Writing at Its Best

by Katherine Clifton

In this, the latest post in our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing,” Katherine Clifton captures the cheer and comfort to be found in the utterance and performance of even simple words, especially in times of trial. Katherine, a member of the Class of 2015, coordinates the Religion and Forced Migration Initiative in the Office of Religious Life. 


Thumped and bumped

Groaned and moaned

Thrashed and crashed


What do these words have in common?

  1. They rhyme.
  2. Dr. Seuss features them in Big Dog Little Dog.
  3. Two of Princeton’s newcomers just added them to their vocabulary.

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, knew how to assemble prime rhymes to keep learners of all ages engaged and turning pages. These six active verbs animate the canine protagonists’ insomnia and invite the reader to savor the whimsy of words.

I re-encountered this book today when teaching English to two recently resettled refugee children. Since January, I’ve relished the opportunity to tutor these sponge-like learners once or twice a week after school. Although I was apprehensive about translating these sessions onto Skype, we romped about undaunted by distance for 90 minutes with Dr. Seuss as our tried-and-true guide. In our respective living rooms, we enacted these verbs by reciting them while mockingly thumping our heads, groaning as if our stomachs ached, and pretending to crash into the wall. One-syllable words with high consonant to vowel ratios require extra effort, so we exaggerated each letter to ensure none was left out. Letting loose a little spittle, we repeated the tough th and sh sounds. Elongating and widening our mouths, we distinguished oan from ump. Converting a passive, solitary activity into an interactive, embodied experience induced immediate giggles and revealed a mighty appetite for learning.

After grade school, rarely do we read slowly, let alone read aloud while assigning a playful gesture to each action, yet there’s immense joy in the utterance and in the performance of words. In these strange times, articulating “thrashed” while treating one’s arm as a whip serves as a nourishing salve. When so much of these children’s lives has been upended and confusion proliferates as they settle into their new home, I hope that the quest to befriend a new language provides steady solace. After all, by breathing life into words, we empower them to breathe life into us.