The third speaker at the Spilman Symposium on Issues in Teaching Writing at Virginia Military Institute was John Schilb, Professor of English at Indiana University.

Referring to Earthquake, a movie early 1970s in which the seats shook when the earthquake struck (a feature called sensurround), Schilb stated,

We in composition face an important sensurround, with the challenge of defining to the larger society, exactly what we do, the value of what we teach, and what we teach.

Schilb asserts that this issue of defining the field of composition is important because unlike in the life sciences, important bodies of people, such as the Spellings Commission, didn't pay attention to us.

Using the phrase aggressive modesty, he stated that while being modest about what we do--we don't teach all kinds of writing--we should aggressively promote what we do, which is teaching students how to write, at least to write better than they did before entering our classes.

Although good composition programs include many kinds of writing, he believes that what is essential to our discipline is teaching analytical argument. That is,

you tend to persuade an audience to accept your claims on issues by accepting your evidence and warrants.

Teaching students means teaching them

how to craft arguments to persuade the audience to accept a certain interpretation of a text.

In teaching analytical argument, he noted that the the biggest shift from high school to college is that the student writer has to go beyond the obvious to a question that has no obvious answer.

Teaching students to go beyond the obvious means motivating them to take risks in their writing, develop tentative claims that you may not immediately know the evidence for.

This assertion is somewhat problematic for me. Much of academic writing is based on interpreting evidence. That is, you already have the evidence, but you may not have a clear idea of what it means or how it fits into your models of writing. Thus, you develop "tentative claims" concerning the evidence you have--not evidence you don't have.

For Schilb, a corollary to developing ideas for written, analytical argument is "close reading," that is, a rhetorical invention process of finding issues by

  • making predictions on how the text will turn out
  • investigating differences between one's own experiences and the text
  • thinking about how these differences affect your response to the text
  • looking for patterns in the text of repetition, of opposition, of beginning and end
  • considering alternatives that the author could have done but didn't and what those choices mean
  • generating questions with more than one possible answer

Close reading seeks to ambiguate the text, to make it less clear, to find puzzles, mysteries, and enigmas in it. These are the bases of the issues.

In defining composition studies, Schilb ended on these four points:

  1. We emphasize this kind of writing.
  2. Where does literature come in?
  3. What are the specific moves that we want students to work with?
  4. What strategies can we provide students with to come up with interpretations on a text?

As Schilb noted, composition has historically been situated in Departments of English and overshadowed and influenced by its elder sibling, literature--thus, the question about "Where does literature come in?" That inferior position has created an image of composition that, as Nancy Sommers, former Director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University (quoted in Bartlett) noted, "it's janitorial cleanup or service work." For myself, although literature can be an excellent tool for the close reading that Schilb recommends, it should be treated like any other discipline, as the focus of composition is writing, not literature, and writing that must prepare students for their own disciplines.

This perception of composition as "service work," accompanied by compositionists' desire to be seen as academic equals is one reason for its prevailing focus on concepts and thinking. Naturally, these abilities are crucial for good writing. But where has our focus on language gone? Susan Peck MacDonald, associate professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, in her recent article "The erasure of language" notes that attention paid to language has decreased significantly in sessions at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the premier conference on writing in the U.S. Before her, Robert Connor had lamented the turning away from sentence pedagogies. From the abstract:

This article examines the sentence-based pedagogies that arose in composition during the 1960s and 1970s—the generative rhetoric of Francis Christensen, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining—and attempts to discern why these three pedagogies have been so completely elided within contemporary composition studies. The usefulness of these sentence-based rhetorics was never disproved, but a growing wave of anti-formalism, antibehaviorism, and anti-empiricism within English-based composition studies after 1980 doomed them to a marginality under which they still exist today. The result of this erasure of sentence pedagogies is a culture of writing instruction that has very little to do with or to say about the sentence outside of a purely grammatical discourse.

As Connor asserts, the decline of these pedagogies was due to a massive piece of wish-fulfillment" due to composition being based in English departments in which "antiformalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism" reigned, leaving the field with a "Distrust of scientistic empiricism [and] ... few proofs or certainties not ideologically based."

This shift away from writing instruction to ideology has created a disconnect between the field of composition and most outside of it. In the discussion following Schilb's presentation, a journalist and visiting scholar at VMI described incoming students as needing remedial instruction on writing, to which Schilb replied that he didn't like the term "remedial." After all, half of his students were in that category, and we have to deal with it. Yes, we have to deal with it, but does that mean that the instruction we are providing is not remedial?

Googling the phrase "Why Johnny can't write" turns up 969 hits. In the academic world, Bartlett writes, "Many top colleges fear that their students lack basic [writing] skills." In business, we keep reading about students who, going into the world of business, can't write a coherent paragraph. The National Commission on Writing has issued three reports in the last five years on the issue of writing, that students are entering the work force with a lack of writing skills. As Heather Mac Donald, John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, wrote in a lenghty article,

One overlooked corner of the academic madhouse bears in particular on graduates' job-readiness: the teaching of writing. In the field of writing, today's education is not just an irrelevance, it is positively detrimental to a student's development. For years, composition teachers have absorbed the worst strains in both popular and academic culture. The result is an indigestible stew of 1960s liberationist zeal, 1970s deconstructivist nihilism, and 1980s multicultural proselytizing. The only thing that composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose.

The problem of students not mastering writing cannot be laid at the feet of composition alone. As Sommers stated (in Taggert's review of her talk at CCCC 2005),

outside the core writing curriculum, the study indicated students rarely are offered any writing instruction and are equally rarely asked to revise.

Thus, to help students master writing, we need to provide guidance on thinking conceptually and analytically, as Schilb recommends, but we also need to consider ways in which (1) to integrate writing in not only core writing courses but in most of their courses and (2) to give feedback to students that teaches them how to write "clear, logical prose." Much easier said than done.


Bartlett, Thomas (Jan 3, 2003). "Why Johnny Can't Write, Even Though He Went to Princeton." Chronicle of Higher Education, 49 (17).

Connors, Robert J. (2000). The Erasure of the Sentence. College Composition and Communication, 52, 96-128. Available for subscribers at CCC Online Archives.

Mac Donald, Heather (1995). Why Johnny can't write - teaching grammar and logic to college students. Accessed at FindArticles:

MacDonald, Susan Peck (2007). The Erasure of Language. College Composition and Communication, 58, 585-625. Available for subscribers at CCC Online Archives.

Taggert, Amy R. (Mar 24, 2005). Review of Nancy Sommer's CCCC 2005 presentation "Across the Drafts: Responding to Student Writing—A Longitudinal Perspective". Accessed at

Turner, Rich. Why Johnny (and Jane) can't write - Part I. Accessed at

Yesterday, I attended the Spilman Symposium on Issues in Teaching Writing at Virginia Military Institute. This year there were three keynote speakers: Leila Christenbury, Edward White, and John Schilb. I'll summarize their talks one a week.

The first speaker was Leila Christenbury, Professor of English Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her topic was "Conflict and contradictions: the perspective of high school teachers on college level writing."

She said that although elementary and middle schools had changed in the U.S., high school "remains one of the most unchanged structures and institutions in American society" with unchanged curricula. The canon of literature remains stable: Romeo and Juliet, Huckleberry Finn, The Most Dangerous Game, a strong resistance to digital literacy ... The content of the high school literature curriculum is very traditional.

Although attempts at change have been made, most of them "have foundered or never achieved a foothold."

Despite these failures, high schools are moving more to a college model (with debate on this move) through three different ways:

  • AP courses
  • Dual enrollment, in which high school courses are receiving college credit at the same time.
  • Shortening the four traditional high school years into three, eliminating the 12th grade.

Interestingly, NCTE was founded by teachers in 1911 due to the unfair influence of colleges, especially Harvard, on high school curricula.

Compared to the teaching of literature, writing has been an exception. The notion of writing as a process, as opposed to only product, has entered the classroom due to the influence of the National Writing Project. In summer institutes, teachers write, learning that there is a disconnect between what they do as writers and what they tell their students. Christenbury added, however, that one problem with the writing process in high school is that it has become fossilized into a lockstep, hierarchical, immutable process instead of being recursive and fluid.

In her own work, she has found that high school teachers believe incorrectly that college writing

  1. centers on the research paper
  2. doesn't allow personal pronouns
  3. concentrates on usage errors (a handful of usage errors will fail a paper)

On #1, at Kean, there is a second year course that focuses on the research paper, and a senior captstone course that I believe includes the research paper. It's not likely that other courses focus on a research paper, although they may include one.

On #2, I haven't surveyed the professors here, but it's been my impression that allowing personal pronouns is more of an English Department phenomenon, perhaps crossing over to similar disciplines like communications, but it would be unusual for the sciences and business to allow personal pronouns. Not that it doesn't happen. Consider Watson and Crick's seminal paper (pdf) on the structure of DNA.

Christenbury added that writing today, however, is more difficult for high school teachers because of

  1. prompt driven writing samples (for 8th and 11 graders in VA)
  2. The 2003 College Board report, which called writing at the high school level the neglected 'r. The amount of time for writing should double and teachers should step up their game. It also called for assessment of writing with an SAT 25-minute writing sample.

Such writing tests are high stakes, single prompt, and short time framed, making it difficult to use a full writing process. So high school teachers face contradictions: preparing students for college-level writing and also for these standardized tests.

She also conduced research with 23 high school English teachers in the Richmond, Virginia area. These teachers were almost all honors English teachers, 12 had 15 or more years of teaching experience, 4 had 7-10 years, 17 had master's degrees, one a JD degree, 1/4 were members of NCTE or other professional groups, 1/2 had finished nwp summer institutes, and 1 was Board-certified.

Here are some of their thoughts on college-level writing: It

  • involves more technical writing
  • should move students to think more about their writing and work their way out of the box
  • is more intentional and exhibits clear prose
  • shows insight and synthesis
  • has no chance for revision
  • has more chances for help and services
  • develops ideas and elaboration
  • etc.

As Christenbury noted, high school teachers have an inaccurate perception of college writing, somewhat inflating what is actually done at the university level and somewhat being incorrect (e.g., not allowing revision).

With respect to high school writing, they listed the following characteristics:

  • correctness
  • used for end of course tests
  • retelling facts
  • summarizes
  • shows organization
  • exhibiting survace level correctness
  • based on personal experience, not fact

Obviously, as Christenbury stated, what high school teachers can do is negatively affected by timed graded essays. (George Hillocks' book, The Testing Trap, is thorough in showing how standardized essay tests have deteriorated writing instruction in U.S. public schools.) It's also eroded by the number of students they have. In the discussion that followed her talk, one high school teacher said he had 100 students and another former high school teacher said she had 147 at one time. It's easy to imagine that the combination of (1) many students, (2) teaching literature in addition to writing, and (3) needing to focus on state and national timed essays doesn't allow much time for providing feedback to students to help them develop their writing.

This is a problem that won't fade away. Technology via connecting students online can help, but it's not a panacea. That is, having students write online and interact with classmates and others online can provide the feedback and critiquing that leads to better writing. However, students also have a problem of time: Developing writing takes time, and writing is not the only item they must focus on. For writing to develop, it should be part and parcel of the majority of their courses--not only in high school but also in college. Easier wished for than done.

The latest issue of TESL-EJ is out and available from either Japan or the USA. As you can see from the Table of Contents, it's chock full of articles and book reviews concerning grammar.

Vol. 11. No. 2, September 2007

Feature Articles
Special Issue Editor: Maggie Sokolik

  • Grammar-Based Teaching: A Practitioner's Perspective, by Betty Azar
  • Concept-Based Grammar Teaching: An Academic Responds to Azar, by Kent Hill
  • Towards More Context and Discourse in Grammar Instruction, by Marianne Celce-Murcia
  • Grammar, Meaning and Pragmatics: Sorting Out the Muddle, by Michael Swan
  • The Effects of Implicit and Explicit Instruction on Simple and Complex Grammatical Structures for Adult English Language Learners, by Karen L. Ziemer Andrews
  • Grammar Texts and Consumerist Subtexts, by M E Sokolik

On the Internet
Editor: Vance Stevens

  • Text-to-Speech Applications Used in EFL Contexts to Enhance Pronunciation, by Dafne González

Media Reviews
Editor: Thomas Delaney & Maja Grgurovic

  • Introductory English Grammar and Vocabulary with Color Key, reviewed by Dessie Bekrieva-Grannis
  • Fundamentals of English Grammar: Interactive, reviewed by Josh Overcast
  • Game Show Presenter 4.3d, reviewed by Ferit Kılıçkaya & Ebru Çerezcioğlu
  • Motivating Language Learners with Flickr, reviewed by Aaron Campbell

Editor: Will Seng

Grammar & Register

  • A. Robert Young & Ann O. Strauch (2006), Nitty Gritty Grammar: Sentence Essentials for Writers, 2nd ed., reviewed by Pat Moore
  • Scott Thornbury (2006), Resource Books for Teachers: Grammar, reviewed by Joseph J. Lee
  • John McH. Sinclair & Anna Mauranen (2006), Linear Unit Grammar: Integrating Speech and Writing, reviewed by Oliver Mason
  • Mike Scott & Christopher Tribble (2006), Textual Patterns: Key Words and Corpus Analysis In Language Education, reviewed by Kornwipa Poonpon - Douglas Biber (2006), University Language: A Corpus-based Study of Spoken and Written Registers, reviewed by Ruth Breeze


  • Keith S. Folse, Elena Vestri Solomon & David Clabeaux (2007), From Great Paragraphs to Great Essays, reviewed by Panagiota Dimakis
  • Ken Hyland & Fiona Hyland, Eds. (2006), Feedback in Second Language Writing: Contexts and Issues, reviewed by Abdelmajid Bouziane

Teacher Resources

  • Robert M. DeKeyser, Ed. (2007), Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology, reviewed by Andrea B. Hellman
  • Mike Levy & Glenn Stockwell (2006), CALL Dimensions: Options and Issues in Computer-Assisted Language Learning, reviewed by Anne O'Bryan

Recently, I came across "Error Correction Seminar", a blog for a graduate level class taught by Lourdes Ortega at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. To date, they've reviewed more than 20 research articles on error feedback in second language learning, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of the articles and making pertinent comments, such as this one by David:

The organization of the article was clear and the statistics and charts all very comprehendable. What raises my hackles, though, is the central question this article is asking. While there is value in showing that students prefer or attend to one type of feedback over another (and only three types of feedback were studied here), in the end I wind up asking myself, "So what?" — especially when the definition of "uptake" means merely attempting to correct a mistake when the computer is telling you, 'Hey, you made mistake.'

Of course, I need to read the article myself, but still, "So what?" is one of the best questions to ask when trying to determine the usefulness of any academic research for application to the classroom.

I like these reviews, too, because they show the human side of the reviewers, as seen with David. And consider this excerpt from Ping:

This article is quite easy to read. I was able to read it without constantly thinking of getting more coffee, so that's good.

I can personally attest to the sleep-inducing effect of many academic articles.

For those interested in error correction but with insufficient time to review the literature, this site is a good opportunity to get a brief overview of error correction articles.

My previous post on The Myths of the Digital Generation looked at how many of the characteristics ascribed to "digital natives" were exaggerated to the point of becoming myth. What is more founded in research (although I'm sure it has its share of controversy) is the native multitasking ability of women. Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, researches "the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior." From Chapter 1 (NY Times, free registration required) of her book The First Sex, here are some excerpts on what she calls women's "web thinking" and men's "step thinking":

  • As a general rule, men tend to focus on one thing at a time—a male trait I first noticed in my twenties. At the time I had a boyfriend who liked to watch the news on television, listen to rock music on the stereo, and read a book—presumably all at once. In reality, he just switched channels in his head. When he was imbibing from one modality, he tuned the others out. Not I. The flashing of the TV screen, the throbbing music, the printed words: all of these stimuli swamped my mind.
  • Janet Scott Batchler has described this gender difference succinctly. She writes feature films with her husband and partner, Lee Batchler. She says of her spouse, "He does one thing at a time. Does it well. Finishes it and moves on. He's very direct in his thought processes and in his actions. And he deals with people in that same focused way, meaning exactly what he says, with no hidden agenda. I'm the one who can juggle a hundred balls at once, and can realize that other people may be doing the same thing, professionally or emotionally."
  • Web thinking versus step thinking; an emphasis on the whole versus a focus on the parts; multitasking versus doing one thing at a time: scientists are far from understanding, even properly defining, these subtle differences between women and men.
  • As women around the world do multiple tasks simultaneously, they are mentally assessing and assimilating an abundance of data— engaging in web thinking.
  • Women are "process-oriented." They are "gathering." They want to explore the multiple interactions, the multidirectional paths, all of the permutations of the puzzle.
  • Psychologists argue that contemporary women learn to do and think several things simultaneously. Just watch a working mother in the morning, dressing children, packing lunches, feeding goldfish, pouring cereal, and arranging day care on the phone—all at once.
  • I suspect that women's talent for contextual thinking—and the related skill of multitasking—evolved in deep history. Thousands of generations of performing mental and physical acrobatics as they raised helpless infants built these outstanding capacities into the architecture of the female brain.

Note that ahough Fisher's boyfriend seemed to be multitasking, he wasn't.

Note also that many of the characteristics attributed to digital natives by Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants are also attributed to women by Fisher. One difference is that while digital natives acquire their multitasking skills through normal learning processes, according to Fisher, about 50 percent of women have it hardwired into their brain. Obviously, although Prensky claimed that digital natives' multitasking and other skills "are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants," they are not foreign to women.

Of course, Fisher's theories are (contested) interpretations of data, but to me they adhere more closely to the evidence. Prensky's interpretations are speculative extrapolations from research findings that the brain continues to adapt and is malleable, and that people think differently according to their experiences. In Part II of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (pdf), he writes,

So, today’s neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.

And elsewhere:

While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors—the Digital Natives.

From very general concepts of plasticity and malleability, Prensky jumps to a very specific conclusion of "very different" cognitive processing . And elsewhere:

But these differences, most observers agree, are less a matter of kind than a difference of degree.

This last statement is key. First, if it's more a matter of degree, then considerable more evidence is needed before claiming that it is "a very different blend." Second, what is the specific combination and what is the difference in degree? As David E. Meyer, Director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, said with respect to Net Gen's multitasking ability, "it's a myth" (see The Myths of the Digital Generation). So, the degree doesn't seem that large.

And the particular combination doesn't seem all that new, either: For millenia, according to Fisher, women have been natural, or native, multi-taskers. (Perhaps Meyer will disagree with Fisher.)

As stated in the previous post, that each generation differs from the preceding ones is common sense. But that the differences reach mythical levels, well, let's have a little more evidence.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation