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A child meets this kind of discipline every time he tries to do something, which is why it is so important in school to give children more chances to do things, instead of just reading or listening to someone talk (or pretending to).

Three Disciplines for Children by John Holt

And also, what does pretending to mean here?

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    It's emphasising 'do' to ensure that the sense 'do something physically' or the sense 'do something innovative / creative / different / out of the box' (I can't tell without more context), rather than the sedentary or the mundane, is inferred. 'Pretending' should cause you no problems. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '13 at 17:02
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    And the or pretending to means that you are just faking that you're listening to someone. You're really not listening, but you're nodding or playing along as if you are. – JLG Nov 19 '13 at 17:05
  • This do is the Act do, which is a pro-verb for any active verb but not for any stative verb (What he did was fix the switch, but *What he did was smell like violets.) The fixed phrase do something means to perform some (possibly unknown) activity. – John Lawler Nov 19 '13 at 17:38
  • I could be mistaken but I believe that the OP isn't asking why the do is italicized but rather what the word 'do' means in this context. (S)he simply italicized it to mark which 'do' is being asked about (given there are two). – Doc Nov 19 '13 at 19:09
  • @JohnLawler, “What he did was smell like violets” is perfectly grammatical and fine to me. Is ‘smell’ really a stative verb here? I’d interpret it as being (potentially) active enough to allow ‘do’ as a pro-verb. “*What he did was be a jerk to her”, on the other hand, doesn’t work in my head. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 19 '13 at 22:42
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Do is a Act, a pro-verb used for active verbs. In this case, the "do something" is used as an ambiguous way to indicate that the child is disciplined any time he performs a given action, where the action can consist of any number of things. "Something" is being used as a filler for a given verb, and "do" is indicating that it is a verb as opposed to a noun.

Pretending to is referring back to the previous phrase. "...Instead of just reading or listening to someone talk (or pretending to [read or listen to someone talk])".

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The writer is stressing do to indicate he wants the student to be actively engaged as opposed to passively engaged or, even worse, disengaged. Let's say you ask the student to "read the story" for 15 minutes. The student might look at the print for 15 minutes but not truly be reading; he is *pretending to read. If you ask him to read the story and make a three or four word comment on each paragraph, you have given him something to do while he is reading.

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