 'I got the binoculars for Mom' idea, and you're going to turn it into an action-packed paragraph by yourself this time. You will earn a better grade if you use three to five '25-cent verbs' in your paragraph. Don't go beyond that; using too many 25-cent verbs can make writing sound forced and unnatural. Choose several strong 25-cent verbs to spread out and use in your paragraph. Here are your sentence choices":
- I got ready for bed.
- I got ready for school.
- I got my chore(s) done.
- I got the garbage can out to the curb just in time.
- I got ________ (acquire your teacher's approval)
After students have selected a "got" sentence from above, they spend five minutes brainstorming just action verbs they might use in their passage on scratch paper. I require them to brainstorm without a thesaurus first. If students show me twenty verb ides that came from their own brains (or from a conversation with someone sitting near them), then I allow them to poke through a thesaurus for longer words or new-to-them words. Always be careful with thesauruses. I had a sixth grader in my final year look up 'empty' to describe his backpack, and then he blindly damaged his own writing by using the synonym untenanted because it was the longest word under empty. Even when I explained how that word is intended for vacated buildings, not backpacks, he stubbornly refused to change it because he felt it meant empty, no matter what context he used the word in. That's what too much thesaurus work teaches our poorer writers, and then they need to be untaught. Teach them to read AND write context clues witth good words; don't teach them to iummediately run for the thesaurus.
After brainstorming, students compose their own paragraphs. Remind them this is not about cramming a bunch of 25-cent verbs into every sentence. Gantos doesn't do that, which is why his paragraph about fetching the binoculars sounded natural. Here are three examples for this exercise from my seventh graders' writer's notebooks:
|Better than: I got the garbage can to the curb just in time.
from Megan, a seventh grade writer
I woke up, hearing a loud noise from outside. I opened my window and could smell the disgusting scent. Then, I realized it was garbage day. I raced out of my room and grabbed a huge garbage bag and started collecting the trash. I looked out the window and saw the garbage truck at my next door neighbor’s house. I retrieved the rest of the garbage and stuffed it into the garbage bin. As I rolled the garbage bin down my driveway, the garbage truck stopped in front of my class at the same moment. I knew I brought the garbage bin down just in time.
|Better than: I got ready for bed.
by Jaysen, a seventh grade writer
Water drips down my face as I splash on that cool delight, cleansing all that has collected throughout the day. My toothbrush rigorously scrubs the food from my molars. I stumble down the hall once my mouth and face are fully sanitized. As I search for the light switch in the dark, my fingers touch the cool wall. The light that has come from the bulb stuns my eyes that have only just adjusted to the dark. I stare intently at the numbers on my clock. 11:12. My eyes are barely open as I tug back the sheets on my bed. I slap the light switch and feel as though I can hear the who-knows-what's and the what-knows-who's that weave their way through the walls. I feel my eyelids growing heavy as I collapse into the warm and comforting bed in which I sleep. I’m out before my head hits the pillow.
In this final student example, seventh grader Patrick shares both an original (with too many 'gots') piece as well as a improved paragraph:
|Using as many “gots” as I can
by Patrick, seventh grade writer
When I got woke up this morning, I got out of bed and got down the stairs. Then, I got the cereal and got the milk. When I got finished, I got dressed and got my teeth brushed. I then got the laundry and the garbage and got the dog water. Then I got the TV remote and watched TV all day before getting ready for bed.*
(*The right to write badly in action.)
|Better than: I got my chores done. |
by Patrick, seventh grade writer
After I finished brushing my teeth, I hopped over my sleeping dog and sprinted down the hallway to collect the laundry. I hoisted the basked over my shoulders and lugged it around the house, collecting dirty clothes as I traveled.
After I completed my task, I grabbed the dog’s water bowl and filled it to the brim. I crept back to the laundry room—where the dog’s bowl is situated—and colorfully lowered it to the ground. Next was my least favorite task: the garbage!
I slouched down the hall, reluctantly grabbing the garbage cans and emptying them into the big bag. Finally, I slogged back to Mom and reported my accomplishment. “Good job,” she told me.
And that is better than I got my chores done.
Revising & Editing Paragraphs: You certainly could assign this writing task as a single-draft assignment, but why not add some revision requirements, especially if you have a little time and are still teaching them the steps of the writing process. For revision, I put the students in groups of three, and each group member is given a set of trait-based questions to ask themselves about their group members' drafts. Here are the three sets of questions I give the three group members for this writing task:
- Idea Development: Did the writer use details that help the reader visualize where the scene is taking place? What was their best detail? Where might they add another detail?
- Organization: Did the writing begin and end with an interesting sentence? How might the writer improve his/her first or last sentence? Did the authors use transition words and phrases to connect the sentences and ideas?
- Voice/Word Choice: Did the writer use strong verbs/vocabulary in a way that still sounds natural, not forced? Which sentences sound the most natural or conversational? Which sentences sound the most forced, and how could they be improved?
As they read one other's drafts, I always ask them to try and spot spelling or punctuation corrections, if they spot something they suspect is incorrect.
Extending the lesson for students who appreciate a challenge: Using action verbs when describing oneself or a character doing action isn't that terribly difficult, but students forget to consciously think about their verbs when they draft or revise. This lesson attempts to make them more conscious of their use of verbs while writing, then while revising.
A harder challenge for students who find this lesson's writing task fairly easy is this: write about a setting that is mostly still, and write about it using only action verbs. "Think of an abandoned attic covered in dust. Can you write about a still place like that, using only action verbs?"
To give them a better idea, I share with students this wonderful verb passage from Stephen Kramer's Caves, found on page two of his book; coincidentally, it mentions flashlights too, but that was not an intentional connection I tried to make. This passage describes a limestone cave using only action verbs, and that makes it impressive.
|From Caves by Stephen Kramer:
Then, one day, footsteps break the stillness. Voices drift through the air. Flashlight beams cut across the darkness, lighting up a strange and wonderful sight. Stone icicles hang overhead. Smooth sheets of stone coat the walls. Huge pillars of rock connect the floor and ceiling.
To challenge your writers, consider having them creating an abandoned setting and describe it with only action verbs. It's tough, but it's do-able.
If you have students create strong action verb-packed setting descriptions, send them to us at email@example.com. We'd love to see the work your students are doing.
|August 15-September 15's
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Sacred Writing Time Slides
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...because launching your SWT for the Spring semester works too!
I created these "formula poems" with two purposes: 1) to build small group cooperation; and 2) to add a strong new word to our socratic seminars. The day or week before our next seminar, students group together to write one of these poems as a team.
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We were too!
Dena created these twenty-five reflective tasks for her students who were responding to chapters in novels. Each week, her students completed one new activity, and after four or five weeks into a novel unit , the students each had a small portfolio of writing about their book.
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Even if you don't purchase the entire set of twenty-five ideas from us, please use the three writing formats we share freely instead of summarizing a chapter one day in class.
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Begin this one on school picture day, or somewhere thereabouts...
Worst School Picture Day Ever Lesson
inspired by Margie Palatini's Bedhead
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