Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Posts Tagged first year writing

Hunter College ESOL instructor: “They understood concreteness more clearly because they were practicing on a smaller scale.”



Dear Mr. Maguire,

I used your College Writing Guide with my Advanced Grammar for ESL students, and my TOEFL preparation class last semester and saw great improvements in their writing.  More importantly, they saw their writing improve.  

All students agreed that eliminating “be” verbs and using concrete nouns helped improve their syntax and style.  This required a lot of hard work on their part.  In fact one student who had repeated the class from the previous semester said that it was a much harder method than what we had tried before, but also much more productive.  In previous semesters, I would tell the students to use concrete examples to make their writing more clear, but your exercises, having students move from abstract to concrete nouns, made the process more obvious.  They understood the concept more clearly because they were practicing on a smaller scale, not in complete essays, but with your activities.  As the semester progressed, and they started to write complete essays, they were able to self-edit, especially for the verb “to be”.   It gave them hope that they could improve on their own; it gave them a strategy that they could apply in the future after our classes ended.

Over our eight-week semester, “too many ‘be’ verbs” became our mantra.  They developed a strategy of thinking through writing, just as you wrote in your response to John Langan.  On the last day of class, they said that I should thank you for creating this booklet, and I encouraged them to write to you personally to thank you and tell you how they had improved.   

So, thank you for your wonderful book.   I have ordered 20 for this semester through your website.  


Mary Fierro

Hunter College/CUNY, IELI


Grammar basics in Writing 101, but indirectly

Grammar basics in Writing 101, but indirectly

When you discover that half the students in your Writing 1-101 class are truly devoid of grammar and don’t understand even the noun+verb basics of a sentence, what then?

Some teachers stop and give grammar lessons for a while, trying to catch the bottom half of the class up. Others ignore the problem, and teach  to the top half.

I tried both tacks, long ago, and then stopped. The interruption-for-grammar strategy doesn’t work well because the really deficient just won’t learn the material solidly in a few classes. Plus, it bores the hell out of well-prepared students. The teach-over-the-heads-of-the-dummies approach is just plain unfair.

My solution is to reorganize the course into a series of writing challenges that really require students think about the noun+verb basics and use them for a period of 8-9 weeks. We return to the issue of the noun and the verb again and again, under different headings and from different angles. Early in the course, the main focus is the noun, and whether it’s abstract or concrete or a person. Later the verb becomes the focus, for four weeks, and all kinds of assignments force students to produce sentences and evaluate how the noun and verb are working together.

In this way I induce students to pay close attention to the words in a sentence and to absorb sentence grammar indirectly. Because they are trying to become vivid and interesting writers, they absorb, use and practice the basic noun+verb grammar without resistance.

Grammar tells us that the sentence results from the meeting of the noun and the verb; by the end of my course, my students all really understand that, both consciously and operationally, which I count as the big win.

What if we assumed that freshmen know nothing about writing?

If we assumed freshmen know nothing about writing, we would teach them exactly what we want them to be able to do, and nothing more than that.

One speech teacher has her students start by standing in front of a class reading something aloud for one minute. The point: they must be able to stand in front of a group in order to give a speech. This teacher’s thinking: “The first step is getting them to stand there, so I want teach them to do it.”

I assume freshmen know nothing about writing–only that they can speak English and spell a little. From that base, they can enlarge their skill sets. It’s reasonable to assume no base of knowledge because they have been taught badly, have very different beliefs about writing, possess very varying skill levels.

In the first six weeks, I cover these two topics.

1. The difference between concrete and abstract nouns; the need as a writer to prefer concrete to abstract most of the time; the ability to “put objects in” even when writing about abstract ideas.

2.  The difference between active verbs and other verbs; the ability to find the main verb in a sentence and decide if its active or passive; the flipping of passive sentences into active; the achievement of a prose style that is 60 to 70 per cent active-verb sentences.




Readable Writing Press
John G. Maguire
28 Sprague Ave
Chelmsford,MA 01824