Specificity: A Quick, Effective, & Painless Writing Activity

May 17, 2020

"Teachers don't usually teach us how to fix stuff. They just say 'don't."


"I had the same experience in high school and college," I tell my students. "Until then, I always got 'C/S' and 'S/V' on my essays. I asked a couple times and my teachers would say, 'you're splicing your commas' and 'your subjects and verbs don't agree.' But I didn't learn how to fix them until I took a class called 'How to Teach Grammar.'"


I’m excited to share a simple activity which can be used in the classroom or during distance learning. It takes only a few minutes but has an immediate and potentially lasting effect on students’ writing.



Sometime in the first semester, after spending weeks establishing a culture of comfort, teamwork, respect, and growth, I let students know we’re going to be doing a few ungraded writing activities. I warn them they’ll be a little bit challenging but for the good of their communication. I also make it a point to say, "You’ll hopefully be a little comically frustrated with me but we can laugh about that frustration together. I promise you’ll be happy with the result."


Many teachers will argue “kids just need to write, about anything, without any goal but to write.” While I love the idea of students writing and especially  students writing about what they want, I’ve come to find students are strengthening some bad habits and then spending time editing ineffectively. 


This activity helps increase their specificity as a means of breaking those habits. And it works. It also strengthens their trust in me as a writing coach; that I’m here for them and we’re all working to get better. 



Specificity Practice Activity


1. The Rules. I provide a prompt, topic, or TED talk, and I ask students to not stop writing for 15 minutes, unless they are about to type one of the following words. They are not allowed to “go back and edit.” They must freeze in the moment, think about what they really mean, and type the more specific words instead of the listed vague ones.


Hopefully, I have a student ask what the problem with these words really is. To which I reply, “Nothing. They’re words. But they can get in the way of your clarity. They could keep your reader from understanding you. You know what you mean when you type 'it,' because your point is in your brain. But my telepathy fails often. I need the most specific words you can find.”


2. Instant, verbal feedback. I ask students to type the list at the top of their document and have them on the board as well and I warn them, "you must keep typing. I’m going to wander around and I’ll peer over your shoulder and tell you, 'you have an ‘it!’' 'Oops!! Two 'you’s!'" I make it a point to play-find a couple 'that’s' in a student’s work who I know will find it funny when I say "I'm kidding" after they demand "What! Wait! Where?!" We all laugh together and it's a reminder this is a low-risk activity. For students who will not appreciate verbal feedback, I simply point. I know it sounds odd but it's really ok. 


About three minutes into the exercise, students will audibly groan, throw their elbows on their desk, put a hand on their forehead, or deflate their shoulders. I just smile and empathize. "It gets easier, I promise."


3. Empathy and mini-lessons. I check-in with the class as I move from table to table, “How’s it going? Tough?” And usually I hear, “At first, but it’s getting easier.” About halfway through, I’ll have students pause and read their writing. And they’ll see it’s markedly better. Someone usually says, "I sound smarter. More professional." 


I remind students they are smart and they have good ideas to share, but their clarity has been part of the problem.


IT. At some point, a student will say, "I can’t get rid of this 'it.'" They're surprised when I guess their 'it' starts the sentence: “Does your sentence begin, 'It is important that…?'” and we stop for a quick mini-lesson: “flip your sentence!”


THAT. “I can't figure out what to type instead of ’that.’”


“Absolutely; probably our most common vague word issue. Check this out.” And I show them 6 options.


IS. "Why don’t teachers want us using ‘is?” 


“'Is' is fine. It’s powerful when used in certain ways. Emerson wrote, 'Envy is ignorance. Imitation is suicide.' Strong sentences will have 'is' as an equals sign. But when you use 'is' as a helping verb, your sentence lacks strength." We take 30 seconds to practice changing verb phrases to stand-alone active verbs and they keep typing.


Day 2: Easier.


Day 3: Done.


I didn’t have to collect, review, or score their work and I didn’t spend time providing written feedback. Students’ writing improved without writing pressure or adjustments to their grade. And they become more likely to let me guide them as they keep trying.



Can this be done remotely? 


When I had a meeting, I sat in our district office and had a split screen: one with our meeting materials and one with a conditionally-formatted spreadsheet (don’t be scared).


Our sub plan always goes directly to my students and I could see they had logged on and were watching one of their TED talk options. Soon I’d see responses populate the spreadsheet.


Because I gave students editing rights to the Specificity Spreadsheet (you can make your own or have a copy of mine), students were able to copy their typed responses from their own documents and paste them in the next available row. When they moved to the following row, they either saw their submission stayed white (Good job!) or turned purple (Dead words!). And so did I.


In three short, low-risk exercises, students broke their habits or at least could recognize when they use their vague words and how to fix them. 


Since the topics and spreadsheet can be used repeatedly, year after year, and there’s no grading involved, the teacher-time spent is close to nothing. And students’ writing improves without homework, repeated drafts, or peer editing. 





Better for students.

Better for teachers.

High learning expectations.


On to the next.



Fair warning: Some students will figure out they can change the color of their cell to white. I tell them not to worry; I have the Specificity Spreadsheet's edit history. 

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