Maimed and Morbid Writing for Secondary Students

By Karen Desotelle

“All right, class, I want you to write a 150 word theme on some aspect of Halloween. Be sure you are creative and interesting and use all your vocabulary words at least once.” Assignments like this are sure to generate moans, groans, and outright awful papers. While the teacher is trying to incorporate new vocabulary into the writing experience, this approach usually results in stilted, artificial, and most uncreative efforts.

We know that frequent exposure to each new word is linked to the level of understanding an individual has of these new words. A student needs to experience new words many times in order to own them and feel comfortable using them with fluency and accuracy in daily life. In addition, these exposures need to be on varied levels, ranging from simple repetition of the words to seeing/hearing the definitions and to recognizing the appropriateness of the words in a variety of written or spoken communications.

How do we encourage new vocabulary utilization without inhibiting creativity? The assignment noted at the beginning of the article is not that far off the mark.

The following ideas, however, modify the assignment to encourage experimentation and creativity on the part of the student.

This assignment is designed to be adaptable to seasons, events, and fashions. It provides an opportunity for supplemental vocabulary development. First, provide students with several very dramatic opening phrases.

Examples: Halloween Horrors

  1. The candle was snuffed out and I heard the “whoosh” of footsteps on worn carpeting. Turning in terror, I saw…
  2. Her screams ricocheted down the stairwell making my teeth hurt and my heart shudder. Only one thing could make a person sound like that. It had to be…

Then, ask the students to complete one of the stories as dramatically as possible. Assure them that blood, gore, and outlandishness are all acceptable, and furthermore, you’re going to provide them with some words that might better describe the horrors they’ll produce. Write on the board or distribute a list similar to the one below that categorizes words according to how students may use them.

Examples: Halloween Horror Words

  1. Words that have to do with smells: stench, putrid, noxious, acrid, foul, musty, redolent, sulphurous.
  2. Words that have to do with destruction/ violence: gore, pulverize, desiccate, masticate, maim, mutilate, decay. ;
  3. Words that have to do with fear: intimidating, horrendous, eerie, ominous, morbid, haunting, menacing.
  4. Words that have to do with noises: creak, groan, crash, rattle, cackle, shriek, squeak, whack.
  5. Some other good words: fiery, fiend, ogre, cadaver, macabre, gruesome, corpse, phlegm, embalm.

To bolster the students’ confidence, preface your remarks with the statement, “I know you may already know some of these words, but let’s review the definitions.” Briefly define the words highlighting words like “putrid, dessicated, and maimed,” that are especially likely to pique students’ imaginations; then distribute the list with written-out, short definitions, pronouncing words for the students. Then let them loose and be available for informal advice.

Given the unrestricted nature of this type of assignment, particularly since you are challenging students to experiment with unfamiliar words, focus your correcting energies on highlighting successful uses of the vocabulary words. The introduction to the words wasn’t extensive enough to expect perfect utilization of them. Reward those brave souls who try to use 25 of the words in their writing by complimenting effort. In order to cement the lessons, identify the most popular words, read or have the authors read some of the stories, and prepare a list of words most often used incorrectly. Write these difficult words on the board, describe where students went wrong, and solicit new, correct usages of the words in sentences.

Be sensitive to these budding, creative writers. Praise effort highly, and grade these papers (if you must grade at all) with emphasis on the level of creativity and willingness to experiment with new words, not on punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

Karen Desotelle is a counselor in the Marquette University Equal Opportunities Program.