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Principles for Teaching Writing

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 o f writing? This is not to say that your course should only be in service to other courses. However, if your curriculum includes a lot of personal writing, and the students’ other courses do not, what is your justification for including this kind of writing? What benefit do you think it has? H ow do the skills learned in personal 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.

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 stakes. Not every piece o f 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.” W hen practice writing sessions are integrated regularly into your syllabus, students will becom e more comfortable with the act of writing. Practice writing should provide students with different types o f writing as well. Short responses to a reading, journal entries, letter writing, summaries, poetry, or any type o f writing you find useful in your class should be practiced 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 o f your comments. The margins of a paper are small and can force you into short comments. W hen writing short comments, we tend to leave out the words that soften our message. While you may think, “Pm not sure I understand your point here,” the limited space may cause you to write simply, “U N CLEAR” 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: individual 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 o f adding an -s to the end o f 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 o f this paper.”

4. Clarify for yourself, and for your students, how their writing will be evaluated. Students often feel that the evaluation o f their writing is completely subjective. 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 institution 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 format (such as a research report, book report, letter, etc.)? 3. O n 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 o f 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.

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