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Variety in writing

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I have a Thai friend whose meeting notes I edit. On one occasion, I felt the urge to change one verb simply because he had used it twice in the document. This article contains lessons that will help your students avoid this common practice. 


I often ask students to write about their vacations. Depending on their level, I ask them to include 10 to 30 different verbs each of which can only be used once. However, auxiliary verbs - to be, to have and to do - can be utilised as often as needed.

Before they write, I provide some ideas by suggesting verbs they might find useful and how to use a hard copy of a thesaurus or Microsoft Word's dictionary tool to find more alternatives.

In particular, the idea is to introduce verbs related to words they know as other parts of speech - as in dinner, diner and dined. If they had a good breakfast and ate sushi for lunch, they might dine on steak in the evening.

In addition, I look for synonyms that, although listed as being synonymous, are not acceptable in the way a student has attempted to deploy them. For example, while it is possible to say "I went or journeyed to Malaysia", it is not acceptable to remark, "I journeyed to a good restaurant".


When correcting, I look for acceptable verb use and whether the story makes sense. Again, the question of false synonyms becomes a concern and allows for the introduction of various alternatives students may or may not be aware of.

As with many writing assignments, I ask students to rewrite their story, incorporating my corrections, and again, depending on their level, make the story longer based on the need to add five to 10 new verbs.

This can be completed in a number of ways; for example, by adding simple sentences, by transcribing simple sentences into compound sentences or by making simple and compound sentences into a complex form. In addition, they can add a few more verbs to an existing sentence, for example, "I dined on steak and sipped wine."

Adjectives and adverbs

When correcting a second draft, I highlight nouns and verbs that could benefit from an adjective or adverb. Students are asked to rewrite, adding at least one adjective, two would be better, and if possible, three, to a noun and one adverb, sometimes two, to a verb. For example, "I voraciously dined on a thick, rare Australian steak and slowly sipped a delicious French red wine."

Again, they are not allowed to repeat adjectives or adverbs and are encouraged to use a thesaurus to find alternatives.

Using a thesaurus

A thesaurus is a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts. Throughout this exercise, I encourage students to think about their story, organise it and write as quickly as they can. I suggest not to worry about the verbs, adjectives and adverbs they use in their first draft, but to focus on getting ideas on paper. Once finished, they can go back and change vocabulary they might have used more than once or to add descriptors to nouns and verbs that do not have any.

Making it more difficult

If students have written a happy story, which is typical, the selected vocabulary should be positive in outlook. With this in mind, I ask them to rewrite the story as though it had been a negative experience. For example, "I trudged to a dingy restaurant and forced down a tough, overcooked steak and gagged on foul-tasting, cheap red wine."

When these stories are finished, both versions are shared with other students, who highlight words they do not know, and these are then explained by the writer.

Although it is a lot of work, the exercise gives students practice in telling a story and encourages them to look for, employ and, hopefully, expand their active and passive vocabulary with words they have found based on a story they would like to share. This will also help them to be forever mindful of not using the same main verb multiple times in a single document unless it is unavoidable and necessary.

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through, through his web site , at or on 081-834-8982.

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