Rethinking College Writing Instruction


Against Jumbled Instruction

Experts in composition know a lot. Their hearts are warm, they love students–and they all misunderstand something crucial.

I’ve been reading Professor Gary Hafer’s interesting and motivating Embracing Writing, and I recommend it. It’s aimed at other instructors and explains how he gets reluctant writers excited about writing. He relies a lot on Peter Elbow and he mentions the late Don Murray of UNH. Both these guys paid a lot of attention to college writing and how to do it. Don Murray was considered the old master of writing instruction. (He was a great writer himself, terse and energetic.) These skilled experts say writing instruction is hard—and it is—but they misunderstand why it’s hard.

It’s hard because they are doing it wrong. I hate saying this about three well-known guys I respect.

Harvard’s Stephen Pinker talks about the curse of knowledge, which applies here.  Pinker uses the curse of knowledge to signify this fact: once you know something, you can’t remember what it was like not knowing it. Hafer, Elbow and Murray have that problem. They know how to write, they think of “writing” as one skill, and naturally they teach it as they perceive it. It’s a mistake, though, and I will explain.

When you analyze it closely, “writing” requires two different behaviors.

The first is handling sentences—that means writing good sentences, at will, all the time. The second is arranging those good sentences into a pattern we usually call an essay.  (Note that you can’t have a good essay made from bad sentences.)

Again. Generating good sentences is one skill. Very important. Arranging good sentences into essays is another. Also very important. They are related, but they are not the same thing.

The mistake I used to make in the old days—and I think Hafer, Murray and Elbow make it, too—was teaching the essay and the sentence  indiscriminately.

Back in those bad old days, I might begin with essay form, then jump into sentence structure, then go back to talking about argument, and then hit punctuation. How jumbled was my instruction? When I read papers, I corrected both sentence problems and essay problems with the same red ink.

If sentences were topic A and the essay form topic B, my course over a semester read like: B A B B A A B A B A A B A.

When you jumble instruction like this, you place great burdens on the student. The student, who is trying to learn these skills, has to keep changing gears haphazardly, with no rhythm. He has to shift from sentence focus to essay focus and back, again and again. The fancy term for this is undue cognitive load.

How much better to organize a course so the two skills are taught separately, in order. I did that. My course
now reads:
A A A A A A A A B B B B B.

Chess & chunking

What follows is both adapted from and quoted from The Intelligence Trap by David Robson. Pp 72-73. It’s about chess, but it relates to writing.

Adriaan de Groot (1914-2006) was a psychologist who also loved chess. At a big tournament in Buenos Aires he decided to interview other players about their strategies to find out where superior performance came from.  He showed them sample chess boards and asked them to talk through their mental strategies as they decided on the next move.

He’d thought that maybe they rapidly considered hundreds of possible moves and their consequences. But that seemed not to be the case at all. They were not thinking such thoughts as:  If I move the knight there, the opponent can respond in three ways, and if he does that my response to each of those moves would be X.

“The experts didn’t report having cycled through many positions, and they often made up their minds within a few seconds, which would not have given them enough time to consider the different strategies.”

“Follow-up experiments revealed that the players’ apparent intuition was in fact an astonishing fear of memory achieved through a process that is now known as “chunking.” The expert player stops seeing the game in terms of individual pieces and instead breaks the board into bigger units—or ‘complexes’—of pieces. In the same ways that words can be combined into larger sentences, those complexes can then form templates or psychological scripts known as “schemas,” each of which represents a different situation and strategy. The user of schemas significantly reduces the processing workload for the player’s brain; rather than computing each potential move from scratch, experts search through a vast mental library of schemas to find the move that fits the board in front of them.”

“De Groot noted that over time the schemas can become deeply ‘engrained in the player,” meaning that the right solution may come to mind automatically with just a mere glance at the board, which neatly accounts for those phenomenal flashes of brilliance that we have come to associate with expert intuition. Automatic, engrained behaviors also free up more of the brain’s working memory, which might explain how experts operate in challenging environments.”

This passage stood out to me when I read it last week because what De Groot discovered about chess playing is true about all complex skills, including writing. Expert chess players see the board more simply than the rest of us, who are dumb-founded by the infinite number of moves possible. Likewise, students who have taken a Readable Writing course see writing a lot more simply than others. They see patterns and can work with them.

Professor Harold Hill would have a degree in rhetoric these days

Do you remember Professor Harold Hill?  He’s the fast-talking con-man who comes to River City, Iowa to sell the townspeople musical instruments and band uniforms in “The Music Man.” (The EditWife and I saw the show a few weeks ago–a really great piece of comic writing and fine music from the 1950s–I recommend it.)

Harold Hill is a charming fake, but River City doesn’t realize it. It’s fun to see the town eating up his schtick when we in the audience know he’s a con-man. One of the richest giveaway lines that we notice but the townspeople miss comes when Hill is asked why he’s not teaching the students to read music. How are they going to be able to play if they can’t read music?

“Oh I now have a revolutionary method called the Think System–where you don’t bother with notes.”This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is harold-hill.jpg

You see, his students just think the tune they want to play. That’s the new system. The townsfolk take him at his word.

Harold Hill talked about his Think System all through the musical and they never caught on. At the end, when his students who don’t know the notes get together to play a concert, it’s all grinding noise–not music at all–but the adoring parents don’t care.

As the curtain came down, I grinned in the dark and thought about all the PhD con-men and false ladies from Departments of Rhetoric. They’ve come to your local college with a pitch quite similar to Harold Hill’s.

“We have a revolutionary new method call the Think System–where you don’t bother with sentences.”

The bamboozled administrators and boards of trustees sit and listen with goofy grins on their faces. It doesn’t make sense to teach writing without sentences, but they’re the experts, right?”

The comedy goes on and on around us. It’s amusing–what the experts profess to the gullible–but we serious instructors focus on the sentence in depth. Without the sentence, nothing gets said.

Link to Harold Hill.

Mastery requires performance goals

I was on the phone last week, trying to track down an Atlanta-based educator named  Robert F. Mager, who has what he calls a “common sense approach to training design.” He has designed training for companies and run courses inside companies and written a number of books on training. One is Preparing Instructional Objectives, a neat little book that I just finished.

He defined the instructional objective as the target or endpoint of the instruction. The objective is a performance goal. It’s what the student has to be able to do. There are well-stated goals, he says, as well as poor ones.

These are good performance goals, according to Mager:

  • Make pizza
  • Change a tire
  • Send and receive Morse code
  • Solder well enough to meet military specifications
  • Given a malfunctioning DC motor of 10 horsepower or less, a kit of tools, and references, be able to repair the motor

Mager devotes an entire small book to designing the objectives of a training course. He clearly thinks people don’t know how to do it. Poorly designed objectives do not describe a student’s performances. Sometimes they describe what the teacher will do. Or, if they are about the student, the behavior is not specified. Examples of incompetent objectives:

  • Be able to perform well in a role-play situation
  • Understand logic
  • Discuss and illustrate principles and techniques of computer programming
  • Cover the military strategies and tactics of the Civil War
  • Develop a critical understanding of the importance of effective management

Sloppy objectives cripple learning. They defocus and blur the process for both the teacher and student. Without an objective performance goal, the teacher is likely to wander in the instruction. And students are hurt also. They need a clear performance goal so they can see where they are going and judge how fast they approaching it.

“It’s common sense to have a clear performance goal,” Mager says.

I wasn’t able to find Mr. Mager—he’s retired, I guess–but I talked to one of his associates last week. I asked if he or Mager knew anything about how writing is taught in American colleges. He said he knew nothing about it. “That’s good for you,” I said, “because you’d have a stroke if you knew how bad the teaching design is.” He laughed.

We don’t have clear performance goals in American writing instruction; anyone in the field who is honest will admit it. Instead of clear course goals, we read statements of what is going to be covered. These are sometimes vague and sometimes detailed, but they are still just syllabi. A syllabus is not a performance goal.

Common-sense writing instruction—with a clear performance goal—mostly does not exist in America. That’s why college grads are, in general, terrible writers. They’ve been given confused and confusing guidance, in courses with multiple purposes and no single performance goal. If they write badly, it’s because we’ve trained them badly.

A common-sense writing course must have a clear performance goal. Otherwise it won’t work. The goal has to be a verifiable performance with conditions specified.

What could we propose as a clear learning objective for a writing course? How about this?

At the end of a semester course, students will be able to write clear, concise and interesting 1,000-word essays on an assigned topic, on their own, within a 48-hour window.  

That’s the learning objective for my readable writing course, which is structured to achieve it.  My course is different and effective—and that learning objective is why.

If only they could diagram!

Talked with Prof. Sue Roberts from Boston College yesterday, and together we bemoaned the lack of diagramming experience in our students.

When students don’t see the sentence as a structure they just feel it as a stream of sound, the way my 3-year-old grandson does. For him, a sentence is just talking, just a bunch of sounds that comes out of his mouth, and people understand him. For too many freshman, it’s about the same. A sentence is a stream of words without hierarchy or structure, in some kind of natural talking order. Those are the students who’ll ask you, “Is of a verb?”

When kids can’t see sentences as having structures they are lost.

The question for instructors is—what do we do? The kids need to understand sentence structure, yes, but we can’t take them back in a time machine to learn diagramming and practice it for years.

Nor can we teach diagramming. Yes, we could introduce the topic in Writing 101, but there’s not enough time for practice. Diagramming doesn’t sink in unless you do it for years.

However, in talking with Sue Roberts yesterday, it hit me that the noun-circling and verb-circling games in my College Writing Guide amount to a kind of diagramming.

As with classic diagramming, circling games are a form of drawing. The drawing is simple, just circles rather than branching lines, but it does require kids to be analytical just like diagramming does. The student has to decide whether a noun is concrete or abstract (or an active or passive verb) and then draw a circle appropriately.

I have always told instructors “We can never teach diagramming in freshman comp,” but now I think I was wrong.

The word-circling games in Readable Writing give students an easy and partial experience of diagramming. They get to see the bones of the sentence that you and I see instinctively: the nouns and the verbs. And that’s what they need to do to become self-reliant writers.

So–we don’t diagram sentences.  Correct. But we do draw some analytical circles around nouns and verbs–and that’s almost the same.

Cormac McCarthy on editing science

McCarthy is an amazing prose stylist and his ideas about editing scientific writing are spot on, as you would expect. He wants simplicity, economy, terseness, order. His ideas are in this article from Nature. Link

Well worth reading, whether you are an editor or a teacher or learner.

McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men and The Road. They are both amazing, super strong. If you love powerful prose, you know about McCarthy. The Road is in the league of Shakespeare or Faulkner.

A soprano who assigns the College Writing Guide

Here’s an endorsement letter from Amy Horst, a veteran singing instructor assigned to teach a writing-intensive course.

I have spent my career teaching singing and performing as a soprano singer. In the past five years, I have begun teaching writing in some of my classes as part of the University of Hawaii’s Writing Intensive program.

Because I just started teaching writing five years ago, my confidence in my abilities needed a boost. Beyond this, I really needed specifics that I could rely on to help my students write better. I’m used to teaching the foundational skills of singing: posture, breathing, and jaw/tongue position. I also teach foundations of music reading/writing: note names, rhythms, and scales. Until I found the College Writing Guide, I didn’t know that writing could be taught in a similarly systematic, skills-based manner.

I found the College Writing Guide in a frantic late night internet search for resources, after I realized that my students needed much more help than I was providing. My light-bulb moment came when I asked students to name some verbs, and one student hesitantly asked if the word “of” was a verb. I don’t have any formal training in how to teach students to write well, or at all. During my schooling, teachers generally noted that my writing demonstrated some skill and an occasional flair of possible talent. But most of my time and talent went to studying singing, so I didn’t pay too much attention. Suddenly, I was eager for specific information.

The most surprising aspect of the College Writing Guide, initially, was John’s personal accessibility. He provided individual and small group coaching by phone on several occasions. He answered specific questions that I had about how to handle issues with my students’ writing.

Ultimately, the most surprising and reassuring part of using the College Writing Guide has been the skills-based approach to improving writing. As a voice teacher, I know how to tell students to demonstrate proper posture for singing. Posture makes singing possible. Now I understand that teaching students to identify and use concrete nouns works the same way. Concrete nouns make writing possible. Similarly, breathing drives singing; and active verbs drive writing. These skills make writing possible, and most of all, they make writing clear.

My students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. A class of 25 students may include 15 languages spoken by the students. I asked John several times how to handle teaching sentence structure in connection with the CWG skills-based lessons, because my students’ grasp of sentence structure in written English varies widely. While we have discussed several possible options, I have discovered, after five semesters, that simply focusing on skill-building as the CWG suggests improves sentence structure. After a semester of working through the skills in the CWG, students who struggled with sentence structure demonstrate increased clarity and coherence in their sentence structure. It turns out that as long as we focus on concrete nouns, people language, active verbs, and the writing techniques build on those skills, sentence structure comes into focus.

Decades of teaching singing made me feel unprepared to teach writing. The College Writing Guide and John Maguire himself helped me understand that singing skills and writing skills can both be taught sequentially, specifically, and effectively. And that, as my voice teacher self would say, is something to sing about.


Writing is a behavior–like playing tennis

Teachers rarely question the idea that writing is thinking. You know the cliche: Writing is thinking on paper.

But they should. Writing is thinking on paper, yes, but that’s not the best way to teach it. Far better is to teach good writing habits as behaviors that can be practiced and made second nature. When we do this, we can benefit from the latest research on effective behavior change. Athletic coaches use that research. Why shouldn’t we?

Animal trainer Karen Pryor, now in her 80s, published a brilliant break-through book on training nearly 40 years ago. It’s called Don’t Shoot the Dog! She writes that you can train any animal—fish or fowl, dog or human—to do almost anything physically possible. You just communicate what behavior you want and deliver rewards. You go step by step, rewarding and reinforcing progress at each stage, until you get the final result.  Behavior coaches like Pryor, in other words, (1) identify the final behavior wanted, and (2) figure a series of steps that will get there.

Dear instructors, why is college writing not taught that way? You probably know the answers.

First, the academic bigwigs cannot agree on what behavior they want. They won’t define “good writing.” They pretend that all styles are equal, that a personal voice is all that matters and that squashing a student’s personal voice is unthinkable. Thus, they can’t announce If the animal can do X consistently, it has learned the skill. They can’t or won’t establish a target.

Second, without a defined target skill to aim for, academics cannot break instruction down into steps, either. (Yes, they do talk about “steps” of the writing process, but without a final behavior goal such steps are aimless.)

I submit that we need a behavioral training method.It should include:
1. The assumption that writing is a behavioral performance, like swinging a tennis racket or diving or improvising jazz piano
2. An objective definition of the good performance
3. A breakdown of the performance into parts
4. An identifiable sequence of actions that will train the skill

There is a new method like that, as readers of this blog know. It’s called the Readable Writing Method.

It assumes writing is a performance, not unlike playing tennis. It uses an objective definition of the good performance—prose that scores well on the Flesch readability scale. (An explanation follows) Since the factors that produce a good Flesch score are known, students can be trained in them. Under expert eyes, students can move from easy behaviors to harder ones, always with the aim of readable writing in mind.

The linguistic researcher Rudolf Flesch worked at Columbia University in the 1940s and 1950s. He became a best selling author with his books on writing. Flesch fully proved that we what consider readable writing is determined by the intersection of three linguistic variables–average sentence length, average syllable length, and percentage of what he called “human interest words.”

Although there’s a range of readable styles, it’s fairly narrow. No one calls prose “readable” that has an average sentence length of 90 words per sentence. We can train students to write in the band of readable styles and produce papers that that score well, and we do. (For sentence length, our students aim for an average 15-17 words per sentence.)

In Readable Writing Method, students learn to write clear, active and interesting sentences at will. We make them identify and edit their fuzzy and boring sentences themselves.

Then in the second part of the course, we train students to create organized essays from those interesting sentences. The performance standard: the reader must never get lost.

Will training to hit certain numerical targets result in soulless, mechanical writing? Not at all. Learning the rules of readability is like learning the rules of baseball. Learning the rules of baseball doesn’t produce mechanical or soulless ball players, does it? Training college freshmen in being readable—putting that in front of them as a goal—can only benefit them. The student who understands readable writing is empowered to be eloquent.

Though it’s just beginning to spread, the Readable Writing Method of behavioral training does exist. Within it, students are reading differently, writing differently and seeing the categories of language differently.

It can be hard to trust a new method. Like the first man who jumped from an airplane with a parachute, you’ll find it hard to believe that Readable Writing activities will be sufficient to support the student. You’ll fear focusing on readable sentences and essays will take student attention away from thinking. You’ll discover, though, that putting student attention on the exact words and sentences they are using actually glues their attention to the quality of their thinking. Closer attention to words—the essence of this course–means closer attention to thinking.

If you took all your first-year writing syllabi to the backyard, put them into a pile and burned them, how would you start back up? Would you try to remember your most recent course outline? Or would you create something new? If something new, think behavior and write this at the top of your page:

                 What do I want students to be able to DO on their own at the end of 14 weeks? How can I get them there?




Michael Laser: “Even within a standard curriculum, you can teach students to write better sentences.”

Here’s an interesting guest post from friend Mike Laser on how he teaches sentences in mini-lessons–even within a constrained syllabus that he can’t alter.

Instructor, Montclair State University

Every freshman composition instructor knows how hard it is to elicit graceful sentences from awkward writers.
I’ve been searching for effective ways to raise the level of my students’ work ever since I started teaching. John Maguire’s methods have impressed and inspired me. I especially like his idea of giving students lessons and practice in sentence writing before asking them to draft full-length essays
But not all of us have the freedom to do that. The university where I teach has some core requirements for its freshman writing classes—an understandable quality-control measure when you offer more than a hundred sections, taught mainly by adjuncts. The curriculum leaves no room for eight weeks of preliminary skill-building. My students are required to write three essays in each fourteen-week semester, three drafts per essay. We start work on their first essay by Week Three.
Though I can’t design my own curriculum, I’ve found a way to build sentence skills into my teaching. Each class meeting includes a lesson in one of the skills I think will make the biggest difference to my students. If you visit my website,, you can see the skills I teach and the basic strategy I use—which borrows some key ideas from John.
Here’s the method in brief:

• On Day One, I talk to students about why they should put serious effort into this class, even if English is their least favorite subject. This is more important than it may sound. Unless they care enough to work at it, they’ll make little progress.
• Also during that first class, I show them a few terrible sentences written by past students and ask what they think. Then I show them edited versions of the same sentences. With this evidence in front of them, they begin to recognize that some sentences desperately need revising—and that it’s possible to fix even the worst clunker.
• Over the course of the semester, I teach a few strategies for improving problem sentences, and some simple ways to write more clearly and gracefully.
• I also show them some common mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and train them to avoid making these mistakes.
• They practice each new skill as they learn it, by writing sentences that use the concept.

   And here’s how I fit these lessons into a typical class session:
• We discuss the text they read for homework.
• The students write for five minutes in response to a question about the text. (This frequent, low-stakes practice trains them to write without paralyzing anxiety.)
• I teach a lesson on a sentence skill.
• I ask them to express the main idea of their in-class writing in one polished, grammatically correct sentence—using the skill they just learned.
• Once they’re satisfied with their sentences, students post them on Padlet, a website that lets the whole class see what each student has written (anonymously, if they prefer). I point out sentences I consider especially good, and explain why.
• I also teach a lesson on a key essay-writing skill in every class—for example, refining a thesis, or addressing opposing arguments.

   Clearly, students would make more progress if we had more time to spend on sentence skills. But this method has yielded much better results than anything I tried before.
I hope you’ll visit to learn more. If you’d like to use my lesson plans and handouts, they’re included in my book, The College Writing Clinic, which is available on Amazon and, in print and digital formats.

Thinking about “hegemony” in college writing circles

It’s a classic bad move to begin an essay with a definition, but I am getting obsessed with this weird word hegemony. It’s always seemed a slanted word to me. In the 60s when I was in college, leftie student activists slathered it like mustard on their favorite hotdog word, imperialism, but they were so sloppy with it I never cared much what the word meant. As they used it, hegemony was a synonym for badness.  U.S. hegemony meant U.S. badness.

 But just now I ran across hegemony in a piece asserting that academics often stifle dissent “to maintain their narrative and enforce cultural hegemony” and I thought I’d better look up the word and get a precise take on it.

My report.  Turns out the word is Greek, which is not surprising by its sound, and it referred originally to the dominance of Greek city states by stronger city states. Philip of Macedon, for example, put together a Hellenic League that dominated much of Greece in his time. He was the hegemon, or dominant leader.

The meaning of the word has expanded, as is natural. Now hegemony is political or cultural dominance over others. In Greece, it was one king over others. In high school, the hegemony of the popular kids over the other students means that they determine what is and is not cool. In Marxist philosophy, Wikipedia explains, cultural hegemony means the domination of a culturally diverse society by a ruling class that manipulates the culture of that society so its view becomes the norm.

So the quote “Academics stifle dissent to enforce their cultural hegemony” really means, at bottom, “Academics shut people up in order to remain in charge.”

Conceding many exceptions, of course, it still rings true that some academics try to shut people up just for the power buzz involved, just to dominate. It holds true in the world of college writing, where the power brokers enforce an official dogma not by arguing for its truth, but by stifling all disagreement. More on this later.

link I referred to:

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852