Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Should college comp be a straight-line extension of high-school writing? No.

The readability course goes at the problem of teaching kids to write from a different angle.

Most instructors naturally enough make college comp a straight-line extension of high-school writing. The assumption often stated in the classroom goes like this:  “You’ve had some instruction in writing before, and now we are going to talk about writing longer papers at a college level.”

I used to do that. But over a few years, I realized that the skill levels of students varied too much for that to work. I could not realistically assume that students knew anything solid about writing. Every section had a few smooth writers, and a lot who made many errors, and at the bottom, three to six students who had no idea what a sentence was. These guys at the bottom could not tell a fragment or a run-on from a real sentence– ever. I won’t go on with evidence here—instructors know the problem. It’s not fair to the prepared students to spend the time needed to bring the illiterate up to snuff. In fact, those illiterates belong in a different section, but you the instructor have no power to send them there. It would take probably four weeks of instruction and coaching time to bring the six illiterates to the point where they could recognize fragments and fix them 100 per cent of the time.

Most frustrating to me was the fact that the illiterates had no idea how fatal their fragments are. “Is it really that bad, Mr. Maguire? You can see what I mean, right?” They had great difficulty understanding that fragments and run-ons ruin their papers. In fact, even when I told them that, they didn’t believe me. Their high-school teachers hadn’t made such a big deal.

Back to the “different angle.

So if  you try to build on and extend what students learned in high school, you must deal with their very variable skill levels. It’s an uneven field to build a structure on. It’s very ineffective.

The opposite would be to assume nothing. What if you assumed students had learned nothing about writing in high school, and instead set out to build their skills from the ground up? If you assume they know nothing, you are very close to the truth. It’s the most realistic assumption.

If you started from zero and assumed students know nothing about writing (except how to speak English and read simple material), then what would you teach them? What would you start with?

I started with concrete nouns, and that’s the beginning of the story.

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