Why I love verbs

When it comes to search, I love nouns. Riffing on Michael Pollan, I share a little verse with my students offering general guidelines for thinking about constructing queries:

Yet, in recent years, verbs have become the power hitter in my research skills curriculum.

Back in 2017-2018, one of my Research TAs, Sara Zoroufy, spent her year analyzing a series of ninth and tenth grade History papers to enhance our understanding of how students made use of evidence. One of the most interesting (and subjective, to be honest) outcomes was a powerful correlation between selection of precise and varied verbs and strong use of evidence. Harker School US librarian Lauri Vaughan clarified an aspect of that observation for me when she gave a PD talk about “signal phrases” – the name/verb combinations we use in academic writing to introduce an idea or a quote from one of our sources, such as: “Gupta argues…,” “Zhou counters…,” or “Mendez concurs….”

Not only does the verb choice in signal phrases add significant analytical punch to student writing, but I find that verb choice can be used to help students bring sources into conversation with each other. Whenever I am able, I visit Upper School US History classes to pass out the handout linked above, along with a verb list recently constructed by one of our History teachers and a list of transitional words from the wonderful book They Say, I Say. Recommending that students keep these lists on-hand for when they are writing, we look at them as a tool to help with synthesis. 

Imagine you are working on a Document Based Question, and you have four sources that you are supposed to synthesize into an understanding — and eventually an argument — regarding an historical question. If you feel stuck as to how to proceed, you can look at a list of verbs and ask yourself: “Which verb fits the relationship between Source A and Source B? Does Source A: Acknowledge? Highlight? Refute? Delineate?” When you find a verb that feels right, the word itself begs for the “because…” that ends up being the analysis and synthesis you were trying to achieve. For a reasonable percentage of my students, this strategy seems to offer a productive way to think and write more effectively.

So, I love verbs. History teachers (in particular) love the idea that not every signal phrase students write will be “So-and-so said….” 

I additionally appreciate that I get to demonstrate to students how skills they learn in one discipline (here, English) strengthen their work in another discipline. When I can do that, it feels like everyone wins.

P.S.: For metacognitively strong students, this use of verbs can be helpful in a number of ways. Sara, the same TA, was confronted with a reading in her senior-year International Relations class for which she had no prior knowledge to provide context. She was bothered that she was therefore having trouble distinguishing evidence from argument (a personal interest of hers, as she explained to us in her 2017 AISL post). She ended up using signal phrases to distinguish where the author was presenting evidence and was able to work backwards and understand the article to her satisfaction. Very creative application of the concept, I thought.

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