Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Poor college writers compared to non-swimmers

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Some kids are well oriented at the start of the course—confident and skilled. But it’s the silent Lower third, the unconfident, who challenge us.

They are always tempted to withdraw or disengage, because they have memories of failing before, memories of not learning what they were supposed to learn about writing. What’s to be done so they stay in the course and learn?

What you need to do is deal with their disorientation. Where other students can see the verb in a sentence—perhaps they used to diagram sentences in a home school—the Lower Third can’t see the verbs distinctly. It’s all words to them, words hard to tell apart.

Sometimes teachers inadvertently increase student confusion by (1) jumping topics too quickly, and (2) using unneeded technical language. The solution is to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Pick one down-to-earth word or phrase to cover an important topic and stick with it. Don’t fear constant repetition of an important concept.

My students and I probably say the words “active verb” 1,000 times in a one-semester course. It’s the key concept and the phrase an important tool.

In a swimming pool, the non-swimmers are visibly disoriented. They thrash around, while the trained swimmers pull through the water with effective strokes. The difference is orientation and habit. The swimmers limit themselves to a few ordered movements (kick, stroke, breathe), while the non-swimmers kick, grasp, grab, thrash, and gasp in chaos.

We really help students by giving them just a few moves to practice. It’s an iron law that economizing on what you have to pay attention to helps learning. In your class, it’s the disoriented Lower Third who will most benefit from a tight focus on (1) concrete nouns, (2) people words, and (3) active verbs.

In baseball, batting coaches never stop saying, “Eyes on the ball.” So you the writing teacher should never tire of saying, “Watch the verbs.”

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John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852
maguirejohn@comcast.net
978-761-4515