Seventh and Ninth Grade Writing Excercises: Candy, Biographies, and E-Prime

By Miller, Sally | et Cetera, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Seventh and Ninth Grade Writing Excercises: Candy, Biographies, and E-Prime


Miller, Sally, et Cetera


I HAVE DEVELOPED two writing lessons that students seem to enjoy. One involves candy. The other includes the writing of illustrated autobiographies.

The Seventh Grade Class

I begin my seventh grade writing exercise by giving each student a piece of candy, not as a reward, but as an object to observe. We then explore how observing before writing and the use of E-Prime relates to more precise language use. I have found that this presentation often generates enthusiastic and excited class discussions -- students learn to improve their writing, and they have fun.

I discovered E-Prime (writing and speaking English without employing the verb to be) while at graduate school. I felt so enthusiastic about this semantic tool, I used it in developing my Master's thesis, which examined if E-Prime could aid freshman composition students at South Dakota State University at Brookings. (Miller, 1997a, 1997b)

After graduating with an MA in English in 1997, I began teaching high school English in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. I felt excited about wanting to share the benefits of E-Prime with other teachers, and especially with my students. While teaching E-Prime to college freshmen between 1995 and 1997, I had also presented a substantial amount of the underlying theory. Now, I would teach E-Prime to younger students without giving them much theory.

At my first Belle Fourche English curriculum meeting, I mentioned that I use E-Prime in my formal writing. During a break, some teachers asked if I would give an in-service presentation on E-Prime, but at that time other work prevented me from doing so.

A few months later, the seventh grade language arts teachers and classes read The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Parts of this novel draw attention to extremely careful use of language. These teachers remembered that I had spoken of E-Prime, and they felt that E-Prime would possibly blend well with the aspect of "precise" language discussed in that novel. They asked me if I would give presentations on E-Prime to the seventh graders. How ecstatic I felt! This time I made sure that I had the time.

The seventh grade language arts teachers took turns auditing my presentations to their classes, because they too wanted to hear about the advantages of using E-Prime. I gave these presentations to four classes, about 100 students altogether.

I began by giving each student a "Starburst" candy. I asked the students to unwrap the candy carefully and observe the piece of candy through their five senses.

"Observe what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch," I said. "Then write a paragraph or two, describing the candy."

I had the students write for five minutes. I based this exercise on a principle articulated by educational consultant and writer Ralph Fletcher that a writer needs to write from experience and familiarity. (Fletcher, 1993; p.46) This activity also helps students examine facts before verbalizing, to develop an extensional orientation by giving attention to the Object Level ("facts") first, then dealing with the related structures on the symbol level ("words," writing, etc.).

After the students had written for about five minutes, I asked them to read aloud some of their sentences. On an overhead transparency, I wrote some of their sentences which contained the verb to be. In my request for readings, I had said nothing about the verb to be. I had just asked them to give me some of their "best" sentences. Consequently, some of the students offered several sentences which did not contain the verb to be, although these students had not intentionally written them in E-Prime.

Nevertheless, we had plenty of non-E-Prime sentences (containing the verb to be) to work with. Directing attention to the to be sentences displayed by the overhead projector, I briefly discussed the "precise use of language," in the context of E-Prime, precise language, and the novel The Giver. …

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