CSULA Department of English | Teaching Writing (A Brief Guide)

At a major university such as Cal State LA, writing is a part of
virtually every class. Students are often intimidated by the prospect
of writing term papers, conducting research projects, and taking in-class
writing exams. Faculty, though, are often just as intimidated by the prospect of
designing effective assignments, responding to student writing, dealing with grammar
and style problems, and assigning a grade to student work.

These pages provide some guidance to faculty on these issues and serve
as brief introductions to some of the issues involved in teaching writing
at the university level. The organization of these pages mirrors the writing
process (without the recursion of course!), beginning with an
overview of rhetoric
and concluding with grading practices. Each section stands on
its own, though, so feel free to jump around from topic to topic.

Some Basic Assumptions

 

Introduction

Focusing on
Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low
Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective
Assignments

Responding to
Student Writing

Dealing with
Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading
Rubrics

Writing instruction at the college- and university-level
has been around since the beginning of the twentieth-century.
Responding to complaints from faculty about the quality of
student writing, Harvard University began testing incoming
first-year students to determine whether they required
additional coursework before beginning "real"
college work. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Up until the early 1970's the emphasis of
writing instruction was on the final product--teachers
lectured on grammar, punctuation, and usage, gave out essay
assignments, and corrected and graded final drafts with
liberal use of the dreaded red pen. Known as the
"current-traditional" model of composition
instruction, this approach emphasized perfecting the final
product through a focus on formal features of the writing:
correctness, usage, explicit structure, and so on. The
thinking behind this model was student writing would improve when students
successfully acquired and mastered the necessary forms.

The Paradigm Shift

Since the early 1970's writing instruction has undergone
what has been called a "paradigm shift" away from
the current-traditional emphasis on final product towards the
"process" of writing itself. In general, researchers
have found it helpful to think of the writing process as
divided into four stages:

  • pre-writing (or invention)
  • composing (or drafting)
  • revising
  • editing/proofreading

While novice writers usually think of these stages as
discrete and sequential, experienced writers know that they
overlap, that pre-writing activities can occur during the
composing stage and the revising stage. Composition theorists
refer to this potential "re-running" of the writing
process sequence as "recursion." If a writer during
revision discovers some new idea that requires development,
then the writer will need to re-engage in pre-writing
(figuring out what to say), composing (developing the idea),
and revision. 

It is important to remember, however, that the
writing process for each writer can be different. There is no
one "correct" writing process for all; rather,
individual writers are using either more or less effective writing
processes. The role of the instructor then is to help each writer discover his or her
most effective writing process. Generally, student writers do
not pay enough attention to one or more of the stages. They
might begin drafting immediately without any planning. They
might not know how to plan and so struggle to get started. They
might focus on editing and proofreading so early in the
process that they struggle to produce content. They might
never revise, or edit, or proofread. 

The Rhetorical Turn

An equally important shift that has occurred in the
teaching of writing is the rediscovery of rhetoric.
Specifically, writing instruction has increasingly emphasized
the public nature of writing, how writers must see their work
as part of a public discourse community and therefore must
become alert to the needs of their readers. In this newer
model (which is of course also the oldest model of instruction
we have) the teacher is one reader among many, though one who
is particularly skilled and experienced. In the old model of
instruction, the teacher was of course a reader as well, but
not just any reader. The teacher was the arbiter of
correctness, standard usage, and proper form, the ultimate and
only reader. 

Many writing teachers now focus on helping writers become
more "rhetorically-aware." This increased awareness
revolves around three key terms: purpose, audience, and genre.

  » Next: Focusing on Purpose, Audience, and Genre

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