Most good writing teachers stress the power and importance of verbs – often to skeptical students. Verbs are the engines of the language and have far more descriptive power than adjectives or adverbs. That’s where the skepticism comes in. Students interested in writing develop a belief that using good adjectives and adverbs will enhance their writing. Verbs are simply aids in the process. Here’s an exercise that you can do with your students that might turn their thinking around.
This exercise only a takes a few minutes and can be a lot of fun.
I begin by asking students what they think is the tool that can help them produce the best writing. One student is likely to say a good vocabulary, and what that student is like to mean is have a good collection of adjectives and adverbs at hand. I then tell that that verbs – strong, active verbs – are more powerful than any other part of language. (The best discussions then come if a student will express some skepticism about this.) Then I say, “Let me show you. Write down the sentence, ‘John walked down the hall.’” Once they have done that, then I say, “OK, now get John down the hall five other ways.” That is, use different verbs to get John down the hall.
Some of the verbs they come up with will be interesting. That’s the fun part. After a minute, I ask students to read their list of verbs. They’re likely to have lists that include:
(and, of course, many others)
Once a student has read his or her list, I usually repeat the sentence using that verb. “John crawled down the hall.” Then I ask the student, “What does that tell us about John.”
You’ll get a variety of answers. A student who has used “crawled” might say, “Well, that means John can’t walk,” or she might say, “John was drunk.” The answers can produce a lot of laughter. I then repeat this with other students until the point is made:
“You thought this was just about getting John down the hall. But it’s about John. We didn’t use any adjectives or adverbs, but by changing the verb, we learned a lot about John. All of you used active verbs on your list. Notice how descriptive they are.”
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