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Tone Discussions

November 21, 2011

Over the past week, I have been conferencing with a group of students who received a nearly passing grade on their latest practice writing assessment.  They come to me each morning and eagerly await their personal appointment to discuss their writing.  The passion and excitement they exhibit around becoming better writers is refreshing.

This morning, I was talking with A, a bright young girl who happens to be in my class.  A’s real strength is mathematics, but her creative mind carries her through many writing assignments.  Her superhero story was no exception.  The writing was borderline horrendous, but her ideas were incredible!  We acknowledged her strengths and moved on to discuss what she wanted to improve next time.

Soon, we got to what I wanted to talk about:  the conversational tone of her writing.

Her story included a litany of poorly-punctuated rhetorical questions.  There were places in the writing in which it was difficult to determine whether she was writing to an adult assessment scorer or her BFF Jill.  After a discussion about audience and appropriate tone, I began to write A’s third point to improve:  “Use a more formal tone.”  The look of disdain and confusion on her face quickly indicated those words wouldn’t fly.

I asked A how she thought we should phrase her final point of improvement, and she hit me with a real humdinger.  She said, “Ms. C, just put that I need to write like I’m talking to myself instead of someone else.”

Think about that one for a minute.  When having internal dialogue, we rarely (if ever) use rhetorical questions.  In fact, for A, she speaks more properly in her mind than she does aloud with her peers.  I found this to be a particularly insightful thought.  Next time I’m trying to convince a student to adopt a more formal tone, this is a phrase I will certainly keep in my back pocket.

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