Friday, February 25, 2011

In Search of Strong Verbs

I'm not saying I split an atom.

I read through my current stack of student stories and highlighted every weak verb.  I needed to because as it stands today, six months in to school, my kids still create stories built around weak verbs.

We've worked through various exercises, edited, and discussed it to no apparent effect.  As recent weeks passed my personal attention to it increased.

Today, however,for the first time I saw eyes light up.  A point made it home.

I wrote all of the following verbs and helping verbs on the board: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being, has, had, have, could, ,would, may, might, must, shall, can, will, do, did, does, get, and got.  I had them write the same into today's slot in their journal--just write them and keep them in front of you.

Then I asked each student to take out their independent reading book and turn to page 1.  We counted every verb on the first page of each of their novels and then we added them all up.  After we came up with the total number of verbs on all of our page 1s together, I instructed them to write all of the verbs into their journals and place a check mark next to any which matched our list of weak verbs/helping verbs.

This didn't go perfectly.  Some struggled with identifying verbs, but I helped them when they needed it.  I mention this struggle to identify some verbs because it impacts their ability to open up their writing and use a wider variety of strong verbs. 

Once this bit of build-up settled and we had all of our verbs recorded and counted I explained that improving their use of weak verbs is our current objective and we're going to stick with it.  Our approach thus far this year only managed to include time to review our own original work.  Today we evaluated published work...what does a published work look like when one considers verbs?

I've said use strong verbs ad nauseum but it dawned on me that I needed to find a better way to make the I showed them strong verbs in action.

We took out our calculators and found the percentages of weak verbs to strong verbs on the first page of  our independent reading.  These are books which span all genres and cultures.  They choose their own books.

The totals are interesting and revealed something...published works contain strong verbs!  My first class totaled 521 verbs.  Of those, 168 were helping/weak verbs (32%).  That left 353 verbs out of 521 as what we'll call strong verbs (68%).

The stories I graded most recently have the opposite ratio.

My first class understood my point, but it took my second and third classes to underscore the power of this exercise. My first class will benefit by this on Monday.

Amazingly to them, my second class produced numbers 1 percentage point different from my first class--many looked at me as if I performed magic tricks on a daily basis.  They counted 398 verbs.  Their total number of helping/weak verbs came to 130 (33%).  Some didn't believe it and demanded we count again--suggesting I must have led them into the numbers I wanted them to produce.  Two classes of kids all reading completely different books found out that published books contain strong verbs.  The stories they want to read contain strong verbs.  The stories they enjoy reading contain strong verbs.

Our ultimate goal isn't publishing, but we do want to improve our ability to write and tell a story.  I think they understand this challenge more clearly now.

The numbers produced by the books read by my last class helped me make my point even more.  They found 424 verbs on their first pages.  Of those verbs, 100 were weak/helping verbs (24%) while left 324 strong verbs (76%).

My last class also reacted better than I could have hoped.  They saw it in black and white.  Even though they are all good readers we haven't looked at our books in this light.  It was a simple exercise with what I hope proves to be a lasting impact.

Our work on this topic continues on Monday...


  1. Great idea! My students ar weak verb users as well, and also struggle to identify verbs. This may help them "see" it better