Next time you write an email or construct a sentence for some writing purpose, look at your sentence. A sentence can offer a moment of peace, explode with energy, or lifelessly fade by the wayside. What is the difference? The verb.
Verbs are the engine of your sentence.
This call comes from an observation that the quality of writing coming from our students (and adults for that matter!) has diminished. Let’s try a strategy in our classrooms and challenge our students to make their verbs come alive.
Verbs basically fall into two classes: “passive” and “active.” Passive verbs are just that. Shy, unassuming, they allow the subject of the sentence to take charge. (Example: The ball is being thrown by me. (verb= is)) vs.: I threw the ball. (The verb (threw) takes control and moves the sentence producing a powerful statement). Do you know you can virtually eliminate adverbs by using powerful active verbs? (See? I just used an adverb to illustrate. I could have said, “ You could minimize the use of adverbs….”)
It is a skill writers perfect to maximize power and lessen word count; it’s a skill to teach my students. When I say, “OK, let’s rock this paper with power verbs,” they may know the meaning of a verb, but not truly understand the function of it in a sentence.
Challenge # 1
Year after year, I promote students to have more “voice” in their writing; or perhaps it is dynamic “word choice”; Sometimes, I zone in on their “fluency” and beg for a variation of sentence structures and lengths. I can beat my head against the wall all year, but without proper knowledge of sentence construction and the function of words, nothing will ever improve their writing. As I have taught now for about a decade, and focusing on writing as a form of learning and expression, I’m faced with seeing the students’ difficulties with organization, coherence, and revision. News flash: It is not getting any better! Why?? What has changed in the past 25 years?
Challenge # 2
As a past Arizona English Language Arts teacher, I was always struck by the lack of attention to grammar in the English Language and Literacy standards. As a public school teacher for eight of these ten years, grammar was only focused on as a form of conventions deeply hidden within the Writing Standards. It wasn’t even in any of the Strands of Reading. The Reading Strands dealt with Informational Text, Literary Text, and Functional Text. For the Writing Strands, they dealt with the Stages, Traits and Genres. Within the Traits, as mentioned above, is the Trait of Conventions. This is where one would find some proofreading standards. But that was the extent of the stress on grammar knowledge. Moreover, grammar was not a tested skill. (Teachers threw it out based on time constraints as well) Sadly, if students cannot think through a sentence and how it is structured, their writing will never improve. Grammar is the function of language and works together with reading and writing. We see grammar in action.
Whenever we read; we apply and practice it in our writing.
While Reading is the process of gaining and integrating new knowledge, writing is the process of producing new thoughts from their knowledge and experience. Moreover, writing is clarity of thought. Writing is given a portion of the spotlight in the Common Core standards, but this time, I see a new light: Attention to verbs!
Conventions of Standard English
- Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
- Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.
- Form and use verbs in the active and passive voice.
- Form and use verbs in the indicative, imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive mood.
- Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood.
Let me give some background on why this is not only vital but so refreshing.
It was discovered that the teaching of grammar alone is like teaching what a dollar bill is but not giving the function or use of it in daily life. It’s meaningless. Lynn Sams discussed this in her article on Grammar and noted that structure and meaning need to be discussed together. It is no wonder why direct instruction in grammar had no impact upon writing. “Quite simply, the grammar instruction in these studies was not related to writing. It merely taught prescription (usage and rules) and description (noun, verb, prepositional phrase), the naming of parts.” (57) So, instead of working to incorporate grammar into instruction, teaching of the basics of grammar was thrown out.
This can be likened to football. I know very little about the game. I can sit and enjoy it, know when a player scores, but in terms of understanding the plays and how they work, I’m clueless. Now, if I were to play the game, I would be lost, making many mistakes, but seeing my way through with a lens of little knowledge. This is basically why our students’ writing has not improved in twenty-five years. They can know bits and pieces, but can they write a sentence, understanding the fundamentals and the functions of the players (parts of speech)? After time, their plays are elementary and never advance; until they understand the function and the rules, their writing stagnates.
When I want to strengthen the writing of my students, I can’t give them a protocol of including stronger verbs if they know not the function nor various usages of this glorious grammar bite.
To illustrate the power of verbs, here is a list of the verbs used in the Common Core Standards:
Acquire Adapt Analyze Apply Approximate Articulate Assess Audit Calculate Categorize Chart Clarify Classify Collaborate Collect Combine Compare Compete Compose Compile Compute Conceptualize Conclude Connect Contrast Cultivate Correlate Concur Conduct Construct Create Critique Debate Decide Decipher Decode Deduce Deduct Defend Define Delineate Demonstrate Depict Derive Describe Design Detect Determine Develop Devise Diagram Dictate Discuss Discover Dissect Dispute Display Document Download Dramatize Edit Elaborate Employ Envision Establish Examine Execute Exemplify Exhibit Explain Explore Express Extract Evaluate Focus Gather Generate Graph Group Hypothesize Identify Illustrate Imagine Implement Infer Inform Inquire Inspect Integrate Interact Interpret Invent Investigate Judge Justify Locate Map Manipulate Model Modify Monitor Observe Organize Outline Paraphrase Participate Perform Perceive Plan Portray Practice Predict Prepare Present Pretend Process Produce Publish Qualify Question Rank Reason Recall Recite Recognize Relate Reproduce Research Respond Restate Retrieve Review Revise Rewrite Select Stimulate Solve Study Summarize Support Survey Translate Transform Verify Visualize Write.
Our writing skills speak volumes about our intellect. So, next time you write that email, see if you used a powerful active verb. Start writing with more attention to this, and your writing will sparkle. It all started with the simple understanding of a part of speech called a verb.
Thank you Grammar.
Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.