Rethinking Writing Instruction

15 wasted weeks

“Information does not translate directly into knowledge. It must first be processed, accessed, absorbed, comprehended, integrated and retained.”

–Robert B. Cialdini:  Influence,Science and Practice, p 237.

If you are a teacher you know that. You know that telling students about active verbs will not change their writing. In the ongoing stress of the classroom, it’s almost impossible to invent ways for students to absorb, comprehend and retain what you’ve told them. You, like most instructors, don’t have time to invent and test activities that produce absorption, comprehension, integration and retention.

I invented the Readable Writing in order to integrate knowledge and action. I built the course on five style lessons that are combined with really interesting  practice activities. The whole point of the course is the integration of sub-habits into a full, skilled performance. I use only five style lessons because I want every one of them to be mastered.

About two weeks back, I went to the Alliance for Liberal Learning conference in Chicago, gave a short talk about the method, met some interesting people. I want to recount a side conversation at lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while–I’ll call him Ben. I showed him some student work and he didn’t believe it was first-draft work. He said, “Where are the fragments, Johnny Boy? Where are the terrible abortions of sentences?” I explained the method as best I could and he was receptive and polite; he wanted to be friendly, he likes me, and he didn’t want to put me on the spot.

He said used to teach in a community college in the Chicago area. He never saw work like I was showing him. “We had a 15 week course,” he said, “And we covered the 15 most common grammar errors, one per week. subject-verb agreement, fragments, you name it. Very thorough. And you know what, Johnny Boy, at the end their writing didn’t improve at all! They made the same mistakes in their papers anyway.”

Ben is going through a tough patch with an ex-wife, and I didn’t have the heart to point out the design flaw in his 15-week course. The skill of fixing grammar errors has two parts: first, recognizing the error in the middle of a paragraph, and then fixing it. But Ben’s course overlooked the recognition part. Students got work sheets to practice on, but were deprived of the most important part of the skill, the perception of the grammar problem in an otherwise correct paragraph. So when it came time to integrate the grammar into a new performance, they couldn’t do it.

Writing is a behavior and it’s not a simple behavior, either. Course design has to take that into account.

1 Comment
  1. More important than what you have to say
    Is what your readers will take away!

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Readable Writing Press
John G. Maguire
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Chelmsford,MA 01824