Basic writers — hell, even experienced writers — sometimes struggle when it comes to choosing good concrete subjects over abstractions.
Now, sometimes an abstract noun has to be the subject of a sentence, and you just have to pull up your big kid underpants and deal with it the best you can. But most of the time, especially in the kind of writing students do for school, the best sentence subjects will be concrete nouns. In my classes, I use this “Pictionary”-inspired inductive activity to illustrate this point.
First, I prepare a stack of index cards — at least one per student. On some I write concrete nouns: Santa Claus, coffee, family, book, teacher, etc. and on the other stack I write abstract nouns: intention, tolerance, consideration, difference, opportunity, etc.
In class, I explain the rules: each person will have one minute to illustrate the word on their card in an attempt to get their group members to guess the word. If no one guesses the word, they will reveal it at the end of the minute. I then pass out the cards at random, warning students not to let anyone else see their card until they’ve had their turn. I then separate the class into small groups and assign each group a section of the whiteboard and some markers.
At this point, the class fills with chatter and laughter as students attempt to play the game. The contrast between words like “apple” and words like “concept” becomes apparent quickly.
After everyone has had a turn, students return their cards and sit back down. I ask, “Which words were easier to draw and guess? Which words were harder?” and divide the examples into two categories on the whiteboard.
I then ask “What do these words have in common?” and students realize they are all nouns. Then someone will inevitably point out that the “easier” words are all things that are out in the real world. The word “concrete” usually comes up with minimal prompting, and I write it above the list of “easier” words.
Then I ask about the “hard” words. Students quickly identify them as “intangibles” (though not necessarily in so many words at first), and we are able to label them as “abstract” on the board.
To wrap up the activity, we look at examples of how the concrete and abstract words can be used as subjects in sentences. We note that using abstract subjects often locks us in to using the “to be” verb as our verb and places a more concrete subject candidate in the position of direct object, turning sentences into flabby passive messes instead of lean concise messages.
We finish by looking at our own drafts; students pull out their writing and take a look at their sentences, revising them to improve focus by making better subject choices.