Content Based Writing

Back-to-School postponed again! Forums Materials University Writing Content Based Writing

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    Andy
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    When I first started teaching writing, no one really told me the best way to go about it. Because of this, I followed what other people were doing at the time and created a strictly rules based writing course that relied heavily on grammar instruction. Students really liked having lots of rules to go by and I wasn’t aware that there was any other way to teach the subject, so I continued doing it that way for a while.

    The problem is that in a grammar based writing environment (students at my university have to take at least two composition courses, and some have to take as many as eight) students can only progress so far, and ultimately basing writing instruction around grammar hurts students. This happens for two reasons. First, grammar based instruction doesn’t engage students critically. Students rely on rote memorization and rules following to write, and this doesn’t allow them to write anything better than formulaic, unthinking essays. For example, if you tell students that an essay should be five paragraphs, and that a paragraph is made up of a minimum of five sentences, students almost invariably turn in cookie cutter essays of exactly twenty-five sentences.

    The second reason that grammar based instruction is a bad idea is that the ability to create grammatically perfect, complex (meaning writing complexity, not specifically complex sentences) writing is a years long process that most learners (first language English users included!) will never reach the end of. In other words, it is possible to increase a student’s writing skill much more quickly than their grammatical accuracy.

    This is important because for years students were being held back by their inability to use articles properly, or choose the perfect preposition, or know when to use an infinitive or when to use a gerund, even though their content and structure was perfectly fine. Naturally, students end up feeling stifled in such an environment and end up hating writing, barely doing enough to pass and forgetting about it as quickly as possible.

    So, what is content based writing then? Content based writing is the idea of directly connecting reading to writing. Basically, before a writing assignment, we will go through and read four or five articles related to the theme of the assignment. I also have students find and share articles on their phones that are of particular interest to them and the topic that they choose. This type of general theme reading followed by students choosing a specific aspect of that theme and creating their own topics is a great way to get students thinking critically on their own.

    While reading, we do normal reading activities (different types of reading, annotation, creating/asking/answering inference questions), but we also go through and find interesting words and phrases used in these articles. For example, in a recent course students were tasked with writing an essay about the American prison system. In the articles we read they found words such as ‘incarceration’, ‘penal system’ and ‘corrections’. Additionally, they picked out phrases such as ‘According to research from _______’ or ‘Statistics show that’. This type of language and theme specific vocabulary is very helpful to them when it comes time to write.

    On top of that, student exposure to natural, context-rich language is incredibly helpful. This is where they see the way actual writers use grammar, connect ideas, and put an article together. Between the critical thinking and the analysis, what happens is that students learn how to actually write a thought provoking, original essay. And, while they are learning these writing techniques, they are being immersed in natural grammar usage, which helps them understand intrinsically how and when to use different language features rather than trying to work on a strict rules based system, which is often incomplete and never seems to give positive results.

    Yes, I still teach basic essay structure and format. Students need to know how to write a thesis statement and a topic sentence, they need to know generally how to fit ideas together. But, instead of relying on numbers of sentences and paragraphs I allow students to decide how everything should fit together themselves. While this sounds like it would be a recipe for disaster (believe me, I was skeptical myself!), it turns out that giving writing students greater autonomy and control over what they produce actually helps students create better work.

    Getting back to grammar, I still believe grammar instruction has a place alongside a writing curriculum, but the key idea is that it is off to the side. It is important to practice grammar, but it is actively harmful to base writing achievement and proficiency around students’ grammar proficiency. Grammar takes a long time to grow, and if we focus on content, grammatical accuracy and complexity will grow, and the student’s understanding of grammar will be much stronger for it.

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