Teaching Writing

Teaching Writing August 12, 2018

I got permission to share this quote from a Facebook friend, which I think sums up an incredibly important and neglected point related to education:

“Based on my experience in high school, university, and graduate school and now as I’m tutoring a refugee college student in English, no one ever teaches writing. They assign writing. They grade writing. But no one TEACHES writing. Writing instruction doesn’t exist. It’s just testing what we haven’t taught over and over again until the student either figures it out or gives up” (Becky Rouzer Northcutt).

A colleague of mine introduced me to a nice terminological distinction that captures this point: it is the difference between “teaching to write” and “writing to teach.” Most professors do the latter, assigning writing to help students learn content and evaluate whether they have understood it. That isn’t the same thing as instruction in how to write well. And indeed, sometimes the content-oriented focus can distract from teaching writing, whether because the faculty member doesn’t spend time on it or because the student feels that they must spend all their time on researching content. Often both issues are probably factors.

Is this true to your experience either as a student or as an educator, or perhaps both? What are some of your best experiences of learning to write, and having someone else facilitate that learning?

Of somewhat related interest elsewhere:

Writing doesn’t always get mentioned on lists of crucial 21st century skills that one needs regardless of major.

Angira Patel explained why studying the humanities helps one become a good doctor.

Time asked what happens to Valedictorians.

I wonder how many people are vague or misinformed about what the liberal arts are and why they are called that.

There was a challenge to universities to think about what our role is in a world in which students never graduate – i.e. in which lifelong learning isn’t merely an ideal but a necessity.

There is evidence that “students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences saw bigger increases in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” than other majors.”




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  • John MacDonald

    I remember one thing that was helpful to students when I was leading first year Philosophy seminars during my Master’s years was sharing with the students example (exemplar) essays at the A,B,C,D, and F level so the students could “see” what essays at the various achievement levels looked like and why the essays got the grades they did. Sharing assessment/evaluation rubrics beforehand was also good so the students didn’t need to “guess” what they needed to do to get a good grade. I think strategies like these are good for student learning and provide accountability for the instructor.

  • Erp

    The university I work for has a Program in Writing and Rhetoric and all undergraduates are expected to take a course in it in each of their first two years. Not sure how well it works but the idea is to improve writing and rhetoric.

    • John MacDonald

      I like that! I think all universities should have such requirements. I didn’t learn to write at the university level through such direct instruction, but picked up good habits from the materials I read.

  • Tim Vermande

    I taught writing for several years. We went through use of grammar, word choices, how to construct an argument, rebut an argument, and draw a conclusion, starting from short statements up to a final paper. Students wrote in their evaluations that they learned to really write (even if they didn’t like to) and how to think logically. I tremendously enjoyed doing it, but was sidelined by a person with the “proper” major, who fit the pattern you describe. Oh, well.