Essential writing course outcomes

A required writing course should result in students being able to perform required tasks.

I’ve never seen a college catalog or a high school schedule that listed a course in “Writing Appreciation.” I have, however, seen plenty of English teachers who taught required writing courses as if appreciating writing was their goal. That shouldn’t be the goal.

Write what everyone must write

The goal of a required writing class should be that every student leaves able to write the kinds of texts everyone must write. The kind of writing that everyone must write is short, expository nonfiction that follows a pattern.

Follow a pattern.

Most required writing is formulaic by design. Every profession, business, and organization has certain patterns it uses for the writing it most often needs done. Newcomers are expected to be able to recognize the patterns and follow them. The people who report directly to Mark Zuckerberg may be given freedom to be creative, but the new hire in the UX design division will have to follow a pattern.

Do fast, final-quality first drafts.

Emails, online chats, and reports must be prepared quickly and the first draft must be done right. The information must be correct, understandable, and free of embarrassing writing mechanics errors because outside the classroom, the first draft is often the final draft.

Nonfiction patterns help writers to recollect all the essential information to include, arrange it in a sensible way, and still have a couple minutes to check their draft for errors.

Use writing to achieve everyday goals.

Students must leave a required writing class class able to use writing for the tasks that everyone must do in what even English teachers call “the real world.”

Equally important, they must also know to use writing for these purposes in their everyday lives. Writing can be a powerful tool for figuring things out when there’s nobody around to ask.

Assess a situation.

The reporter telling what happened at the school board meeting, the nurse writing up patient notes, and the poet exploring her relationship with her mother are each using writing to assess a situation.

Explore alternatives.

The engineer evaluating locations for a new power plant, the novelist emailing her agent about locations for a book launch party, and the teen texting his cousin about which of two girls he ought to ask to the prom are each using writing to explore alternatives.

Recruit assistance.

The city planner writing a grant application, the befuddled computer user chatting with tech support, and the grandmother in Seattle posting a request for a oatmeal cookie recipe on Facebook are each using writing to recruit assistance.

Solve a problem.

The bus driver tired of answering questions about the fare uses writing to tell passengers what the fare is. The human resources frustrated by incorrectly completed new hire paperwork uses writing to prepare easier-to-use forms. The fifth grader hospitalized for three months uses writing to keep up with her class.

Share solutions.

The guy in Omaha who has Aunt Cora’s oatmeal cookie recipe sends posts it on Facebook for the grandmother in Seattle is sharing a solution. So is the Albuquerque grant writer who publishes a book of grant writing tips and computer scientist in Hong who posts online his PowerPoint presentation on applications of artificial intelligence in cardiac surgery.

If students in first year college composition class or your high school English class cannot write what everyone must write and do not use writing for the purposes for which everyone must be able to use it, you’re not doing your job.

Parts of this post appeared previously at PenPrompts.com

What are you reading for?

Writing teachers need to be readers.

Everybody knows that.

But what must they read? And why should they read it?

What writing teachers tend to read

If you look at lists of what writing teachers are reading (or at least what those on Twitter say they are reading), the titles tend to fall into three categories:

  •  nonfiction books about “soft skills” for educational settings
  • nonfiction books related to writing and literacy
  • fiction

What I read

Labor Day weekend, I moved the stack of nonfiction books I read over the summer from the coffee table to the bookcase in the back room.  (The fiction was already scattered in three rooms and on digital devices.)

When I looked at the titles, I realized (not for the first time) that I am not normal.

 

Stack of nonfiction books
Ten nonfiction books I read between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

There’s one title about writing I read because writing is the subject I teach.

Two history books about World War I were on my list because I’m re-reading novels of the Great War era for my book review blog.

Two titles are about the American dream  in today’s economy.

Two titles are about the importance of social relationships for those who want to sell good or ideas.

Two books are on principles of communicating so people get it.

The final book is a book about logotypes, “words and letters that are designed to be recognized.”

Why these particular books?

I read things that interest me, either because I am interested in a topic or because looking for ways I can use my students’ vocational interests to help them learn to write.

Getting outside of my knowledge base upsets my standard thought patterns that I can see ideas I’d never have noticed if they were wrapped in a book on something I know about.

What about you?

What nonfiction do you read?

And why do you read it?

If you need any suggestions, I’ll be happy to give you some suggestions.

Above all, do no harm

Writing teachers who have worked with me over the years have heard me say many times that above all they should do no harm.

Reading a blog post by leadership and management expert Dan Rockwell recently inspired me to write about four ways writing teachers can do no harm.

#1. Don’t allow nagging issues to persist.

If Morgan and Mahil enter eighth grade unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that’s not your fault.

If Morgan and Mahil leave eighth grade still unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that is your fault.

Give students a list of three serious writing mechanics errors they habitually make in their writing in the first month of a school year.

Insist each student master each of those three, serious, habitual errors before the last month of the school year.

(The simple way to insist is to refuse to give a grade higher than a C to any paper that contains one of the student’s habitual errors.)

#2. Don’t  keep changing the objective.

Learning to write an informative/explanatory text is different from learning to write a narrative.

Don’t keep changing the writing objective just because you’re bored with the students’ writing.

#3. Don’t jump in to save the day.

Trial and error is a powerful teaching tool.

Let students make mistakes.

Then ask, “Where’s the first place in the writing process you could have done something different that would have prevented this from happening?”

#4. Don’t penalize mistakes during practice.

Learning to write is a bit like making pie dough: Even when they know the principles, it takes a long time for most folks to get a feel for the thing.

While students are getting a feel for writing, praise what they are doing right: turning in their work on time, not giving up, putting effort into planning, or reducing the number of their serious habitual errors.

What would you add to the list?

Writing for an Audience of Others

The author of a message is responsible for making sure the recipient understands it.

In everyday conversation, we supply information through our gestures, facial expression, and vocal tone to supplement the information we provide in words. Those supplements are not available to writers.

Writers must learn to put all their information into words.

Readers can supply writers with something words on paper can’t: a sense of writing as a means of communicating with people different from themselves.

Readers who are too much like the writer are likely to read into writing information and connections the writer should have supplied but didn’t.

Writing for an audience of others—an audience of readers who are not part of the writer’s cohort of classmates, family, and Facebook friends—helps students understand their subject better. Those others won’t be willing or able to provide the information and connections the writer assumed all readers would know.

And writing for an audience of others also teaches students the world doesn’t revolve around them—which is very useful knowledge indeed.

ABCs tell warm bodies how to teach nonfiction writing

Most people who end up teaching nonfiction writing get into it the way I did, by being the most convenient warm body the administration could find readily.Cover of The Writing Teacher's ABCs

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs: Help Teens and Adults to Competent Nonfiction Writing is for them.

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs  isn’t an “everything you need to know” book.

It’s more of a “the least you can get by with while you figure out what you’re doing” book.

I broke the big, frightening process  of teaching writing into 26 short, practical chapters, so

even if someone isn’t a great writer,
even if someone never taught nonfiction writing before, and
even if someone has  no clue where to begin,

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs will give them enough to get started and keep ahead of their students until they get the hang of teaching writing.

Get a free copy

I’m giving away copies of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs to the first 100 people who surf over to digital publisher LeanPub.com.

The book is available at LeanPub.com in pdf format for computer viewing, in EPUB for iPad and other ebook readers and phones, and in MOBI for Kindle.

Only 100 copies of the book have been set aside for this offer, so if you want a copy, don’t delay. The giveaway ends Feb. 28, 2015, if the quantity hasn’t already been exhausted.

Buyers who arrive too late to get a totally free copy,  can preview the front matter and two chapters, and then set their own price.

If that’s not good enough, there’s a 45-day, no questions asked, money-back guarantee.

You can Tweet about the book using the hashtag #abcwrite .

ABCs tell warm bodies how to teach nonfiction writing

Most people who end up teaching nonfiction writing get into it the way I did, by being the most convenient warm body the administration could find readily.Cover of The Writing Teacher's ABCs The Writing Teacher’s ABCs: Help Teens and Adults to Competent Nonfiction Writing is for them. The Writing Teacher’s ABCs  isn’t an "everything you need to know" book. It’s more of a "the least you can get by with while you figure out what you’re doing" book. I broke the big, frightening process  of teaching writing into 26 short, practical chapters, so

even if someone isn’t a great writer, even if someone never taught nonfiction writing before, and even if someone has  no clue where to begin,

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs will give them enough to get started and keep ahead of their students until they get the hang of teaching writing.

Get a free copy

I’m giving away copies of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs to the first 100 people who surf over to digital publisher LeanPub.com. The book is available at LeanPub.com in pdf format for computer viewing, in EPUB for iPad and other ebook readers and phones, and in MOBI for Kindle. Only 100 copies of the book have been set aside for this offer, so if you want a copy, don’t delay. The giveaway ends Feb. 28, 2015, if the quantity hasn’t already been exhausted. Buyers who arrive too late to get a totally free copy,  can preview the front matter and two chapters, and then set their own price. If that’s not good enough, there’s a 45-day, no questions asked, money-back guarantee. You can Tweet about the book using the hashtag #abcwrite .

The accidental writing teacher

Most teachers who write to me about their challenges teaching nonfiction writing say they walked into their first writing class feeling totally unprepared.

Research into the experiences of American teachers shows my correspondents are fairly representative.

My latest book, The Writing Teacher’s ABCs: Help Teens and Adults to Competent Nonfiction Writing, is for them and others like them.

Here’s how to get it free

Beginning this coming Sunday, Feb. 15,  I’ll be giving away free copies on Twitter to the first 100 readers who scoop up the offer.

If you want a free copy, look for me @LindaAragoni  and the hashtag #ABCwrite on Twitter on Sunday.

The book is already available on LeanPub, where readers can skim the contents and read a couple of chapters.

The offer expires when 100 people have gotten free copies or on Feb 28, 2015, whichever comes first.

The importance of buts

Even if your students are bright and read a lot, it’s a good idea to verbalize once or twice a year the changes that transition words signal.

Transitional words and expressions are not glue dots between sentences.Street sign indicates side street angles off to right

They are more like road signs showing how what’s ahead is different from what went before.

If your students don’t recognize the difference in meaning between

and ….. but

in the same vein….. on the other hand

however ….. similarly

they will have difficulty reading or writing nonfiction material.

About every other decade, English textbooks put on a drive to teach the meanings of different transitional expressions. When they slack off, students’ reading comprehension slides.

A whole cohort of graduates can get through school without learning that different transitions have different uses. I once ran across a very bright master’s degree candidate who couldn’t understand an assignment because she didn’t realize that the word but indicated that the words on either side of it had contrasting meanings.
Street sign show road curves left before straightening out
Sure, students should be able to figure out that the words on either side of but express contrasting ideas, but they may notice that fact if their attention is elsewhere. Students don’t have to be concentrating on extra-curricular activities to miss something in class. They could even be thinking hard about something the teacher said earlier.

To be sure students know the meanings of different types of transitional expressions,  teachers must teach that material.

I don’t mean teachers should present a lesson on transitions.

I mean teachers should point out at least monthly  in students’ reading or while you are modeling writing that a particular transition word is used because it conveys a particular meaning.  That won’t take more than 30 seconds, and it’s more like reach most students than devoting one class period in a scholastic career to transitions.

I also don’t mean that only English teachers should do this.  Pointing out the importance of transition words is the job of all teachers — from the art teacher to the zoology teacher —who expect students to read nonfiction in their classes.

Photo credits: “Road Splits” and “Road Curves” by Linda Aragoni ©2012