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52 Posts authored by: Miriam Moore Expert

I recently led a workshop on working with multilingual writers in IRW and corequisite composition courses, and I was asked how best to handle peer review when there are multilingual writers in the classroom. Several participants expressed concern about the efficacy and practicality of writing workshops, especially in very diverse classrooms where background knowledge, linguistic traditions, and experiences with academic writing vary widely. Could such workshops serve to marginalize multilingual writers?

 

I would suggest, in fact, that diversity offers the potential for a richer workshop experience for all students, although you may need to spend more time preparing students for participation and guiding them throughout the workshop, especially at the beginning of the course. 

  

I usually introduce workshops with a discussion of the purpose of the peer review process. Most of my students will have had some experience with peer review, and I ask them to hypothesize about the purpose, based on their experiences. Most affirm that peer review is supposed to “make the paper better” or “find the problems.” When pressed, most students equate peer review with a process very similar to “grading”:  point out flaws, tell people what to fix, make evaluative comments. To highlight the similarities, we may create a chart connecting what they’ve experienced in peer review and what they’ve experienced in teacher feedback or grading.

 

Comments in these early discussions reveal the reasons so many students (and faculty, in some cases) are wary of peer-review: they believe they are expected to take on the role of expert in the process—an expectation they cannot meet. In response to this perceived expectation, multilingual students (depending on background) may adopt an overly critical or directive stance, engage in enthusiastic but unhelpful cheerleading, or simply withdraw from the process.

Having discussed the purpose of workshops, I like to show students examples of peer feedback that I’ve been given, from colleagues and from editors at Bedford/St. Martin’s.  While most agree that the feedback is still targeted to “make the writing better,” they see quickly that the comments I’ve received lead to improvement not by telling me what to do, but by giving me information that I can use to make decisions about my writing. The feedback generally occurs in the form of reader responses, questions, I-statements, and clarification requests. In early drafts, I may also have questions about why information appears where it does. In short, I am getting descriptive and analytic feedback that allows me to make decisions about how to revise, much like a chef would gather feedback from taste testers to improve a dish or the way a producer might gather focus group feedback before creating the final version of a film.

 

The underlying aim of feedback, then, is to provide information authors can use to make writing decisions – and ultimately, information that will help authors evaluate their writing decisions. And unlike the role of expert, providing a reader’s perspective is an expectation that all students can achieve in a workshop setting. 

Once we’ve established the purpose of the workshop, we begin the process of practicing.  The following principles guide our practice. 

  • I provide specific guidance on acceptable formats for response. In most of my classes, that means that students don’t generally comment on grammar, at least not in the early stages. I also demonstrate how to make “I-statements,” how to request clarification, how to describe a gut reaction, and how to ask content questions.
  • I may ask students to annotate drafts for specific elements that we have been discussing in class, such as stance strategies, transitions, showing evidence, or efforts to engage the audience.
  • We spend some class time discussing how to use the feedback. One option is to have writers organize feedback as a set of issues to review, and then they can identify options open for addressing those issues.
  • I ask students to determine what feedback is most helpful and to use that information to be proactive in their workshops. As the term progresses, students create a “what I want from feedback” statement to share along with their drafts in the workshops.
  • We try feedback in different modes: small group discussion, shared annotations of Google Docs, writing directly on printed copies, using sticky notes, etc. As the semester progresses, classes can request specific types of workshops, based on what has worked well for them.
  • I offer students an opportunity to reflect on every workshop experience (usually through quick surveys or anonymous comments), and we make adjustments in the format and composition of workshop groups throughout the term.

 

Students in IRW/corequisite courses, especially those from multilingual and diverse backgrounds, may have had negative experiences with peer workshops. But eliminating workshops from our IRW/multilingual/corequisite courses altogether may reinforce mistaken beliefs that writing is a solitary process, that the only source of feedback is a teacher, and that the only gauge of a text’s effectiveness is the grade it receives. Integrating writing workshops in multilingual classrooms, on the other hand, builds a sense of community that values the contributions of each member.

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. One area of concern for many instructors is plagiarism and patchwriting with multilingual writers. A number of researchers and pedagogical experts have weighed in on the causes of this particular challenge and ways to address it (see articles by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue, as well as Pecorari, for example).

 

I would echo one of their findings: for many multilingual writers, patchwriting often results from a novice attempt at paraphrase – an attempt that can be improved with an increased focus on instruction and practice. 

I begin a discussion of paraphrase early in my FYC and corequisite courses, since much of our text-based writing requires integration of source material via summary, paraphrase, or quote. When I introduce the concept, I ask students to consider how they are already making use of paraphrase in their daily lives. Multilingual students frequently negotiate conversations in multiple languages, and paraphrase is a strategic resource they deploy when moving between languages and audiences. We talk about the quizzical look we might get in our daily conversations, a look that signals that we have not communicated well. So we try again: we re-phrase, and we paraphrase. We also put paraphrase to work in teaching, coaching, parenting, mentoring, training, and encouraging—roles many of my multilingual students are quite familiar with. 

 

What students are able to see quickly is that paraphrase outside of the classroom is not about checking a box on a rubric; it’s all about communicating a message so that a particular audience can understand it. Our purpose is explanation, and the goal is comprehension. What we do in writing is essentially the same thing: we encounter interesting and sometimes challenging concepts and ideas from the texts we read, and our goal is to communicate those ideas clearly for our own readers. 

 

Having established the purpose of a paraphrase, students note quickly that paraphrase requires an understanding of the information being shared. The first step is successful paraphrasing is reading for understanding – often reading many times. 

 

I next tell students I am going to tell them how NOT to paraphrase. I take a sentence or two from a difficult text we are working with, such as this one from Elizabeth Wardle’s essay in Bad Ideas about Writing. We talk about what it means to “put something in our own words,” and I show them a strategy that doesn’t work: we go through and substitute synonyms or related words for each major content word in the passage. Students may use a thesaurus or translator for this activity. Then we look at the results we get. I ask the students to consider whether or not the paraphrase is successful, and most will readily agree that it is not: it doesn’t explain, and it makes no sense. Our criteria for judgment is not how many words are copied before one is changed; rather, it is the effectiveness of the paraphrase in explaining the ideas in the original text.

 

We also take a look at paraphrases generated by online paraphrase tools, which usually produce a word salad akin to the paraphrase we generated in our first version. We wrap our introductory overview of paraphrasing by looking at a variety of successful and no-so-successful paraphrases, with example of patchwriting thrown in. Setting up the discussion with the purpose of paraphrase allows students to focus first on the meaning communicated in the paraphrase, and second on the language used to convey that meaning.

 

Finally, I have students work in collaborative groups to practice. I ask a targeted question about a concept from something we have read, and I ask the students to draft a paragraph in which they first quote from the target text to answer the question and then paraphrase the quote they’ve chosen. Finally, they extend the paragraph with an example from their own experience, and we review the paragraphs to see if readers can identify the parts (quote, paraphrase, and expansion) and the boundaries between them.

 

In peer responses to the paragraphs, students get one more shot at practicing paraphrase: they read a classmate’s paragraph and attempt to paraphrase the topic sentence (main idea), using the following frame.


     

       “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that __________________, right?”

 

This intensive practice prepares students to work with blending partial quotes, paraphrases, and summaries later in the term. While the class sessions devoted to paraphrase practice early on do not fully eliminate patchwriting and plagiarism, they provide students with a strong base for continued practice and discussion.

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. Here’s a simple activity that can support sentence structure development for all readers and writers, one that is particularly helpful for multilingual students. 

 

Select a short passage (3-5 sentences) from a classroom reading, focusing on an excerpt that illustrates clear functions or rhetorical purposes. For example, in my current IRW composition course, we recently looked at this short paragraph from Elizabeth Wardle’s article “You Can Learn to Write in General,” from the open-source text Bad Ideas about Writing:

 

There is no writing in general, and thus no single class or workshop or experience can teach people to write, once and for all. But people want to believe that it’s possible to write in general because this belief makes writing seem less difficult and allows them to believe that writers can get a one-time writing inoculation that will extend across all settings. If this is the case, then non-English teachers and employers are off the hook; they don’t have to help students learn to write in their classrooms or workplaces, they can just criticize writers for not being able to meet their expectations— and criticize English teachers for not doing their jobs.  (31)

 

As my class discussed this passage in the context of the entire essay, we looked at what the three sentences accomplish rhetorically. Sentence one, for example, presents a strong claim (“There is no writing in general”) and follows with the consequences of that claim (“and thus…”). The second sentence introduces a contrasting belief (“But…”), followed by a reason (“because…”). The final sentence looks at the implications of accepting the alternative (“if…then…”), adding additional ideas via a semicolon and a dash. 

This analysis led to a simple discussion of different ways to express frustration, especially frustration in relation to mistaken ideas. Instead of screeching, “That’s wrong,” Wardle’s paragraph illustrates a formal and more “academic” means of confronting a false or mistaken belief.

Next, I asked students to think about statements or expectations suggesting mistaken assumptions that they hear (particularly in college or work situations), and to create a paragraph expressing their frustration, following Wardle’s model:

There is no _________________, and so ____________________.  But _______________ because _______________________.  If ___________, then _________________; _____________________--__________________.

 

Students worked on the project in groups, producing paragraphs similar to this one:

 

There is no way we can get so much homework done so fast, and thus teachers can’t expect us to finish everything completely.  But teachers want to believe that major assignments can be done in a day or two because they think we students don’t have lives and jobs outside of school.  If this was true, then maybe we should have all assignments done before the next class; teachers could also lecture us about how we don’t listen or how we make excuses--and even make us hate coming to class.

 

Once student groups generated their paragraphs, we did some large group editing for spelling, agreements, and mechanics.  But each group was able to complete a thought-provoking paragraph with effective sentence structure, using the functions and sentence patterns we found in Wardle’s original.  

 

This activity builds confidence for students, and in this particular case, it also allowed me to hear and affirm the struggles they have regarding academic expectations of them:  in addition to typical student complaints about the amount of time and work expected from them, students also commented on frustrations with feedback and criticism, the stress of comprehensive and high-stakes testing, difficulties talking with faculty, and the sense that faculty are offended when students aren’t 100% engaged in every class. The large-group editing and review of the paragraphs led to a frank discussion about strategies for dealing with mismatches between faculty and students. We didn’t resolve all the frustrations, but student perspectives were seen, heard, and validated.

 

What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers build confidence using different sentence structures?

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. This week, I’d like to consider vocabulary development, an area of struggle for many students in basic writing classrooms, but particularly for multilingual writers. When I poll my students about writing concerns, a lack of vocabulary is often mentioned as a barrier or challenge.

 

My current IRW co-requisite supports a writing-about-writing (WAW) FYC course, which means I am asking my students to tackle some tough reading assignments, and it is in the context of those reading assignments that I first address vocabulary. Before students begin a WAW reading assignment, I provide a reading guide that includes some key vocabulary words. The guide primes students for the text and scaffolds the reading for them, allowing them to work through the content without repeated stops to refer to a dictionary or a translator.

 

But this initial exposure to lexical items is only the start of the learning process; even though students will see the words multiple times within the context of the reading, “acquiring” these words means understanding more than a translation or a definition.   Most linguists or language teachers would include the following as part of “knowing a word”:  pronunciation, spelling, register, part of speech, connotations, and collocations, in addition to the dictionary definitions. And for many words, there are multiple definitions to consider.

 

Within my IRW classes, therefore, I target a set of critical vocabulary throughout the term. I choose words that I know students will encounter more than once in our class readings, words that are critical for discussions of language and writing. I may also choose words that occur on the Academic Word List, which is a list of words and word families that occur across multiple academic disciplines. When I “target” words, I introduce and highlight these words as they occur in context, and I provide focused practice and opportunities for use. 

 

What does that look like? To highlight words in context, consider these strategies:

  • Preview the words before a reading.
  • Highlight the words in a reading by reading paragraphs aloud, emphasizing target words, and discussing the sentences in which they occur.
  • Incorporate the words in lectures and include them on class handouts and assignment instructions, giving students a chance to hear and see them.
  • Ask students open-ended questions that include the words.

 

To provide more focused instruction, consider these ideas:

  • Provide related parts of speech. For example, when students learn the noun “concession,” I also teach the related verb “concede.” Then students practice with both words, using cloze (fill in the blank) and grammatical judgment exercises. The latter type of exercise requires students to determine whether or not something is a possible sentence. For example, students must determine if we can say, “I will concession this point.” If they decide it is not acceptable, then they offer an alternative: we’d have to say “concede this point.”
  • Provide collocations. We can make concessions or offer concessions, but we don’t do concessions. We make a concession on or about a certain issue, and we concede that something is the case; we don’t make concessions to an issue (although we can make a concession to a person), and we don’t concede to do something (with an infinitive). Again, I present this information explicitly (a chart works well to show verb + prepositions combinations), point to it in our readings, and provide practice exercises. I frequently draw the incorrect sentences for these exercises from examples in student writing, and students often seemed relieved to have the clarification.
  • Look at contrasts carefully. As students study words and look at translations, they may encounter similar words with different connotations or nuances. With concession, for example, students may want to understand the difference between a concession and an admission; we discuss those differences explicitly. At times, students ask questions I can’t answer immediately. After all, there are many things about words that I know intuitively but have never been required to articulate. I will think about the question for a day or two, perhaps ask a colleague or consult the OED, and then take an answer back to the class. We also make the fact of tacit knowledge a topic of class discussion, emphasizing that all of us, as language-users, have such knowledge about language.
  • Celebrate attempts to use the words, whether successful or not.

 

While some of these activities may seem daunting or time-consuming, it actually takes little time to preview words and find ways to emphasize them within the context of other class activities. The focus exercises are not particularly hard to draw up either, and can be implemented in just a few moments at the beginning or the end of a class.  

 

Finally, instructors can let students guide on-going vocabulary study by asking for some basic feedback at the end of a class period or as part of a reflection journal: What are three words from our reading or class discussion that confused you or that you’d like to know more about?

 

For more about vocabulary and multilingual writers, I recommend the work of Paul Nation, Keith Folse, or Michael Lewis.

 

What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers learn and use new vocabulary?

I am often asked about simple suggestions to help multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. For the next several weeks, I want to examine some strategies for addressing the needs of all students in diverse classrooms, with a particular emphasis on multilingual learners. I would love to hear from you as well: what techniques, assignments, strategies, and resources would you recommend when you are working in a multilingual and multicultural classroom?

 

One place to begin is a review of assignments and the written instructions that accompany them. An article by Joy Reid and Barbara Kroll, “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students,” outlines several criteria for effective writing assignments, covering context, content, language, task, rhetorical requirements, and clear evaluation criteria. 

 

The Reid and Kroll article provides excellent guidelines for teachers to assess their own assignments and evaluation criteria. The goal, as the authors suggest, is to provide assignments that “stretch the students without overwhelming them and provide students with significant learning experiences” (20). In a multilingual classroom, I’ve seen assignments that have done just the opposite: they have overwhelmed students and, as a result, put them into panic or survival mode—and in some cases pushed them towards cheating or plagiarism. One thing that has worked for me, in addition to the suggestions provided by Reid and Kroll, is to make the assignment instructions themselves (and whatever problems students have with them) a teaching tool. In short, I think engaging students as co-evaluators of assignments can promote reflection and agency, serving as scaffolding for future “significant learning experiences.”

 

When I introduce a new assignment or tweak an assignment in some way, for example, I give the students time to read and think about the instructions. Then I do a quick anonymous survey via a Google Form:

 

  • Do you have all the information you need to begin this assignment?
  • If not, what else do you need to know?
  • Do you have the resources you need?
  • What questions do you have for me?

 

We spend just a few minutes at the beginning of the next class discussing the questions and concerns, and if needed, I update the assignment instructions (kept on a shared Google Doc). 

 

Next, once students have worked through each part of the assignment, I ask them to consider the writing or reading decisions that the assignment has required them to make. I ask:

 

  • Which decisions were the most difficult?
  • Did you have the information and resources you needed to make those decisions?
  • Why or why not?

 

Once again, we discuss the writing choices they are making, and if needed, I further adjust the assignment instructions. If the writing decisions that trouble them stem from word choice or sentence structure, we may spend class time identifying helpful and relevant structures. I also make a note to consider teaching certain structures as part of future instruction with this assignment.

 

We may go through several iterations of this feedback loop. Then, once the final draft of the paper has been submitted and graded, I ask for one final reflection:

 

  • What surprised you about this draft?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a reader or writer?
  • What is something you wish you had known when you started?
  • If you could change one thing about the assignment itself, what would you change and why?
  • If you could do one thing differently in writing this paper, what would you do?

 

I use these reflections to further refine and develop the assignment instructions for students. Their comments help me understand how successfully the assignment communicated its purpose and process. The comments also help me understand what scaffolding can support future student success.

 

I plan to try one additional step this semester. I am going to ask the students to work with me to develop a rubric for assessing assignments. We’ll use what they discuss to outline what makes an effective assignment (and I am guessing that their criteria will be quite similar to those suggested by Reid and Kroll). Then, I am going to let them assess an assignment I am planning for the future, using the rubric they have generated. Based on their comments and feedback, I will refine the assignment, and I will acknowledge their feedback on the final version of the assignment that I develop.

 

Involving students in assessing, revising, and refining assignments can benefit all students, but I think it has great potential for multilingual students, as the process can make expectations and resources for academic literacy explicit for those students, and it invites them to voice concerns and seek needed assistance without stigmatizing them as somehow “deficient.” 

 

I will be looking at other strategies for working with multilingual writers over the next few weeks. If you’ve got a teaching tip you would be willing to share, let me know.

Miriam Moore

Be It Hereby Resolved

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Jan 9, 2019

It’s January, and I am seeing signs of resolutions everywhere: explicit declarations of relationship, health, and professional goals, along with tacit commitments indicated by images of tracking devices, fitness equipment, organic fruits and veggies, garden plans, drawers or closets awaiting organization, and booklists. 

 

Resolve—along with related forms resolution and resolute—is a rich and powerful word, brought into English as a verb from Latin and extended via functional shift to serve also as noun. We resolve (make resolutions) to address what is unresolved—dissonant, jumbled, confused, unsettled, or lacking—in music, in labs, in institutions, in government, and in ourselves. 

 

After spending a day with colleagues and workshop leader Asao Inoue reflecting on our pedagogy and, in particular, our assessment and feedback practices, I am ready to make some resolutions for my FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms this spring. I am also inspired by Traci Gardner’s "My New School Year’s Resolutions."

 

Here are my resolutions for this semester:

 

  1. Expand use of social media/technology to support collaborative activities outside the classroom, with an overarching goal of fostering a deeper sense of community within the class. Collaborative activities—from shared reading experiences to peer review—is difficult to establish (much less sustain) in the 150 minutes we are together weekly. And all too easily, these activities within my classes can become perfunctory, not constructive. As a starting point, I want to explore joint annotations of some sections of our more difficult readings using Google Docs.
  2. Give students more options and opportunities to negotiate our classroom activities and (some) assignment parameters. One of the “big ideas” or threshold concepts that I use to structure my writing course is that all writing involves choices that affect meaning, whether words, structures, details, punctuation, or organization. But I suspect it’s difficult for students to accept the potential power of (and responsibility for) smaller writing decisions when they have little sense of agency for broader learning activities in the classroom.
  3. Make a meaningful portion of a student’s grade related to the labor the student has invested in the process of the course (see Traci Gardner's post, as well as Asao Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contract). I am an Alabama Crimson Tide football fan (I hope I won’t lose too many readers at this point!), and I have read a several articles about Nick Saban’s approach to coaching, which centers on what he calls “the process.” He asks his players to commit to the process—the rigorous and regular work that goes into a season and into each individual game—not to a specific outcome. Players can control the time devoted to the process, but they cannot control (not fully!) the outcome. I am going to play with an analogy to Saban’s coaching this semester, asking my students to commit to a rigorous process that requires time: completing drafts, participating in workshops, reading (and annotating readings collaboratively), and exploring language with me. I am asking them to trust this process, and a significant portion of their grade will be derived from their willingness to devote time to this process, regardless of the final outcome or product.
  4. Introduce vocabulary and concepts from rhetorical and systemic-functional grammars. I have been using a writing-about-writing foundation for my FYC and co-requisite courses for a few years now, and I am pleased with the results. But I am not yet satisfied with my approach to grammar within that framework, and I’d like to experiment with the metalanguage of rhetorical grammar and SFG as strategies for helping students re-envision their grammatical choices.  
  5. Reduce the number of major writing assignments so that students can spend more time on them, seeing their investment in the process of these assignments yield intellectual insights that encourage them to continue reading and writing. Similarly, I plan to increase opportunities for low-stakes, exploratory writing and reflective writing.

 

My resolutions come from the tensions I have been wrestling with for the past couple of years: fair, meaningful, and useful assessments; effective collaboration; grammatical instruction that empowers student choices.

 

What are your resolutions for teaching in the coming year?

Guest Blogger: Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She teaches IRW courses, first-year composition, and upper-level social science and technical writing courses

 

When I was child, I loved connect-the-dots books and worksheets. They helped me learn to see the big picture as I connected each line to the next number or letter.  As a writing teacher, I am always looking for ways for students to practice writing outside of the classroom or to help them “connect the dots” to help them understand that writing isn’t always at a desk or on a computer. That we can stretch our writing skills to other locales and other purposes.  

 

In this effort to change locales and make connections, I tried to find ways to utilize resources on our small campus. In my basic writing classes, I started using our campus art gallery to have students practice descriptive writing with a touch of art appreciation. 

 

I am fairly certain many of my students have not spent any length of time looking at or writing about art. Although we have a small campus and a small gallery, we do have rotating exhibits that offer everything from pen and ink drawings to large sculptures and photography. 

 

The class before we go to the gallery is a practice class. I had them look at a sculpture of a dancer and watch a short video of a ballet performance. We wrote down different words to describe both. They even had to stand up to pose like the sculpture, so they could write about the kinesthetic feeling of the movement. It ended up being quite fun.

 

For the next class in the art gallery, I had them do what I called an “Art Gallery Walk.”  I asked to look at three different pieces of art in the gallery and get them to write down as many adjectives as they can for each one. I urge them to think about how a word like small or weird could be rewritten to be more specific.    

 

Some of the adjectives they wrote down were life-like, chilling, weathered, prickly, jubilant, and even ethereal. It stretched their vocabulary skills, though some students were stronger at this than others. After writing their adjectives, they had to turn those descriptors into a short paragraph describing at least one of the pieces of art.   

 

A sample response from one student: 

 

 

“I believe this is a Cuban woman since cigars are big in Cuba and it still is. Cuba is very old fashioned and this woman shows that; she looks like she’s been out in the sun and is smoking a cigar. Cuba is a part of her and she is a part of Cuba.  I really enjoyed this piece and felt a connection to it.” 

 

What the students get from this exercise is the ability to think about word choice in writing. I try to guess which piece of art they wrote about by looking at their paragraph. If I cannot guess, they need to think about how they can be more specific and clear in describing it.

 

Overall, this lesson provides them with a concrete item to write about. It gets them in the gallery looking at and critiquing art. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like that.”  Or “This piece is weird.” But then they have to learn how to explain why. They learn to use their vocabulary skills to go beyond the typical words. That, to me, is the fun part of doing this assignment. 

 

In turn, I think the students learn to “connect the dots” between what they see, what they think and what they write. 

 

What are your strategies for helping students build vocabulary and “connect the dots”?

In a recent guest post, Sara Heaser wrote about the metaphors she uses in teaching first-year composition. Her observations have been lurking in the back of my mind since then, and in preparing for our final weeks of class, I’ve been taking a critical look at my own metaphors, specifically those I use when talking to students about their drafts, especially drafts composed early in the writing process. 


For example, when I read a piece that seems to lack focus, I may ask students to imagine those devices that are set up in science museums and malls—contraptions in which a penny or nickel is released at the top of a wide funnel, and the coin circles around and around, at times careening in wide loops and at times spiraling smoothly, until it reaches the bottom and falls through the narrow opening into a small container.  Sometimes finding a thesis that will control the paper is like that—we have to go through the careening and spiraling until we finally settle into a workable proposition to anchor the paper. It’s normal and helpful, and not at all a failure.

 

When I’m working with students in later stages of the revising process, perhaps when they need to think about cohesion and what they themselves characterize as “flow,” I might invoke the image of myself trying to learn to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission – with jerks and stops and whiplash-inducing lurches. That sort of metaphor can encourage students to think about a reader’s experience of working through the meaning emerging in a text.

 

Or perhaps I have a student who is developing a complicated argument but who seems to drop the ball just at the end. Living and teaching in a football culture, I might say that the conclusion to the paper feels like a punt on third down, or a Hail-Mary pass thrown when there is plenty of time on the clock to run a full set of downs and get the ball over the goal line.

 

But I’ve realized that, more often than not, my metaphors for talking to students about writing are metaphors for problems, for struggles, for what might be seen as inadequacies or error—even though I work diligently to characterize writing as a recursive process, not a failed outcome. Still, I rarely use metaphors to describe what works—only what doesn’t.

 

In my advanced grammar class—more like an introduction to syntax for English majors—there are a number of students who want to become teachers. In our text (Doing Grammar), author Max Morenberg makes a point of encouraging novice teachers to put grammar skills to work in recognizing not just what student writers do poorly but what they do well—the strong use of a modifier, a cleft-sentence that gives a sentence a rhythmic punch, an existential-there construction that works in context. My students in that class have practiced just such a recognition of rhetorical and syntactic dexterity in their analyses of 50+ word sentences from authors they admire, and in their papers, many have articulated analogies and metaphors to capture their sense of awe at a writer’s craftsmanship or prowess.

 

I see a two-fold lesson for myself in these reflections: first, in all student papers—whether from freshman writers in a co-requisite section or advanced writers in the major—I want to point out and praise sentences that work, sentences that sing, sentences that sail into the end-zone, punctuated with a ball-spike and celebration dance. Second, I want to develop metaphors for describing those successful sentences, word pictures that will help students understand how a reader experiences their words and why a given sentence carries the weight that it does.  

 

What metaphors do you use to celebrate powerful student writing?

In my first-year writing courses this fall, I’ve asked my students to explore James Gee’s concept of Discourse as a means of interpreting their previous literacy experiences. A common theme in their first essays is a sense that prior schooling often suffocated their voices, leaving them with little interest or personal investment in classroom writing. They “know” they shouldn’t write in the first person or use textisms, emoji, contractions, or “I think” statements. 

 

For their course projects, students select and explore one of the Bad Ideas about Writing—some of which are written in first person. They seek out blogs, TED talks, newspaper articles, peer-reviewed journal articles, and a range of other online and print sources related to their chosen “bad idea”—and to their own experiences, majors, and career choices.  As they work with sources, I ask them to consider how the various writers represent themselves in the texts. Do the students hear a voice there?  Where?  What gives the readers a sense of that voice?

 

To help students recognize multiple ways of expressing voice within academic contexts, I have them read Ken Hyland’s “Disciplinary Voices: Interactions in Research Writing,” which approaches voice from a disciplinary perspective. Hyland says,

 

“Writers have to display a competence as disciplinary insiders to be persuasive and this is, at least in part, achieved through a writer-reader dialogue which situates both their research and themselves. This means adopting a disciplinary voice; using language which establishes relationships between people, and between people and ideas…. All this is done within the broad constraints of disciplinary discourses” (7).  

 

Specifically, writers position themselves using “stance” markers, and they connect with readers using “engagement” strategies. My students look for ways their source texts demonstrate both stance and engagement, noting how these concepts are instantiated differently according to the context and purpose of the piece.

 

The course project builds throughout the semester; shortly after mid-term, students have found, evaluated, and summarized four sources, and they have matched quotes or paraphrases to show how sources confirm, expand, complicate, or contradict each other (and their own experiences). As we move into the home stretch of the project, students need at least one additional text or audio source, as well as an interview.  But many of the students hit a snag at this point: they struggle to find an additional source that fits smoothly into the conversation that is taking shape among themselves and their sources.

 

To address their concerns on a practical level and to reiterate our on-going discussion of voice, during one recent session I asked students to think about hashtags in social media contexts. What is the purpose of hashtagging a post on Twitter or on other social media platforms? How do hashtags express stance? Engagement? 

 

I have just over 40 students in two sections, all of whom are working on the Bad Ideas about Writing project. After our hashtag discussion, students posted the citations for their first four sources on a shared Google doc, and for each one, they added four to eight hashtags to represent both their reaction to the source and the shared purposes of the classroom.  Their hashtags thus demonstrate both stance and engagement, as these examples from our document suggest: #scholarly, #wedontalllearnthesame, #lengthy, #Teachersneedbettertraining #Easyread, #longggggggg, #getadreamjournal, #goodread, #notaboutwritingbutstillgood, #literacyinstruction, #realworldexamples, #teacherPOV, #findyourvoice, #videoincluded, #fingeredspeech, #conventionalphrases, #howto, #followthesteps, #don’tbesohardonyoself, #followurownrules,

#researchbased, #textingislikeasecondlanguage, #shortandsweet, #thanksPerelman,  #downwiththeessay, #outdated, #PurposeOfRevision.

 

The shared Google Doc, when complete, contained nearly 150 citations and accompanying hashtags, giving students a number of choices (vetted by classmates) for their fifth source. First drafts of annotated bibliography entries for these sources came in last week, and many students commented on the value of “shared legwork” on their research, while others noted how helpful the information packed into the hashtags was.

 

Do you use hashtags in your classrooms?  Do you teach voice, stance, or engagement? I would love to hear what is working for you.

Guest Blogger: sara heaser  is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and is currently in the midst of a qualitative study to explore first-year writing as a space for retention. She can be reached at sheaser@uwlax.edu.

 

I have a four-year-old son who understands the world in basic binaries: good vs evil, happy vs sad, big vs small, and such. So when he asks his big questionslots and lots of themabout really abstract things, I resort to the most simple, applicable analogy I can think of.

 

Here’s an example. We were reading a book about the human body and he asked about the “weird-looking lines” (veins) inside us. We live in the Midwest on the Mississippi River, so I said that those lines were like little rivers of blood, and that the blood rivers have barges on them, and the barges carry things he needs around his body to where his body needs them. There’s obviously not microscopic chunks of bananas and fruit snacks floating from his stomach to his toes via his veins, but it’s a close enough explanation to appease his curiosity and to reach a level of understanding that he gets, for now.

 

This is a hard part of parenting, negotiating mutual understanding of an unfamiliar concept. The same goes for teaching. As teachers, we collectively live in the same world as our students, sometimes quite literally in the same communities. But this doesn’t mean we share or value common experiences. This is especially true when it comes to writing.

 

The students in my FYW courses are well beyond understanding the world dualistically like my son does, but when it comes to writing, I see them rely on old tropes. I often find their understanding of writing and its processes is limited to playing it safethey rely on archaic rules that someone told them to follow somewhere along the way in their writing education. And as we know, FYW can sometimes be a student’s first foray into writing for purposes and audiences instead of writing to follow rules--a very unfamiliar concept, indeed.

 

Rules are inflexible; metaphors are interpretative. Introducing metaphors in FYW that imply writing is flexible, unsteady, confusing, messy, frustrating, and such might suggest not only a difference in kind but a difference in understanding of what writing is, as a verb. Some I rely on often:

 

  • A wacky genius effortlessly producing prose is a mythological trope seen in fictional films.
  • Writing is like cooking. Gather the ingredients as you prepare, adjust them as needed to your purpose and audience. (And this one reminds me of my own role: I’m not the one cooking. The students are. So back off.)
  • Engaging in research is like having a conversation. Sometimes you might not know what the conversation is about, and that’s ok. Just listen for a while.
  • Learning to write well is like learning a sport. It requires repetitive, deliberate practice. Just like you might stretch or lift weights to train for a big race, you might practice combining sentences to train for revising a big draft.

 

The five-paragraph essay, sad and useless, is a particularly fun target on which to apply metaphor. Even entire rhetorics for FYW invoke metaphor, like Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, which uses “hosts” (the authors) that guide students through a journey of learning about writing.

 

I don’t have extensive data on student response to metaphor or the effectiveness of metaphorical language in composition pedagogy, but I have a teacherly sense that the use of metaphor in FYW plays a special role beyond just explaining what writing is and can be.

 

If shared language is a symbol of intimacy, metaphor is essentially the foundation on which we can build a sense of community. (A metaphor to explain a metaphor—I couldn’t resist.) When I overhear students drop our metaphors in conversations or read them in a reflective essay, I can literally see and hear metaphor functioning to humanize writing and to establish a relationship between writer and audience, between student and teacher, and between the most important relationship of them all, between the novice writer and writing itself.  

 

What metaphors do you use to talk about writing with your students?

Guest blogger Ann Amicucci directs the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She teaches courses in first-year writing, writing pedagogy, and the rhetoric of social media. Readers can connect with her on Twitter at Ann N. Amicucci (@AnnNAmicucci) | Twitter

 

All readers make snap judgments. To lay the groundwork for sustained, critical reading, I teach students to identify the thinking that occurs when readers encounter a new text. I describe three activities here that foster metacognition by leading students to understand why readers are drawn to some texts but not others. Following "Reflection in the Writing Classroom" by Kathleen Blake Yancey, I have students engage in reflective discussion and writing throughout the semester to develop their facility with the habit of mind of metacognition (see the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing).

 

Reading Reaction Chart

I assign a Reaction Chart in connection with my first-year writing course’s custom reader, which contains 43 non-fiction texts: a range of speeches, essays, and personal narratives. This activity can be adapted for any course reader or textbook. My directions are brief: “Read the title and first sentence of every text, and write a reaction note that tells us (briefly!) what your first impression of the text is.” I list titles on a spreadsheet in Microsoft’s OneDrive, then students type their name and reactions in a column on the spreadsheet.

 

The following is a sample of students’ reactions to the title and first sentence of Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”:

  • Love hearing about someone’s struggles that they had to climb over.
  • I feel like I should know more about this, but this is not interesting.
  • I am not interested in this topic at all.
  • I think memoirs are really cool and get very personal so I admire this already.

 

Later, when I give students choices in what to read and write about, they refer to the Reaction Chart to recall which texts caught their interest and to browse others’ reactions for insight. By directing students to name initial reactions, this activity prepares the class for metacognitive practice to come.

 

Questions that Readers Ask

Next, students reflect on the thinking that occurs when we decide whether to read a text. I lead a discussion about what text types students choose to read and give students time to explore their favorite websites and study visual features that catch their attention. Students then work in small groups in response to the prompt, “What questions are we answering without even realizing it when we decide what to read?” and post questions to our class discussion board. \

 

Questions written by this semester’s students include:

  • Am I interested enough in the topic?
  • Will this article or topic be helpful in the future?
  • Is this is factual or written by a biased source?
  • Does this book benefit myself or those around me?
  • Would I be judged for reading it?

 

Brainstorming these questions fosters students’ metacognitive awareness of the choices we make in deciding what to read by slowing down the moment of initial reaction to a text and making thought processes explicit.

 

Annotating Visual Features of Texts

Finally, we investigate how readers react to texts’ visual features, in connection with students’ reading of Chapter 1 in The Academic Writer, which discusses how communication technologies and multi-modal text features impact reading and writing.

 

I select a range of web and magazine articles and bring printed copies of their first pages to class, and students work with these texts in small groups. They write brief “annotations” that identify visual features and corresponding reactions. As the photo shows, students attend to images, use of quotation marks, illuminated letters, and paragraph length, among other features. Students hang their annotated texts around the room and circulate to read each other’s notes, then I post photos of the annotations . As with the previous activities, this annotation process gives students metacognitive practice in noticing their thoughts when confronted with a new text, and their attention is now specifically tuned to their thinking about visual features.

 

What Comes Next?

All three activities have longer-term purposes. A writing course aims to teach sustained, critical reading and analysis that is a far cry from the snap judgments of the Reaction Chart. I lead students into the critical reading process by first acknowledging what those snap judgments are. When students return to read texts fully, they test their latter opinions against their initial reactions. They can see value in reading closely when their opinions become more nuanced from digging into a text. Similarly, the Question and Annotation activities serve as a starting place for analysis of how texts connect with readers. In deciding what text aspects to analyze for major essays, students get ideas by rereading their questions and annotations.

 

All three activities prompt students to identify their reactions as readers. Doing so allows students to understand the thinking processes behind readers’ snap judgments and to recognize that such judgments are just a first step toward analysis.

Much published work on transfer tells us that students must practice reflection to develop metacognitive awareness and encourage application of knowledge and concepts from one context to another (see Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, by Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak for an overview). To emphasize reflection in my courses, I’ve usually focused on assignments with a reflection component—journals, process narratives, or discussion board posts. But I was challenged this week to consider weaving reflective practice throughout writing (and also integrated reading and writing, or IRW) courses—using conversations, feedback, classroom tools. I suspect, in fact, that this weaving process establishes reflection as a part of the fabric of the course itself, not just a decorative embellishment. 

 

For example, I use Google Docs for drafting work in my courses; I invite students to respond to my comments, to draft their own comments and tag me in them for additional feedback. We also use the platform for peer-based discussion and collaborative writing. But does this particular writing tool promote reflection? I am not sure I have exploited the possibilities very well. I have had students use the record of comments for a reflective assignment, but I am wondering how I might build an on-going reflective process with Google Docs – not just an after-the-fact review. For example, questions such as the following might encourage reflective practice—and transfer—during drafting and revision:

 

  • Why did you make this statement here? Were you applying something you learned in a previous writing course? What makes this context a little different?
  • How does this observation from your classmate support or complicate what you’ve learned about __________?
  • Look back at the comments from the last paper. Is there something there that might help you solve this writing problem?
  • You’ve tagged me in three questions related to ______________. Why do you think _______________ is a challenge for you in this paper? How does the context of this assignment differ from the last one, in which __________ didn’t seem to be an issue for you?
  • You have said here that this section “doesn’t feel right.” What have you done in the past when you’ve had that sensation?
  • You’ve pointed out a problem with this sentence. Can you describe that problem in general terms? Have you seen it before in your paper?

 

In a sense, these comments turn the drafting process into an exercise in critical reading. When I assign readings, I ask students to make connections between texts and other texts or between texts and their prior experiences. Similarly, these questions invite students to zoom in to focus on particulars of their developing text and also to zoom out to see their work as it connects to a broader picture.

 

The advantages of Google Docs for file sharing, keeping a record of comments, and working collaboratively are many. But like all technologies that involve targeted feedback—whether online or on paper—students risk seeing problems and solutions only in terms of the specific context. If they do generalize, they may assert “rules” that cannot and should not be applied broadly (as indicated in some of the Bad Ideas About Writing | Open Access Textbooks | WVU Libraries). Reflective connections during all phases of the writing process might help students avoid the perils of two pervasive writing myths: assignments within and across courses are unrelated, and there is a single form of writing appropriate to all academic writing contexts.

 

I’ve also been exploring one other means for weaving reflection into my classes. After we have completed a significant writing project, I’ve asked students to complete an anonymous survey, usually using an online tool such as Google Forms. I craft just one or two questions, such as these:

 

  • Did your experience writing this paper confirm, contradict, expand, complicate, or confuse what you’ve learned in previous writing experiences? (Check all that apply). Can you give me one example that illustrates your answer?
  • What is the biggest writing problem you encountered in this project? Had you ever encountered it before? What made it different this time?
  • What is one thing you wish you had known before tackling this project?
  • What is one question you wish you had asked before starting this project?
  • Did you have an “aha” moment in this project? What led to it?
  • Did you get the feedback you needed to complete the project successfully? If not, why not?

 

I don’t ask all the questions each time, and in an IRW course, I can adapt them to address the reading process as well as writing. These anonymous questions allow students to vent frustrations, especially in a course that often asks them to approach writing with different strategies than those used in high school. But the questions may also promote reflection: students consider projects in context and in the arc of their overall writing experience. But perhaps more importantly, their responses become a source for my own reflection about teaching: how did this class respond differently than previous classes? What did I do that helped or hindered their learning? How can I change that?

 

Finally, I am learning to share some of my reflective process with them: if I make changes or reconsider my language use based on their collective comments, I tell them about such changes. I want to model reflection as well as provide ample opportunities for practice. 

 

How are you building reflection into your FYC, basic writing, and IRW classrooms? 

Note from Miriam: During Fall 2018, I am sharing the “Real Teaching” blog with colleagues from around the country who will beMelissa Adamo sharing what works in their writing classrooms.

 

Guest blogger Melissa Adamo is currently the College Liaison for the Dodge Poetry Festival and an Adjunct Instructor at Montclair State University and Rutgers University-Newark. She primarily teaches composition courses at both institutions but has also taught creative writing and literature courses at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Readers can connect with her on Twitter Melissa Adamo (@mel_adamo) | Twitter . 

 

Students often come into second-level composition or literature courses describing poetry as hard to understand or too abstract. In high school, many students feel forced to “overanalyze” poems, leading to fears of finding “the right answer”; this seems only natural for those accustomed to standardized tests. My desire to reframe poetry as a topic of discussion rather than a place of correct answers led me to Twitter.

 

In creating this lesson plan, I took inspiration from the book 101 Exercises for the College Classroom in which Jacquelyn Ardam has students pare down a text to six words. My version of this assignment used Twitter, a platform with a 140-character limit. I asked students to Tweet a creative response to a poem and then present their Tweet to the class, supporting their choices by directly connecting the Tweet to lines in the poem.

 

I wanted to fulfill similar objectives from Ardam whose assignment built “close-reading skills” through examining the author’s style or diction “as deliberate” choices. I wanted to help further these skills as well as analytical thinking through writing, collaboration, and presentation. Another aim for the activity was to decenter my authority on the poem in order to promote more confidence in students.

 

First, I broke the class into small groups to select a poem from that day’s assigned reading. Next, I instructed them to re-read their poem together, breaking up its parts: What is it about? How is it structured? What effect is produced? What was your reaction to the poem?

 

I then asked students to create a Tweet based on their group’s understanding of the poem. Students could write as the speaker of the poem to highlight its message, as the author to directly comment on literary choices, or as readers to show their experience of the poem. They could also choose to compose as they actually would on such a platform, modernizing language from the poem or, if writing from the reader perspective, revealing their interpretation through slang. Here, students became the experts in the room, for example, defining what “af” or “savage” meant, thus giving them more agency over vocabulary in an academic setting.

 

Like most social media platforms, Twitter also uses multimodality through memes, GIFs, and emojis. I encouraged students to play with these modes to practice analytical reading skills, not only on traditional texts but also on visual texts. I also pushed them to see how much they can include in such a small space; because of Twitter’s character limit (currently at 280), students must pare down the text to avoid unnecessary summary and convey more information with less words. Although most Tweets look rather simplistic, the more layers added (e.g. hashtags, pictures, text), the more conversation a group can generate.

 

After each group created their Tweet, students would present it to the class. Presentation requirements included students explaining their text and images from the Tweet as well as how it directly connects to a line of the poem or the poet’s writing strategy. This presentation component required students to support claims and thus assessed their ability to communicate their reasoning.

 

After each group presented, the rest of the class was invited to ask the group questions about the Tweet. This larger discussion promoted an even more in-depth analysis of each poem. For example, in one group, students debated characteristics of a GIF’s subject and compared it to the poem’s speaker, drawing parallels between popular culture present in the image and the literary text assigned. Not all students saw connections between the image and poem at first, but in our collective conversation we all built toward it.

 

Such discussions allowed an opportunity for me to read and learn alongside my students. Because I don’t always know the reference nor do I know how the students will create their tweet, we are all on equal footing. It offered the chance to model that “good” readers do not simply know all the answers, but rather they are comfortable asking questions or reviewing a text together.

 

Bringing Twitter and its memes, GIFs, and hashtags into the classroom resulted in a class atmosphere that was inviting and playful, rather than inaccessible, meeting my original objective. Seeing the confidence this lesson helped build in students was key in the process of not only reframing their view on poetry but also furthering their critical reading skills. It even prompted students to analyze popular culture and visual media, which they often do not look at with a critical eye.

 

Changing such perspectives about reading and analysis could apply to more than just poetry, of course. I would be eager to try this with other texts in the composition classroom, hoping to find the same level of student engagement and analytical thinking.

One of the eight threshold concepts that frame my FYC and co-requisite courses is this:  uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of a writer’s growth. Upon reflection, I think I would add that these nouns also characterize an experienced writer’s process (the meandering path that led to this particular blog post, were it made visible, would provide substantial evidence to support this assertion). 

 

And yet, even having articulated this principle within my classroom (and particularly in the readings I assign), I find that I am still very quick to minimize or undermine uncertainty for my students, especially in the early days of their college writing careers. And I suspect in doing so, I am also minimizing an opportunity for learning.

 

A classroom conversation this week illustrates my tendency. I had asked students about thesis statements, and their answers were typical: It’s the last sentence of the first paragraph in the essay. It’s just a summary of what you say. It’s the plan for the essay so the reader can follow. I was told it had to have a certain format. It can’t announce the topic. It can’t be too broad or too narrow. It should answer a question. You should know what it is before you start writing. Using their text as a guide, students talked about weak and strong thesis statements and identified problems in samples that needed to be “fixed.” The students seemed pleased with the exercise: it was straightforward and clear—thesis statements either work or they don’t. There was only a slight ripple of consternation when I suggested that thesis statements need not be presented in one place, worded a specific way, fully developed at the outset, or stated explicitly. Despite making these comments, however, the activity of evaluating and improving thesis statements (and reading about “common problems” with a thesis) implied the opposite: thesis statements are certain, clear, and predictable.    

 

Later that same day, I called my daughter, who has just begun a Ph.D. program in English. For some time, she had been reworking an MA project as a book chapter. She commented on how frustrating the process had been for the first several days (perhaps even weeks) of her work. But, she was thrilled to announce during our talk that her initial musings and reflections had finally led her to a thesis, and she now feels confident the chapter will come together. I could hear the energy in her voice: she had a thesis, and while it might still need some tweaking, her sense of the potential impact of the paper (and her ability to write it) was striking. 

 

Consider the differences in these thesis-focused conversations: for many of my students, a thesis is primarily a component of a written product – a component that will be assessed by expert readers, possibly as ineffective, inappropriate, or misplaced. In short, my students view the thesis as something they can “get wrong” and thus something that must be nailed down immediately – and preferably without any changes. My daughter, on the other hand, views her thesis as a means to control and develop her writing. She discovered her thesis via invaluable but messy exploratory writing (which no one sees or grades), and she is harnessing the power of that thesis to guide the development of her work. While the thesis will surely be subject to the critical reflection of her future readers, she can use those responses to further define and refine her theoretical stance.  It is, in short, a mode of learning, a means to agency and control in her writing—and her thinking.

 

I see a similarity in the ways my students conceptualize a thesis and their understanding of grammar: both are seen as a toggle switch, set to either the right or wrong position, not as opportunities to learn, make choices, or express meaning. The anxiety produced by the desire to get it right leads me (far too often) to let students bypass the messy process of thesis-building (or sentence construction) by issuing a judgment and recommending remedies quickly. They invariably do whatever I suggest. I know better, but I have a competing desire to relieve anxiety, especially for students whose previous academic experiences have been demoralizing and disorienting.

 

In a workshop for our faculty at the start of this term, we were challenged to apply practices of “Transparency in Learning and Teaching” or TILT (a faculty professional development initiative led by faculty researchers at UNLV) with our assignment design.  For me, this fall, that means finding ways to make “useful confusion” explicit for students and helping them recognize the value of uncertainty in the process of discovering and refining a thesis. Transparency about the value of uncertainty means challenging the binary terms so often used to talk about the thesis (right/wrong, strong/weak, broad/narrow). It also means asking more questions during writing conferences, and acknowledging the frustration of working with a murky thesis in initial drafts. My hope is that students will come to accept uncertainty and confusion—anxiety-inducing as they may be—as a means to extended possibility and power in their writing, just as experienced writers like my daughter have.   

 

In what ways are you helping students re-imagine uncertainty and confusion as platforms for writing development?

 

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I have been writing about ways to build grammar awareness through reading activities.  I began with an exploratory look at threshold concepts for grammar in the composition classroom. I also addressed activities that encourage students to notice grammatical features in target texts. In the last post, I discussed applying a principle of contrast to texts so that students can construct and refine grammatical hypotheses.

 

Another strategy that can be applied to texts involves the creation of grammatical frames to illustrate critical grammar points. Consider the following example, taken from an editorial by Steven Pinker:

 

If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.

 

The first of these two sentences is a counterfactual (also called unreal) condition, which follows a standard format: If + subject + past tense verb, subject + would + base form of the verb. The next sentence introduces the real or factual counterpart to the conditional; as a contrast, this sentence is introduced with “yet.” In combination, these sentences illustrate a useful grammatical pattern for argumentation, a pattern that students can employ for themselves. Provide students with a simple frame, and then invite them to play with the language in the context of their own ideas:

           

            If _________ were _______________, (then) _______ would _________.  But (yet) ______________________. 

 

            If ______________________ (verb in past), _______________ (use “would”) __________.  But (yet) __________________.

 

Next, students could predict what the following sentence might logically contain. In this case, the next sentence could be a result clause beginning with “so” or “therefore.” Or the writer might choose to provide additional facts as a contrast to the conditional, as Pinker actually does (note his use of the words “other” and “likewise”):

 

Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.

 

Patterns and frames can also be used to help multilingual writers and English language learners build lexical knowledge. One of the most challenging aspects of English language acquisition is verb complementation: whether a verb can be followed by a noun, prepositional phrase, gerund, infinitive, noun clause, or adjective – or some combination of these—is lexically determined. In other words, the individual verb determines what grammatical structures follow it. Vocabulary development for academic writing involves a growing awareness of which verbs occur in which patterns.  Reading exercises can foster this lexical awareness. Consider the following sentence from Pinker’s essay:

 

Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths.

 

“Encourage” is one of several verbs which can be followed (among other patterns) by a noun or pronoun and an infinitive: encourage someone to do something. Students can begin to build a repertoire of verbs that follow this pattern, looking for additional examples in class readings (urge someone to do something, expect someone to do something, etc.). But instructors can also point out verbs students will not find in this pattern, such as “recommend” or “suggest.” 

 

Whether the frames are invoked to illustrate a grammatical construct such as a conditional or a lexically-determined complement, invite students to play with language in the frames in low-stakes activities.  

 

This use of frames or patterns is similar to the approach of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say. Some have criticized the Graff and Birkenstein templates as formulaic or detrimental to the thinking process (as in this article by Phyllis Banay). My use of frames, however, differs from the They Say, I Say template approach in a couple of ways. First, frames are derived from course readings; they are not presented as a pre-determined list. Second, while frames may be connected to rhetorical moves (as in the case of Pinker’s use of counterfactual conditions to introduce evidence against a claim), the primary focus of the frames here is to build grammatical and lexical confidence. Finally, I would not require that students use a particular frame in a graded writing assignment; ultimately, my goal is to build student confidence to make grammatical choices—not dictate those choices for them.  

 

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