principles for teaching writing
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  • 1. 3. Principles for teaching writing The following are a few principles that every teacher should consider while planning a course, whether it is a writing course, or a course in which writing will play a part. These principles can (and should) be adapted to the many different learning situations. 1. Understand your students’ reasons for writing. The greatest dissatisfaction with writing instruction comes when the teacher’s goals do not match the student’s, or when the teacher’s goals do not match those of the school or institution in which the student works. It is important to understand both and to convey goals to students in ways that make sense to them. Are the students required to take other courses? If so, which ones? Will those courses require writing? If so, what kind of writing? This is not to say that your course should only be in service to other cours- es. However, if your curriculum includes a lot of personal writing, and the stu- dents’ other courses do not, what is your justification for including this kind of writing? What benefit do you think it has? How do the skills learned in per- sonal writing apply to other types of writing? Answering these questions will help you to find a focus for the writing that is to be done in your class. 1. What are the ways in which you use writing? Make a list (think of everythingAction from shopping lists to research essays) of all the ways in which you use writing. 2. Review your list and think of which could be converted into writing activities. Create one activity related to an item on your list. 2. Provide many opportunities for students to write. Writing almost always improves with practice. Evaluate your lesson plans: how much time is spent reading or talking about writing, and how much is spent actually writing? My students groan when they see how much writing is required, but I draw an analogy for them: Since writing is in part a physical activity, it is like other physical activities—it requires practice, and lots of it. If someone wanted to become an excellent basketball player, would she read and discuss basketball, or would she go out and shoot some baskets? Just as basketball players play basketball, writers write. However, you can lower the 92 Chapter 5
  • 2. stakes. Not every piece of writing needs to be corrected or graded. You don’t keep score when you’re practicing free throws, so teachers shouldn’t grade “practice writing.” When practice writing sessions are integrated regularly into your syllabus, students will become more comfortable with the act of writing. Practice writing should provide students with different types of writing as well. Short responses to a reading, journal entries, letter writing, summaries, poetry, or any type of writing you find useful in your class should be prac- ticed in class. 3. Make feedback helpful and meaningful. Students crave feedback on their writing, yet it doesn’t always have the intended effect. If you write comments on students’ papers, make sure they understand the vocabulary or symbols you use. Take time to discuss them in class. Be cautious about the tone of your comments. The margins of a paper are small and can force you into short comments. When writing short com- ments, we tend to leave out the words that soften our message. While you may think, “I’m not sure I understand your point here,” the limited space may cause you to write simply, “UNCLEAR” or just “?”. Students can see comments such as these as unkind and unhelpful. Feedback need not always be written in the margins. You can experiment with different forms: individ- ual conferences, taped responses, typed summary responses, and so forth. Finally, feedback should not entail “correcting” a student’s writing. In order to foster independent writers, you can provide summary comments that instruct students to look for problems and correct them on their own. So, instead of adding an –s to the end of every first person present tense verb, a comment at the end might say, “There are several verbs that are missing an -s at the end. Try to locate and correct these verbs in the next version of this paper.”Action With one of the sample student papers on pages 103-105, experiment with writ- ten feedback. 1. Find one good idea the student has, and make an encouraging comment about it. 2. Find a place where the student wasn’t clear, and write a comment that will help her/him clarify it. 3. Identify a grammar problem, and make a comment that will help the stu- dent see the problem in other places in the paper. 4. Which of these was easiest to do? Which was most difficult? 5. What other issues might you comment on in the paper you chose? Writing 93
  • 3. 4. Clarify for yourself, and for your students, how their writing will be evaluated. Students often feel that the evaluation of their writing is completely sub- jective. Teachers often hear, “I just don’t understand what you want.” One way to combat that feeling is to first develop a statement for yourself about what is valued in student writing, either in your classroom or in your institu- tion as a whole. Some questions you might ask are: 1. On a scale of 1–10, how important is creativity, or originality of ideas? 2. On a scale of 1–10, how important is following a particular written for- mat (such as a research report, book report, letter, etc.)? 3. On a scale of 1–10, how important is grammatical accuracy? 4. On a scale of 1–10, how important is it that the assignment include recently taught material? 5. On a scale of 1–10, how important is accuracy in spelling and punctuation? Answering these (and other questions that are relevant to your situation) will help you to develop a rubric, a kind of scoring grid that elaborates the elements of writing that are to be evaluated. This rubric should outline the weight of grammar and mechanics in relationship to content and ideas, as well as other features of writing that you find important. There are three general types of rubrics that you can develop for your assignments: Non-weighted rubric This type of rubric provides descriptions of writing quality by level across other writing criteria. A brief example of this type of rubric would look like the following: Excellent Adequate Inadequate Contents Description of what Description of Description of would be excellent adequate development inadequate content content of content Organization Description of superior Description of Description of organization adequate organization inadequate organization Grammar Statement of level of Statement of an Statement of types of grammatical accuracy adequately grammatical expected grammatical paper problems that lead to the paper’s inadequacy Comments: The instructor’s general comments on the student’s assignment Figure 2 Non-weighted rubric94 Chapter 5
  • 4. With this type of rubric, the teacher would circle or check the level the student had achieved in each of the three categories, and then provide some written comments on the bottom of the page, or on the student’s assignment. Weighted rubric A weighted rubric is similar to the unweighted one, but it breaks the writing skills into categories and sub-categories. A specific point value is assigned to each. Converting the organization element of the non-weighted rubric on page 94 into an element in a weighted rubric might look like this: Organization: 10 points • has a clear introduction • has separate paragraphs • has a conclusion • uses transitions to join paragraphs • uses transitions when needed within paragraphs For each element listed, for example, the instructor might assign up to two points, for the total of ten. Holistic rubric A holistic rubric describes in general terms the qualities of excellent, good, fair, and unsatisfactory assignments. These descriptions can be tied to grades or stand on their own. The instructor then chooses the description that fits the assignment. An example of one part of a holistic rubric might look like this:Grade DescriptionB The ‘B’ paper shows: • an ability to interpret and develop ideas in the writer’s own words • a clear organizational pattern • vocabulary that is adequate in expressing ideas • generally correct use of punctuation or spelling, although with occasional errors • grammar that is usually accurate, and does not interfere with the reader’s understanding Figure 3 Holistic rubric Writing 95
  • 5. Students can help to form a rubric as well. Take class time to ask them what they value in writing. Ask them what features make writing enjoyable to read and what features distract from that enjoyment. This kind of discus- sion has two benefits: it not only gives students a voice in the evaluation of their own work, it also provides a common vocabulary with which the entire class can discuss their writing and the writing of others. To assist in this dis- cussion, give students a piece of good writing and a piece of poor writing (from a different class than the one they attend, of course). Ask them to state which is the good and which is the poor piece, with an explanation. Then get them to say why one piece is good and the other piece is poor. In this way, they generate the criteria for good writing.Reflection 1. Who are the learners that you are teaching (or imagine yourself to be teaching)? Consider their ages, first languages, academic training and experience, proficiency level in English, and learning goals, both person- al and as defined by the curriculum. 2. Given these learners, how will you select writing activities for the class?