Word Choice Lesson Plan: Eliminate and Replace “To Be” Verbs

Lesson Plan: Replace “To Be” Verbs with Strong, Active Verbs


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.


I Be Frustrated

I had taught my students to eliminate weak verb/adverb combinations and to use strong action verbs.  I felt good…until I read their next set of essays. Were they not aware that strong action verbs still existed?
After reading 2392 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.

ELA Common Core Standards

Teaching word choice and replacing “to be” verbs with strong verbs satisfies the following common core standards.  This list will impress your administrator, but bore your students.  I recommend simplifying the language when you write the objective(s) on the board.  And yes, it is ironic that the language standards use words that only a walking dictionary could make sense of.

L.9-10.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening. This lesson plan should help.
W.9-10.2d  Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.
W.9-10.3d  Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.
W.9-10.5  Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of L.9-10.1-3.)
W.9-10.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Strategies for Eliminating “To Be” Verbs

There are times when the best word is am, is, are, was, were, be, being, or been.  That time, unfortunately, isn’t 19 times per paragraph.  Teach these “to be” verb elimination strategies.

1.  Change the be verb to a strong verb:
Bad Example: Tony is afraid of notebook checks.
Good Example: Tony fears notebook checks.
Bad Example: Billy is alarmed by the proximity of the shark.
Good Example: Billy motors away from the shark.
2. Eliminate the be verb by writing one or more showing sentence.
Bad Example: Alligators are mean.
Good Example: 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  the             kitten’s severed head.
3.  Combine sentences to eliminate the be verb.
Bad Example: The inefficient time manager is unfulfilled. He heads to bed, disappointed, despite     having finished his to do list.
Good Example: 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.

Strong Verb Lesson Plan Procedures

Try this revision exercise if your students are “being” too passive in their writing.

  1. Instruct students to copy strategies for eliminating “to be” verbs along with a list of “be” verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.
  2. Discuss or review elements of strong writing. Show students that writing that relies on be verbs is weak writing.
  3. Instruct students to circle, highlight, or underline all “be” verbs in their rough draft.
  4. If working in pairs or groups, instruct students to look for “be” verbs in their partner’s writing.
  5. 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.
  6. Share the best revisions on the board.
  7. To motivate students to write better, try a paragraph challenge.
  8. 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.

Revision Lesson Plans

Many of the common core standards for language and writing are best taught by revising essays.

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