A different way to approach teaching writing

Camp. Possibly for you this word conjures up images of canvas, burnt sausages and trench foot. These days, it brings to mind the five week winter intensive program run by my university, called “winter camp” despite the fact that it would be possible to conduct the whole thing without ever going outside, let alone sleeping there. Nevertheless, it’s often the chance for a change of teaching scenery in that we can teach a specialist subject* for those five weeks. This year I’m teaching a writing course, and in this post I will outline what I’m going to do, and set up the kind of reflections I will be trying to collect and blog about over the next 5 weeks.

The Background

Here’s the big confession: I haven’t taught writing for four years, which is a big reason why I’m keen to do it now. The last time I did was teaching Korean students in Guatemala (yes, you read that right), who were mostly preparing for the American SAT exam. That meant a heavy focus on the five paragraph essay, topic sentences, body paragraphs, quotes, examples and the like. Looking back at previous courses that were taught at our institution, a similar approach seems to have been followed: descriptive paragraphs, use of the passive, concluding sentences. If fact, a perfectly sensible, traditional writing course.

The biggest problem here is that, in my own estimation, I am neither traditional nor sensible. I also have concerns about a traditional composition approach. The first is that, as far as my teaching in Guatemala went, what I was essentially teaching was a formula for writing. A useful one, but a formula nonetheless, and one which is designed to underpin Western academic writing, which I find it difficult to believe that students on this course will ever come into contact with. The second problem is that pre-teaching techniques and language leads to students forcing them into their work, rather than a need being created for them. It’s asking students to work with our language system, rather then their own. The third more practical problem is that there are a number of repeat students from the summer camp, and I don’t want to end up going over the same ground. Thus, I wanted to look at a different kind of writing course.

Principles

I wanted to teach a course that reflected the kind of principles that I try to take into the classroom. I tend to like to do things first, sort them out afterwards,  then do them again, which might also be roughly what an experiential learning cycle tries to do. My version of experiential learning tries to promote autonomy, confidence and personal involvement, and I felt that this might not be best achieved by spoon feeding learners elements of an essay.

The second principle was hinted at above, and relates to a view of language and learning that has been developing in my head over the past couple of years. What students bring to class (and I’m specifically talking about Korean students here) is a system for dealing with encounters in English. Given that rather than being born communicating in English, many Korean students have it thrust forcibly upon them and so the system might well be adapted to coping as opposed to pushing linguistic boundaries. Furthermore, the L1 is an extremely important influence on many students’ English systems because of the preponderance of word for word translation in Korean English education. Finally, given the relative lack of success that I’ve had teaching discrete items of grammar to students, I would also claim it’s a system that is quite resistant to change in this area. The idea then is to get into this system in other ways, and writing may offer a good way to do this. More than speaking, writing allows us to get the results of the system down on paper, where we can see where coping strategies lead to not fully expressing something; where L1 interference threatens intelligibility, and where breaks in the system might allow us to restructure it using new knowledge. I say we, but flipping back to the paragraph above, what I really mean by “we” is “the student”.

The third and final principle is to take a very weak genre approach to writing. In practice, this will involve taking apart pieces of writing typical of a genre, trying to understand some of their structural and linguistic workings, and the using these to create new genre pieces. This comes from the belief that deconstructing and reconstructing is a much more generalizable skill than being able to construct a five paragraph essay, and recognizes that often writing is a process of borrowing and adapting.

The course

Every course needs a peg to hang its curriculum on. Traditionally the camp writing course is displayed in a blog or a magazine, but the content bears little connection to the genre. Building on the genre approach mentioned above, I will ask students to write three extended pieces typical of the magazine genre. This is not because I believe that my students are budding magazine journalists, but because it’s a useful setting for longer pieces of writing and a genre that students may not be familiar with. These are important because they test both the language system and the analytical abilities of the students.

The course is four and a half weeks long, and so the three pieces cover the middle three weeks, with a week for introduction and a few days of production at the end. This allows me to structure the week as a writing process (more doing rather than preaching) starting with analysis and planning, through a first draft and ending with something like the original example piece.

The writing process requires support in order to ensure that learning takes place and hopefully gets transferred both to subsequent weeks and other contexts, such as other camp courses. The first element of this support process will be people. Feedback will come from self-reflection, peer groups and me. This will be turned into knowledge and intention through journalling, and executed through the three pieces. I’m also introducing other support systems to help students write more autonomously like corpus tools, learner dictionaries and thesauruses. This set-up should allow me to play more of a guiding role in each individual student’s writing process and deal with teaching and learning on a more individual basis.

Reflective goals

This course is experimental in nature, and therefore I have certain things that I would like to think about and measure throughout the course. They are, in no particular order:

  • What is the best way to deliver feedback? How can I be sure it is taken on board? Does experiential learning extend to knowledge processing? What part does cognition and conscious learning play?
  • How can I help students learn the less obvious parts of writing, such as getting sentences to link to one another. How can I encourage them to write in a more complex manner?
  • Can journalling be a useful tool for developing students? How do students use their journals?
  • Are errors a good opportunity for language learning, especially of grammar? Do students enjoy this approach? Can (/should) errors be sufficiently generalized to form useful language learning? Is this approach more effective than teaching grammar items more arbitrarily?
  • Are students able to write long pieces straight off the bat with sufficient support? How much do they learn from a genre approach? How easy is it for them to analyze articles?

Answers to these questions, and other reflections on and information about the course are coming. I hope that you stick around to hear them.

Cheers,

Alex

* In previous camps I’ve taught a specialist pronunciation course, which you can read about here and here.

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4 responses to “A different way to approach teaching writing

  1. Excited to read about your progress and insight teaching the writing camp! I currently teach English 101 (composition class) and often struggle with many of the aspects of writing you’ve mentioned here, e.g., how to best give feedback and how to avoid being too formulaic about essay writing. Looking forward to learning from your experience :)

  2. Pingback: Different approaches to writing: some course content and reflections. | The Breathy Vowel

  3. Pingback: Different approaches to writing: Reflecting on feedback | The Breathy Vowel

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