The Writing Dilemma
Consider the hours of English instruction devoted to subjects and predicates, fragments, run-ons, prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, dangling participles, verbals, topic sentences, supporting details, closing sentences, and other grammatical jargon, all of which is taught with the noble intention of improving the composition skills of our students. For the most part, the result is the same: “We’ve spent three weeks on a writing unit and they still don’t know what a topic sentence is!” Similarly, consider the distraught teacher of social studies or science who, after reading a group of student essays or reports, points an accusing finger at the English teacher and asks: “What are you teaching in your class?” But most importantly, consider the anguished and frustrated student who, when seeing each of his written assignments splattered with red ink, reaches the tragic misconception that “I can’t write, so why bother?” This is the most tragic result of our ineffective methods of “teaching” writing. “Most kids can’t write” is our attitude; “I can’t write,” respond our students.
For any success to be realized, students, as well as teachers, must recognize writing skills as skills which transcend the boundaries of subject matter. All teachers should know and cultivate writing skills. Writing should be an inter-disciplinary skill; it should be as much a part of the social studies or science curricula as of English. Teachers of content as well must make conscious and sincere efforts to improve our students’ writing skills. Lip service is not enough. The “I will show these reports to your English teacher; use a dictionary” tactic won’t work. Students should learn, through imitation and discovery, modes of discourse suitable to an assignment. Teachers should expose students to basic “grammatical and rhetorical patterns,” stressing structure initially and content and style later. An analogy can be made between the athlete and the writer. The athlete first imitates other athletes. He plays the game, learns new rules, and develops his own style. The writer does the same. He imitates models, learns new rules and develops his own style as his proficiency increases. In both cases, style is developed only when the basics have been mastered. Students learn to write by imitation and doing. “Learning to write—regardless of the role we teachers think we play in it—is the mastery of several patterns of discourse.”
The inexperienced writer confuses good writing with a decorative, flowery, and ornamental style which disregards structure. “This is as much a misconception as thinking one hangs a picture on the wall before he builds a house.”
Patience and perseverance are the keys to successful writing for both teacher and student, for what is style but the “cumulative effect of choices made within or between established structures.”
As Hemingway states, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
Concrete goals and behavioral objectives are the cornerstones of an effective writing program, as they will provide the teacher with valid evaluative and diagnostic tools and permit the student to achieve success. Prior writing experiences for many of our students have resulted in failure primarily due to poor objectives, which failed to allow the students to succeed.
We must first tap the abundant resources our students have brought with them to class. All of our students have mastered the syntactical complexities of their mother tongue. When the child first learned to speak, he did so through imitation. He learned words, imitated sentence patterns, and later created original sentences according to the many patterns he had internalized.
In essence, he has learned the patterns of verbal communication. Unfortunately, when “teaching” writing, teachers fail to recognize this innate phenomenon. We are so concerned with grammatical rhetoric, standard English and proper usage, that the student is no longer confident about his ability to use language. Such a student will never be motivated to write. Management of a writing program is also crucial. Although the following suggestions are not original, they are invaluable tools to diagnose deficiencies, prescribe methods for improvement, and to provide both teacher and students visible signs of progress in a previously nebulous area of study.
Setting Up Your Program
* In September, give each student in your class a file folder which will contain all of his writing. Since loose leaf is in abundance at this time, I have each student put a dozen or so sheets in the folder for future use. Later in the term, when paper gets scarce, the “I don’t have paper” disruption (or diversion) won’t create a problem.
* Have the students put their names and any other information you might want on the folders. My students enjoy adding personal touches, such as astrology signs, pictures, designs, etc. This, I believe, instills pride in the folder itself, and later in its contents.
* Keep the folders in a convenient but secure place. As your program begins, previous writing samples can be used as models for imitation. The best resource for teaching students to write is their own work.
* Create a “Writers’ Corner” or eye-catching display to “show off” commendable efforts. For some students, this is the only motivation they need.
* Establish realistic guidelines which will govern your class’s writing efforts. Your class might complain, but do not submit to their cries of tyranny. Show them you are serious about their writing, Soon, they will take it seriously too.
* All compositions are written in ink. (I demand blue or black ink only.)
* All compositions are written in the student’s best hand. Cursive or printing is acceptable.
* Neatness is a must. No cross-outs; no tattered papers. The student should make the reader want to read his paper. No one wants to eat an unappetizing-looking meal.
* Proper form is always used.
* “English” is always capitalized as well as the pronoun “I.”
* All writing must be within the margins. Every paragraph is indented, about one half inch.
* Misspelled words are not acceptable.
* Be sure to enforce these rules. Don’t make exceptions. In a short period of time, papers will be neat, many common misspellings will disappear (to, too, two etc.), and your students will develop a positive attitude toward their ability to write.
Pre-Writing Exercises A Vital Component
Prewriting exercises are vital components to the success of your writing program. Generally speaking, by the time your students have reached you, they are frustrated with writing. Many, on the other hand, have only been required to write busy work assignments, time fillers, or the most damaging of all, the punishing essay. The initial exercise suggested here provides the student a chance to begin writing. This initial exercise is saved and used as a device to diagnose class and individual deficiencies.
During the first week of school, ask your students to write a short paragraph about themselves entitled “A Very Special Person: Me.” Have the paragraph include personal data such as name, address, age,and place of birth. (Be careful what you ask for—some students may feel their privacy is being violated by a total stranger.) They can include hobbies, likes, pet peeves, and future plans. Assure your students that they can’t fail this assignment. Everyone who completes it will receive a passing grade. Read the papers, record a personal comment like “you sound like an interesting person, I’m anxious to know you better,” and tell your class to file them in their folders.
In these first writing samples several problems will undoubtedly appear. For the most part, indentations and margins will be non-existent. In addition to these superficial problems which reflect the student’s slipshod attitude toward writing, grammatical errors and misspellings will appear. The paragraph, as a whole, will ramble on incoherently; structure and unity will be virtually non-existent. My “pet peeve” is the paragraph that doesn’t end but stops as if the student put it down and forgot to finish it. Equally disturbing, although commendable for effort, is the structurally weak “that’s what I think” (or variant of this construction) conclusion.
Don’t be discouraged. Your students do have a great deal to say. They only lack a means in which to say it effectively. Your task is to provide them with this means of effective communication. Help them to mold this apparently random collage of scattered information into a solid and cohesive unit. Teach them to select structures which will best express their important feelings and profound observations to someone else. Let them write.
Shortly after assigning the first exercise, the second assignment, dealing with the same topic, should be assigned. As mentioned earlier, students should be exposed to basic grammatical and rhetorical patterns. Very specific objectives should be established. Give your students a sense of direction; what do you want them to do?
Distribute to the class copies of “framed paragraph” entitled “A Very Special Person . . . Me.” (See Activity Sheets.) The subject matter for the “composition” evolves from the student’s most vital resource, himself. Prepare an overhead transparency of the ditto so you can guide your students to each “slot.” Students simply fill in each “slot” with a grammatically acceptable bit of information. Your students should be comfortable with the activity as the responses required were included in the previous assignment. Upon completion of the “framed paragraph” students transfer the “composition” to their own papers. At this point, stress the guidelines outlined earlier. Use models of paragraphs from texts, magazines, newspapers, or any other resource to give the students a prototype to imitate. Show them what a paragraph “looks 1ike.” As your class transfers the information, check each individual’s progress. Be sure your students have comprehended each step.
The next phase of the process requires the student to read his “composition” aloud. This will give the student a feel for the composition as a unified body. As the vocabulary provided is simple, and the open-ended sentences have been completed by the student with his own vocabulary, even the poorest readers should have no problems. To eliminate reticence, do the exercise yourself. Reading yours first provides a model: stress transitions, emphatic statements, end punctuation, and the intonations of various sentence structures. Your audience will be captivated; most kids want to know more about their teachers.
The implications of the activity are great. You have given the students an opportunity to succeed. They have imitated an acceptable and effective mode of discourse. They have imitated and duplicated sentence structures with which they may not be familiar. And for the first time, for many, they have created a unified and cohesive unit of written communication.
When called upon to read these “compositions” the students have heard the sounds and rhythmic patterns of the written word, a “dialect” much different than that of the verbal “dialect.” As Robert Frost maintained, a writer writes with his ear, resulting in the “sound of sense.”
Give your students the opportunity to hear the sense they have made.
Pre-planning and Structure: The Key to Effective Writing
“The art of writing is no more spontaneous than the art of marriage . . . the writer must plan and calculate, scheme, and decide.. . .”
The student writer has no conception of the above process. He jumps into his writing, as evidenced in the first writing sample, blindly and naively, never seeing beyond the sentence he is writing. The result, inevitably, is writing which lacks unity, coherence, and punch. An experienced writer “knows where he is going and how he wants to get there”; the inexperienced writer does not.
Pre-planning and structure is the emphasis of this program. Students, through the continual use of “plan sheets,” are forced to plan before they write. Resistance and confusion may be apparent at first, but the margin for failure is slight. By avoiding grammatical jargon and textbook lessons dealing with composition, the student will write paragraphs, and later longer compositions, utilizing what he already knows about the syntax of his language. It is essential that all assignments deal with single paragraph development. As William Levy contends:
The single paragraph includes all the important elements of the complex act of written composition. The challenges to the student in the writing of a single paragraph, as we know all too surely, are sufficiently great to represent an educational goal of very substantial scope and depth. Nevertheless, because it is a relatively limited and specific goal, it represents a practical and realistic educational aspiration . . .
Steps toward the achievement of these goals must be carefully and methodically nurtured. For purposes of organization, the “plan sheets” students will use have been classified into the four basic types of prose: argumentation, exposition, description, and narration. It is the ultimate goal of the program to prepare the student to write longer compositions containing elements of each type.
Argumentation and exposition traditionally are the most frequent types of writing students are requested to do. The essay, reports, how to assignments, and longer exam questions all fall under these types. Argumentation will be the first type to be studied as it lends itself to topics which evolve from the student’s storehouse of opinions, attitudes, and ideologies. This area of study is called “Expressing An Opinion.” Students will be provided with “plan sheets” stressing a structure which provides the student with an effective means of expressing his opinions.
The steps for completion of each “plan sheet” are relatively simple. (See Introductory Lessons.) Each student follows the plan methodically and systematically as he plans his paragraph. A “brain storming” technique permits the student to think, to discover inconsistencies in his argument, and to edit. He experiments with the arrangement of his arguments, their effectiveness, and substance. He is shown that the most effective method of argumentation is arranging ideas in ascending order from least to most important. Transitions, conducive to the unity and strength of his argument, are provided.
The “plan sheets” also force students to scrutinize spelling problems. Even the poorest spellers know when they’re guessing. Space is provided on the plan sheet to correct spelling before it appears in the first draft. In the event a student does misspell a word, inform him of it by merely indicating to him that such a problem exists. Do not tell which words, only the number of errors. Force the student to use the dictionary. In my classes, I explain to the students that the authors of the dictionary know much more than I do about words. “Why rely on an amateur when you can consult an expert.” This usually is sufficient to justify my method.
As proficiency increases, allow your student to experiment with better and more effective vocabulary. Direct him to the
. Allow him to expand his vocabulary. As his proficiency and mastery of the basic pattern for argumentation increase, introduce new transitions until he has a wide selection from which to choose. Soon he will come to realize that some work better than others, and that in some instances, the arguments flow naturally without transitions. However, in the early stage, require your students to use the transitions, even if only on the plan sheet, to insure logical and unified structure. Although the paragraph may sound artificial and stilted the transitions will embellish the overall unity. Insist that your students continue to use the plan sheet even if they feel they have mastered the structure. Instill in them the importance of planning, no matter how proficient they become.
Revision is another emphasis in the program. Students should continuously revise each paragraph. Before the revision, a new skill can be introduced, or focus put on an individual problem appearing in the initial draft. When the student revises, he can remedy his individual problems. Concentrate on the most serious problems; remember that your student’s confidence in his writing abilities is still fragile.
Grading student writing has always presented a problem. With reluctant writers, the problem is intensified. This program is success oriented. Grades are not assigned until all of the objectives have been met. Some students move on more quickly, while others continue to work on the same assignment. Allow each student to work at his own level of proficiency.
See to it that each student achieves the individual goals you have established for him.
With systematic planning and practice, the proficiency and confidence of your students will grow. You will notice marked improvement in content, more creativity, and longer pieces of writing. Continue to build upon and embellish the skills which your students have mastered.
When students have indicated mastery of the argumentation level, move to Level Two: “Writing Expository Paragraphs.” The format of the plan sheet is the same, but with more emphasis on the student’s originality.
Now they are to develop their own topic sentences without the aid of the open-ended sentence used in Level One. Facts and pertinent information are now used to support a thesis. Information can be brought in from outside sources. If opinions are given, they are supported with facts. Structure is still stressed,new transitions are introduced, and the methodical planning stage is still utilized.
Depending on the nature of the class or individual student, some Levels may be repeated as often as necessary. Be sure to assign meaningful topics which will adapt easily to your objectives. Continue the sequence throughout: planning, transferral, oral reading, expansion, skill lesson, revision, oral reading, and final draft.*
The final two levels of the program concentrate on description and narration. At this Level, your students should be performing with marked confidence, proficiency, and growth. Continuity is the key; the program will not work on a “hit or miss” basis. Practice is the key. At this Level, the plan sheets allow the student more freedom without disregard for structure. Creativity and style are stressed with the aid of planning. Within any level of the program, show your students methods to vary the basic structures. Topic sentences may be found at the beginning, middle, or end, or as an implied generalization. Expose them to the
to make more vivid word choices. Teach them to use similes, metaphors, and figurative language. Let them experiment, let them scheme, let them create. But most of all, let them write!
*See Activity Sequence