Friday, March 23, 2012

Tips for Writing Persuasively

IB English A1 exams are around the corner, and in my class we’ve been looking at how to write an English literary essay that fulfils all the criteria for the English A1 Exam Papers. There are two papers; Paper 1 is a commentary on an unseen work, and Paper 2 – Essay, is the one where you have to pick a question and answer it, referring to at least two Part 3 works that you have studied.  Both papers are 1 ½ hours for SL and 2 hours for HL students, and your score on them is actually 50% of your overall grade for IB English A1.

Well, if you’re like my students, you’ve been practicing structuring an essay, writing in your best use of English, and discussing the effects of literary tools like crazy by doing some of your homework occasionally.  So your English essay writing should be getting pretty good.  But if your IB teacher is like me, pretty good is not good enough.  We want you to strive to do your best. To do your best - that means to strive for a five on each of the five criteria for the two English papers in the final exam.

One of the writing techniques that will mean the difference between a level 4 or 5 and a level 6 or even 7 on these papers is persuasion. Take a look at this:

From the first criterion for HL Paper 1 (Commentary), Understanding of the Text  – in order to earn a 5, you need to include “detailed and persuasive references to the text."

From the second criterion, Interpretation of the Text – for a 5: “the analysis is consistently detailed and persuasively illustrated by carefully chosen examples.”

From the third criterion, Appreciation of Literary Features, level 5: “detailed and persuasive appreciation of the effects of the literary features of the text.”

And on it goes.

So obviously in order to get an excellent IB grade on your final exam papers, you need to know some persuasive techniques.

Persuasive Writing Techniques and how they Apply to IB A1 Essay Writing:

1.   Make a strong statement, your thesis statement, in your introduction.  Then go on to support it and prove it in the rest of your essay.  This will give you focus and be more persuasive.  If you are certain of your idea, it will be easier to persuade the reader that you are right.

2.   Outline your main points in the introduction and summarize them in the conclusion.  People cope with information best when it is laid out for them clearly.  This is another reason why you have to plan out your essay before you begin.

3.   The Rule of Three – You’ve probably been hearing about this rule since middle school, or Year 7, if you’re British.  They also tell you about it in science.  So this rule is pretty important.  You can apply it to your English essays by giving not one, not two, but three points to support your thesis.  On Paper 2, you are writing about at least two of the works you have read in Part 3 of the course.  Give three points to support your thesis for each, for a total of 6 points.  You should also give not one, not two, but three examples to support each of your points.  So apply this to good paragraph structure, and you will have three body paragraphs, each about one point, and in each body paragraph, you will have three examples to support your point. 

4.   Repetition – You must have heard the poster child for persuasive writing, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.  How many times did he repeat those words?  By repeating your thesis or your main points in various ways, they will be more memorable and you will be more persuasive.  Give your main points in your introduction, in your topic sentences, and again by summarizing them in your conclusion.

5.   Show a likely argument to your point of view and refute it.  If your thesis can be argued, give the most likely argument and then oppose it.  This is especially useful if you choose a “to what extent do you agree with this statement” type question on Paper 2.  It can also be applied to Paper 1, by outlining a possible alternative interpretation for the piece your commentary is on, and then showing why your interpretation is better.  Remember to give evidence here.

6.   Use dramatic language – strong adjectives (stunning, vivid, obvious), modal verbs (must, should, have to), and emotive words (joy, ominous, chilling, thrill).  Appeal to the reader’s senses as well as his/her logic and reason.

7.   Structure – plan your paper out carefully before you start writing so that your structure will be persuasive.  Make sure that your thesis statement is very clearly stated in your introduction.  Repeat your main points in your conclusion.  Order your paragraphs to build up to your most persuasive point.  On the other hand, if you are afraid you might run out of time before you run out of essay, make your most persuasive point first so you can flesh it out and support it fully.  Along the same vein, if you do find that you’re running out of time, make sure you finish off with an excellent conclusion.  Strong final words will stick in the examiner’s mind the most as he/she is determining your grades.

8.   Use formal language and as many correct literary terms as you can (for example, use “drama”, “playwright”, “audience” when writing about plays instead of “book”, “author”, or “reader”).  This shows that you are somewhat of an expert on your subject, and experts are always more persuasive than those annoying weekend essayists.

9.   Link everything together.  Link your body paragraphs to your thesis by telling how your point supports your thesis.  Link paragraphs to one another by using leading phrases (Additionally, moreover, furthermore, finally, on the other hand...).  Link your sentences together by using linking words (however, whereas, although...).

10.                Don’t be wishy-washy: Keep out the “I think,” “I believe,” “It is my opinion that,” etc.  We know this is what you think.  You’re writing it.  Be confident and firm in what you think and you will have more success in persuading your reader that you are right.

If you want to practise what I preach, go here:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Nerdvark's List of TOP TEN Mistakes that Drive Him Crazy

We all have our top ten lists. Top ten gaming mouses. Top ten funny things George W. said. Top ten (or 1,672) favourite movies on IMDB. The Nerdvark has compiled a list of 

Top Ten Mistakes that Drive Him Crazy:

10. Male/female suffixes (blond vs blonde)
9. Misspelling commonly-used words
8. Wrong word (effect vs affect)
7. Mixed up homophones (your vs you’re)
6. Comma splices and run-on sentences, and of course complete lack of punctuation
5. Random capitalization
4. Misplaced apostrophes
3.  “To beg the question”
2. Throwing around “whom” to sound intellectual. 
1. Misquoted nonsensical idioms (I could care less)

Blond vs blonde - If this is a toughie for you, just be thankful you’re not French or Spanish or something. At least in English there are only a handful of words that care whether they’re describing a chick or a dude. Basically, ladies get an ‘e’ and gents don’t. So if you are a girl, you’re a blonde, and if you’re a boy, you’re a blond. But that being said, I guess if you are a blonde or a blond you’ll never really figure this stuff out, will you?
And that brings us to misspelling, and one of Nerdvark’s favourite websites, If you’re not very good at spelling, for the love of dog, practise! Lazy? Prefer playing? Then play word games, like these ones here:
Wrong word - Some words are verbs, and some are nouns. For example, in the case of affect vs. effect, the first is a verb (“Seeing the wrong word affects the Nerdvark very negatively.”) and the second is a noun (“Seeing the wrong word has a very negative effect on the Nerdvark.”) This guy here can help with that one.
Homophones – The Nerdvark is mixed-up-homophopic. In other words, whenever he sees the word “your” where the word “you’re” should be, his head explodes. Fortunately, the Nerdvark is a fictional character who exists only in a fictional mirror, so his head always grows back by the next frame. But it still hurts – give him a break and figure out whether you’re board or bored, will ya? Perhaps the oatmeal says it best:

Punctuation – A sentence begins with a capital and ends with a full stop (period, if you’re American).  A sentence consists of a subject and a verb. If you want to make a compound sentence, you need to do so by adding a joining word, like and, so, but or because.  It looks like this: “I like cats. They’re fluffy.” Becomes “I like cats, because they’re fluffy.” You can also join two sentences together with a semicolon [;] if their points are closely related, like this: “I like cats; they’re fluffy.” But every time you join two sentences with a comma, which is what we call a comma splice, Nerdvark bleeds from the eye sockets.  So please stop doing that.  Along the same line, we have the run-on sentence – a sentence that should have ended several ands ago, and worst of all of all, complete and utter lack of punctuation. For example, this:
I like cats they’re fluffy i have two cats one is white with orange spots and the other is mostly white with ginger on his face and tail they are named baker and lance they like to play together they’re both really fluffy.
You can see how this can be annoying.
Capitalization - In English, we use capitals at the beginning of the first word of a sentence, for keywords in a title, and for proper nouns (names). We don’t capitalize random nouns, and we don’t capitalize something to emphasize it. If you want to emphasize something, try underlining, italicizing, or finding a more dramatic, emphatic word to use instead. For example, instead of saying “That’s Big,” try “That’s enormous,” “That’s massive,” or “That’s gargantuan.”
Apostrophes – use them in contractions (omissions if you’re British) - in place of missing letters, and in possessives - when something belongs to something. Don’t use them in plurals or anywhere you happen to see a letter S. It’s as simple as that. Maybe this can shed some light on it if you really think “kitten’s for sale” makes sense:
To beg the question – Back in the olden, olden days, when rhetoric and public speaking were university departments, the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks coined a lot of terms to refer to uses of language. To “beg the question” is one of those terms.  “Begging the question” is a logical fallacy whereby one tries to prove a point by restating the point; for example, if you say “My cat’s overweight because he’s fat,” you are begging the question. What question? The question of why your cat’s overweight. Get it? This is a difficult one, and I only get it because I took philosophy in uni; in fact I actually reprimanded one of my colleagues the other day for misusing “begs the question”. Yes, an English teacher.  I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only person (other than the Nerdvark) left on the planet who is bothered by the misuse of this phrase:

Whom – not just a clever way to say who. “Whom” is an object pronoun, like him, her, me, you, them, and us.  If you’re not sure, try answering using the word him in place of the word whom.  Like this: “Give it to whom? Give it to him.” (“Object” means it is the receiver of the action of the verb, and “pronoun” means it stands in the place of the noun, like they in “My cats are cute when they lick each other.”) So “Whom was that masked man?” is incorrect, while “Whom did that man mask?” is correct.
 Idioms – most of them actually do make sense. “I could care less” means you do care. So if you don’t care, you should say you couldn't care less. Saying “I could care less” also means you are US American, since, according to the history of the phrase here, US Americans are the only ones who claim that they could care less when they really mean that they couldn't.

Thanks for reading... read on, read on... my website:

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Level-7 Essay for IB English Exam Paper 1 - Commentary

Note: This is old.  The course has changed.  After reading this, which many students still find helpful, please go on to read about the new marking criteria and another good example of a level-7 essay, starting here.

Are you looking for help with your IB English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

Some of my students got "The Heaven of Animals" by James Dickey for their mock IB English exams, and when all was said and done, they asked if they could see an example of a level-7 paper. Well, I couldn't find one  on the IB website, or anywhere else, for that matter, so I asked the Nerdvark to write one for me. So here it is, Nerdvark's Level 7 IB English Commentary (Exam Paper 1) on James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals", complete with his notes.

Play Spot the Kitty on Android for free! 

Pay attention to the five areas that these papers are graded on. 

First, Understanding (of the poem) - Nerdvark begins his commentary by explaining, or paraphrasing, the poem in order to show his understanding. 

Second, Interpretation - Nerdvark then goes into a detailed analysis of the poem, being sure to mention many Literary Features and their Effects for the third part of the grading. 

Fourth, the Structure of your essay is graded. Nerdvark structures this essay with a solid introduction that hooks the reader, gives his thesis, and outlines his main points, then has a block for understanding, a block for interpretation, being sure to PEEL in each paragraph, and finally, a conclusion that cleverly summarizes the main points and includes his personal response. 

When you take the fifth area of grading, Use of Language, into account, noticing that the Nerdvark has gone over his essay with a fine-toothed comb and eliminated all grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, used an appropriate register, and expressed himself in varied and concise language, then you can see how this paper would earn a level 7. 

Now, go ahead and read the Nerdvark's commentary, and follow along with your IB English Paper 1 - Commentary marking scheme, if you have one:
The Nerdvark spent nearly half an hour dissecting this poem and made careful notes before beginning his commentary.


The Haven of Earth
by the Nerdvark

         Many religions predict that the afterlife resides in Heaven, for humans. What of animals? This essay will explore James Dickey's poem "The Heaven of Animals" to discover his idea of what an animal's heaven is like in Dickey's mind. The main theme explored is the idea that an animal's heaven is right on Earth, in its natural habitat. Furthermore, the poem could serve as a warning to humans that destroying the planet is not only dangerous to our own continued existence, but it brings up important moral issues concerning the animals who also reside on our planet. Dickey utilizes many different literary features to get his message across, namely his choice of structure, vocabulary, and imagery, though there are many more.
         The text itself is very clearly about both predators and prey, how they interact with each other, their habitats, and the process in which they live and die. The first three stanzas describe the heaven in which animals live: our Earth. The very first line, "Here they are." is a reference to Earth. They are here, and nowhere else. They will always be here. The next few lines utilize imagery; "It is a wood" and "It is grass rolling" are examples of the different habitats in which the animals reside. The second stanza is of how animals are not self-aware, rather they rely solely on instincts; "...beyond their knowing./ Their instincts wholly bloom". The third stanza, conversely, reflects on their environments. Since the animals are not aware of anything but their instincts, any natural habitat they belong in is the best place for them; the picture of perfection. If the animal is a woodland creature, its habitat is a wood, and the wood in which that particular animal lives is "The richest wood,". These three stanzas encompass animals as a whole.
         Dickey also mentions predators, specifically. The fourth, fifth, and part of the sixth stanza all refer to the Earth's predators. "These hunt, as they have done,/ But with claws and teeth grown perfect." from stanza four, refers to the hunting of other animals. Stanza five is all about predators stalking their prey. "And crouch on the limbs of trees,/ And their descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey." clearly refers to a predator stalking its prey. Only the first two lines of stanza six describe the predators; a continuation of the sentence in stanza five. "May take years/ In a sovereign floating of joy." gives away its subject with the word 'sovereign', a word of power. The prey, obviously, is not empowered, and so it refers to the predators.
         The rest of stanza six introduces the other end of the spectrum: the prey; "...those that are hunted". Stanza seven makes clear the idea that being hunted is not a bad thing; it does not upset or terrify the prey to be hunted: "And to feel no fear,/ But acceptance, compliance." Since the animals rely on instinct, that instinct being to live, reproduce, and feed another, their being hunted is not, in any way, traumatic.
         The final stanza wraps the poem up perfectly, bringing the predators and  prey together in a "cycle". While predator and prey are separate entities, they are still part of each other in the same cycle. The last two lines may appear, at first, to be only about prey: "They fall, they are torn,/ They rise, they walk again." However, it is actually nonspecific. "They are torn" could refer to both predator and prey because of the breakdown process which occurs after death. A body, whether predator or prey, will be subject to all manner of decomposition, and so Dickey leaves off on an open note; simply a part of the cycle.
         Interpreting the poem can lead one down many paths. However, a sure start is with the overall structure. There is no rhyme scheme, the themes bleed into each other, and the stanzas have different lengths. It is a very natural poem, more concerned with flow than a rigorous structure. An inference of things belonging in a 'natural habitat' can be found. What does the structure say, if not that being in a 'cage' (rigid structure) is unnatural for animals? This is especially clear in stanza six, where two lines from stanza five occur in stanza six. Further, the two lines, "May take years/ In a sovereign floating of joy." are about predators, while the rest of stanza six is about their prey. This not only shows a relaxed structure, but that prey and predators being together is a natural part of an animal's life, and to separate them is unnatural. It could challenge humans to take better care of the planet. When natural areas are destroyed for human needs, any animals that survive are sent to zoos. The poem seems to ask, instead, to leave the natural areas intact. It would be better to create a reserve, where all types of animals can live together in harmony.
         Although nowhere in the poem does Dickey actually say that the animals' heaven is on Earth specifically, many of the lines may allude to this. As previously mentioned, the line "Here they are." is as close to a giveaway as any line comes. Why "Here"? Surely "Here" should refer to the Earth. If the animals' heaven was somewhere beyond Earth, the poem would not open in such a way. Further evidence for it being here can be found in stanza seven, in the line "Fulfilling themselves without pain." Heaven for humans, in many religions, is a reward for fulfilling a higher power. "Fulfilling themselves" shows no evidence of animals needing to please a superior power. The Earth itself is their reward, "Their reward: to walk" (last line of stanza six), which alludes to Earth being their heaven. Further, in human religions, a 'soul' is required to get to heaven. Bodies, obviously, cannot travel to another plane, so a soul must exist for the human interpretation of a heaven. Dickey writes "Having no souls", perhaps alluding to a different idea of heaven altogether.
         Instead of the human idea of heaven, Dickey seems to explore a different viewpoint altogether. From many instances within the poem, it appears as though heaven, for animals, is simply the natural perfection of the Earth itself. "But with claws and teeth grown perfect" is one of the first instances of a hint towards the perfection theme. "Outdoing desperately,/ Outdoing what is required:/ The richest wood,/ The deepest field.", four lines from stanza three which are pregnant with meaning. The Earth itself seems to be the animals' heaven, as, in its natural state, it is utterly perfect. If an animal should be (re?)born in a forest, that forest is all the animal knows, and in its natural glory, it is the ultimate forest for that animal. Instinctually, it fulfills every need of the animal's, making it, in a sense, heaven for that animal. This idea extends to any habitat in which an animal could live, so long as it's natural. It is also possible to interpret this in other ways. One could say that there is only one forest on Earth which is the richest, and clearly not all forest critters live there, so the heaven must be otherworldly, which is why the heaven "outdoes" the forests of Earth. However, there is further evidence within the poem supporting the allusion that the Heaven of animals is upon the Earth we live.
         An examination of the wording within the poem reveals a lexis of positivity and perfection. "Upon the bright backs of their prey", from stanza five, seems out of place. Surely an animal which is preyed upon should not be easy to spot. Such wording can be justified as Dickey's method of saying that predators are meant to catch the prey, as is the natural process of things. Bright, a word with a positive connotation, is one of many such words within the poem to indicate that death and predation is not a negative part of an animal's life. There are also two words which may be direct references to the Bible. "In a sovereign floating of joy", in which 'sovereign' is used. Sovereign alludes to one in charge, but it is a very holy word. The other, "Of what is in glory above them," where 'glory' is found, being a word used in the Bible frequently. The two words, in the Bible, refer to God, but Dickey uses them, in both cases, to refer to the predators. This indicates that the animals' heaven is the Earth, in and of itself.
         Another lexis which makes itself present is the humble aura of the poem. Dickey uses many 'ground's-eye view' words. For example, "walk" and "feet" are both used several times throughout the poem. Imagery such as "the landscape flowers" gives the impression of a low, simplistic beauty. Even in stanza five, where Dickey describes the predators on the limbs of trees above their prey, he uses "crouch". So what? This not only creates a sense of equality among the animals, strengthening the sense of the animals fulfilling themselves, it also reinforces the idea of a cycle.
         The last stanza mentions a cycle, which is perhaps an allusion to animals being reborn. Evidence of this includes the line "They rise", which is present in both the beginning (stanza two) and the end (stanza eight) of the poem. As well as this, "They fall, they are torn,/ They rise, they walk again." refers to animals dying and reliving. It  indicates rebirth, although rebirth requires a soul. Perhaps, as Dickey would have been aware at the time of writing this poem, it refers to their genes being reborn, within every subsequent generation's DNA. In this way, Earth is effectively an animal's heaven.
         Although interpretation is up to the individual, one could take away from Dickey's poem a warning. In today's technological and consumerist society, natural areas are quickly being diminished. As a mentally superior species, do we not owe it to our animal Earth-mates to keep their areas safe? Do we have the right to destroy their homes, their heaven? Regardless of these complex moral issues, there can be no mistaking Dickey's meaning in "The Heaven of Animals" that the Earth itself is an animal's heaven, providing what it needs in the natural order it needs it in. Through his wording and style, he has taken us through exactly why it lives up to the standards of a heaven for all the Earth's children.

To learn more about how to kick butt on Paper 1 in the IB's new "Language A" course, click here.
Now that you have studied hard, it's time for a study break! Written by K.I. Borrowman

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Those four little words that every teacher says and every student dreads: "In Your Own Words"

If your teacher sends you home to do an essay on one of the works you have read, the easiest thing to do is find a good, reliable source of information and copy and paste it into your word processor, throw your name on the bottom, and voila! An excellent essay!
Sorry to say, teachers can see right through this. For one thing, chances are your teacher has already read the Sparksnotes you're copying from. For another, even if you're copying something fairly obscure, your teacher can likely recognize the difference between your writing style and an actual professional writer's style. If your teacher so much as suspects that you might have copied and pasted even part of your essay, there is software available for him or her to find the original source. And finally, even the most amazing essay or website you can find on the internet will probably not fulfill the requirements of your assignment - especially for IB students! So.... you can't fool your teacher.

But even if you can fool your teacher, stop and think a moment about why your teacher assigned you this essay. Is it because your teacher is a sadistic jerk who loves to think of his students up all night slaving over a hot computer while he is watching TV and playing Playstation? Is it because your teacher is a masochistic weirdo who just loves spending all his free time grading papers? ACTUALLY, and this may come as a shock to you, your teacher gives you homework because your teacher wants you to learn something.
Ok, so you've resigned yourself to writing an essay "In Your Own Words", and perhaps you'll even learn something along the way. But how? One mistake that a lot of schools make is to demand that students write essays in their own words, some schools even going so far as to make plagiarism illegal, but then not actually teach you how! That's where the Nerdvark comes in. The Nerdvark has come up with a simple process for taking something that you can find online and turn it into your own words. The benevolent Nerdvark has even given an example for you to practice with. 
How to Write it "In Your Own Words"
Step 1: You found a good, reliable source of information. Copy and paste the whole thing into a Word document. That’s right, do it! Print it off (optional) The example we’re going to be working with is the introduction to William Shakespeare from Wikipedia:
*** Warning to students - always make sure your wikipedia article of choice is properly sourced and cited! Otherwise somebody might be giving you false information! False information, on the Interwebs? You're kidding me! ***
Step 2: Start a page for NOTES. This can be on actual paper (if you want to kill trees), or a separate Word document. Title it. For our example, use the title: “Notes – William Shakespeare”
Step 3: Make headings on your notes page, according to the questions you want to answer with your research. For our example, you want to find out WHO Shakespeare was, WHAT he did, etc. The words “Who” and “What” are good headings.
Step 4: Read your source again, this time highlighting the keywords in each sentence. Keywords are the ones that will answer your questions, the questions you wrote as headings.
Step 5: Copy all the keywords as bullet points under the correct headings.
Step 6: Close or put away your original source.

Step 7: Repeat steps 1 through 6 until you have taken notes from all your sources.
Step 8: Write your essay by looking only at the notes you made. Expand the headings into more detailed headings or into topic sentences. Write supporting details underneath, in sentences you make up (= in your own words), and using the keywords.
Here is my example - I used a different font and put it in italics so you will understand that this is an example of what you are supposed to do.  You can copy this out and continue for practice, referring to the wikipedia article I linked to up there, if you like:

Notes - William Shakespeare
-        1564 – 1616
-        English poet and playwright
-        Greatest writer in English language
-        Called England’s national poet and “the Bard of Avon”

-        Wrote
›      38 plays,
›      154 sonnets,
›      2 long narrative poems,
›      lots of other poems
-        Plays translated to many languages
-        Plays performed more often than any others

Report on William Shakespeare
By the Nerdvark
Who Was William Shakespeare?
        William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright who lived from 1564 to 1616. He was the greatest writer ever to use English language. He is often called “England’s National Poet” and “The Bard of Avon.”
What did he Do?
        William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and many other poems, too. His plays are so famous that they have been translated into a plethora of other languages, and they are performed more often than any other plays in the history of the world.

Obviously, this is only a small part of an essay about William Shakespeare. Your teacher might, for example, ask you to write about the context of one of his plays. This might be the introduction to such an essay. 

You can use this method to put other people's ideas into your own writing about ANYTHING - poetry commentary, comparison of two works, research essay, etc, and it can be in combination with information your teacher has given you, information in a text, and/or notes you took in class. But it is important, especially if you are an IB student, to include your own ideas, too.

For more on doing research, check out one of The Nerdvark's favourite websites, Owl Purdue:
Check the next post to see an example of an awesome essay that The Nerdvark wrote about "The Heaven of Animals," a poem by James Dickey used on a past IB English A1 Paper 1 - Commentary.  And meet the real nerd at