Pearson ELT February 2012 newsletter

February 2012

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What’s at Work?: Tackling Wordiness in a Writing Class
By Colin Ward

Colin Ward
Colin Ward

I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness. (The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924)

I appreciate Twain’s fondness for conciseness and precise word choices. I’m sure other writing teachers do too. The trouble is, many of my ESOL students fall victim to the very opposite extreme—wordiness—and often unwittingly.

Wordiness is a style issue, usually defined as using "unnecessary" or "too many" words. It’s the kind of mistake my students tend not to notice by themselves. If I suggest a sentence be more concise, I’m not sure they know why.

Over the past couple of years, I have become very interested in what causes my students to be wordy. Most of my students speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Farsi, or French, and yet all exhibit wordiness when writing in English.

As I began researching wordiness, I found not much is written about the subject or how to handle it, especially with ESOL students. Therefore, I have been analyzing my own students' writing and have tried to formulate some of my own hypotheses about why wordiness occurs. This has informed my own teaching, and I now create activities to help my students notice and correct wordiness as they edit their own sentences.

What might cause ESOL writers to be wordy?

Examples of wordiness do appear in textbooks and online study guides, including those few intended for ESOL learners. They usually include a wordy construction and a more concise alternative, like these:

  • despite the fact that —› despite
  • in view of the fact that —› if
  • in the vicinity of —› near

Native speakers use these wordy collocations, but I haven't seen them in my students’ essays. For them, something else is at work. Likewise, to avoid wordiness, students are often told to switch from passive to active voice, yet still I don’t find this to be the root cause of my students' wordy sentences.

In some cases, my students have admitted to adding unnecessary words to “prolong the sentence,” but this is a conscious strategy and doesn’t explain instances where wordiness occurs unintentionally. Other times, students have deliberately repeated themselves in order to “put emphasis” on an idea, as in this student’s example: Everybody is different and has different points of view.

In many cases, however, students have created wordy sentences without realizing it, and therefore, without intention. Most often I have found that these instances of wordiness are the result of 1) direct translation, 2) lack of vocabulary, 3) lack of word form knowledge and 4) lack of grammar knowledge.

I have learned that simply pointing out examples of wordiness is not enough, however. Raising their awareness is key, but knowing the reasons for their wordiness is equally important. Doing both, students will be able to both recognize and correct their own wordiness errors independently.

Helping students notice wordiness and its causes

To help my students notice wordiness, I select example sentences from their essays and underline wordy sections. Students are instructed to make them less wordy. They then must guess what caused them to be wordy using these symbols: T (translation), G (lack of grammar knowledge), WF (lack of knowledge of word forms), and V (lack of vocabulary).

Here are some wordy sentences that I have highlighted in class, followed by an explanation:

  1. They are very easy to make friends.
    T/WF: This student, from Vietnam, identified this as a direct translation. Though I do not speak Vietnamese, I also believe it might be due to a lack of word form knowledge. Many of my students are unfamiliar with adverb forms. An adverb would result in a much more concise sentence, e.g. They make friends easily.

  2. By establishing more factories, it will create more jobs for people.
    G: Many of my students construct this kind of sentence, repeating the subject in an introductory prepositional phrase. In this case, the student was comfortable using a "by + gerund" phrase, but not with using the gerund phrase as the subject, e.g. Establishing more factories will create more jobs for people.

  3. When he behaves with old people, he talks in a polite way.
    WF: This wordiness was caused by a lack of word form knowledge. The student was not familiar with the adverb form "politely." I have discovered many wordy prepositional phrases are caused by not knowing adverb forms, e.g., He talks politely.

  4. When she travels to foreign countries, she spends time eating food with people who live in the area.
    V: This student did not know the word "locals." Her lack of vocabulary knowledge resulted in a wordy sentence that instead gave a definition of the word she needed.

Sentences like these have led to fascinating classroom discussions about grammar and word choices, and this research has brought me to one simple conclusion—noticing is key. Without knowledge of what wordiness means and what might cause it, students will continue to construct wordy sentences unwittingly.

Additional Editing Strategies for Wordiness

After introducing the concept of wordiness, I continue to scaffold and build upon what the students have learned until they are able to edit for wordiness independently. Generally, it is best to do this as students are working on their second or third drafts, where the focus is more on editing. Here are a few more strategies you might try in your own classrooms:

  • Periodically, type up five wordy sentences from your students' paragraphs or essays and have them edit for wordiness. To make the task more challenging, don’t underline the sections that are wordy. Then have them identify what caused the wordiness.

  • Have students read their essays and underline one sentence they think is wordy. Check for understanding. Ask them to edit their sentences to make them less wordy, offering help as needed.

  • If you use editing symbols, include one for wordiness, such as a squiggly underline, e.g. They tell lies most of the time to avoid being punished.

  • Have students include examples of wordiness in their error logs.

  • Require students to keep a word forms chart (noun, verb, adjective, adverb). It is not only a helpful reminder of forms they have misused, but it is also shows then other forms they could use instead to be less wordy, such as adverbs.

Colin Ward is Professor of ESOL, Lone Star College – North Harris. He is author of Focus on Writing 3 and From Reading to Writing 4.

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