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Since Banned Books Week happens in mid-September each year, I'd like to talk today about the problem with banning books. Last year, my Bring Your Own Book club's topic for September was to read a banned or challenged book. We had a great discussion during our meeting about common threads in all of the books we read, common reasons why books get challenged, and how that relates to the education system in general. One of the things that kept coming up was that often, the reason the book was challenged is the entire point of the book itself – of course it deals with that; that's the main theme of the book! Whether it's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking For Alaska depicting kids smoking, drinking, and doing drugs, or it's The Giver depicting a fundamentally broken society masquerading as a utopia (psst – that's the definition of the genre – it's a dystopia!), or even a gorgeous picture book called “And Tango Makes Three” telling a true story about a pair of male penguins who... read more

As I have tutored over time via instant messaging, certain problems come up again and again among the students that I have taught English writing to.   As I have corrected student essays over the past few years online, I have developed this set of advice for writers with less experience.  Much of this advice is influenced by Strunk & White's and Payne, so I don't claim much originality here.   General organizational advice for essays: 1. Don’t take the reader’s attention for granted. In the introduction, use attention-getting devices, such as a set of leading questions, interesting statistics, a famous quote from a famous person, a striking assertion or claim, etc. The following sentences in the first paragraph should narrow down the topic to the more specific point made in the thesis. 2. Always put the thesis statement, or main point to be proven or explained, at the end of the first paragraph. Aim to write it as a single sentence, not two... read more

  I used to teach engineers how to write. I loved it, but it was challenge; engineers are infamous for arguing a point into the ground. Whenever I taught them Plain Language and urged them to use it, the hair would bristle on the backs of their necks. Generally, the course of events to follow went something like this. They say: • Using Plain Language would be writing down to their readers • Making their writing understandable wasn’t necessary, because their audiences already understood the subject matter • Writing technical documents has always been done this way • This wasn’t the way they were taught to write After which, I stand in front of them. I look at them. I finally speak. I say, “Your teachers were wrong.” And, just short of rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, all hell breaks loose. (Did I mention that engineers love to argue?) Nevertheless, I continue. “It’s all because of a bunch of ancient Roman rhetoricians... read more

Description The introductory paragraph of a paper or writing should capture the reader’s attention and engage their mind. You should always approach your papers expecting a reluctant or busy reader. Your job is to relate to them, give them useful information, and intrigue them to capture their interest. The first sentence of an introduction can be thought of as “the hook:” The sentence that grabs the mind of your reader. Approach Ask yourself: Who is reading this paper (your audience)? Is my reader sympathetic or opposed to my view? What personal experiences or interests will my reader have? How can I relate to the topics or things that my reader would care about? What was the most interesting or unexpected fact that I learned? Tone of Paper The tone of your paper should determine the hook sentence that you use For creative writing, you have more flexibility For informative writings, the tone may limit the options you have   Devices Creative... read more

I specialize in teaching essay structure and style. When I began tutoring, I had a vague idea that I'd work with college students like the friends for whom I'd proofread during university: young Americans who've grown up in a public school system which emphasized group work over individual learning, and who therefore never got a chance to develop their writing skills. I've certainly worked with students from a background very much like this. However, I've also had the pleasure of building a strong ESL clientele. At this point, I've spent enough time with ESL students to have made some observations about the nature of ESL learning and the way it is discussed. I'm certainly no expert, but by now I am a reliable dilettante. I speak with the authority of firsthand experience. From that vantage, I'd like to address one mistake which is frequently made in conversations about ESL learning. It is a very serious mistake and I have to believe that it muddles teachers' thinking considerably... read more

At a conference in town earlier this year, I presented several panel discussions centering around the difficulty of defining and quantifying art. Our discussions in these panels got me thinking about literature, and how one of my main points could apply equally easily to much of the literature that students read in high school. The point in question is this: one of the defining characteristics of art, in my view, is that it is something that creates an emotional response in the viewer. Experiencing it changes you in some way. This is easy to see when the emotions are ones we generally see as 'positive;' if a play makes your heart swell with hope for the future, or a ballet duet makes you flush with the excitement of new love, or an epic novel makes your heart race with anxiety over the safety of the main characters, it's easy to argue that those works are art and have changed you. But what if the emotions you experience are more negative – what if a novel bores you, frustrates... read more

What is a Thesis Statement? Almost all of us—even if we don’t do it consciously—look early in an essay for a one- or two-sentence summary of the topic, argument, or analysis that is to follow. We refer to that brief summary as a thesis statement. Why Should Your Essay Contain a Thesis Statement? · to test your ideas by distilling them into a sentence or two · to better organize and develop your writing · to provide your reader with a “guide” to your paper or story How to Generate a Thesis Statement? Almost all assignments, no matter how complicated, can be reduced to a single question. Your first step, then, is to distill the assignment into a specific question. For example, if your assignment is, “write about whether or not you think living forever is a blessing or a curse.” Turn it into a question... Q: “Is living forever a blessing or a curse?” Then answer the question... A: In my opinion, living forever is a curse and in this essay I will convince... read more

Translator: Google Translate is a great way to translate words and short phrases from your native language to English   Vocabulary Builder: Build your English vocabulary with fun worksheets               ****This is a "living" blog post that will be updated periodically.

We all have one: that one subject that our brains just refuse to understand, and no matter how much we study or how hard we work, we never feel like we really truly GET what is going on.   For me, that subject was always Physics. No junior high or high school teacher could ever answer the unending string of "...but WHY?" questions that I needed answered before I could understand even the most basic concepts of our Introductory course. It wasn't that I couldn't understand, but rather that I wasn't being taught these ideas in a way that made sense to me.    As an adult, Physics is now actually one of my favorite subjects to read about because I have found some books written for people just like me, people who need explanations fulls of examples and explanations and lots of pictures! I may never discover black holes or split an atom, but I now know enough that I can understand the people who do those things. :-)     So,... read more

Years ago, there was never any dispute: when you listed a bunch of things in a sentence and finished with the word 'and ________.', there should always have been a comma before the 'and', i.e. "I have lived in France, Germany, Italy, and China." The modern grammarians (is that even a word, haha) seem to think that the final comma should be omitted because they claim it is redundant. They claim that without the comma, everything should be adequately clear, for example: "I have lived in France, Germany, Italy and China." Is that really clear? I beg to differ, and for two reasons. First, the comma's use is not just as a separator of things; it is also used as a pause device. Without the last comma, that sentence reads: "I have lived in France (pause) Germany (pause) Italy and China (said quickly together)." That's not correct at all and we all know it. It should read: "I have lived in France (pause) Germany (pause) Italy (pause)... read more

For most fluent readers, it can be hard to imagine how the sight word "have" can be tricky for emerging readers. Yet many parents drilling the Dolch sight words find "have" is misread over and over again, made to rhyme with "gave" and "behave". The child is likely making this mistake because he or she is diligently applying the guidance that a silent final E makes the preceding vowel say its name. And for many English speakers, that's the only purpose known for a silent final E. But, that only explains half of the words with a silent final E and has nothing to do with why there is a silent final E in "have". So, why is there a silent final E in "have"? Check out rule #3 in the list posted here: Rule 3 states that English words do not end in I, U, V, or J. The silent final E in "have" is there to prevent the word from ending in V, just as... read more

Many people, myself included, feel that for all its advantages, the internet has precipitated a steady decline in the quality of writing. Anyone can write anything anywhere, and while that gives a voice to many who otherwise might not have a public forum to share what they have to say, it also makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to uphold any sort of standards.   That said, the internet also offers plenty of resources for improving your writing. Here are a few of my favorites: Here you'll also find a thesaurus and several other reference tools. It may not be the Oxford English Dictionary, but it gives you plenty of good definitions and sometimes includes usage notes with practical implications for your writing, like differences in how similar words are typically used.   Difference Between Speaking of differences, this is a really cool site... read more

Every one of us was taught grammar in grade school. We learned the rules of writing, how to construct sentences properly, when to use commas, how to avoid run-on sentences, proper diction and word choice and tons of other rules regarding how the English language "properly" works. But there's one thing we weren't really taught. In fact, most of us unquestioningly accepted these rules, rules like you should use "fewer" for countable items and "less" for things you can't count. We know how to use these rules, and by virtue of being able to speak the language, we also know how to use the grammar. But these two concepts of grammar are not the same. This raises so many questions. Where did these rules come from? What is grammar, really, and how do we define it from a linguistic point of view? Is there some kind of supreme authority on the English language that imposes these rules on all its speakers?    In a Tarantino-esque fashion, we'll... read more

While I, as a writer, very much enjoy the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more likely), I understand not everyone is as inclined. In fact, writing can be a very tedious task if you're not invested in your writing, whether an inbox full of emails that need responses or a 10-page paper. But I have a few quick tips that will hopefully make writing more fun for everyone! Write to a soundtrack. Now, this tip may not be for everyone, as some people find it very hard to focus with any kind of distraction. But I find that music playing softly in the background while I type away takes some of the pressure of what I'm doing, as I'm less likely to track the minutes I spend staring at the same sentence if I have a song giving my work flow and momentum. Pick whatever music you like, but I suggest nothing too catchy that you'll be tempted to stop writing and have a karaoke break. I have a playlist of music without words, which doesn't have to be all classical... read more

It seems to me that even most adults have an issue with grammar. I fairly often see the same mistakes repeated in essays and normal everyday chat. This isn't just an issue associated with younger children with little or no grasp on grammar, it's a common issue that I see even with graduate students. I. First, is the "Their, They're, There" mistake. Their implies ownership. They left with their jackets on. They're implies an action. Today, they're going to the mall. There implies a place. Please place that book over there. II. Second is the "You're and Your" mistake. You're implies that you are going to do something. Today you're going to take the dog for a walk after school. Your implies ownership You left your pencils on the floor. III. Third is the "It's and Its" mistake It's means it is or it has. It's going to be hot outside today! Its shows possession. The cat needs... read more

Many students have a fear of learning a foreign language.  Instead of approaching acquiring a new tongue as an exciting challenge, many approach it with the question "Why do we have to learn this?"  Learning a foreign language can be a wonderful experience.  Here a few of my "Dos and Don'ts" when approaching foreign language learning.   DO keep an open mind and be positive about learning something new. DO recognize the similarities of your native language and the new language that you are learning. DO review your notes from class everyday and practice at home. DO find a language/study buddy in your language class. DO think about your future and how a new language is going to benefit you with your future goals. DON'T be negative. DON'T be prejudice about a foreign language and its culture based on stereotypes. DON'T stop trying even when there are words that you do not understand or there is a chapter that is not... read more

I know how they told you to write it. Now let me tell you how it's really done. Popular misconception is that because you read a paper from start to finish, that the best way to write it is from start to finish. This is, of course, nonsense. The best way to write a thesis paper is as follows.   Write your conclusion first. That's right... the easiest way to write a 5-paragraph thesis paper is to start with your conclusions first. This is how we think, anyway. When we read about a subject,  we are thinking while we read, so that by the time we've finished reading, we already know what we think about it. Those are our conclusions about what we just read/watched/experienced. We're already there, so why not start there? When you start the conclusion you should say something specific about your topic. By then end of your conclusion, you should show how the specific nature of your topic says something large, say, about the nature of life itself. Write... read more

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