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Lesson Plan: Eliminate "To Be" Verbs

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

I'm a big fan of "to be". I'm also a fan of the other 9,999 verbs my students never chose to use...until I created this wonderful lesson plan to eliminate "be" verbs.

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    What Happened?

    I had taught my students to eliminate weak verb/adverb combinations and to use strong action verbs instead; furthermore, I taught them how to trade weak verbs for strong verbs. I felt good...until I read their next set of essays. Were they not aware that strong action verbs still existed?

    After reading 2300 papers that averaged 34 to be verbs each, I wanted to suck out my brain with the plunger I found lying in the custodial closet. Seconds before engulfing my face with rubberized fecal matter, my colleague down the hall recommended I teach students how to eliminate to be verbs. Thinking it a better alternative than plunging my brain and flushing it down the toilet in the custodian's closet, I tried it.

    It worked. I now share it with you.

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    Strategies for Eliminating Be Verbs

    1) Change the be verb to a strong verb:

    Example: Tony is afraid of notebook checks.

    Tony fears notebook checks.

    Example: Billy is alarmed by the proximity of the shark.

    Billy motors away from the shark.

    2) Eliminate the be verb by writing one or more showing sentence.

    Example: Alligators are mean.

    The alligator, angry at being disturbed, lurched forward and swallowed the boy's cat. Unsatisfied, the grouchy gator swam circles around the screaming toddler, showing all the while the kitten's severed head.

    3) Combine sentences to eliminate the be verb.

    Example: The inefficient time manager is unfulfilled. He heads to bed, disappointed, despite having finished his to do list.

    The inefficient time manager heads to bed, unfulfilled, having checked everything off on his unprioritized to do list.

    4) Eliminate the entire sentence if its omission does not change the meaning of the passage.

    5) Leave the be verb if changing it alters the meaning,diminishes the passage, or makes the structure unworkable.

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    • Students copy strategies for eliminating to be verbs and a list of be verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.
    • Discuss or review elements of strong writing. Show students that writing that relies on be verbs is weak writing.
    • Instruct students to circle, highlight, or underline all be verbs in their rough draft.
    • If working in pairs or groups, instruct students to look for be verbs in their partner's writing.
    • Instruct students to implement the aforementioned strategies and eliminate as many be verbs as possible (at least half, initially) without compromising the integrity of the writing.
    • Share the best revisions on the board.
    • To motivate students to write better, try a paragraph challenge.
    • For a really challenging assignment, have students write a one page narrative without using any be verbs. You will not only enjoy their incessant whining, you might actually read some good stories.

    * This lesson was inspired by Mini Lessons for Revision by Susan Geye, 1997, Absey & Co. Spring, TX.