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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Teach Your Students to FLIRT

While I'm not a fan of formulaic writing, I'd argue that many students benefit from easy-to-recall structures to assist them with the writing process. One of the simplest, yet most effective, Mnemonic devices I'd recommend is FLIRT.

FLIRT is an acronym which reminds students to create sentence variety:
  • First Word of each sentence is different.
  • Lengths of sentences vary.
  • Inversion is used for variety.
  • Repetition is either avoided, or used for a purpose.
  • Types of Sentences vary.
Check out the following excerpt from I See London, an opinion piece written by Tracey Lloyd for the NY Times Complaint Box Series (a treasure trove of persuasive writing pieces!). Note that the author skillfully employs all five of the above tips while expressing her disdain for the recent fad of wearing sagging pants (be sure to click on the link above to read it all):

Flint, Michigan has defined not only what's decent,
but also what's disorderly and downright indecent.
And you think high heels are impractical? Try walking in some low-slung slacks. You must adopt a waddle to keep the pants from dropping completely and must always keep a hand free to hike them up. Then there is the need to buy ever-longer shirts to cover your rear end — shirts that apparently don’t exist, since I can see your underpants!

Nor are sagging pants the only sartorial choice that makes me cringe. Take rompers, or shortalls. They offer the ease of a dress with the comfort of shorts, and I’m for convenience. But when adults start wearing clothes that I’ve been buying for people’s babies, something is wrong. As for wearing a very adult thong with a short skirt: Do you really want to sit your bare derrière on a subway seat? Granny panties may not be that sexy, but neither is a visit to the urologist.

Did Tracey Lloyd consult my checklist? No. She most likely is an experienced writer with an ear for good writing and a willingness to revise.

So to give my students a fighting chance, I emphasize FLIRT and provide them with plenty of excellent writing models (although perhaps not the one cited above!).

First Word of Each Sentence is Different

It's not uncommon for egocentric students to write about their own experiences with "I" leading every sentence. Students fixated upon a topic, such as snakes, may similarly begin every sentence with that word.

The Fix: Require students to read aloud or list the first word of every sentence. Teach ways to restate ideas by using synonyms, additional phrases or clauses, or inversion of existing words.
Before: The great horned owl hunts small animals that live on the forest floor. The great horned owl uses its talons to catch them. 
After: Strong, sharp talons allow the great horned owl to capture small animals that live on the forest floor.
Lengths of Sentences Vary

Sentences of the same length, appearing over and over, give writing a sing-song rhythm which is apt to lull the reader to sleep.

The Fix: Use coordinate conjunctions and subordinate clauses to combine short sentences.
Before: The park is used by many people in the community. Some people just don't clean up when they're done.
After: The park is used by many people in the community; however, some users neglect to clean up when they leave. Is that fair to everyone?
Inversion is Used for Variety

Beginning writers tend to place the sentence stem first, adding details later:
We heard a loud crash sometime after midnight.
Lenny waited in the outfield eagerly with his feet spread apart and his hands on his knees.
Susette had no interest in the suitors like her sisters.
The Fix: Phrases and clauses within sentences can be moved to increase sentence variety and interest.
Sometime after midnight, a loud crash knocked us from our beds.
Feet spread apart, hands on his knees, Lenny waited eagerly in the outfield.
Unlike her sisters, Susette had no interest in the suitors.
Repetition is Either Avoided, or Used for a Purpose

Students need to see examples of writing that avoids repetition, and writing that purposely employs it. For the most part, Tracey Llloyd's opinion piece avoided repetition. Not here how it's used for effect:
Unlike the homes of readers, the homes of these students had no literary materials in sight. No magazines. No books. No newspapers. Without exception, however, every one of these homes contained a television.
The Fix: Help students discern between repetition and redundancy.

Types of Sentences Vary

Check out Tracey Lloyd's first paragraph again, and note that she employs four sentence types; in the second paragraph, she employs three.

Another place to find excellent examples of variety in sentence types is advertising. In a legendary Charles Atlas bodybuilding ad, for example, we read:

Take a good honest look at yourself! Are you proud of your body - or are you just satisfied to go through life being just "half the man" you could be? No matter how ashamed you are of your present physical condition - or how old or young you are - the "sleeping" muscles already present in your body can turn you into a real HE-MAN. I know - because I was once a skinny, scrawny 97-pound half-alive weakling.

Was this ad copy successful in selling a product? Yes, to the tune of millions! Good writing sells products as well as ideas.

The Fix: Provide students with boring paragraphs containing only statements, and challenge them to rewrite those paragraphs using the four sentence types.

So is FLIRT complete? No. Word choice is noticeably absent. But for beginning writers, this is a fine list for self-checking writing at a very basic level.

Do you have a repertoire of similar acronyms or Mnemonic devices to help your students with writing or reading? We'd love to hear them!


Anonymous said...

That's a mnemonic certain to catch a teenager's attention. Great post!!!

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