The Function of Verbs in Memoir

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SWBAT identify the functions of verbs in different parts of a memoir and how they engage and orient the reader through analysis of verb use in expert and student texts.

Big Idea

Different sections of text call for different processes to fully engage the readers in the argument.


Today we will begin by discussing the functions of verbs in clauses, moving beyond the simple "action word" definition they have used since they learned parts of speech in elementary school.  In doing so, I will adapt terminology from Systematic Functional Linguistics (SFL), teaching to students the most common ways that verbs function in a text:  doing verbs (material), saying verbs (verbal), thinking verbs (mental), and relational verbs.  Early in the semester we reviewed the function of parts of speech, and emphasized the importance of understanding function vs. simply being able to name parts of speech through our study of their summer reading Sin and Syntax:  How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale.  We will build on that study in the next couple days as they revise their memoir essays (I chose to do this instruction now because it requires students to do a lot of revision to learn the concepts, and I thought that this memoir would be a piece they wouldn't get burned out working with).  To reinforce these new concepts, I will use a diagram of a person as a visual aide to better represent the functions of verbs; I will label each type in the appropriate area of the body, and provide verbal examples of each type (and ask students for examples).  After defining verbs, I will more specifically instruct students how they function in different parts of memoir, using both expert texts and their own work.

Learning How Verbs Function

30 minutes

Today I will begin by defining what it means to "build the field" of a text from a systematic functional linguistic perspective--essentially how the topic of a piece of writing is defined through the language.  

This part will be primarily in a lecture format as I explain the new material, with some class interaction as I ask them leading questions to help define the variety of processes verbs create. This video explains the basics of this part of the lesson:  defining field and processesmp4.mp4.

After reviewing the function of verbs, I will put an excerpt from Wild on the Smartboard and identify the verbs and verb phrases as a class in the first paragraph (I want to specifically point out verb phrases, such as the use of infinitives and how they have to be with another verb because they don’t carry tense, as explained here:  Wild With Verbsmp4.mp4), so they have a more complete understanding of how verbs are functioning.  Then I will have students go through and underline the rest on their own on the document they used Monday when highlighting genre moves (I have extra copies if they don’t have this copy, though the highlighted one will be more beneficial for the next part of the lesson).  While I won’t put them into groups or pairs for this activity because I want each individual to think about the verb functions on their own, I won’t discourage them working together, since it will help in the learning process for those who are confused (some classroom environments may require a more structured format for this--either independent or making pairs).   As they are doing this, I will also ask them to categorize two paragraphs of verbs into what type of process they are, using the verb process log (Verb log.docx).   Doing this categorizing and writing the verbs and verb phrases down in the chart will help reinforce their understanding of verb functions.   As they are doing this, I will circulate and help individual students as questions come up either in identifying verb phrases (they sometimes have trouble with verb phrases where the infinitive is separated from its anchor verb, for example), and also help walk them through the categorizing. 



How Verbs Function in Memoirs

15 minutes

After they have gone through the identifying and categorizing process, I will put up my copy of the text, with both the genre moves and verbs highlighted (genre moves highlighted with verbs.docx).  I will then ask the students what they notice regarding the types of processes used in relation to the different parts of the text.   My purpose here is to show that while both narrative and analysis portions have material (“doing”) and relational verbs, the mental (“feeling”) verbs are regulated to the analysis part.  Additionally, there are more relational verbs in the analysis section (as explained here: Verb Function In Genre Movesmp4.mp4 ).  At this point I will ask why they think that is, and also what too many mental or relational verbs do to a narrative (I want them to understand that too many relational verbs limits details because the event lacks action, and mental verbs tend to alienate the reader from the event because the reader doesn’t get to see as much and really be part of the narrative).  The document with genre moves and verbs highlighted also has the Cofer excerpt as a second example to further emphasis the concepts here.

Verb Function in Memoir: Comparing Expert Text and Student Text

30 minutes

During the gender unit students did a couple writing assignments where they tried out writing arguments using memoir.  These were not scored, but shared with each other—their primary function was as formative assessment for me to see how students understand the genre moves of the models used as prompts (the readings we did in class, such as Wild and “Myth of the Latin Woman”), and for them to start thinking about their own stories and translating them to the page.   In this part of the lesson, I will put a couple of these up against excerpts we have analyzed to see how verbs function in different parts of the text, to see where to focus their editing (Note:  I asked the students if I could use their work prior to today).  This also takes these concepts from the theoretical to the real world for students by analyzing their own work.

 I have put together a diagram which has excerpts we've been analyzing with the verbs highlighted beside one of their earlier narrative writing assignments with the verbs highlighted (attached here is a student sample compared to Cofer's piece; the document also has noun group and prepositional comparisons on it, which we will use tomorrow:  field analysis expert vs. student sample 1.docx).   I will ask students to say what they observe in the comparison; some of the observations that I will make sure are made include the fact that there are many more verbs in the student’s sample, and they generally come with more frequency.  Also, there are lots more relational and mental verbs in the student sample (explained here in this video: Verb Comparisonmp4.mp4) .  We will discuss the implications of this for editing (for example, too many mental verbs in the narrative portions tend to distance the audience from the story, too many verbs in general means there is not enough context or detail being provided, etc.).    

Next Steps:

With all this new information in hand, students will apply it to their own work.  For homework they will highlight the genre moves in their draft (narrative moments vs. analysis), identify all the verbs, and analyze patterns of verb use in their piece, both in general, and in relation to the different parts of the text.  This analysis portion will also be written in a free-write format.