What Works in Teaching Writing

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People new to teaching writing aren’t often sure what proven teaching strategies are and whether those practices are linked to research or simply lore.  

Doug Hesse addresses concerns that are often posed by many writing teachers in programs across the country, such as Professor Joseph Teller who worries about his students’ writing abilities despite much instructional effort.  Hesse, however, attempts to correct Teller’s position by stating that there are proven, research based practices to teach writing.

Hesse shows that the foundational understanding to effectively teach writing is based around practice and guidance. He writes, “students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, and then writing some more.” This feedback-revision loop is a core part of the Writing Intensive courses here at Mason and in universities across the country. And when students learn to write in a guided atmosphere, they will progress.

But what specific practices and concepts should we focus our guiding on? Hesse recommends several critical practices, four of which we share below:

  1. We must understand that writing expectations change from context to context and from discipline to discipline. Specifically, Hesse says, “students needed help developing and deploying their ideas and matching their writing with the expectations of various disciplines.” We should actively talk with our students about the particular expectations of our disciplines and how they might diverge from our students’ previous experiences. 
  2. In addition, we should also teach students genre awareness. As Hesse says, “courses [should] provide instruction and practice on all aspects of writing [and should] attend to the form and conventions of specific genres.” Genre awareness certainly includes textual conventions like style or grammar, which worries Teller, but we should also help students learn about the kinds of situations genres respond to.  Doing so will help students better understand the purposes for composing genres.  
  3. In order to develop students’ genre and contextual awareness, research shows that instructors should guide students through model texts: “Courses [should] use readings not only as context and source materials (which is vital in the academic and civic spheres) but also as models — and not only static models of form but also as maps to be decoded as to how their writers might have proceeded, why, and to what effect.” When students are able to see and discuss exactly what and how they should be developing texts, they are better able to emulate the examples and learn from the experience of composing them.
  4. We need to intentionally support the transfer of writing knowledge: “Professors [should] teach key concepts about writing in order to help students consolidate and transfer skills from one writing occasion to the next.” Often, students don’t recognize the fluidity of writing between contexts and even texts, so they might not actively draw on prior learning even when that knowledge is highly relevant.  Instructors need to prompt students about their prior learning in order for them to draw from it.

Hesse’s full article is available online here: “We Know What Works In Teaching Composition.”

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