Rethinking College Writing Instruction


Learn to see the “verb spine” in a paragraph


Verbs are important. They provide fifty per cent of the energy in a sentence. That implies that in a ten-sentence paragraph, the most important ten words are buried. What if you had x-ray glasses and could see the verbs popping out–a string of them like ten Christmas lights–a sort of spinal cord? Well you can. (Press the down arrows to see the whole document.)

Verb Vision-- Seeing a Paragraph's verbs as a Spine

Timely comment from a 9th grade teacher

“Our English department made the decision to focus on writing in the 9th grade, and to get into literature subjects after that. We have used your materials for several years. We now have two sections of freshman (ninth grade) English. I teach the lower group. The materials really work—you can see the writing getting better in real time. I’m grading papers now, and for 14-year-olds who knew nothing about writing when they started, these papers are not half bad.”
Mandy Albert
St Andrews School, Boca Raton Florida.

Why concrete nouns matter, in one cartoon

What Robert Fritz taught me about teaching skills in a sequence.

When learning a skill, you start awkwardly and then become smoother and the skill eventually becomes second nature. It can go faster than you think it will. As Robert Fritz explains his terrific The Path of Least Resistance, pushing yourself when you practice pays off. This excerpt below taught to me to act quickly in the classroom, not to dawdle, and to move students into more difficult exercises despite their mild discomfort. (This only make sense if the course is laid out in a sequence from easy to hard.) Here’s the charming Robert Fritz anecdote that changed the way I taught.

When I first attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, the clarinetist Attilio Poto was one of my teachers. The first lesson he assigned me was a bit more difficult than I was technically ready for. After a week of diligent practice I still couldn’t play it well. When I went for my second lesson, I expected Mr. Poto would have me spend at least another week practicing the same exercise. Instead, he assigned the next exercise in the book, which was even more difficult than the one with which I had struggled for the past week.
I spent the week attempting to play the new exercise, and when the time came for my lesson, I could not play it very well. I suggested to Mr. Poto that it was time to perfect my technique by focusing on that exercise for another week. Mr. Poto only smiled as he turned the page to the next, and more difficult, exercise in the book.
For three more weeks I was assigned progressively more difficult exercises to play, each of which I was unable to play well after a week of practice.
At the sixth lesson Mr. Poto turned back to the first exercise he had assigned me—my exercise for the first week—and asked me to play it. Although I had not even looked at that exercise for the past five weeks, I was able to play it well. He then turned to the second week’s exercise and, again, I was able to play it well.
Had I spent six weeks attempting to perfect those first two exercises, I would not have been able to play them as well as I did that day.
Mr. Poto knew something about assimilation I was only beginning to learn: One powerful way to assimilate your present step is to move on to your next step, even if you feel inadequately prepared for it. When you move to your next step, you are somehow able to incorporate more than you now know about your present step.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance, p 202

To John Mighton, the math innovator in Toronto

Thank you for being open to an email exchange.

I’ve seen references to your Jump method for a few years, and my wife has kept repeating, “This guy’s done for math what you’ve done for writing,” and finally I used LinkedIn to reach you.

My library of learning has included some of the classics, and some little known books on training, especially “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. (

If you don’t know Pryor’s book, especially the first edition, you are missing a treat. She is an animal trainer (dogs, horses, dolphins, whales, chickens, children—anything). She has a masterful understanding of the principles of training and she writes like Hemingway. As I said, a treat.

From her I learned a set of ideas that transformed my teaching. I’m going to use the word animal to mean student here:

“Pick something the animal can do without effort, reinforce it, shape it in small steps toward the final behavior you want; do not punish; the learning itself is significant reward; at some point the animal will grasp the point of the learning and will move ahead as rapidly as possible; stop a training session before the animal is exhausted. Add behaviors one at a time. Reinforce for one behavior at a time, but build compound behaviors so a compound behavior becomes a single behavior, and reinforce for that. Never reinforce for two behaviors at once because it will confuse the animal. If the animal is progressing slowly, you have broken the skill down the wrong way.  To correct bad habits, train the desired habit afresh from a different starting point.”

That paragraph is in quotes, but it’s my paraphrasing of Pryor’s viewpoint. I have used most of those ideas in my course, and students learn to write quickly for me.

My method is consciously constructed. I haven’t got a lot of time today, but to summarize, I constructed the method from these materials:

  1. Pryor’s understanding of training. The reinforcement of small steps that aim for a final complex performance. Writing is a behavior and one can be trained effectively or ineffectively in it.
  2. Rudolf Flesch’s The Art of Readable Writing. He’s the giant who did readability studies of textbooks and by reverse engineering was able to explain how to write clearly for the reader.
  3. Hayakawa and Korzybski’s “ladder of abstraction” from their general semantics writing in the 1930s.
  4. Strunk & White.

In good writing, you are doing a number of things at once.  It’s a compound skill—which makes it so hard to teach. But if you break the skill down properly, you can get rapid progress. As you might guess, I have broken writing skill down in an unconventional way, so naturally I teach different things than most teachers. I take students up the mountain of writing skills–as all teachers do–but I take a different trail to the peak.

This video is the best short summary of the first part of my course.

Nice to be talking to the Master of Jump Math!




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.

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