traci's lists of ten

Traci's 25th List of Ten:
Ten English Language Exercises

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 5/20/99.

In the last couple of weeks, folks on the NCTE-MIDDLE list talked about projects focusing on the English Language, incorporating segments from the PBS "The Story of English" series, and other activities that focus on the ways that we talk, write, and otherwise use words, sentences, and phrases.

I've pulled together a series of writing activities that could accompany such a block. I've tried to write questions that could be used with most levels, but you might need to adjust the language for your students.

Additionally, many of the assignments could just as easily be about a language other than English — for instance, you might modify them slightly for use in a writing across the curriculum project, having students write about language use in French, Spanish, or German. The assignment could work for ESL/EFL students as well. Such students could complete a project in English that focused on some aspect of their first language.

Depending on the age and maturity of your students, you may need to talk about the kinds of words, phrase, and language uses that are acceptable for school projects. Obviously, students should avoid anything offensive or inappropriate; but you'll need to help them understand and define what "offensive" and "inappropriate" mean in your particular setting.

  1. [Own Your Own Word] For this assignment, you'll make a word your own. Choose a word that you find intriguing or interesting or mysterious. Examine what it means, where it came from, how it's meaning have evolved, when it's used, and who uses it. Become the world's authority on your word, but remember that you're examining the word — not the thing that the word represents. For instance, if your word is "basketball," I'd expect to read about Naismith and how the game was named, but I wouldn't expect to read about Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley.
    Once you've become an authority on your word, your project is to write a paper that explains everything you've learned about the word, to share the information you've found with others.
    ALTERNATIVES: If you'd like a less vanilla project, have your students write I-Search papers on their work to become word owners. If you're not sure what an I-Search paper is, take a look at Ken Macrorie's The I-Search Paper (a Revised Edition of his Searching Writing), Heinneman, 1988. Or you might have students work on a poster (or series of posters), an advertisement urging others to use the word, or even a series of web pages.

  2. [Regional Differences] Write a paper that talks about the differences between the ways that language is used in two different places that you've visited or lived in. You might examine two different cities or towns that you've lived in the US, or you might look at a place that you've been in the US and a place in a foreign country (like Canada). What kind of differences did you notice in names for things, the level of formality, the sentence style, and so on? In your paper, talk about the differences and what they tell you about that ways that language changes and reasons it seems to change.

    To get started, you might consider the difference between lightning bug and a firefly, a biscuit and a cracker, kitty cornered and catty cornered.

  3. [Mythical Word Source] Choose a word or phrase that interests you. Write a legend or myth that explains where the word came from and what it means. Usually origin myths explain how a natural phenomenon came to be. Your writing project is a little different — you'll explain how something came to be named. Your story should be consistent and believable. For example, it wouldn't make sense for a Sioux warrior to make up the words "french fries." Be creative!

  4. [Rosetta Stone] Write a rosetta stone for three different dialects that you know well. The real Rosetta Stone had the same information written in Greek and in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The discoverers were able to learn how to read hieroglyphics because they could read the Greek writing and make analytical comparisons. Create your own stone that compares information in English to other dialects that you know. Once you've finished creating your rosetta stone, write a couple of pages that explain the decisions you made as you created your stone — how did you decide which words and phrases to use? what do you want these words and phrases communicate to someone who knows only one of the dialects on the stone?

    NOTE: you can reduce the assignment to deal with only two dialects if your students need an assignment that will take less time.

  5. [Influences] Write a paper that traces the influence of a particular movie, song, book, person, or television show upon language use. Were there words or phrases related to the source you've chosen that were adopted by the general public? Who adopted them? How were they used? How long lasting was their influence? Why do you think they were adopted while words and phrase from other sources weren't? And perhaps most important, what can you conclude about the ways that language use is influenced?

  6. [Hobbies] Choose a particular sport, hobby, or similar area that you know a lot about, and write a paper that explains the language use associated with what you've chosen. Your paper will be part of a guide for someone who is new to the sport or hobby. Your section explains specifics about words, phrases, and appropriate structures that are used. Specifically, you're describing the ways that someone participating in the sport or hobby speaks or writes about it.

  7. [Standards] Write a letter to a local politician, school board, or the editor of a local newspaper about the use of standard English. You can choose any position you'd like on legislation or initiatives to teach English only in schools (that is, no bilingual education, for instance). Or you can choose a position on the importance of learning and using formal English. Or you might choose an English or language arts issue that has come up in your community.

  8. [Confusing Usage] Consider a confusing usage or grammar rule — choose one that you've never really understood or one that you often hear or see being violated. Explain the formal rules behind the usage or grammar rule; then explain the ways that you typically see the rule followed (or not). Discuss where the rule has come from, and hypothesize on why it's not always followed. Think of your paper as a tip sheet that other students could use when they want to know more about the rule — how it works, when it must be followed strictly, and when it can be relaxed.

  9. [Cliches] Choose a cliche that you know or have heard, and write a paper that explains its background and history. Where did the cliche come from? What does it mean? How has its meaning changed over time? Why has it become overused? What would you suggest to others about when it can be used — and when it should be avoided? Think of your paper as a tip sheet that other students could use when they want to know more about the cliche.

  10. [Judged by Language] Write a narrative that tells about a time you judged someone else by the way that they used language, when you saw someone else who was judged by their use of language, or when you were judged by the way that you used language. Your paper should describe all the events that occurred and portray the feelings of the people who were involved. After reading your paper, readers should learn something about the conclusions you've drawn from your experience participating in or observing the event that you've narrated.

    Remember that you'll need to use dialogue in your paper — check your handbook for information on punctuating and paragraphing for dialogue.

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on February 13, 2000.