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Context Clues in Reading and Writing

We teachers love a bargain. Especially a “two-for one” bargain. the two for one skill which can be used in more than one context. We are all about efficiency! Context clues strategies provide that skill which can be used both to improve reading comprehension and writing clarity and coherence.

Reading and writing do have a reciprocal relationship. Check out my Twelve Tips to Teach the Reading-Writing Connection on the Pennington Publishing Blog when you have time. Learning context clues strategies helps students not only understand and apply new words, but also helps students apply more precise vocabulary in their writing to improve clarity and coherence.

So, how can you get students to use context clues in their reading and writing? Teach the memorable FP’S BAG SALE strategy. Click on this Context Clues Worksheets Resource to download the strategy (see below) and two accompanying worksheets (with answers).

Get the Context Clues Worksheets FREE Resource:

But wouldn’t it be better to teach Tier II (academic) and III (domain specific) reading and writing vocabulary by using the dictionary?

No. The dictionary is a fine tool and should be used to look up words that are critical to the comprehension of any reading and for precise usage in writing. However, the dictionary is not a practical tool for most reading and writing.

So, learning and practicing context clue strategies makes sense. Context clue strategies can be mastered with sufficient practice and can be flexibly applied both to figure out the meaning of many unknown words in reading and to support the use of technical language in writing. Teach students to use the whole FP’S BAG SALE strategy for reading and the last part, i.e., the SALE strategy for writing.

FP’S BAG SALE

  • Finish the sentence. See how the word fits into the whole sentence.
  • Pronounce the word out loud. Sometimes hearing the word will give you a clue to meaning.
  • Syllables–Examine each word part. Word parts can be helpful clues to meaning.
  • Before–Read the sentence before the unknown word. The sentence before can hint at what the word means.
  • After–Read the sentence after the unknown word. The sentence after can define, explain, or provide an example of the word.
  • Grammar–Determine the part of speech. Pay attention to where the word is placed in the sentence, the ending of the word, and its grammatical relationship to other known words for clues to meaning.
  • Synonym–Sometimes an unknown word is defined by the use of a synonym. Synonyms appear in apposition, in which case commas, dashes, or parentheses are used. Example: The wardrobe, or closet, opened the door to a brand new world.
  • Antonym–Sometimes an unknown word is defined by the use of an antonym. Antonym clues will often use Signal Words such as however, not, but, in contrast Example: He promised innovation, not keeping things the way they are.
  • Logic–Your own knowledge about the content and text structure may provide clues to meaning. Logic clues can lead to a logical guess as to the meaning of an unknown word. Example: He petted the canine, and then made her sit up and beg for a bone.
  • Example–When part of a list of examples or if the unknown word itself provides an example, either provides good clues to meaning. Example clues will often use Signal Words such as for example, like, such as Example: Adventurous, rowdy, and crazy pioneers all found their way out West.

When shouldn’t we encourage students to use context clues?

Using context clues to guess the pronunciation and meanings of Tier I words (conversational, not academic English) is not efficient. Teaching students to use the alphabetic code (phonics) to sound out words and syllabication skills plus the conventional spelling rules (encoding) to write these words is essential. Context clues strategies are not useful for the “psycholinguistic guessing games (Goodman)” whole language method of developing word identification and word recognition.

Kylene Beers, in her book When Kids Can’t Read, summarizes the problem of using context clues strategies for word identification: “. . . Discerning the meaning of unknown words using context clues requires a sophisticated interaction with the text that dependent readers have not yet achieved.”

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

The program is also useful for grade-level syllabication skill worksheets, reading fluency practice, and reading comprehension development. With the tiered grade-level design of the fluency and comprehension worksheets, students will develop confidence reading at increasingly more challenging levels. Perfect scaffolded instruction for a classroom of diverse learners.

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Eliminate “To Be” Verbs: How to Revise Was and Were

Both developing student writers as well as professionals struggle with eliminating (or reducing) the overuse of the forms of the “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Any teacher knows that developing writers overdo the “to be” verbs in their writing. The narrative genre forgives the overuse more so than does the essay genre. After all, dialogue needs authenticity and speakers overuse the “to be” verbs even more than writers.

Students especially struggle when revising these “to be” verbs: was and were.

“Mr. Pennington, it is impossible to write this essay on what caused the Civil War without using was and were,” complained one frustrated eighth grader.

I turned to page 79 in my well-highlighted and dog-eared copy of Kenneth Stamp’s The Causes of the Civil War and read, ““Northern abolitionists probably exaggerated the physical cruelties that the Southern masters inflicted upon their slaves. Southern “fire-eaters” doubtless distorted the true character of Northern Yankees. Politicians in both sections kept the country in constant turmoil by and whipped up popular emotions for the selfish purpose of winning elections.”

Now I might disagree with Stamp’s sympathetic take on the exaggeration of slaveholder cruelty, but he sure can write. And, no, he did not have to use the was and were in the above excerpt. He did use a were in the next line 🙂

However, we do need to empathize with developing writers as they seek out vivid, “show me” verbs to replace the oft-used “to be” verbs. After all, six of the eight “to be” verbs appear in the top 43 highest frequency English words lists: is, are, was, were, be, been http://www.insightin.com/esl/1000.php

To help students eliminate the “to be” verbs, I’ve developed five strategies (See the detailed approach here) and specific lessons to apply each strategy. Let’s use third strategy: the Convert strategy to eliminate was and were by converting them to strong _t verbs. The _t verbs pack a punch because they are irregular in the past tense and past participle forms. The lesson will include a helpful worksheet.

Lesson Plan: Common Core State Standards W.3, 4, 5  L.2, 3 and Depth of Knowledge Levels 1, 2, 3 (20−30 minutes)

Behavioral Objective: Students will demonstrate the ability to identify the eight “to be” verbs, explain the proper functions of these verbs, and convert the weak was and were verbs to the stronger _t verbs on the formative assessment.

1. Introduce the lesson by telling students that their task is to learn how to replace weak “to be” verbs with stronger verbs. Remind students To Be Verbsthat a “to be” verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being. You might want to reference this Parts of Speech article with my Parts of Speech Song to review the three basic functions of verbs (physical action, mental action, state of being). Tell students that writers generally avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing.

2. Write the eight “to be” verbs on the board: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.

3. Say,”‘to be’ verbs are not always bad; sometimes writers must use ‘to be’ verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. A ‘to be’ verb  performs one of these five functions: (Write this list on the board, adjusting or deleting the grammatical terms to the level and prior knowledge of your students.) Any questions?”

  • Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  • Happens−The meetings are over.
  • Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  • Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  • Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

4. Say, “Let’s learn the Convert strategy to replace weak ‘to be’ verbs, which don’t serve these functions. Look at this sentence on the board: (Write the following sentence.) Juan was bringing the salad to the potluck. (Point to the list of ‘to be’ verbs). Which ‘to be’ verb appears in this sentence? Whole class answer on three (pause): 1, 2, 3 ‘was.’ Circle the ‘was’ on the board.”

5. Write this sentence on the board: Juan brought the salad to the potluck.

6. Ask, “How did I substitute the was in the sentence? How does each linking verb affect the meaning of the sentence?” (For older students, you may wish to explain that the was and were _ing verb construction is known as the past progressive form and indicates a continuing action that was going on in the past, while the _t verbs indicate a completed action that happened at one point in time.

7. Say, “We need some practice using the Convert strategy to replace weak was and were verbs with stronger _t verbs (Print and pass out the Convert Was and Were _ing to _t Verb Worksheet to each student and read the directions out loud.) Complete items #s 1−10, but don’t complete the formative assessment at the bottom.”

Note: For older students, you may wish to tell them that the British tend to use more _t verbs than their American cousins. Brits will say “He leant against the wall.” Americans will say, “He leaned against the wall.” Also, although still proper usage, the blest, burnt, dreampt, leapt, learnt, slipt, smelt, spelt, and spilt are anachronistic.

8. After most of the students have finished the worksheet, display the answer sheet and direct students to self-correct. Then say, “Now complete the formative assessment at the bottom of your worksheet.” (Tell students to pass in the worksheet and review to see if your student have mastered this lesson objective.

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

FREE RESOURCES: Enter your email above to subscribe to the Pennington Publishing Newsletter and we will send you two ready-to-use resources each week. In our welcome newsletter we’ll send out the 11 x 17 “To Be” Verbs poster (PDF file with printing directions) to post in your classroom and help your students eliminate “to be” verbs. We want you to see examples of the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Also, check out the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4−8 programs. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video for a concise overview of the program.

Enter discount code 3716 and get 10% off of the purchase price and free shipping (purchase orders excluded).

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Eliminate “To Be” Verbs: Substitute with Stronger Linking Verbs Lesson

band-aid_big_frozen_381371163175_bilc

Using a “to be” verb is like putting on a BAND-AID®Simply open up the protective paper; peel back the two plastic sections; and apply over the wound. Quick and easy. However, removing that same BAND-AID® a few days later calls for bravery and a strategic approach. Slowly peal or rip? Often our strategy depends upon the wound itself. A slow peal around the edges for one that may leave a scar. A quick rip for a minor scrape.

Sporting a BAND-AID® or two doesn’t detract from your overall look. Some of them are quite stylish. In searching whether to capitalize the BAND-AID® product name or not, I see that the company really knows how to market their products. Any six year old girl would gladly scrape her knee for a Frozen BAND-AID®. However, wearing a dozen or so makes anyone look like the walking wounded. You can overdo anything.

Let’s face it; developing writers overdo the “to be” verbs in their writing. So let’s explore a strategy that developing writers can use to reduce the number of or eliminate the “to be” verbs in their essays.

I call it the Substitute strategy and it helps writers replace most, but not all, of the is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been verbs with stronger verbs. If the strategy doesn’t work, use another that does (See all five strategies here).

Lesson Plan: Common Core State Standards W.3, 4, 5  L.2, 3 and Depth of Knowledge Levels 1, 2, 3 (20−30 minutes)

Behavioral Objective: Students will demonstrate the ability to identify the eight “to be” verbs, explain the proper functions of these verbs, and substitute a strong linking verb in place of a weak “to be” verb on the formative assessment.

1. Introduce the lesson by telling students that their task is to learn how to replace weak “to be” verbs with stronger verbs. Remind students To Be Verbsthat a “to be” verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being. You might want to reference this Parts of Speech article with my Parts of Speech Song to review the three basic functions of verbs (physical action, mental action, state of being). Tell students that writers generally avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing.

2. Write the eight “to be” verbs on the board: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.

3. Say,”‘to be’ verbs are not always bad; sometimes writers must use ‘to be’ verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. A ‘to be’ verb  performs one of these five functions: (Write this list on the board, adjusting or deleting the grammatical terms to the level and prior knowledge of your students.) Any questions?”

  • Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  • Happens−The meetings are over.
  • Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  • Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  • Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

4. Say, “Let’s learn the Substitute strategy to replace weak ‘to be’ verbs, which don’t serve these functions. Look at this sentence on the board: (Write the following sentence.) Juan was ready to help. (Point to the list of ‘to be’ verbs). Which ‘to be’ verb is found in this sentence? Whole class answer on three (pause): 1, 2, 3 ‘was.’ Circle the ‘was’ on the board.”

5. Write this list titled Strong Linking Verbs on the board: appear, become, feel, grow, look, prove, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, and taste. Note: Some of the above verbs act as both linking and action verbs depending on usage.

6. Say, “Which linking verbs can substitute for the weak ‘to be’ verb ‘was’? Make sure to add the ‘s’ on to the end of the linking verb to match the singular subject, ‘Juan.’ (Write student answers on the board below the sentence.) How does each linking verb affect the meaning of the sentence?”

7. Say, “We need some practice using the Substitute strategy to replace weak ‘to be’ verbs with stronger linking verbs (Print and pass out the Substitute Strong Linking Verbs Worksheet to each student and read the directions out loud.) Complete items #s 1−8, but don’t complete the formative assessment at the bottom.”

8. After most of the students have finished the worksheet, display the answer sheet and direct students to self-correct. Then say, “Now complete the formative assessment at the bottom of your worksheet.” (Tell students to pass in the worksheet and review to see if your student have mastered this lesson objective.

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

FREE RESOURCES: Enter your email above to subscribe to the Pennington Publishing Newsletter and we will send you two ready-to-use resources each week. In our welcome newsletter we’ll send out the 11 x 17 “To Be” Verbs poster (PDF file with printing directions) to post in your classroom and help your students eliminate “to be” verbs. We want you to see examples of the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Also, check out the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4−8 programs. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video for a concise overview of the program.

Enter discount code 3716 and get 10% off of the purchase price and free shipping (purchase orders excluded).

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs: Convert Nouns and Adjectives into Vivid Verbs Lesson

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Ah, summertime! After a few weeks of avoiding any thoughts whatsoever about school, I’m now back in planning mode. How I can improve my students’ essays this next school year?

Get the Syllable Awareness Assessment FREE Resource:

Do you get sentences like this one? http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/downloads/get.php/Syllable-Awareness-Assessment

There are three reasons why it is important to know that “to be” verbs can be boring in essays.

This student makes a good point: Too many “to be” verbs in essays do bore me to death.

But, how can we get our students to reduce the amount of or eliminate the “to be” verbs in their essays to create precision of meaning, specificity, clarity, and just good old sentence variety? How do we get our students to use vivid “show me” verbs instead?

Teach the Convert Nouns and Adjectives into Vivid Verbs strategy. (See all five strategies here) Usually, nouns and adjectives are the easiest parts of speech to change to verbs.

Lesson Plan: Common Core State Standards W.3, 4, 5  L.2, 3 and Depth of Knowledge Levels 1, 2, 3 (20−30 minutes)

Behavioral Objective: Students will demonstrate the ability to identify the eight “to be” verbs, explain the characteristics of a “show me” verb, and convert nouns to _ify verbs to eliminate a “to be” verb on the formative assessment.

  1. Begin by telling students that their task is to learn how to replace weak and vague “to be” verbs with strong and specific “show me verbs.”
  2. Write the eight “to be” verbs on the board: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been or create a Dead Verbs Cemetery bulletin board (perfect for Halloween!). Tell students that writers generally avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing.
  3. Teach students that when a writer uses a “show me” verb, the reader can picture the physical or mental action of the verb. Write this example on the board: Three beautiful pieces of furniture were in her bedroom. Discuss how the “to be” verb, were, does not show a picture to the reader.  Write this example underneath the first one: Three pieces of furniture beautify her bedroom.
  4. Say, “Let’s figure out the strategy I used to replace the weak and vague ‘to be’ verb, ‘were,’ with the strong and specific ‘show me’ verb, ‘beautify.’http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/downloads/get.php/Syllable-Awareness-Assessment First, I deleted the ‘to be’ verb (X-out the ‘were’ in the first sentence). Next, I  looked for other words in the sentence to convert to a ‘show me’ verb. Convert means to change the form of something or someone; like when people travel outside of the country, they have to convert U.S. dollars to other money or like when mild-mannered Clark Kent converts to Superman in order to save the planet. Nouns and adjectives can often convert to verbs.” (Circle the noun, ‘furniture,’ and the adjectives, ‘Three’ and ‘beautiful.'” Remind students that nouns are persons, places, things, and ideas. Adjectives modify and are usually placed before nouns or pronouns and answer Which One? How Many? or What Kind? You might want to reference this Parts of Speech article with my Parts of Speech Song to review nouns and adjectives in context.
  5. Say, “I couldn’t figure out how to convert the noun, ‘furniture,’ or the adjective, ‘Three,’ into verbs, but the adjective, ‘beautiful,’ worked fine. I changed the ending of the word to the ending verb form, ‘ify,’ to create the ‘show me’ verb, ‘beautify.'”
  6. Say, “We need some practice converting nouns and adjectives to ‘show me’ verbs. Let’s start with the nouns. (Print and pass out the Change Nouns into _ify Verbs Worksheet to each student and read the directions out loud.) Complete items #s 1−10, but don’t complete the formative assessment at the bottom.”
  7. After most of the students have finished the worksheet, display the answer sheet and direct students to self-correct. Then say, “Now complete the formative assessment at the bottom of your worksheet.” (Tell students to pass in the worksheet and review to see if your student have mastered this lesson objective.

    Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

    How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

FREE RESOURCES: Enter your email above to subscribe to the Pennington Publishing Newsletter and we will send you two ready-to-use resources each week. In our welcome newsletter we’ll send out the 11 x 17 “To Be” Verbs poster (PDF file with printing directions) to post in your classroom and help your students eliminate “to be” verbs. We want you to see examples of the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Also, check out the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4−8 programs. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video for a concise overview of the program.

Enter discount code 3716 and get 10% off of the purchase price and free shipping (purchase orders excluded).

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs in Writing

Every English teacher has a sure-fire revision tip that makes developing writers dig down deep and revise initial drafts. One of my favorites involves reducing the number of “to be verbs”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

At this point, even before I begin to plead my case, I hear the grumbling of the contrarians. One of them mutters a snide, rhetorical question: Didn’t Shakespeare say “To be, or not to be: that is the question:”? He used three “to be” verbs right there! If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. True, but Will used only six more “to be” verbs in Hamlet’s next 34 lines. My goals are to convince teachers to help their students reduce, not eliminate the “to be” verbs, and so write with greater precision and purpose. There. I just used a “to be” verb. Feeling better?

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

What’s So Wrong with “To Be” Verbs?

  1. The “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.
  2. The “to be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.
  3. The “to be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.
  4. The “to be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”
  5. The “to be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”

Adapted from Ken Ward’s E-Prime article at http://www.trans4mind.com/personal_development/GeneralSemantics/KensEPrime.htm

When Can We Use “To Be” Verbs?

It’s not that “to be” verbs are always bad; sometimes writers must use “to be” verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. In fact, these verb forms can be difficult to replace. When the verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being, it performs one of these five functions:

  1. Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  2. Happens−The meetings are over.
  3. Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  4. Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  5. Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

Generally, writers should avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing. However, when writers can replace a “to be” verb with a vivid, “show me” verb in any writing genre, it certainly makes sense to do so. With a good “show me” verb, the reader (or listener) can picture the physical or mental action of the verb. The verb engages the interest of the reader and specifically communicates the nature of the action. But, not all non-“to be” verbs are vivid, “show me” verbs. For example, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do not use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy sits down on the bench and thinks what to do next. In contrast, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy slouches down on the bench and studies what to do next.

So, how can we get our students to reduce or eliminate “to be” verbs in their essays to create precision of meaning, specificity, clarity, and just good old sentence variety? How do we get our students to use these vivid “show me” verbs instead? Try these five strategies:

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. IdentifyStudents need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time” 
  2. SubstituteSometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. ConvertStudents can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.” 
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. CombineLook at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”

A Teaching Plan to Eliminate the “To Be” Verb

  1. Post a list of the “to be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies listed above for student reference. Why not create a Dead Verbs Cemetery bulletin board? (What a great idea for Halloween!) and/or print and reference the free “To be or not to be…” poster.
  2. Share the five strategies one at a time, so as not to overwhelm students. Teach, practice, and master only one strategy  before moving on to another strategy.
  3. Use teacher think-alouds to model the “to be” verb revision process.
  4. Then, turn the revision chore on over to the whole class with one student writing sample. Correct whole class and commend the variety of effective revisions. Compare sentence revisions and discuss which strategies worked and did not work to eliminate the “to be” verbs.
  5. Next, collect student writing samples from the whole class and have students individually revise their peers’ “to be” verbs. Peer editing focused on one target issue makes sense.
  6. Next, have students revise their own sentences from their own writing samples, using the five strategies.

After teaching and practicing all five strategies, set the “rule” that from now on only one “to-be” verb is allowed in any paragraph (excluding direct quotes). Use peer editing to help identify the “to-be” verbs and peer tutors to help struggling students.

Teaching the strategies and practicing them in the context of student writing samples will help students recognize and avoid these “writing crutches” in their own writing. The end result? More precise and purposeful student writing with vivid, “show me” verbs.

Check out the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

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