I prefer to use Tinderbox due to its flexibility and search capabilities. However, as I'm planning on writing a course called The Digital Writer, I need to think about using the same blog platform as my students so that I'm more than just a little bit famlliar with it. So, for a while, perhaps longer, my posts will move there: http://charlespnelson.com/blog/.

2014 Slwis Event by cpn

Weizhong Zhang gives ten practical rules about "about the principles and attitude that can help guide the process of writing in particular and research in general" (see the paper for the explanation of the rules):

  1. Make It a Driving Force
  2. Less Is More
  3. Pick the Right Audience
  4. Be Logical
  5. Be Thorough and Make It Complete
  6. Be Concise
  7. Be Artistic
  8. Be Your Own Judge
  9. Test the Water in Your Own Backyard
  10. Build a Virtual Team of Collaborators

Paul Ford briefly reviews a variety of new online writing and outlining tools:

(Two academic collaborative tools not mentioned but worth checking out are Fidus Writer and Authorea.)

He notes that these platforms are a return to "reflective thought":

What all these new tools for thought must prove is that there are enough people willing to give up the quick pleasures of the tweet or Facebook post and return to the hard business of writing whole paragraphs that are themselves part of a larger structure of argument.

I'm not so sure that it's a "hard business," but it is time-consuming. I suppose some can just rattle off in good prose whatever comes to their mind and at the same time say something worth reading. For myself, however, it takes time to think through what I've read and even more time to build upon it something, if not new, at least different enough from the original post to be worthwhile for others' consideration. Perhaps the amount of time it takes does indicate in some way that it's hard. Lack of time is the main reason my posting has almost stopped in the last few years.

As Ford notes at the end (citing Engelbart), the right tool can "augment human intellect." I would add that even if not "augmenting," the right tool can certainly save time. Unlike a pen, word processors allow us to edit freely. Bibliographic managers write our reference sections for us in a click or two.

A tool I use is Tinderbox. I use it for keeping notes, writing this blog, analyzing research, and making adjunct assignments (in the fall semester assigning around 100 adjuncts to about 200 courses). With respect to adjunct assignments, for example, the combination of attributes, agents, and badges let me see visually who can teach what at which time and who has two, one, or zero assignments. Every semester, it saves me hours of remembering who can do what when and hours of double-checking to eliminate mistakes. (I'm looking forward to seeing the features Tinderbox 6 will bring.) It's an expensive tool, but it more than repays itself with the time it saves me. Thank you, Mark.

So, yes, these tools can help us do better writing and perhaps even better thinking.

This post expands on the list in the previous post on the demise of clear thinking, which for many is associated with the demise (or not) of English departments and majors.

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa (2010). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The University of Chicago Press.
Beecroft, Alexander (July 3, 2013). The Humanities: What Went Right? The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Bérubé, Michael (November 10, 2010). Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.
Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22(1), 9-44.
Briggs, John C. (n.d.). Writing Without Reading: The Decline of Literature in the Composition Classroom.
Brooks, David (June 21, 2013). The Humanist Vocation. The New York Times.
Butler, Judith (March 20, 1999). A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back.
Chace, William M. (2009). The Decline of the English Department. The American Scholar.
Cohen, Paula Marantz (n.d.). Mission Impossible. The American Scholar.
Crichton, Danny (January 31, 2011). Humanities: Decline or Rebirth? The Stanford Review.
Delbanco, Andrew (November 4, 1999). The Decline and Fall of Literature. The New York Review of Books.
Grafton, Anthony T. and James Grossman (July 1, 2013). The Humanities in Dubious Battle. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Duke, Robert A., Amy L. Simmons, Amy L., & Carla Davis (2009). It's Not How Much; It's How. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.
Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, & Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
Fish, Stanley (January 6, 2008). Will the Humanities Save Us? The New York Times.
Fish, Stanley (January 13, 2008). The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. The New York Times.
The Heart of the Matter (2013). American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn (June 22, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major. The New York Times.
Marks, Jonathan (June 13, 2013). Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities). Commentary Magazine.
Maurer, Karl (n.d.) Why Study Classics?
Nussbaum, Martha (November 28, 2000). The Professor of Parody.
Our Arts Critic Responds to the 'Useless Majors' List. (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.
Paul, Annie Murphy (January 25, 2012). The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. The New York Times.
Reid, Alex (June 25, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major Editorial.
Reid, Alex (June 29, 2013). What Counts When Counting English Majors.
Saul, Scott (July 3, 2013). The Humanities in Crisis: Not at Most Schools. The New York Times.
Schmidt, Ben (June 26, 2013). Gender and the Long-Term Decline in Humanities Enrollment.
Scholes, Robert (1999). The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. Yale University Press.
Schramm, Margaret, J. Lawrence Mitchell, Delores Stephens, and David Laurence (2003). The Undergraduate English Major. Report of the 2001-2 ADE ad hoc Committee on the English Major. ADE Bulletin.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 18, 2013). Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm. The New York Times.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 27, 2013). Quants ask: What Crisis in Humanities? The New York Times.
Schmidt, Ben (June 10, 2013). A Crisis in the Humanities? The Chronicle.
Silver, Nate (June 25, 2013). As More Attend College, Careers Become More Focused. The New York Times.
Smith, Dinitia (February 27, 1999). When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing.
Strauss, Steve (June 23, 2013). Why I Hire English Majors. The Huffington Post.
The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future (Fall 2012 & Spring 2013).
Weismann, Jordan (June 24, 2013). Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis. The Atlantic.
Weismann, Jordan (June 25, 2013). The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers. The Atlantic.
The 13 Most Useful Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 25, 2012). Newsweek.
The 13 Most Useless Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.

Alex Reid responds the rise and fall of the English major articles written recently by Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Brooks, and Steve Strauss.

All three articles talk about the value of an education based in the humanities and English, and as Reid comments, it's a myth. Take, for example, Klinkenborg's assertion:

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

That's odd: Professors unable to tell their students how valuable the humanities are? Still let's look at this "gift."

Lifelong engagement with literature? The humanities include not only literature but also religion, philosophy, languages, history, and so on. How did "the most fundamental gift of the humanities" get narrowed down to literature?

Clear thinking? Remember Alan Sokal's hoax?

Clear writing? Back in the 90s, Denis Hutton established the Bad Writing Contest because, as he writes,

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Even if literature were to facilitate clear writing, that writing would be limited to a specific form of writing as writing varies across disciplines. In the well-known study of Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman, "Nate", a first-year doctoral student in a rhetoric program who wrote with a journalistic prose style, had difficulty adapting to the writing style expected in his new disciplinary community. In other words, "good" and "clear" writing (and clear thinking) is disciplinary and context specific.

These arguments aren't new. James Jay Greenough, mathematician and scientist, wrote 100 years ago that a liberal education should include not only literature, but also languages, math, science, history, and geography. As he writes,

In short, every subject enlarges the student's mind, and stores this enlarged mind with knowledge. Such a requirement of a broad range of subjects seems to be a good foundation for a liberal education.

Yet, Greenough's position on learning Latin and Greek is similar to Klinkenborg's on literature:

The desire to banish all studies which are not to be of immediate money value to the student, which has given rise to the discussion of the comparative usefulness of ancient and modern languages, has caused many persons to overlook the true value of a right study of Latin and Greek. The study of them is valuable to every man for the mental training which they give much more than for the knowledge of ancient life and literature which is obtained through them. This knowledge can be and often is obtained by reading English translations of the classics, and modern works on ancient art, life, and literature; but this training can be got only by the study of the languages themselves. The man who says his Greek or Latin is of no use to him in business or elsewhere does not realize that if he really studied either language his powers of thinking were increased, even though he has forgotten every fact learned about the language itself.

While Klinkenborg asserts that clear thinking comes through the study of literature, Greenough says that "powers of thinking" come only through the study of Latin and Greek. Schopenhauer goes further, asserting,

If the threatened calamity should ever come, and the ancient languages cease to be taught, a new literature shall arise, of such barbarous, shallow and worthless stuff as never was seen before.

One myth has supplanted another, but they are the same in that a disappearing study is essential for developing the mind. I wonder what Klinkenborg would say if she knew that the new literature of English was "barbarous, shallow and worthless." I also wonder what sort of "clear thinking" is involved when myths are proclaimed without examining their assumptions.

Associated Readings
The Heart of the Matter (2013). American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Bérubé, Michael (November 10, 2010). Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.
Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22(1), 9-44.
Brooks, David (June 21, 2013). The Humanist Vocation. The New York Times
Butler, Judith (March 20, 1999). A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back.
Chace, William M. (2009). The Decline of the English Department. The American Scholar.
Fish, Stanley (January 6, 2008). Will the Humanities Save Us?. The New York Times
Fish, Stanley (January 13, 2008). The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. The New York Times
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. The Rise and Fall of the English Major. The New York Times
Marks, Jonathan (June 13, 2013). Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities). Commentary Magazine.
Maurer, Karl (n.d.) Why Study Classics?.
Nussbaum, Martha (November 28, 2000). The Professor of Parody.
Our Arts Critic Responds to the 'Useless Majors' List. (April 23, 2012).
Reid, Alex. (June 25, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major Editorial.
Schmidt, Ben (June 26, 2013). Gender and the Long-Term Decline in Humanities Enrollment.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 18, 2013). Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm. The New York Times.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 27, 2013). Quants ask: What Crisis in Humanities?. The New York Times.
Silbey, Dave (June 10, 2013). A Crisis in the Humanities?. The Chronicle.
Silver, Nate (June 25, 2013). As More Attend College, Careers Become More Focused. The New York Times.
Smith, Dinitia (February 27, 1999). When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing.
Strauss, Steve (June 23, 2013). Why I Hire English Majors. The Huffington Post.
The 13 Most Useful Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 25, 2012). Newsweek.
The 13 Most Useless Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.
Weismann, Jordan (June 24, 2013). Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis. The Atlantic.
Weismann, Jordan (June 25, 2013). The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers. The Atlantic.

Come and talk with scholars and friends of second language writing at TESOL 2013

2013 SLWIS Event Flyer by

In addition to the handout for all SLW-related sessions at TESOL 2013 (see previous post), click here (pdf) to see just the SLWIS Academic and Intersection Sessions (plus additional events).


The Internationalization of Higher Education: Examining Issues, Maximizing Outcomes
Friday, 22 March 2013, 1:00pm - 3:45pm
Convention Center D222.

Session Description: Increasing international student enrollment in U.S/U.K. higher education programs has dramatically impacted the work of SLW professionals (materials development, instruction, administration) in many contexts (universities, community colleges, overseas institutions). Drawing on their experience, presenters discuss strategies for enhancing L2 writing instruction and the benefits international students bring to our institutions.

Presenters: Dudley Reynolds (Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar), Maggie Sokolik (University of California, Berkeley), Margi Wald (University of California, Berkeley), Jan Frodesen (University of California, Santa Barbara), Megan Siczek (The George Washington University), Gayle Nelson (Georgia State University), Diane Schmitt (Nottingham Trent University UK).


Voice and Identity in Pre-University Second Language Writers
Thursday, 21 March 2013, 1:00pm - 2:45pm
Convention Center D224

Session Description: The development of voice and identity are some of the most crucial yet challenging elements for developing multilingual writers. In this colloquium, experts on voice and identity discuss approaches for helping students develop an awareness of these concepts as well as improve their use in pre- and university-level writing.

Presenters: Suresh Canagarajah (Pennsylvania State University), Diane Belcher (Georgia State University), Silvia Pessoa (Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar), Jim Rogers (Utah State University).


Practical Ways to Use Intercultural Rhetoric in Teaching L2 Writing
Friday, 22 March 2013, 1:00pm - 2:45pm
Convention Center D222

Session Description: Recent research in intercultural rhetoric has explored several promising pedagogical techniques for implementing intercultural rhetoric in English language classes. This presentation demonstrates practical teaching techniques and offers a how to discussion that covers various ESL and EFL contexts, including East Asia and the Middle East.

Presenters: Ulla Conner (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), Devon Walker (California Baptist University), Nasima Yamchi (Higher Colleges of Technology, UAE), and Xiaoye Yu (Pennsylvania State University).

Click here to see a list of SLW-related sessions (pdf) at TESOL 2013.

The SLWIS TESOL 2013 Business Meeting has been scheduled. Please join us to discuss important IS matters with colleagues/friends on Thursday, 21 March 2013 from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m at Dallas Convention Center (DCC) in room A 301. Business meetings are open to all members. Following the tradition, the social "An Evening with Friends of Second Language Writing" will be held right after the meeting. Do not hesitate to contact the SLWIS Chair, Lisa Selyoni lisyaseloni@gmail.com, if you have any questions, or would like to propose an agenda item to be considered for the upcoming meeting.

Friends of Second Language Writing invites you to consult at

An Evening with Friends of Second Language Writing

Thursday, March 21, 2013

7:30 – 10:00 PM

Enchilada’s Restaurant

1304 Elm Street

Dallas, Texas


at the corner of Elm and Field


Enchilada’s is approximately 0.6 miles from

the Dallas Convention Center

An evening with Friends of Second Language Writing will be a consultation session at which noted second language writing scholars will be available to participants to discuss issues related to second language writers and writing. We see this event as social in nature; complimentary light appetizers will be served. Additionally, a cash bar and dinner-on-your-own-menu will be available.

From Funk's Word Origins,

The Greek word gramma, meaning a "letter," is the foundation of the Greek grammatike techne, the "art of letters." This passed into the Latin language as grammatica, into Old French as grammaire, and so into English as grammar. For several centuries in England, Latin was the language of culture. The educated classes conversed in Latin and their social correspondence was carried on in that language. The word grammar during that period meant nothing but Latin grammer [sic], which was regarded as the most important of all the subjects in the curriculum. Our own grammar schools were so named because one of their chief aims was the teaching of Latin grammar.

Audrey Watters writes on a recent study finding that automated essay scoring did about as well as human graders. Naturally, most who teach composition oppose the replacement of human grading with robo-graders. As Watters writes,

Done thoroughly, and done right. This feedback – on drafts as well as on final versions – is crucial. It’s grueling. It’s time-consuming. It’s frustrating. But the hope, as you do so, is that you’re offering individualized feedback that will help a student learn, help the student be a better writer and a better thinker.

Robots can give a grade. That grade, according to the study by Shermis and Hamner, approximates that of a human. But a human can offer so much more than just a grade. And without feedback – substantive, smart, caring, thoughtful, difficult feedback – what’s the point?

It's interesting that she considers it a "hope" that individualized feedback will help students learn, write, and think better. In other words, there is little to no research supporting such a contention. As Knoblauch and Brannon have written,

The literature has demonstrated, beyond anyone's determination to reject the results, that commentary, however defined ... however categorized ... has limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virutally no demonstratable effect on performance from assignment to assignment. (p. 14)

Knoblauch and Brannon posit that because the comments on one paper are just a very small part of students' "immersion in [a] web of influences" (p. 15), one shouldn't expect to see measurable improvement in the short term, but rather, over the long term, the aggregation of such comments and other experiences lead to students learning to read and write.

No doubt, it's difficult to measure improvement across semesters and classes and tie that improvement to specific teacher response in an earlier class. Even so, then, the usefulness of feedback remains a "hope."

Even so, some research indicates that feedback, if done appropriately, might be effective. For earlier posts on this position, see

First-year composition, email, and feedback
Computers as writing instructors
Error feedback: Bibliography


Knoblauch, Cy, & Brannon, Lil (2006). Introduction: The emperor (still) has no clothes. In Richard Straub (ed.), Key works on teacher response (p. 94-111). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Jonah Lehrer uses the example of Bob Dylan to explain creativity from a neuroscience perspective. Dylan was burnt out from his performance schedule, and wanting to quit music, he retired to a cabin in Woodstock to relax and do nothing:

It took a few days to adjust to the quiet of Woodstock. Dylan was suddenly alone with nothing but an empty notebook. And there was no need to fill this notebook – Dylan had been relieved of his creative burden. But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. "It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say." What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. "I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit," Dylan said. "I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do." Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight. "I don't know where my songs come from," Dylan said. "It's like a ghost is writing a song." This was the thrilling discovery that saved Dylan's career: he could write vivid lines filled with possibility without knowing exactly what those possibilities were. He didn't need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.

This "vomit" of insight comes from the left hemisphere of the brain. While the right side is responsible for conscious anaysis, the left side makes subconscious connections, unexpected ones that provide a different perspective on a puzzle or problem, and can come into play when the right side can't solve it. That insight (insight because it's unconscious) depends upon the groundwork laid by the conscious, analytic side of the brain. It doesn't really pop out of nowhere. Again, it's just looking at the same parts of a puzzle, but from new perspectives and seeing new connections.

Interestingly, constraints stimulate the creative process. Lehrer gives the example of poets writing sonnets and haikus, which have strict structural requirements.

Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.

So, creativity needs frustration—giving up hope that a solution is possible—to come into play. And apparently, it also involves a relaxing and putting aside of the problem.

It reminds me of sometimes going to sleep without solving a problem and waking up in the morning with the solution in my mind.

It also reminds me of what I've gleaned from the writings of Idries Shah. A student of Shah, Doris Lessing writes,

In a Sufi school you first learn what is being taught and, above all, how. Sufi books are designed to be read differently from our usual habit: quietly, non-argumentatively, willing to absorb what is there, noticing how a question in one part may be answered in another, observing juxtapositions and intimations of the unexpected, above all not interposing screens of 'received ideas' between the author and one's best self.

"Received ideas" point to the rational mind attempting to resolve a problem while the "unexpected" points to the insight of creativity stemming from forming new connections. Note that this enlightenment is not some supernatural phenomenon but instead is the normal process of creativity, of the ability to look at a problem or situation anew.

The approach of reading "quietly, non-argumentatively, willing to absorb what is there" reminds me of Peter Elbow's "The Believing Game".

the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them. We are using believing as a tool to scrutinize and test. But instead of scrutinizing fashionable or widely accepted ideas for hidden flaws, the believing game asks us to scrutinize unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues. Often we cannot see what's good in someone else's idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it. When an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs--or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated---we often cannot see any merit in it.

Now, the believing game is not quite the same as Sufism (and to be fair to Elbow, he uses it to counterbalance the dominating "doubting game" in academia). That is, one is not "interposing screens of 'received ideas'"—whether believing or doubting. Instead, one is being open to seeing unexpected connections between ideas. It's a neutral stance rather than a "welcoming" one.

It would be interesting to develop a non-argumentative approach to writing the required argumentative papers in composition with the goal of seeing if creativity is stimulated.

2012 Special Event Flyer

The TESOL 2012 is right around the corner. Below are a few important SLW-IS related events that you may want to pencil in. Note that more information will be available at the SLWIS booth and you can click here for a list of SLW-related sessions..

1. SLW-IS Intersections & Academic Session: Save the date for the following  intersections and the academic session. More information on all the SLW related presentations will be available at our booth.

Academic Session:

Examining methodological complexities in second language writing research.

March 29/2012 at 10:00AM 12:45PM in Franklin 5 in the Marriott.

SLW-IS & ESP-IS Intersection:

The privileged status of English and multilingual writers across disciplines.

March 29 2012 at 1:00PM 2:45PM in Room Franklin 8 in the Marriott.

NNEST & SLW & AL Intersection:

Developing competence in NNES writing: A focus on genres.

March 30, 2012, 1.00-2.45 pm, Room Franklin 10 of the Marriott

CALLIS & SLW & MW Intersection:

Going Beyond the Textbook in Second Language Writing with CALL.

March 29, 2012 from 10:00 AM - 11:45 PM in the Technology Showcase (next to the Electronic Village).

2. SLW-IS Business Meeting.

This meeting is open to all of you who would like to join to a meeting to discuss various important IS matters, connect with other teacher-scholars and brainstorm ideas for 2013 proposals.

Thursday, March 29, 6:45-8:15pm 109-B Convention Center.

3. Proposal Review Training:

Please note that TESOL will have a new proposal evaluation criteria starting with the next year's convention. For those of you who are interested in reviewing proposals for TESOL 2013, there will be a reviewer training for proposal reading on Thursday, March 29 at 11:00 a.m., 2014 C Convention center. Note that there is also an open forum on convention proposal review. If you cannot attend the Thursday session, please try to join the session on Saturday, March 30 10-11 a.m., 201A, Convention Center.

4. SLW-IS Night:  

Please join us on Thursday, March 29, at 8:00 pm at Field House (http://www.fieldhousephilly.com/) to have a drink and get to know more friends of SLW. The Field House is only a few minutes walk form the convention center. More information on this informal event will be available on the boot. 

In The Atlantic Monthly, James Somers argues that email can improve first-year composition by providing immediate feedback:

But of course professors don't train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.

The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn't exactly thrill your professor. But still he'll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.

Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it's already too late -- and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor's ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

In contrast, there's email feedback:

it's deliberate practice: goal-directed, supervised. It's unfolding in smallish chunks in a series of tight feedback cycles. The conversations can be referenced, excerpted and combined; there is a clear trail of progress. "By the time we've done our half dozen email back-and-forths about their thesis, a lot of the time I can see direct evidence -- and they can see direct evidence -- that it's gotten better."

Alex Reid disagrees:

Writers don't need instant feedback from a mentor every time they get stuck. They mostly need to figure out how to work through their own problems.

In the comments, Alex provides more information, basically arguing that writing is complex and that, despite students' beliefs, there is no "ONE way to write." From this perspective giving instant feedback reinforces students' beliefs rather than helping them become independent writers.

The problem with this perspective is that it doesn't consider evidence from research on the role of feedback in learning.

Somers mentions, for instance, the research on expertise:

Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice -- a kind of practice that includes an "active search for methods to improve performance," immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and "close attention to every detail of performance 'each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'"

Now, although I wouldn't expect that students in first-year composition will become experts in one semester (or by the time they graduate), the practice of "immediate informative feedback" still applies to improving competence (as does Alex's goal of having students engaging in "an intensive, regular writing practice"). Similar to Somers' points, I've written before about the importance of immediate feedback:

Although learning and instruction may meet conditions 2-4, seldom is immediate feedback given in composition classes. In one semester, students might write from three to six essays, depending on the instructor, which means that feedback on essays is given every two to three weeks. In addition, the feedback of peer reviews generally takes place hours after the last version, unless a student pulled an all-nighter for an 8:00 am class. In this case, most of the feedback will be seen through a haze. The feedback of instructors usually occurs days later after they have looked at all of them.

The importance of immediate feedback with cognitive tutors has been demonstrated in teaching LISP, algebra, and geometry. In their abstract, Anderson et al. write,

Early evaluations of these tutors usually but not always showed significant achievement gains. Best case evaluations showed that students could achieve at least the same level of proficiency as conventional instruction in one-third of the time.

Those "best case evaluations" are in the lab where there are no distractions, but even in real classrooms, Anderson and Schunn (pdf) have found achievement gains equal to one letter grade. Learning is directly due to time on task, that is, practice. (Of course, practicing the wrong tasks leads to mislearning.) Thus, providing immediate feedback helps to eliminate wasted time in trying to figure out how to do something, which in turn, decreases the time required to learn a particular activity.

Having students figure things out on their own wastes time not simply from the figuring out process but also from the mislearning that can just as easily occur and which must then be unlearned.

So, having students learn to "figure things out" sounds like a worthy goal, but it doesn't seem to be taught directly. Alex writes,

Over the years it seems that students increasingly come to me with a desire to be told what to do. I won't tell them what to do, but I will try to give them some insight into how they might figure out what to do. This isn't a matter of their playing guess what's on my mind. There isn't a right answer. Or more precisely, if there is a thing I want them to do it's for them to figure out what to do on their own. That's what I want them to learn, and if there is no shortcut to learning that, then the only way for students to learn this is for them to actual to do it.

Apparently, Alex uses an informal, implicit approach for those students who take the initiative to see Alex. However, although there are no shortcuts to learning, the wasted time incurred by implicit approaches can be eliminated through examples and feedback (see Learning with Examples and Learning with Examples cont'd).

To eliminate wasted time, ACT-R Theory (see, again, Anderson and Schunn) proposes the following:

  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.

Note that it is effective time on task, not just time. One can practice bad habits of writing as well as good ones. In terms of learning to write, then,

  1. the first step in helping students to figure things out is figuring out how writers figure out what they need to do—that is, make explicit Alex's insight to students in classroom instruction. (The diagnosis of figuring out is unlikely to be easy.)
  2. Then, a sequence of examples of that "figuring out" need to be created, along with explanations.
  3. Students then iteratively practice "figuring out" and receive feedback connected to the examples and explanations.

On point 3, repetition in practice is important for learning as learning and forgetting are governed by power laws. That is, as noted in Learning: One step forward, then forgotten,

(1) with practice, learning increases quickly; (2) with a lack of practice, retention of learning drops off quickly; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) interact in a way that multiplies each other rather than just adds up.

To avoid students' perception that "there is ONE way to write" and to promote transfer to novel situations, examples should be chosen that provide different aspects of "figuring out" (read also Learning by Remixing and Building Blocks and Learning).

One point I've never figured out is, Why is it not good for teachers to intervene heavily with students who are at a novice or intermediate level while coaches of different sports at the professional level consider it their job to do so?

This is an old article, but according to Dr. Bernard Lamb, a reader in genetics at Imperial College London (thisislondon.co.uk), undergraduate students from Singapore and Brunei, whose second language is English, have a better command of English than do their native-speaking British counterparts.

Dr Lamb said: "All these students have good or excellent A-levels or their equivalents.

"The overseas students were generally less bad and the worst were UK raised and usually of British ancestry.

"There was little evidence of students being taught the relevant rules at school, or of the students having been corrected for obvious and frequent errors. Many did not even regard these errors as important.

"The Government and the educational establishment need to be shaken out of their current complacency about standards of English by constant exposure to evidence such as that presented here from intelligent and highly-qualified undergraduates."

Most of the errors are apparently due to spelling or punctuation:

Two of the "vocabulary" errors in the chart are really spelling errors, as are the the incorrect plurals, thus giving us 10 spelling errors and 1 punctuation error, 11 out of 14, almost 80% of the errors noted. And if you consider the "clumsy" writing as perhaps someone disliking split infinitives, then, that's not really clumsy nor an error. In fact, the article gives a long list of spelling errors, making spelling the culprit in bad English. (For more details, see Lamb's article Cows Inseminated by SeamanErrors in the English of Highly Selected Undergraduates.) Although the spelling errors are rather glaring, how did spelling (and punctuation) come to equal a command of English?

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing is a collaborative work of the WCPA, NCTE, and NWP. From the Executive Summary:

The concept of “college readiness” is increasingly important in discussions about students’ preparation for postsecondary education.

This Framework describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success. Based in current research in writing and writing pedagogy, the Framework was written and reviewed by two- and four-year college and high school writing faculty nationwide and is endorsed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project.

Habits of mind refers to ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines. The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing:

  • Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

The Framework then explains how teachers can foster these habits of mind through writing, reading, and critical analysis experiences. These experiences aim to develop students’

  • Rhetorical knowledge – the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;
  • Critical thinking – the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;
  • Writing processes – multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;
  • Knowledge of conventions – the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and
  • Abilities to compose in multiple environments – from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies.

The U.S. Senate has declared October 20, 2009, to be the National Day of Writing. At one minute past midnight, the National Gallery of Writing will open, and NCTE is sponsoring a day-long webcast (9 am - 8 pm EST).

Institutions can create their own gallery of wriitng. Kean University Writing Project has established its own gallery (welcoming writing of all types from everyone) and has scheduled a variety of events at Liberty Hall Museum.

If you're interested in writing, any type of writing, this is a good time to participate and share your writing with others.

The Digital Media and Composition Institute was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Participants included a range of experience from young graduate students in rhetoric and composition to professors to a former editor of College Composition and Communication. Guest speakers included Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos, and Hugh Burns, a visiting scholar from Texas Woman's University, also participated.

For the most part, the focus of the institute was to learn about multimodal composing. Four themes that were prominent were:

  • The more modes, the better the learning and the more inclusive of those who may favor one mode over others.
  • Using other modes can help us rethink and perhaps improve our theoretical and practical understanding of what it means to compose.
  • Using other modes might help us retool our pedagogical practice.
  • Using and understanding these digital forms of composing can help prepare students for writing in the 21st century.

The primary tools we used included Audacity, iMovie, and Sophie (a tool for assembling a "book" of electronic pages). Sophie is particularly good for creating not only a multimodal book but also an eportfolio. It's a little buggy right now (you need to save often and keep everything in one folder), but in October, a new version should be coming out that will also allow one to create a web "book." The audio and video editors are a crucial aspect of "revising" one's composing in these modes.

We were advised to pay attention to our learning processes as we did so. (For details and readings, go to the DMAC schedule and to pay particular attention to Takayoshi and Selfe's book chapter titled Thinking about modality [pdf].) I don't think I did a good job of paying attention to my learning processes as I was more focused, like my students, on the product I was creating. However, several thoughts on multimodal composing did occupy my mind.

One thought was the difficulty of moving from being a scholarly analyst of multimodal composing to becoming a scholarly producer of multimodal compositions. That is, it would take years of practice to reach a level in which the quality of my production would match my analysis. Alex Reid has written on this (Digital video and scholarship):

Once we get past the questions of the genre that might/will develop for video humanities scholarship, including the questions of scholarly validity, we need to address the material constraints such work imposes. Even for someone with real professional expertise (i.e. not me), producing quality video is expensive and time consuming. Generally it takes a group of professionals. Of course, if you're going to shoot home video style that's easier but is that level of quality going to fly for scholarly work?

Certainly there is something in-between professional, academic video of the type we see on the History channel for example and home movies. With a couple assistants, modestly better equipment, and a little practice and training, I'm sure I could put together something that would be of acceptable quality. But even that means an investment in time and money that goes substantively beyond what goes into humanities scholarship now.

Where is that investment going to come from? And what type of return will we expect from it?

Another thought was on whether it was worth the time for my students, considering that as second language learners, they have enough on their plate without squeezing another item into the semester. Alex had a response for that point, too:

I see FYC this way... Students need the opportunity to become writers. By "writers" I mean people who write on a regular basis with some sense of connecting to the world for some reason. By "write" I mean composing in any variety or combination of media that might be appropriate. That's the best way we can "prepare" students for the compositional and rhetorical challenges they will face as students, professionals, and citizens. In part this can still mean the fundamentals of rhetorical philosophy--of audience, purpose, and so on--applied to a variety of media. It means seeing how compositional practices are shaped by material, technological, discursive contexts, but also seeing compositional as an embodied process of distributed cognition. To do this, I think students will have to engage in the practice of new media composition.

I agree in some respects. After all, Powerpoint presentations are a normal part of our courses at Kean, presentations that incorporate images and sometimes sound or a YouTube video. But these are copy-and-paste productions that require no editing of the images, audio, or video. Based on my own experience at DMAC, it takes a considerable amount of time to "produce" a multimodal composition in which editing of audio and video has taken place. Although exceptions may exist according to the student population, students in FYC, especially second language students, need considerable work on revising and editing their print mode.

Even so, Alex and others are right in that new media composition is lincreasing in importance—even if it may be some time before Supreme Court justices begin to integrate new media into their legal edicts. The question is how much integration of new media into FYC and how much later on. Actually, I would guess that many, if not most, FYC classes introduce students to analyzing visual modes, such as how advertisements and commercials persuade their audiences to purchase their products. And others have had students produce ads, posters, and other items that integrate images. Various textbooks take such an approach (for example, Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture and Compose, Design, Advocate). In my FYC classes, I've had students analyze websites for both design and content based on the premise that analyzing rhetorical concepts across modes should lead to a better understanding of audience, context, and genre, which in turn should faciltate the transfer of those concepts to new contexts, genres, and modes, not only to other classes but also to their careers and civic lives.

However, on having students produce multimodal compositions, it makes sense in more advanced writing courses. In FYC (past what they're already doing with Powerpoint), well, I don't know. I've had my FYC students blog, collaborate on a wiki, participate on Ning, and subscribe to their classmates and search feeds in Netvibes. Obviously, print text is privileged in my classes, primarily because, as noted above, I focus on language due to teaching ESL students. However, keeping in mind the four themes mentioned above, I'll need to give this some more thought. Perhaps, for a beginning, I'll look into online tools like VoiceThread or Flowgram that can integrate the different modes into one document.

Related posts:
Math, Transfer, and Writing
Learning by Remixing
Bottlenecks in Learning to Write
Shin & Cimasko, Multimodal Composition in a College ESL Class

At TESOL 2009 in Denver, Colorado, the Second Language Writing Interest Section will sponsor

And don't forget the open business and planning meeting on Thursday night, 5-7 pm in room 608.

Read the brochures above, print them out, and distribute as you wish.

Shin and Cimasko, in an article in the latest issue of Computers and Composition, analyzed multimodal web page arguments of ESL students in a first-year composition course.

Their findings include

  • All students placed a higher priority on the linguistic mode, that is, the written word.
  • Only one student used imagery in all of his drafts, although other students used them by the final draft.
  • Only one student included audio files (after the instructor recommended it).
  • Hyperlinks were used but primarily for bibliographies instead of from within the texts of their arguments.
  • Although the written word predominated, non-linguistic additions "added new meanings ... as representations of emotional dimensions that could not be conveyed easily--or appropriately--in traditional academic discourse" (p. 388).
  • Layout in terms of background design and font choice was strongly influenced by written essays with only a few students attempting some variation of color.

Explanation of findings
Shin and Cimasko state that these findings are likely due to

  • students' prior experiences,
  • the writing practices of the students' communities,
  • the context in which they wrote their texts, and
  • students' perceptions of multimodal texts.

As Shin and Cimasko wrote,

Multimodal composition was interpreted as a distraction from the primary goal of developing academic capability through written language. The students thus opted for the traditional and established centrality of linguistic design, resisted new modalities, and applied those new modalities that were used in ways that did not take full advantage of their rhetorical potential.

Comments on article
These findings make sense. People do what they're accustomed to doing and according to their expectations of how they should do something. And it's commonly understood that visuals can enhance understanding in ways that the written word alone cannot do. (However, see "Using videos" in Home Schooling and Videos). And with the authors, I accept that learning the same rhetorical concepts in different modes can enhance understanding of those concepts although the evidence for this position is not without some qualification (see, for example, Multimodal Learning Through Media). Having said that, I question the need for multimodal writing in freshman composition that the authors propose.

The authors support multimodal writing because they believe,

multimodal approaches to composition provide writers who are having difficulty in using language, including those writers for whom English is a second language (ESL), with powerful tools for sharing knowledge and for self-expression. ... ESL students need to gain knowledge of how to use non-linguistic modes at the same time that they are developing their English writing abilities. (p. 377)

However, it's not clear to me that:

  • ESL students in first-year composition need to learn these tools, or that
  • First-year composition is a course that should include self-expression.

Some of the tools noted in the article included using audio, video, and animation. Will they really need these tools in future course work or in future careers? Including instruction on new tools requires time. Should time be sacrificed for learning these modes instead of working on written genre conventions?

Whether or not first-year composition should include self-expression depends on the purpose of the course. Generally speaking—and despite one's personal position on its purpose—it's considered to be an introduction into academic writing, often academic argumentation. Without entering into the debate on voice and identity, let me just say that my ESL students, mostly Generation 1.5 students, have little problem with self-expression. What they do find difficult is writing in an academic register. In such a context, self-expression is not a priority.

In addition, it's not clear that first-year composition is the best place for students to learn how to use visual modes, especially with respect to self-expression. One reason given for this is that some researchers argue that it is necessary for "developing certain kinds of disciplinary knowledge" (p. 377). I managed to get three of the sources cited, but the support was not strong.

One researcher cited was van Leeuwen, who wrote on three principles of multimodality: information value, salience, and framing. However, he did not argue that they were "necessary" for developing disciplinary knowledge. Still, I can imagine that if these three principles are universal across modes, it would be useful to know them.

A second researcher cited, Ann Johns, wrote on how a single student was adept at using graphs and charts to understand her macroeconomics work. Undoubtedly, graphs and charts are a part of academic writing. However, these sorts of visuals are not the type used for "self-expression."

Along these lines, another scholar cited, Miller, wrote,

In short, visuals in academic articles provide data to convince the reader of the validity of the findings and allow the readers to see how the data were obtained and to interpret the data themselves. These visuals are impregnated with theory (Bazerman, 1988) to show not only that they are anchored in the literature but that they have wider implications.

In journalism however, the writer is interested in presenting news rather than in convincing the reader of the validity of the report. In news articles, findings are highlighted, but the means by which the findings were obtained are placed in the background, just the opposite of in science. The reader is not positioned as knowledgeable but as needing to be enticed into the article. The launching point, therefore, is human interest rather than scientific argumentation. (p. 31)

In other words, the visuals used in academic writing are related to data rather than to self-expression. Interestingly, Shin and Cimasko wrote of "emotional" representation, something more akin to the journalistic perspective of "entic[ing']" readers rather than the academic perspective of "convincing" and supporting an argument—the goal of this freshman composition course.

As noted above, generally speaking, I believe that using different ways of presenting the same information can be a valuable pedagogical tool for explaining concepts of rhetoric and composition. Thus, I take a little time to cover presentation principles, including the need for images, and have my students write essays analyzing visual objects, such as advertisements and website designs, to provide a variety of contexts for the same concepts, thus facilitating, I hope, transfer of their writing knowledge. Even so, I hesitate at "fully integrating [multimodal composing] into the work" (p. 391) of first-year composition, especially of the self-expressive sort, thus taking away time from other principles of composition necessary for the development of my students' "academic" writing.

I hesitate for two connected reasons. One is that most of the "composing" that most of these students will do in later classes and on the job, at least in the near future, will be print-based (although see Alex Reid for an opposing opinion). Yes, they may use data-related visuals later on, but most of the writing in freshman composition is not data driven.

The second is that one learns what one practices, and one learns to the extent that one practices. My students need as much time as possible with the English language, with developing their vocabulary, with learning academic textual conventions. Any time that takes away from that practice is to their detriment academically and careerwise. Think about it. Can you imagine a multi-ball training regime in which a basketball player spends time playing tennis, soccer, volleyball, and handball?

A few resources:
Survey of Multimodal Pedagogies in Writing Programs (Composition Studies)
Taking a Traditional Composition Program "Multimodal (Christine Tulley)
Multimodal Writing (Teaching Writing Using Blogs, Wikis ...)
Standards Related to Digital Writing (Teaching Writing Using Blogs, Wikis ...)
Thinking about Multimodal Assessment (Digital Writing, Digital Teaching)
Center for Digital Storytelling

Works cited:
Johns, A. M. (1998). The visual and the verbal: A case study in macroeconomics. English for Specific Purposes, 17, 29-46. 183-197.
Miller, T. (1998). Visual persusasion: A comparison of visuals in academic texts and the popular press. English for Specific Purposes, 17, 29-46.
Shin, D.-S. & Cimasko, T. (2008). Multimodal composition in a college ESL class: New tools, new traditional norms. Computers and Composition, 25, 376-395.
Van Leeuwen, Theo. (2003). A multimodal perspective on composition. In Titus Ensink & Christoph Sauer (Eds.), Framing and perspectivising in discourse (pp. 23–61). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

The journal Science has an interesting article Computers as Writing Instructors, an article that stirred up a conversation on the WPA listserv. Some of the concern relates to what Richard Haswell, a professor emeritus of English at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, stated in the article:

One peril, says Haswell, who has studied both traditional and electronic measures of writing, is that the programs pick up quantifiable indicators of good writing--average sentence length, for instance--yet ignore qualities such as whether an essay is factually accurate, clear, or concise, or whether it includes an element of wit or cleverness. "Those are all qualities that can't be measured by computer," he says.

When I read such statements, I wonder if supervisors worry about architects using computers to create and modify designs because computers can't measure the aesthetic qualities of the design. The computer is a tool. Of course, any tool can be abused. And if all teachers did were to use the program for assessing student writing and never offered their own feedback, that would be a problem. Still, no one seems to worry about architects using computers.

One thing I see as good about such tools, if they work (which is a requirement, of course), is that they incorporate conditions of flow, a state of intrinsic motivation, such as:

  1. immediate feedback
  2. clear goals
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Motivation is crucial in engaging students to spend time on their writing, to work at improving it. (For more on motivation and flow, see Engagement and Flow.)

Immediate Feedback
Although learning and instruction may meet conditions 2-4, seldom is immediate feedback given in composition classes. In one semester, students might write from three to six essays, depending on the instructor, which means that feedback on essays is given every two to three weeks. In addition, the feedback of peer reviews generally takes place hours after the last version, unless a student pulled an all-nighter for an 8:00 am class. In this case, most of the feedback will be seen through a haze. The feedback of instructors usually occurs days later after they have looked at all of them.

The importance of immediate feedback with cognitive tutors has been demonstrated in teaching LISP, algebra, and geometry. In their abstract, Anderson et al. write,

Early evaluations of these tutors usually but not always showed significant achievement gains. Best case evaluations showed that students could achieve at least the same level of proficiency as conventional instruction in one-third of the time.

Those "best case evaluations" are in the lab where there are no distractions, but even in real classrooms, Anderson and Schunn (pdf) have found achievement gains equal to one letter grade. Learning is directly due to time on task, that is, practice. (Of course, practicing the wrong tasks leads to mislearning.) Thus, providing immediate feedback helps to eliminate wasted time in trying to figure out how to do something, which in turn, decreases the time required to learn a particular activity.

Now, writing is a fuzzier than math. Math usually has a correct answer, while writing doesn't. But perhaps by limiting one's focus to particular aspects of writing, such as coherence, cognitive tutors like WriteToLearn may be of help to students in developing their writing.

Alex Reid, however, questions interacting with computers instead of with other students:

The Science article explains that these computer programs are necessary because teachers cannot read and respond to as much student writing as the students should be doing; so the machine reads them instead. Hmmm.... what other possibilities could there be I wonder?  .... Maybe the other students? Maybe the could be reading each others' work? Maybe they could even actually be writing to one another? Maybe they could be using these networks to write to other students around the world? Maybe they could be composing texts that were addressed to other humans rather than to machines and which might actually have some real meaning and value?

I think that interaction with others is important for learning, too, but that does not necessitate an either-or dichotomy of interacting with students and others versus interacting with computers. In fact, using a computer doesn't necessarily mean that students are not interacting with others. Anderson et al. wrote,

When students are in the laboratory, they are working one-on-one with the machines, but that hardly means they are working in isolation. There is a constant banter of conversation going on in the classroom in which different students compare their progress and help one another. ... An effective teacher is quite active in such a classroom, circulating about the class and providing help to students who cannot get the help they need from either the tutor or their peers. (p. 200)

In addition, it would seem to be useful for students to have such a program at home when they are alone, according to Anderson and Schunn, because of "difficulties of [self-]generation and dangers of misgeneration." In other words, much time can be wasted in writing to others and also mislearned, with respect to learning specific aspects of writing.

Meaning and Value
As noted above, Reid's thrust is on the "meaning and value" of student writing. However, meaning and value shouldn't be limited to writing to people. It's interesting that just as we don't question architects using computers to aid in creating aesthetically pleasing buildings, neither do we question coaches who have their players practice drills over and over and over to perfect their skills. No one says, These drills don't have meaning. And no one asks, Why don't you just let them play games that have meaning instead of mindless drills? No one does because it's understood that honing one's skills is valuable for playing the game well. And skills like coherence are crucial to writing well.

Meaning and value are relative. What meaning and value do videogames have? Isn't it primarily just for pleasure, part of which derives from improving one's skills. And for that pleasure, people, especially youngsters, can play for hours on end, as can athletes. Supposedly, ex-NBA star Larry Bird felt shooting "200 free throws before school, every day" had meaning and value. From the article, Jenkins' students apparently found the writing tutor meaningful and valuable, as indicated by their improvement in writing:

Jenkins suspects that English language learners (ELL)—educationese for children who speak another language at home—may be among those who can benefit the most from using writing-instruction software. Last year, 92% of his ELL students passed the writing portion of the state assessment test, he says, compared with 31% of his ELL students before he started using the software. That percentage is also well above the statewide ELL rate of 58%.

That's a tremendous difference. Of course, there is a danger of limiting writing to what a standardized test can measure, and of dumbing down instruction, which is well-documented in George Hillocks' book The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

Having said that, although writing with a purpose to others, just like practice, can help to improve one's writing, such an approach has its limits. And to move beyond those limits requires studied practice (see The Expert Mind in Scientific American). And if some computer program can help in that regard, great!

As noted above, cognitive tutors, if designed appropriately, can motivate students to spend more time on task, which is the most important factor in learning. Anderson et al. wrote,

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive, to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

How often does that happen in our classes? Students coming in early, not wanting to leave at the period's end, and preferring to do our homework instead of others'?

In their conclusion, Anderson et al. mention an anecdote:

The student, frustrated by restrictive access to the LISP tutor, deliberately induced a 2-day suspension by swearing at a teacher. He used those 2 days to dial into the school computer from his home and complete the lesson material on the LISP tutor. (p. 204)

And the Science article says that Jenkins found similar results with his students:

Maria had more confidence in her writing abilities--and passed the writing portion of the state assessment test. "It's not a cure-all, but what a difference it's made in what the kids have shown they can do," says Jenkins, who began using the software last year.

As Anderson et al. assert, "learning achievement is a very empowering experience," and one that has "meaning and value" to the students.

So, why wouldn't compositionists applaud the use of computers as tutors? Asao Inoue, in his review of the book Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences stated,

More importantly, most in the present collection do not acknowledge or address (accept [sic] arguably Haswell, Anson, and Broad) a core premise of the book, that what is at issue is a paradox of technology. We already use and need technologies of assessment, yet we are fighting against certain kinds of technologies because they take us in different directions, shape our practices, assumptions, student arrangements, and working conditions in ways we do not value enough to pursue.

This particular technology is too quickly dismissed. Not because it may not work but because present practices and assumptions have attained canonical status rather than being critically re-examined. Of course, we shouldn't uncritically accept new technology, either. But if it meets my values of motivating students to work on their writing and actually helps to improve their writing, then I'm interested in learning more about it.

Just finished re-reading Mark Buchanan's book Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks. The notion of "small worlds" comes from Stanley Milgram's letter experiments on how people are interconnected in the U.S. He sent out letters to randomly selected people in different cities with instructions to send them to some other individual. If they didn't know that person, then they would forward it to someone they felt might know the person. Milgram found that the letters made it to their destination with an average chain length of 5-6 people. (For a critique of problems with Milgram's study see Could It Be a Big World? by Judith Kleinberg and her shorter followup Six Degrees of Separation: An Urban Myth? (via Rebecca Skloot)).

Whether or not the six degrees of separation is accurate, the small-world phenomenon apparently is found in many different network systems—for example, food webs, cellular metabolism, the Internet, language, and so on—and the organizing principles of social networks are apparently the same as those of other small worlds. Buchanan wrote,

This feature has a specific mathematical signature: the power-law or fat-tail pattern for the distribution of elements according to how many links they have. And this signature turns out to be nearly identical from one kind of network to the next.

What we see then is a kind of natural order that for mysterious reasons seems to well up in networks of all kinds and that does so despite the complexities of their individual histories (p. 91).

In this power-law pattern, a few nodes are highly connected, resulting in clusters, while the majority have only a few connections. We can see that in the classroom, too. The teacher is a hub, connecting to all the students, and among the students, some have more connections with classmates than others do. In a small class, this might not play a significant role, but in large lecture classes—I remember my introductory chemistry course with 400 students—it might. And the teacher is not the only hub nor always the biggest one in a particular class.

Some connections between people are obviously stronger than others. For instance, my connections, or ties, to faculty in other departments are weaker than those with my colleagues in composition. I interact with other faculty infrequently while I talk with composition faculty almost every day, for longer periods of time, and in more depth on our common subject, composition. Strong ties result from interaction over time and affect (e.g., trust, respect, and friendship). So, another aspect of the small world phenomenon is the notion of strong and weak ties formulated by Mark Granovetter.

Both types of ties are important. Strong ties play a role in motivation, support, and identity. Weak ties have a role, too. Granovetter's seminal article "The Strength of Weak Ties" (pdf) (see also The Strength of Weak Ties: A NetworkTheory Revisted (pdf), written 10 years after the seminal article) showed that weak ties acted as bridges to information and sources different from one's networks of strong ties. In small classes, strong ties would be dominant among classmates while weak ties would connect to others outside the classroom. Of course, students have other networks (for example, family and friend networks, which would consist of strong ties) outside the classroom and so would have strong ties outside the classroom, too. Rather, I am thinking of ties connecting to networks that would have information of use to the class's subject matter.

So, I've been thinking how to take advantage of weak ties to enhance learning in my composition courses. One way is to have each student establish a blog on a topic of personal interest and to subscribe to at least five other blogs writing on the same topic. However, with students writing on different topics, it would be unlikely that their weak ties would be bringing in information and resources of interest to the entire class. So, in addition, students would also be posting on the rhetoric, both textual and visual, contained in those other blogs, leading to interaction with their classmates on rhetorical similarities and differences between blogs and blog subjects, and between blogs and other genres the class would use or come across. If you have any ideas or suggestions on taking advantage of the "strength of weak ties" in learning, email me. I'll collate them them in a later post.

Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement 2008 (pdf) is online. It's a large survey ""based on information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S." (NSSE press release):

The survey—now entering its tenth year—annually provides comparative standards for assessing effective educational practices in higher education. Five key areas of educational performance are measured: 1) Level of Academic Challenge, 2) Active and Collaborative Learning, 3) Student-Faculty Interaction, 4) Enriching Educational Experiences, and 5) Supportive Campus Environment.

Some of the survey's key findings are:

  • Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.
  • Seniors who entered as transfers lag behind their peers on several measures of engagement. They talked less frequently with faculty about their future plans, were less likely than their peers to work with their classmates on assignments outside of class, and fewer participated in co-curricular activities. On the other hand, they more frequently prepared multiple drafts of assignments.
  • Nearly a quarter of first-year students and one in five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.
  • First-year students wrote on average 92 pages and seniors wrote 146 pages during the academic year. Seniors majoring in the social sciences and arts and humanities wrote considerably more than those studying the physical and biological sciences.
  • When courses provided extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources, and they grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. These students also reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development.

The first finding is rather curious. I need to look at the report more closely, but it seems unlikely, at least to me, that online learning per se would create "deep" learning. Perhaps students who sign up for online courses are already the type who enage in "deep" learning. Perhaps online courses are taught by instructors who are not content with the status quo, but continually seek to improve their pedagogy, to improve student learning, to challenge students. And the students responded accordingly, as noted in the fifth finding.

The second finding on transfers is not surprising. It takes time when entering a new environment to know the ropes and to make friends with whom they could collaborate on homework. What's interesting is that a new environment in which one is somewhat alone apparently challenges individuals toward success, or "survival", and thus the "multiple drafts of assignments." Perhaps such a challenge is related to the first finding.

The third and fifth findings remind me of Csikzentmihalyi's research, which shows that challenge is a crucial part of learning and of enjoying that learning. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

There may different reasons why students do not wish to learn, such as a belief that school learning is irrelevant to their lives. Still, Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows the relationship of challenge to one's level of skills, and thus to a state of flow:

The NSSE report, in other words, supports Csikszentmihayli's theory of flow. Students who are challenged enjoy learning and learn more. From Csikszentmihaly's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience":

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Writing is not the only activity that can challenge students. But it is an activity that does well at "pushing" and "stretching" our ability to write and, through the corollary skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating, our ability to think. Writing is an activity that lends itself to creating a flow of learning.

Related posts:
Engagement and Flow
Curiosity and Learning

Related links:
online learning, writing, and student engagement (Alex Reid)
Educational Cultures in the "Arts" Faculties (Edu*Rhetor)
Encouraging colleges to look within (Insider HIgher Ed)
Writing leads to deeper learning, study finds (USA Today)
NSSE homepage

The Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project started today in San Antonio. I attended two three-hour sessions: "Writing in a Digital Age" and "The Web as a Tool for Continuity" (see below for presenters' names).

Writing in a Digital Age
looked at writing in digital environments with respect to building online classroom community, professional development, and teacher leadership via a combination of presentation, small-group discussion, and whole-group discussion on successes, failures, and open-ended questions, some of which were:

  • What are the implications for the design of your site’s professional development programs with technology?
  • What are the implications for developing technology leaders at your site?
  • How are professional development experiences affected by technology?
  • How can I engage diverse students who may or may not want to be in my classroom?
  • How can I help all students become better critical thinkers, researchers, and writers?

The Web as a Tool for Continuity
was a session of sharing, discussing, and troubleshooting problems of continuity of Teacher Consultants at writing project sites and ways in which technology can support continuity. Three questions that were discussed were:

  • How can you ensure that this work will stay integral to the site, and not be a distraction or a flash in the pan?
  • Who might be the key leaders of an Internet-enhanced continuity project at your site?
  • What capacity challenges or opportunities might such an initiative contain?

One of the failures of many sites has been trying to use blogs to provide continuity of leadership and professional development. They tend to wither as teachers leave the Summer Institutes to return to the classroom.

The Bay Area Writing Project took another tack and started an e-Zine, Digital Paper, which combines stories, pictures, and podcasts. It has had some success.

The strategy of the Alaska State Writing Consortium was to have an online Open Institute. In it, teachers examined their own work and built a framework for change via activities, such as:

  • audio-conferences
  • web-based posting of documents and data
  • online discussion
  • live chats
  • daily journals
  • discussions of readings

One interesting feature of this Institute was having an ethnographer who looked at the online communications and gave feedback back to the group on what s/he was seeing, noting concerns, noting areas of idea conflict, and so on. And at the end of the Institute, a lengthy report was written on what happened in the class.

As I look back over my notes, the key aspects of building communities seem to be

  • start with a group of 3 or 4 committed people who can share different responsibilities
  • start small projects that don't overwhelm you or participants
  • make it relevant to participants' immediate needs and goals
  • give participants' time to "play" with the technology
  • develop personal relationships with participants

These principles are not new, but it's easy to get carried away with visions of grandeur only to be let down when others don't see as you do. And these two sessions were excellent in terms of being practical, showing us their own applications of and twists on these principles, and of leading us into discussing and thinking about the implications of the presenters' own successes and failures for our own sites' future endeavors.

Writing in a Digital Age
Felicia George, New York City Writing Project
Sarah Hunt-Barron, Upstate Writing Project
Rebecca Kaminski, Upstate Writing Project
Seth Mitchell, University of Maine Writing Project
Jason Shiroff, Denver Writing Project
Laura Stokes, Inverness Research Associates

The Web as a Tool for Continuity
Sonnet Farrell, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Tom McKenna, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Evan Nichols, Bay Area Writing Project
Sondra Porter, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Carol Tateishi, Bay Area Writing Project

Bradley Hammer comments on the writing his students do at Duke University in A New Type of Writing Course, arguing that technology can make writing more meaningful to students:

In great contrast to only a few years ago, most of my students write several hours a day. I’m not talking about technically perfect papers, focused on grammar and the rules of structure. These students are tirelessly blogging, texting and responding to their peers in lengthy e-mail. And rather than dismiss this kind of writing as lacking in academic merit, I’ve started thinking about how schools can embrace, in academic ways, the emerging forms of writing students have already claimed as their own. ...

As part of this change, technology has radically extended the spaces for academic debate. In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis and argumentative writing that universities value. 

Along these lines, Can MySpace make better writers talks about how technology is changing writing and how it can motivate students in their writing.

Amy Gahran, in Straight to the Point: The Miniskirt Theory of Writing (via Downes), asserts,

If you want to make a point in writing, make sure you nail the “so what” in your first 62 words.

Of course, as she admits, reader tastes vary and cites Dave Taylor as saying "more educated, intelligent readers prefer longer, more thoughtful and eloquent content." There's no question that the first words are important in "hooking" one's audience into continuing to read. But hopefully, one's posts will not become mere sound bites.

How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It (via Downes) is an excellent online book written by Wikipedians Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. It includes an appendix for teachers.

Blogging Pedagogy has a recent post on integrating multimedia into newspaper readings Deconstructing and Reconstructing Media and Messages:

For those of you looking to invite students to interact with different media, you might consider adopting and adapting the lesson plans conveniently provided as part of the Humanities Institute’s Living Newspaper Project. In this case, the four kinds of media are printed news reports, play script, oral reading, and theater performance.

What you can't win in court: "After you’ve been called racist by some students, can you sue to get your reputation back?" That's what Richard Peltz, who teaches law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, did. He began a lawsuit against students who had accused him of being racist because those accusations had led to him being "barred" from teaching certain courses. One of the accusations concerned his having students "focus more on their writing."

While defending his intent, Peltz pledged in his new memo to never again offer the writing tips “lest I again be maligned for trying to improve student writing.”

The article shows that it is not difficult to undermine the university as a place of learning and discussing ideas.

William Major, an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford, takes Another view of bias:

There’s a great deal of discussion in academe about a perceived bias amongst the professoriate, though Horowitz is looking in the wrong place. If he and his acolytes want bias, I have no doubt that there is plenty to go around. But playing favorites has the potential to do real harm to the student, ourselves, and to an ethic of professionalism. There is the spirit of fair play, unwritten and rarely acknowledged, through which we show our students and colleagues and, most importantly, ourselves who we are and what we are about. I suppose it’s called character.

Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, takes aim at the myths surrouding learning to write in Writing is not just a basic skills:

From that vantage point, first-year composition is only indirectly preparatory to writing in other disciplines: What a student will learn is somewhat applicable to writing a history or psychology paper, but significant gaps in preparation will remain. Psychology professors who want students to write effective papers, even at the introductory level, can't count on first-year composition to have done all the preparatory work.

And here are a few more links on writing:
John Updike reflects on the challenges and satisfactions of the aging writer.
Zhura releases world's first online, collaborative editor for comic book writers
On college: Essay writing critical to getting accepted

Eighth and twelfth graders in New Jersey have the highest scores in writing on a nationwide test: 56 percent scoring at or above the proficient level, compared to one-third of eighth graders and one-fourth of twelfth-graders in the U.S. (see In Test, Few Students are Proficient Writers). And the university graduating the most teachers in New Jersey is Kean University. Of course, I can't say with certainty that Kean University is responsible for those writing scores, whether in part or otherwise, but such a correlation brings a certain amount of satisfaction in working in the Composition Program at Kean.

What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy, or humanities?

Frankly, I enjoy literature because as a human being, stories stir my imagination. As Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, stated,

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

And, in addition, I would love to have a good understanding of the craft involved in great stories so that I could appreciate them better.

But that's not the same as justifying their study to an external audience (see Fish's "Will the Humanities Save Us?"). Yet various articles make the assertion for a practical application of a degree in English. For instance, So you want to study ... A master's in English (Liz Ford) is a series of interviews on people who chose to study English, including why they did.

One individual stated, "One employer said, 'We want people who can think outside the box.'" Well, I imagine that English majors can certainly think outside of science or business boxes, but I'm not sure what value one of Shakespeare's sonnets would have in engineering design or accounting procedures.

Another stated, "More so than any other subject, English gives you transferable skills. You learn to write and express yourself well and learn communication skills." To some degree, I buy into this. Even so, it's a well-known fact that writing in a one style doesn't transfer well to another. One study (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman), for instance, showed the difficulty a doctoral student had in transferring his previous experience in writing (bachelor's and master's in education, along with an intensive eight week seminar on "The Writing Process: A Humanistic Perspective") into the field of rhetoric:

During his early months in the program ... An analysis of his papers reveals several months of confusion during whicdh his writing suffered from numerous stylistic problems: poor cohesion, disorganized paragraphs, lack of focus, inappropriate vocabulary.

One reason for the difficulty in writing transfer was

Nate is "wrestling with ideas" at the expense of organization and style

In other words, to write well, you need to know the content matter. In fact, although Nate did make progress, his

difficulties with cohesion and coherence persisted long after he gained a relative mastery over the material that he was studying in his courses

If this much difficulty occurred in transferring writing knowledge and skills from one social science discipline to another, imagine how much more difficulty will occur when transferring outside of the social sciences to business or the "hard" sciences.

Then, Why should anyone think that academic experience, regardless of discipline, would provide someone with good writing skills? Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, wrote an article entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate",

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Yet, literature, as Lessing asserts, has a value in its stories. Stories may be the best way of learning. As Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher, asserts, understanding requires a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240), that is, stories (see Dynamics in action, Part III). The stories she speaks of, however, are not limited to literature but may take the nature of Shell Scenarios for managerial decision making or of Roger Shank's Socratic Arts, in which

students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Daniel Drolet, reporting on Philosophy's Makeover (via Stephen Downes), quotes Jeff Noonan,

“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”

And according to Daniel Gervais, a professor of law,

There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box

Although I would instinctively think that learning to think systematically and logically should be of help in solving certain types of problems, I know too little of philosophy to evaluate its practical use. Yet, isn't this claim about creative thinking and thinking outside the box the same as claimed by English majors? And wouldn't it also be subject to the limitation of a lack of subject matter knowledge? Perkins and Salomon in Teaching for Transfer write,

While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer (for reasons to be discussed later), other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

And philosophy would not seem to be a basic skill, although perhaps, as Perkins and Salomon note, certain skills such as "the role of evidence" and "general and important thinking strategies" may be applicable here. (See also The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross and Eklund's review of Heather Dykes' book Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy via Stephen Downes.)

In addition to critical thinking outside-the-box skills, many argue that humanities can give character. Stanley Fish naysays that as wishful thinking in Will the Humanities Save Us?

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And Fish's position is backed up by studies in character education. Lawrence Kohlberg found that reasoning was necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action, but moral reasoning and judgment were not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action.

Although Fish concludes that there is no practical "use" to the humanities, I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to philosophy, as far as transfer of critical thinking goes. And although the evidence for transfer of thinking skills with respect to literature would not seem to be on the same level as philosophy, with Lessing, its stories can instill a "fire" within us that has its own value and without which we might not be human. In fact, along the lines of Juarrero and informed by literature, I would redesign, as much as possible, curricula to be great stories.

Offline references
Berkenkotter, C., T. N. Huckin, & J. Ackerman (1998). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

Juarrero, A. (2002). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1999). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education." In A. C. Ornstein and L. S. Behar-Horenstein, eds., Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, 4th ed. (pp. 163-75). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

iTunes University continues to grow. According to Apple's website, it has

over 75,000 educational audio and video files from top universities, museums and public media organizations from around the world.

Its latest addition is Edutopia: What Works in Public Education sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation with podcasts ranging from Technology Integration to Assessment to Project Learning and more.

It also a variety of language learning podcasts, a few of which are Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, ... , and, of course, English.

And it has various podcasts on writing, including podcasts from

Related post:
The Web: The Future of Learning

The 12th Spillman Symposium on Issues in Teaching Writing will have as its theme “Reading to Write: What, When, Where, and Why?” and speakers will include Professors David Jolliffe (U of Arkansas), Deborah Holdstein (Columbia College Chicago), and Eli Goldblatt (Temple U), who will initiate discussion of a topic inspired by Jolliffe’s recent College English article, “Texts of Our Institutional Lives: Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why?”

Hosted by the Writing Program at Virginia Military Institute,

The Spilman Symposium on Issues in Teaching Writing is a one-day, annual event created to bring teachers of writing together for conversations with some of the major scholars in rhetoric and composition studies. Providing a forum for active engagement of timely issues, the symposium is designed as a think-tank for all instructors who are interested in the teaching of writing, including those involved with writing across the curriculum. Each year registration is limited to approximately sixty participants.

I've attended four of these symposiums in the last six years, and I can say that they are excellent for those who are interested in issues in teaching writing. Although it is not focused on second language writing, I always learn something useful in teaching writing.

Paul Kei Matsuda has recently set up Symposium for Second Language Writing Interactive. Here's some information from the site:

The purpose of SSLW Interactive is to provide a centralized resource portal for second language writing teachers and researchers from around the world. Currently, SSLW interactive provides the following features:

Blogs. Any registered user can create blog entries to share their experience and perspectives on various issues related to second language writing.

Groups. The site hosts group space for various related groups, including: TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Sections (SLWIS); CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing; CCCC Special Interest Group on Second Language Writing; Symposium on Second Language Writing; and Journal of Second Language Writing, among others.

Forums. Forums provide a space for the discussion of various topics related to second language writing in the traditional, hierarchical list format.

E-lists. A list of email lists related to second language writing. Recent contents are available from this site. Links to subscription information and list archives are also available. If you are aware of any other email lists, please post the description. (Anyone can add an edit the descriptions--you don't have to be the list owner to contribute!)

Conferences. A list of conferences, workshops and other meetings related to second language writing. If you are planning an event that may be relevant to second language writing teachers and researchers, please feel free to add an event.

Journals. A directory of journals that publish articles on second language writing. Please contribute by posting information about your favorite journal. (Anyone can add and edit the descriptions--you don't have to be the editor or the publisher to contribute!)

Programs. A directory of doctoral programs where students can specialize in second language writing. Please post information about programs you are familiar with. (Anyone can add and edit the descriptions--you don't have to be a faculty member or program director to contribute!)

CFPs. A list of call for papers/proposals related to second language writing.

SSLW. Information about the Symposium on Second Language Writing, an annual international gathering of second language writing specialists.

The site is in its infancy now, but it has the potential to become the central interactive clearlnghouse for all things related to second lnaguage writing. That potential, of course, is waiting for your contribution.

Participation Inequality

Most people are lurkers. Jakob Nielsen, writing on participation inequality, states:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

These percentages vary somewhat according to type of site (see Quantitative Analysis of User-Generated Content on the Web by Ochoa and Duval via Robert Hughes). Nielsen notes,

Blogs have even worse participation inequality than is evident in the 90-9-1 rule that characterizes most online communities. With blogs, the rule is more like 95-5-0.1.

Participation inequality is a fact of life. Suw Carman adds that in and of itself, is not a problem.

Still, it is possible to decrease the number of lurkers a little by making it easier for them to participate. Conversely, of course, the percentage of lurkers is likely to increase as the difficulty to contribute increases. In the case of trackbacks, as posting on one's own website requires more time than simply rushing off an "I agree" comment, the number of trackbacks will be smaller as they are more difficult than commenting. Looking at EFL Geek's statistics (before his new redesign), we see that he had written 1007 posts, received 1924 comments, 50 trackbacks, and 184 members. These statistics support the previous post's speculation that trackbacks took too much energy for people to use as compared to commenting.

Comments are Uninteresting

On enabling comments, Nielsen writes,

I would say to only allow comments if you have the time to moderate them. Otherwise, your site will suffer information pollution and waste readers' time because of the dominance of uninteresting comments.

I don't imagine that this site would ever have so many comments as to require much time to moderate them, but as, he notes, most comments are just "uninteresting." However, that assertion also has qualifiers. In analyzing the collaborative nature of the Web, he compares chat and discussion forums, writing that although most discussion forum posting are "uninteresting,"

the longer postings [in discussion forums] typically lead people to include some arguments and not just pure name-calling [compared to chat rooms]

This is in line with my earlier posts concerning commenting. In Monologic and Empty Comments vs. Parallel Conversations, I looked at comments on the sites of two well-known bloggers:

When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation."

Learning from comments like these, which are fairly normal, is about as easy as learning in a room full of speakers, each with a megaphone shouting out their own opinion.

Generating Quality Comments

The exceptions to these types of comments tend to be found on blogs like that of the Becker-Posner Blog. The more serious the tone, the more knowledgeable the article, the more specific the focus of the blog the more specific, knowledgeable, and serious the responses will be. As mentioned two years ago in Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks, comments differed quite a bit, depending on the blog:

Over at weblogg-ed, I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

So, quality comments are possible, depending on the quality of the post. One other factor in getting quality comments is your responses to commenters. Referring to business, Nielsen writes,

Promote quality contributors. If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%. Instead, give extra prominence to good contributions and to contributions from people who've proven their value

Applying that to education blogs, respond in kind to comments that add some new insight into the topic at hand, and ignore those that add nothing.

Learning through Comments

For our students, Mary Hillis has a suggestion:

After the first week of the Book and Literature Circle Blog, I found that students wrote short comments, and there was no flow between contributions in the comment area. During the second week (this week), I specifically asked students to think about how they could connect their comments to previous ones and build up a conversation.

Thinking about participating in academic discussions, and synthesizing sources in academic writing assignments, I think that by challenging students to make connections between their comments and their classmates' comments, they are learning a valuable communication skill that they may be able to apply to other types of assignments.

This approach fits in well with Graff and Birkenstein's book They Say / I say, which

shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying.

As Mary noted in her other post on comments,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on

So, along the lines of making connections and synthesizing, I would help the students consider how to remix their comments and those of others (and of course giving credit appropriately) with the goal of coming up with new insights into the issue at hand. Perhaps, in this way, good comments can be generated, and learning might take place.

Abstract is better than concrete for transfer, according to the New York Times reporting of recent research in mathematics:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The explanation of examples clouding up the concepts reminds me somewhat of the research on reading about seductive details diminishing recall of information. (There are many articles on this phenomenon, but see, for example, Processing and recall of seductive details in scientific text.)

Transfer is also a major problem in writing: Students often don't transfer what they know about writing in one situation to new situations. Somehow, the situations are compartmentalized so that the concepts don't transfer, which remains me of the research on students learning physics. David Hammer's research showed that students could compartmentalize and keep their every day notions about motion from the physics concepts they were learning.

So, although this was a small study (and one that needs to be replicated), it does fit in with what we know of transfer, that learning that is bound to a particular context doesn't transfer well--which explains why students who have learned the five-paragraph essay structure in high school continue to use it in college even when an assignment requires them not to.

What would be the abstract set of rules for writing? I've looked at that before, except I called them "building blocks." But although I can see the need for knowing the building blocks abstractly, I think mastering them abstractly is achieved through much practice of remixing these building blocks across contexts. (See Learning by Remixing and also this review/synopsis of Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory.)

The problem remains determining what those building blocks are. Although they likely differ across genre (just as math concepts differ from geometry to algebra to calculus and so on), they must also have elements in common. At a basic level, there's always writer, audience, text, and purpose. For persuasion, it may come down to the formula in Graff and Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say", in which writers join into a conversation with others and position themselves with respect to those others. It's a small book with three parts and ten chapters:

Part 1. "They say"

ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)

TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)

THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"

FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)

FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)

SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)

SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together

EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)

NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)

TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

As you can see, despite having only two building blocks--"they say" and "I say"--students are led into a variety of ways of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what "they say," along with generating their own understanding and position among others in a conversation. And treating persuasive writing like a conversation has many connections to students' lives: They argue about their sports, clothes, cars, majors, professors, and so on.

I imagine that different sets of building blocks are possible, just as different sets of rules can be found in different fields of math. The key seems to be helping students practice using one coherent set of building blocks (i.e., abstract principles) across contexts.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
Learning by Remixing

The 42nd Annual TESOL Conference (2008) is coming up soon, April 2-5, in New York City. Thursday afternoon, I'll be presenting along with three others on assessing writing . If you're coming to the conference and interested in assessing writing, here's a breakdown of what we'll be talking about.

I'll be looking at how to help students in higher education learn to evaluate their writing, reflect on their writing, and take appropriate measures to improve their writing by

  • embedding assessment in the course objectives,
  • providing transparency in evaluative criteria, and
  • considering both product and process.

Basically, having students use the instructor's criteria for assessment gets them thinking in those terms, seeing more clearly course expectations, and hopefully giving them an understanding of assessment they can take with them after leaving our classrooms.

Multi-trait rubrics
John Liang will review a multi-trait rubric that assesses basic academic writing skills of incoming international graduate students in an MA TESOL program. Based on previous years’ assessment results, the rubric focuses on select component skills of academic writing (ability to comprehend the prompt, development of the argument, organization, grammar skills) instead of overall academic writing proficiency.

Techniques of assessment
Tim Grove provides a survey of techniques used to assess writing, including methods that minimize grading time, while remaining valid and reliable. He will examine rubrics, general comment sheets, error counting, error classification, personalized grading plans, Grade Negotiation, and even Rapaport’s “Triage Theory of Grading.” 

Online and holistic assessment
Tim Collins will review strengths and weaknesses of online and holistic assessment of writing, now frequently used on high-stakes assessments, and provide ideas on how instructors can prepare learners for success on these assessments.

In all of these, we make certain assumptions. Assessment

  • should reflect objectives,
  • be transparent to students,
  • be fair and effective,
  • provide feedback to students and teachers, and
  • enable learners to self-assess and take responsibility for their learning.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had to set up a website for the Kean University Writing Project, which I've done. For now, I took the easy path using Sandvox, a nifty website creator, and the Franchise theme from Sandvox Web Designs. It's just a matter of copy and paste the information needed into the pages, sometimes with a little tweaking of the html code, and the program and template make it look good.

I was thinking, Did I learn anything from using this program? Do I need always to learn something in all endeavors? To both questions, I've come to the conclusion: No. Although I would enjoy learning more about html and css, spending too much time there would stop me from learning more about what I need to do as a technology liaison between our local site and the National Writing Project. It would take time away from learning about e-Anthology, how to introduce technology to the participants in the Summer Institute, and so on. Just like everything else in life, there are priorities of learning.

Michael Shaughnessy (Ednews.org) interviews E.D. Hirsch on school choice and the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and they discussed an article by Sol Stern and reactions to that article by E.D. Hirsch and others such as Jay P. Greene, Diane Ravitch, Neal McCluskey, Matthew Ladner, Thomas W. Carroll, Andrew J. Coulson and Robert Enlow. Here are two excerpts from the interview:

Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract.They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter.I review the scientific literature on this in The Schools We Need.Writing skills are obverse of reading skills.They both depend more on knowledge of the unspoken within the language community than on knowledge of the spoken.The main, somewhat revolutionary point I have been making is that teaching content is teaching skills, where as teaching formal processes is, in the end, teaching neither content nor skills.This is not only clear in the scientific literature, it is also clear from comparative results.Students who have had been taught coherent knowledge are more highly skilled than those who have been taught "skills."See the (unfortunately repressed) book by the late Jeanne Chall: The Academic Achievement Challenge

The state standards in language arts (where students spend most of their time in early grades) are empty of content.It's all process.They are not standards at all in a meaningful sense.And they cause reading tests to be hugely unfair, because the topics in passages on reading tests always assume content knowledge that has not been taught in the schools.

This makes sense to me. Just try reading a treatise on quantum mechanics. Without a strong background in physics, any previous critical thinking skills you've acquired will be useless in interpreting this text.

This is one of the problems in many first-year composition programs: They teach the process of writing with limited content knowledge. Usually, students will choose one issue for, say, a definition paper, then another topic for an evaluative argument, and so on. Moving from content area to content area shortchanges students' ability to master process skills, as they must learn two areas: content knowledge and skills.

A better approach is to have students stay with one issue of their own interest the entire semester. In that way, they'll build their content knowledge, so that as the semester continues, they can begin to pay more attention to the critical thinking and writing skills associated with that domain. I noticed the Department of Rhetoric & Composition at UT Austin seems to be doing that now in First-Year Writing.

Of course, there's still the question of whether the writing skills they've learned will transfer to other courses not pertaining to those issues. My guess is they will have some chance of transferring, because the knowledge required in introductory courses is "introductory", unlike the knowledge in the example on quantum mechanics, meaning also that the skills acquired should be more general in nature. Testing that guess would make a good research project.

There's a great new writing resource hosted by McGraw-Hill (requires free registration): Teaching English: The Instructor's Resource Portal.

One thing I like about it is the teaching topics. I imagine they'll expand this section but right now they have five topics:

  • Plagiarism and using sources
  • Evaluating student work
  • Responding to student papers
  • Peer response
  • Writing with computers

Each of these topics, besides introducing the topic, covers the following:

  • Background of its respective research and theories
  • Instructional strategies
  • FAQ
  • Resources
  • Bibliography

I took a glance at them, and they'll concisely thorough. I'll be going back to look at them more closely.

Another appealing section is the two blogs. Right now there are two: Teaching Composition and Teaching Basic Writing. Teaching Composition focuses on first-year college composition. These blogs already have about 1 1/2 years of archives, as they are taking the place of their former email lists that used to discuss these particular entries.

This site is going to be a staple in my reading. It's worth it.

Below are links to articles on using comic books in school and to online comic book applications.

Comic Books in the Classroom (NY Times) reports on the Comic Book Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, which helps students become more interested in art and writing.

Teachers are finding it easier to teach writing, grammar and punctuation with material that students are fully invested in. And it turns out that comic books have other built-in advantages. The pairing of visual and written plotlines that they rely on appear to be especially helpful to struggling readers. No one is suggesting that comic books should substitute for traditional books or for standard reading and composition lessons. Teachers who would once have dismissed comics out of hand are learning to exploit a genre that clearly has a powerful hold on young minds. They are using what works.

Thinking outside the box, inside the panel (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post) also reports on the Comic Book Project. The project's founder, Michael Bitz,

wanted to combine his research findings -- that learning through the arts can have academic and social value for children -- with a creative approach to get kids to combine skills such as reading, writing, brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas. Creating comic books, he said, would allow them to draw on their experiences and interests.

Interview with Michael Bitz of the Comic Book Project (Christian Hill, National Association of Comics Art Educators).

Teachers are getting graphic (Greg Toppo, USA Today) is a lengthy article on those using comic books in public schools with a section on those not in favor. Those in favor feel that getting students interested in reading comics will lead to their wanting to read more serious books.

Even French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre loved comic books, Gantos says. "This is a pretty heavy thinker, but he said in his autobiography that he started off reading comic books as a child and that if it wasn't for comic books, he never would have stuck with books.

Comic Book Project proves to be effective learning tool is a news release on The Maryland Comic Book Initiative.

Comics in the Classroom is a site devoted to using comics in school and has lesson plans, news, and reviews, all pertaining to using comic books.

Read-Write-Think is a site that has an online comic creator with accompanying lesson plans for using the tools.


Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law? is a comic book from the Duke School of Law for teaching about copyright:

“Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online

Heroes in the Classroom: Comic Books in Art Education (Jay Berkowitz and Todd Packer) is a 7-page JSTOR article (published in Art Education) that gives "background, guidelines, and a lesson plan to help you use comics and cartoons in these artistic skills of students."

For those with access, Bitz has a journal article on the Comic Book Project (see excerpt below):
Bitz, M. (2004). The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47.

In this arts-based literacy initiative in urban after-school environments, children brainstormed, outlined, sketched, wrote, and designed original comic books that represented their lives as urban youth.

Many deep-rooted problems in urban areas of the United States--including crime, poverty, and poor health--correlate with illiteracy. The statistics reported by organizations such as the National Alliance for Urban Literacy Coalitions are telling. Urban citizens who cannot read sufficiently are at a clear disadvantage in life. They are more likely to be poor (see Barton & Jenkins, 1995), to be incarcerated (see Haigler, Harlow, O'Connor, & Campbell, 1994), and to have health problems (see Baker et al., 2002). Meanwhile, another body of research shows a strong correlation between arts-rich environments and children's academic performance (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 1999). Of course, the jury is still out on the conundrum between the chicken and the egg: Do the arts make kids smarter, or are smart kids involved in the arts?

While the debate continues in the academic community, the fact remains that most urban schools are not "rich" in arts or anything else. Most urban schools cannot make a connection between their arts and academic programs be cause there are simply too many other issues to worry about, particularly budgets and standardized test scores. Even in an arts-oriented program, urban youth face extraordinary challenges: family situations, safety concerns, lack of affordable or appropriate instructional opportunities, and peer resentment (Oreck, Baum, & McCartney, 1999). As urban schools continue to struggle, many now look to after-school programs as the future of education in the city. The need for and development of after-school programs are on the rise, and many...

Links to online tools for making comics:
Make Beliefs Comix
Comics Sketch
Strip Generator
Strip Creator

How many times have you heard the notion that school learning isn't related to the "real world"? Or perhaps that university essay writing isn't authentic?

Well, today,as a member of the board for Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology, I attended EIRC training for observing and evaluating administrative staff: the board's responsibility in doing so, creating instruments and criteria for doing so, following those criteria, and documenting all evaluation. The evaluation itself should be in the form of a narrative report (that is, an essay) with the following elements:

  • Claims - generalizations
  • Evidence - backs up the claims
  • Interpretation - explains the evidence
  • Evaluation - thoughts of the evaluator [on what actions should be taken]

Those four elements correspond to my own teaching in first-year composition. That is, I teach that all body paragraphs have the elements of claims, evidence, and reasoning/analysis (explaining how the evidence supports the claims). The evaluation usually comes in the conclusion.

For an example from today's New York Times, we can look at the article "Gospel Truth" by April DeConick, professor and historian of early jewish and Christian thought at Rice University (see her Forbidden Gospels Blog"). In her op-ed piece, she is arguing that the National Geographic Society's translation of the "Gospel of Judas Iscariot" has serious errors. Here's one excerpt:

Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist.

The second sentence is evidence, and the third sentence interprets that evidence. The first sentence, a claim is an interpretation of the third sentence, a more generalized interpretation of the evidence, or a more general claim concerning the evidence. Let's look at one more excerpt:

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Again, the second sentence is evidence, but so is the third sentence. So, the first sentence is an interpretive claim concerning the evidence.

Thus, depending on how clearly and directly the evidence supports the paragraph's main claim (and depending on the audience), other interpretive sub-claims may or may not be necessary.

Where's the evaluation? In the second-to-last paragraph:

To avoid this, the Society of Biblical Literature passed a resolution in 1991 holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction.

In other words, DeConick is recommending that scholars follow the resolution. So, whether in evaluating school administrators, crafting opinion pieces in the New York Times, or writing essays in first-year composition, the elements of argument--claims, evidence, interpretation, and evaluation--exist. So, it seems that school writing does have some authenticity.

Don't you hate it when you end up in the wrong room? I wanted to go to the "New York Showcase," which would look at social networking, blogs, wikis, and podcasting to support reading and writing, but I ended up in an authors' strand session featuring Holly Black and Linda Sue Park, writers of children's books. But sometimes a mistake proves to be serendipitous.

These two authors talked about their books, and they also talked about universal themes in stories. In fact, Park says there are two universal themes:

  • hero goes on a journey
  • stranger comes to town

In addition, stories follow a certain sequence of actions:

  • At the beginning of every story, a change of state occurs: Something goes wrong.
  • The resulting need or struggle propels the story
  • The conclusion arises when there is another change of state, sometimes one of reaching one's goal, sometimes not.

Identifying these common themes and actions can help students identify them across stories and can help them in writing their own stories.

Next, for a practical classroom example of using these generic themes and actions, Holly led us in a re-making of Cinderella. That is, she asked the questions, and we provided the answers. It went something (I didn't follow all of it) like this:

Once upon a time, there were two struggling young authors who lived in New York City who had a young son named Harold.

One of the parents died and the other remarried to an evil stepfather with his own evil children.

The young lad dreamed of becoming a comic book writer.

Eventually a teacher (the fairy godmother) came to the lad's rescue, bringing his drawings to the attention of an editor (i.e., the prince).

However, the evil stepbrother took credit for his drawings.

So, the editor created a contest so that the one who could draw like the drawings he had seen was the true comic book writer and would receive a publishing contract.

Finally, the good son demonstrated his talent, got the contract, and lived happily ever after.

Again, Holly asked the questions, providing the necessary structure to lead us through our own creating of details and coming to a better understanding of the Cinderella genre.

One other interesting genre described was sijo Korean poetry. In one way it's like haiku: It has three lines, each with a limited range of syllables. (Due to the long length across the page, the three lines can be split into six lines, with the same number of syllables for each two lines.) But it's also different. First the number of syllables ranges from 14-16, much longer than a haiku line. The second is that it is more formulaic. The first line is an introduction; the second gives more details, and the third line provides an unexpected twist. Here's an example:


For this meal, people like what they like, the same every morning.
Toast and coffee. Bagel and juice. Cornflakes and milk in a white bowl.

Or--warm, soft, and delicious--a few extra minutes in bed.

Writing poetry with a twist at the end should be interesting to children, and it may be useful for older students in getting them to use their imagination to think out of the box by coming up with a twist at the end.

What sort of web presence should you or your organization have? And how do you go about creating it?

These questions and others were discussed at a session at the 2007 NWP (National Writing Profect) 2007 Annual Meeting this morning. The session on "Planning your site's online presence" led by Susan Biggs, Cheryl Canada, and Terri Godby, had us look at the following items:

  • Inquiry questions
  • Web presence word explosion
  • Exploring identity
  • Exploring audience and purpose
  • Mapping out our writing project sites

The main point was to establish our identity: who we are, what we do, and who do we have relationships with. And to do so in a way that was clear, professional, relevant to teachers' and schools' needs, welcoming to visitors and potential participants, and accessible in terms of ease of use and navigation. I made a preliminary map as follows:

One crucial relationship, as represented in the figure, are the teacher consultants who are on the leadership team and also take back to their schools and fellow teachers what they have learned in the Summer Institute and other programs. Yet as the connecting lines indicate, to have a web presence that represents you well takes considerable interaction and collaboration among the different participants.

To see how three local sites have interpreted these issues, check out
Western Masschusetts Writing Project
The Philadelphia Writing Project
Northern Virginia Writing Project

A while back, Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox blog wrote about "abbreviations and shortcuts" used in IM and elsewhere as not being incorrect grammar. She stated:

The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works. When students use Internet language in the wrong place, we shouldn’t mark their work incorrect any more than we would mark students’ use of dialect and home language wrong. What we should do is talk about code-switching and how the uses of Internet language and Standard English contrast.

I responded in two comments over there, but I thought I'd expand a little more on it here. I agree with much of what Gardner wrote. In this particular paragraph, although I agree with the first and last sentences, the middle two sentences, I can't.

Although it might seem that internet language requires a complex understanding of language, most people don't understand the language they use in every day conversation. Linguists do, and people who study a foreign language get some inkling of the mechanics of their native language. But most people don't understand how language works any more than the non-biologist understands how mitochondria synthesize ATP. I remembered taking an English syntax class in my thirties, learning for the first time that the difference between blue bird (a type of bird) and blue bird (a bird that is blue in color) is understood through stress. The former has equal stress on blue and bird, while the latter has stress only on bird. Until that class I didn't even know that I was making that distinction. It was all unconscious (which is how we acquire our languages). So, no, although language itself is complex, most people do not have "complex understandings of how language works," at least consciously.

Yes, dialects and home languages are not wrong. They just are. However, any dialect can be "wrong" in a particular context. Imagine using text-messaging abbreviations in a resume or on a company's business report to shareholders. Imagine pontificating with academic verbiage to your parents. Or using "ain't" and southern double modals in an academic article.

In some ways, it's a natural progression to go from saying that something is not wrong to not evaluating it as wrong. But, again, what is not "wrong" per se can be wrong in a particular context. Most people applying for a construction job are not going to wear a tuxedo or evening gown. There's nothing wrong with tuxedos and evening gowns in and of themselves. At a construction site, however, an employer might question your ability to do the job and might interpret your choice of apparel as indicating a lack of common sense and consequently perhaps a lack of trustworthiness. If your purpose were to obtain a job, then you would have failed an important test.

Similarly, dialect use depends upon audience, purpose, and context. We are not helping our students if the resumes they send out do not have a formal dialect, if the company's reports they write do not have a business dialect, and so on. So, although we need to explain and help our students learn contextual uses of language, we also have to evaluate and give feedback on how well they use a dialect for the audience and purpose for which their text is intended. Generally speaking, internet abbreviations don't cut it in school and business writing.

Another reason that Gardner gives for not correcting dialects is,

The problem is that marking language “wrong” doesn’t work.

Yes, there's research that shows that traditional grammar instruction and correction doesn't work. And there's research that shows certain types of error feedback do work. (For more on error feedback, see my series of posts on error feedback, beginning with Error Feedback in L2 Writing.)

Of course, simply marking something as wrong may not work. Even in sports, if a coach simply says, "Wrong, do it again!" it's unlikely that a player will improve much. But coaches give feedback on what to do, and the players practice hours on end for months to incorporate that feedback. In addition, coaches don't tell players everything that is wrong, only a few crucial points at a time. The problem with most grammar correction is that, although explanation often accompanies the correction, often the amount of correction may be too much to attend to and also students generally do not practice hours on end to change their grammar. So, it's to be expected that much research will show error correction doesn't work. Not because it doesn't work but because it's implemented in ways that will not work. However, many extrapolate from this finding and jump to the conclusion that all types of error correction will not work. That's an unjustified jump.

Having said all of that, it really makes no sense to apply research findings of grammar correction to Internet-speak correction. Teachers may be marking Internet-speak "wrong," but this is not the same "wrong" as in correcting grammar. As Gardner notes,

Wheeler and Swords point to the research of applied linguistics and the work of educators such as past CCCC president Keith Gilyard that indicates the correction of vernacular language, the languages used with family and friends in the home community, just doesn’t work (4).

However, Internet-speak is not a native vernacular language that people grow up with. I'm not sure it should be considered a language as distinct from English. At best, it might be considered some sort of pidgin, as Anil Dash (whom Gardner cites) says, learned around or past the prime time for acquiring a native language. In fact, although we might mark it "wrong," we are not correcting it in the way that we expect students to modify their native language. Instead, we are saying, "Don't use Internet-speak. Use your vernacular language."

Again, the issue is not whether a dialect or abbreviations are "wrong." They're not. The issue is, How can we help our students use the language expected by their audience in a particular context? Of course, as Gardner states, we must orient our students to noticing contrasts between Internet-speak and academic language. Their ability to do so, however, should be evaluated just as we assess other aspects of their writing.

If you're interested in reading how others are handling Internet dialect differences in email from students, read the following:
Bullshit Meters are Blowing Up
An Academic Outsider Gets Real About Email Communication
Email headaches: small bother? good lesson?
Write a perfect email
How to send Krause email
How to email a professor

The second speaker at the Spilman Symposium was Edward White, professor of English at the University of Arizona. I have one of his books, Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, and it's an excellent guide for, as the title says, assigning, responding to, and evaluating writing. White talked on "Why write?: Teaching writing in an era of over testing."

White said that one student in response to a teaching prompt of "Why write?", stated "They make you write so they can getcha." In other words, because it's so easy to make errors, it's better to avoid the whole thing. For students and others, White says, the aims of writing differ from what most scholars assert to be the purpose of writing. For White, writing has life and reflection. However, teaching our students that writing has purpose is not so easy when the purpose they encounter is one of testing. Thus, he asks,

How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?

To illustrate the difference between mere technique with purposeful writing, White compared two essays. The first he wrote himself as an example of formulaic writing according to the five-paragraph format. He was motivated to write it after "grading hundreds of AP exams and wondering why so many good writers wrote bad essays."

I don't remember the prompt, but it might have been something like, "What is writing?" Although ostensibly a representation of a fictional student "Ed" writing a 40-minute timed essay, White took several hours to craft this essay whose thesis was, It didn't matter what you wrote as long as you followed the formula and had three points to talk about. You could have three points against or for the existence of God. The side you took wasn't important, but the formula of having three points was. After all, for this student, "The only purpose for writing was to pass a test."

For our discussion, White asked us to consider:

  1. What might you say to Ed?
  2. What grade you might give him?
  3. What you might say to him to change his idea?

I'm not sure what I would say to Ed to change his idea. Much of persuasion has to do with actions. Modeling engagement and reflection is one influence. Crafting assignments that engage students is important, too. Another approach is to relate writing to their interests and future careers. I have a list of quotations from people in different professions that assert that writing is essential to their job. But without experience, many students just nod their heads, but don't take it to heart until they experience the need for writing in their lives.

On #2, I would have given the essay an A due to its craft. In contrast, White would have given it a C at best due to its point of view because it wasn't a point of view that encouraged reflection and engagement. As White mentioned in an email, it would depend on the assignment. He was thinking of a response in a course that had already discussed "educational concepts and the purpose of writing." The assignment certainly makes a difference. In the course context, I'd expect some acknowledgement of its concepts.

Initially, however, I was thinking of something along the lines of an SAT essay sample. But now I'm wondering, suppose the student disagreed with the course teachings based on his previous schooling, thinking, "Yes, they say that writing has this purpose, but all of my teachers have simply presented it as a formula." Or the student may not be interested in this sort of reflection. Perhaps, expecting students to see that "writing has life" is the same as expecting English majors to see that physics has life. Outside of physics and engineering majors, I doubt that many students see that. And vice versa. In her research on engineers, Winsor, professor of English at Iowa State University (citing Bazerman) wrote,

To many technical people, writing seems to be a rather uninteresting act of translating knowledge they have encoded in another form.

That is, for these engineers, they engaged in and reflected on their work; writing was simply a matter of translating what they had already thought into an "uninteresting" form of communication to others.

For an example that shows reflection and engagement, White gave one that had this prompt:

The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he outght to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. --Samuel Clemens

Write an essay that explains what Clemens means by his description of the "best swordsman" and the "ignorant antagonist." Relate Clemen's concept to an area about which you are well informed."

In this essay, the student does an excellent comparison of when Clemens' concept works and when it doesn't. It works, "When revolutionaries break diplomatic rules by engaging in acts of terrorism ...." It doesn't work in chess, because "brilliant innovations in chess have nothing to do with ignorance," and the student gives specific examples of rook pawn openings or using the queen in opening positions.

White, in his book Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, states that this sort of prompt makes different types of conceptual demands on the writer than prompts based on personal experience do. It's more "academic" in that it "demands close and sensitive reading of the passage as the crucial first step" (p. 144). Of course, as he notes, the ability to deal with this sort of prompt depends on the student's background in reading and writing.

This sort of prompt is better than the general question, "What is writing?" For those not much interested in writing, "What is writing?" is unlikely to engage students and likely to end up with formulaic generalizations. In contrast, the Clemens prompt requires dealing with and understanding a text, and it ties into students' own knowledge fields, engaging them by unexpectedly juxtaposing "school learning" with their own interests and presenting a challenging puzzle to resolve. I wonder how a physicist would have responded.

One thing, however, is that I'm not sure whether the Clemens prompt requires more engagement or reflection than what the first student wrote in the context of a 40-minute essay. It's obvious that this student plays chess, and although we can't be sure about his/her background in politics, he seems to know the subject well. In other words, this student is writing on topics, as the prompt required, on which he is "well informed." In such a case, the primary conceptual demand seems to be to find two areas that he knew well that could tie into Clemens' assertion. Once found, the student could then go on automatic writing pilot. Indeed, the student must, because in a 40-minute essay, the time for reflection is insufficient. Thus, this essay is a speed test displaying what writing skills (and knowledge) have already been internalized rather than for showing reflection and engagement.

Although engagement and reflection should be a goal of any course, I don't think it's possible to evaluate engagement and reflection. The source eludes me, but in one particular study I read some time ago, what looked like a lack of engagement in several students' writing was actually a case of writer's block. On a side note, this reminds me of grading students on participation. When a student, I used to ask a question or two in many of my classes--not to participate but because my own speaking would wake me up.

White's question "How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?" is an essential one for the writing classroom. We may not be able to assess engagement and reflection, but if we believe that writing should have "life and reflection," then we need to design prompts and tasks that accord well with those purposes. As White states in his book,

we must offer the best assignments we can devise in order to stimulate our students creatifvity and convince them to learn what we teach.

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: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_n120/ai_17379682

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 http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/reviews/cccc2005/viewmessage.cfm?messageid=95.

Turner, Rich. Why Johnny (and Jane) can't write - Part I. Accessed at http://www.grammarmudge.cityslide.com/articles/article/307084/20998.htm.

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.

At 43 Folders, there is a great video of then-14-year-old pianist Jennifer Lin playing, who also gives "her thoughts on flow and creativity" with respect to composing music. An excerpt of her process follows:

What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas that you can just improvise here at the piano. I choose one of those to become the main theme, main melody. Once I choose my main theme, I have to decide out of all the styles of music, what style do I want. And this year I composed a romantic style. So for inspiration, I listened to Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and all the great romantic composers. Next I made the structure of the entire piece with my teachers. They helped me plan out the whole piece. The hard part is filling it in with musical ideas, because then you have to think. And then when the piece takes somewhat of a solidified form, you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition.

And another thing I enjoy doing is drawing. Drawing because I like to draw Japanese anime art. And once I realized it, there's a parallel between creating music and creating art, because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing. It's your character. You want to decide, who do you want to draw, or if you want to draw an original character. And then you want to decide how you're going to draw that character. Like am I going to use one page, am I going to draw it on the computer, am I going to use a two-page spread like in a comic book for more grandiose effect. And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character, which is like your structure of a piece, and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details you need. That's polishing the drawing.

Lin noticed a similar process for composing music and drawing anime art. It makes sense to me that the process is similar for many activities, including writing.

The need for scaffolding
Lin is a prodigy. She started studying music with Yamaha at the age of four. So, by the time of this video, she had been studying music intensively for 10 years, achieving the status of an expert (see The Expert Mind). Yet, notice that even at her level of experience, knowledge, and skill, her teachers helped her "structure" and "plan out the whole piece." That approach is somewhat at odds with the expressionist school of writing which wants students to find their own voice from the beginning, and composition theory that prefers to be non-directive. (In practice, many, probably most, composition instructors scaffold students by teaching about strategies, invention, and other processes.) Note that Lin found her musical "voice" by listening to great composers. Similarly, chess enthusiasts study the games of the grandmasters.

The need for extensive reading
Lin's approach, a typical one in music and chess, suggests that students need to read great authors to find their voice, and to do so over a lengthy period of time. One obstacle in teaching writing, however, is that few students read extensively, much less read great authors extensively. Another is that for ESL writers, finding a voice means finding one acceptable to native English speakers, not a voice true to them and to their culture. There is no way to bypass this need. Lin's ability to "polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition"--in writing, to revise the essay, edit the details, and then finetune the overall coherence of the composition--is directly related to her extensive background in music.

Bottleneck constraints on creativity and learning
Lin's approach also indicates that creativity stems from one's familiarity with one's discipline or content. One problem in teaching composition at the university level has been transfer. For a variety of reasons, what is learned in first-year composition doesn't seem to transfer well to later courses, especially in other disciplines. Part of that lack of transfer is due to a lack of discipline/content knowledge. In attempting to develop their writing, students face two hurdles, subject matter knowledge and writing knowledge, creating a bottleneck that constrains developing their writing. (On bottlenecks, see here and here and here.)

Suggestions in teaching writing
One consequence of a bottleneck perspective is that students learning to write should write on topics they know well. Of course, they should move beyond their personal knowledge and experience and research their topics. Even though Lin obviously knew the romantic composers, she immersed herself in their music again. Thus, students need to immerse themselves in the conversations, academic and popular, on their topic, so that the more they know the concepts and issues on a particular topic, the more they can focus on their writing.

Along these lines, students might write on (and continue to research) the same topic via a series of papers that will allow them to focus more on developing their writing. For instance, on any topic, papers might include:

  • a rhetorical analysis of posters, advertisements, or photos on the topic
  • a letter to the editor of a newspaper
  • a review of a book or film on the topic
  • a proposal to a concerned party to take action on the issue

Reading, analyzing, and writing in different genres can also help students to become more aware of rhetorical conventions as they see how the conventions vary across genre, audience, and context. And as with Lin's teachers, we need to "structure" how they fill in the details: introducing them to different strategies for developing their ideas and planning their composition, making academic conventions explicit (see They say / I say), and so on.

To sum up, developing one's writing, one's voice, one's creativity, is mostly a matter students of spending time on task, as Lin does. However, providing structure and reducing the bottleneck of subject matter knowledge can help students in this process.

Related posts
Engagement and FLow
Flow, Games, and Learning
Want to be creative? Slack off
Engagement, flow, and classroom activity
They Say / I Say
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing

More than a few people confuse "it's" (for "it is") with "its" (the possessive pronoun) in their writing. What I didn't know was the history of "it's". Daily Writing Tips provides this interesting tidbit:

when the third person neuter possessive adjective came into the language in the 16th century, it was spelled it’s for the very reason that the new form was modeled on the ’s of the possessive noun. The spelling it’s for the possessive adjective was acceptable “down to about 1800 (A.C. Baugh, A History of the English Language, p. 295).

Although we generally have to teach standard forms, it's good to keep in mind that what is "incorrect" today may have been "correct" yesterday.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has issued a 77-page meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental research, the Writing Next Report (via Anne Davis), and have come up with the following recommendations for writing instruction:

Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction
  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

The report notes that these 11 elements are,

effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning. [However] ... even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum.

The report adds this qualifer because, as they note, there may be effective strategies that have not yet been studied.

Grammar Instruction
The controversial topic of grammar instruction is also touched upon:

Grammar instruction in the studies reviewed involved the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences.The meta-analysis found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative.This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers also yielded negative results ... However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction, as this approach improves students’ writing quality while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Overall, the findings on grammar instruction suggest that, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.

Most of the studies analyzed in this report looked at L1 students. However, decontextualized grammar instruction without frequent feedback is also unlikely to have a positive effect for L2 students. A while back, I noted that on the related topic of error feedback (see links below) to acquire competence in any field, extensive practice accompanied by appropriate feedback was necessary. It seems unlikely that grammar should be the lone exception.

Alternative Methods of Grammar Instruction
Perhaps grammar instruction/practice/feedback could become more effective if we were to design it along the lines of those 11 elements. For a beginning point, suppose we reorient some of those 11 elements toward grammar:

  1. Writing Strategies that teach students strategies for editing their grammar
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to explain and summarize grammar's rhetorical effects
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan grammatical choices and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the grammar they need to acquire
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for checking spelling and grammar
  6. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good grammar

One implementation of these elements can be found in the grammar logs recommended in Error Feedback: Practice. Grammar logs have specific grammar goals and models of the grammar points to be learned.

Theoretical Understanding of Grammar Instruction
Simply using these 11 elements, as even the report stated, is insufficient to design a "full writing curriculum." LIkewise, it's not enough to use them innovatively for grammar instruction without a theoretical understanding of why and how these 11 elements work. Along the lines of ACT-R Theory (see also Error Feedback: Theory), key elements of learning include:

  1. time on task
  2. the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  3. accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  4. feedback

It's easy to see from these elements why traditional grammar instruction doesn't work. Although it may use examples and explanations, students are not spending time on tasks integrating grammar into their writing (outside of fill-in-the-blank sentences) nor necessarily receiving appropriate feedback. In contrast, Writing Strategies, Summarization, Inquiry Activities, and Models of Study easily fit into these key elements of learning. Collaborative writing, however, is not always effective for learning. To be done appropriately, it needs to integrate accurate diagnosis and understanding of the task, along with feedback. Otherwise, collaborators can just as easily reinforce misunderstandings of grammar and writing. Word processing, because it can underline grammar and spelling questions, focuses students' attention on recurring errors, thus allowing for more diagnosis of the problem and encouraging more time on task.

The Writing Next Report is worth reading, and having a theoretical understanding of learning elements is important for integrating its recommendations effectively, whether for grammar instruction or other writing goals.

Error feedback posts

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has posted selected essays of Peter Elbow. Professor emeritus at UM Amherst and part of the expressivist tradition, Elbow's work has had a tremendous influence on the field of composition.

What do you think? Does one "learn" a language much like any other cognitive endeavor? Or is it "acquired" due to some innate language-specific biological mechanism?

There's quite a bit of controversy on this issue, on whether some universal grammar (UG) is responsible for language acquisition, deriving from an innate process specific for language. For those taking the UG approach, acquisition results from the UG module while "learning" is due to normal learning processes. Not all agree. For example, consider Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain". Here's the abstract:

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to be rooted in a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but arbitrary, principles of language structure (a universal grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes. The resulting puzzle concerning the origin of UG we call the logical problem of language evolution. Because the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a “moving target” both over time and across different human populations, and hence cannot provide a stable environment to which UG genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG--the mesh between learners and languages--arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent “organism,” which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages are themselves undergoing severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases, independent of language. We illustrate how this framework can integrate evidence from different literatures and methodologies to explain core linguistic phenomena, including binding constraints, word order universals, and diachronic language change.

In brief, learning a language is like learning any other skill.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health released news on a six-year study on brain development in healthy children. The study followed the brain development of about 500 children, ages 6-18, each child being tracked over a four-year period. One finding (accompanied by caveats) undermines the notion of language being innate:

Children appear to approach adult levels of performance on many basic cognitive and motor skills by age 11 or 12, according to a new study coordinated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ...

Regardless of income or sex, children appeared to improve rapidly on many tasks between ages 6 and 10, with much less dramatic cognitive growth in adolescence. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills.

In other words, there is a "critical period" for learning general cognitive tasks that corresponds to the critical period for "acquiring" a language, usually considered to be up until the age of 12, after which individuals will not develop a complete command of a language. In Error Feedback: Theory, I mentioned the 10-year rule, which states that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of intense practice, a period of time similar to achieving nativelike fluency in a second langauge.

If language learning has a similar critical period time frame as other endeavors and takes similar amounts of time to become an "expert," then it would seem to be governed by general cognitive learning processes rather than by a language-specific learning process.

These findings do not contradict Krashen's assertion of the need for massive comprehensible input for learning a language. After all, the crucial element for achieving mastery of any activity is, as Anderson and Schunn (pdf) state,

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

As teachers, then, one of our primary tasks is to motivate students to spend the necessary time in learning a language (see Error Feedback: Motivation, The Inverse Power of Praise, and Engagement and Flow).

I just listened to an interesting session at Computers and Writing 2007 on the role of feedback and assessment in first-year composition. Fred Kemp, Ron Baltasor, Christy Desmet, and Mike Palmquist talked about how they used online learning environments as sites for assessing learning and teaching.

Fred Kemp talked about Texas Tech University's ICON system in which

  • class time is cut in half,
  • assignments are doubled or tripled,
  • all relevant interactions are online,
  • students meet in a classroom once a week to support those interactions, and
  • grading and commentary are anonymous with two readers on drafts.

This particular system helps to make the composition program an adaptive, feedback system that gains knowledge over time and is not dependent on rotating faculty and program directors. The data collection that is built into the system has shown that some assignments generate better grades than others, thus indicating where to make changes in the program. For instance, pulling back from having intensive peer reviews (12-13 a semester) has shown a decrease in students' GPA, suggesting that their writing has worsened. Next year, they're reinstating the peer reviews, and if the GPA increases, then there will be a strong correlation for the effect of intensive peer reviews on learning to write.

Mike Palmquist talked about Colorado State University's Writing Studio, a combination instructional writing environment and online course management system. As in ICON, the system collects data on how people are using the site by tracking their activity as they log in, which can give guide the program on which areas need to be strengthened, or vice versa. One question to be answered is, "How does technology shape the teaching and learning in writing courses?"

Ron Baltasor and Christy Desmet talked about the University of Georgia's emma system that embeds meta-data via markup in documents that are uploaded to the server. They have three ongoing projects that look at errors, revision, and citations. One finding from the citation project was that good library instruction works best in conjunction with instructor prompts for citations, but that library instruction alone showed no improvement.

Although the three universities have different approaches, they all show the value of electronic systems that can provide feedback to programs for improving instruction and composition programs.

For the convenience of one location, here are my posts on error feedback, along with my sources and links if available.

My posts:


Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill (pdf). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 932-945.

Anderson, J. R., & Schunn, C. D. (2000). Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf). In R. Glaser (ed.), Advances in instructional psychology: Educational design and cognitive science (pp. 1-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (LE).

Bitchener, J., Young, S., & Cameron, D. (2005). The effect of different types of feedback on student ESL writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14, 191-205.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. (See here, here, and here for synopses of this work and others by Dweck.)

Chandler, J. (2003). The effects of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 267-296.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior (pdf). Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268. (See homepage for more on self-determination theory.)

DeKeyser, R. (2007). Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Wiliams (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and research motivation. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Ericsson, K.A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert Performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49-62.

---- (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

---- (2002). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

---- (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing, 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process, and practice (2nd ed.). Mahway, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E. (2004). Teaching academic ESL writing: Practical techniques in vocabulary and grammar. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) (2002). New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

MIles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ 6.

Ross, P. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific American, 295(2), 64-71.

Truscott, J. (2004). Evidence and conjective on the effects of correction: A response to Chandler (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 337-343.

---- (1999). The case for "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. A response to Ferris (pdf). JJournal of Second Language Writing, 8, 111-122.

---- (1996). The case against error correction in L2 writing courses (pdf). Language Learning 46, 327-369.

Yates, R., & Kenkel, J. (2002). Responding to sentence-level errors in student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 29-47.

Below are bibliography pages with downloadable articles related to the above sources (and some repetition, of course):

ACT-R Theory
Self-determination theory

If all I had to go on was the research on Error Correction in L2 Writing, I wouldn't do it. There's simply insufficient evidence to justify such an investment of time and effort.

However, research on learning, expertise, and motivation has garnered an impressive amount of empirical evidence for the positive effects of feedback that meets certain criteria. Before making suggestions on how to structure grammar feedback, let me summarize criteria on learning and motivation for guiding that feedback.


  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field, including a second language, requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.


  1. Motivation is important because it encourages persistance on task.
  2. Motivation is promoted by
    • clear goals,
    • autonomy,
    • tasks that challenge one's competence without unduly frustrating, and
    • feedback that is immediate and informational.

Grammar Feedback Guidelines

Correctable Grammar

Grammar feedback in L2 writing should target only those items that are rule-governed and for which examples and clear explanations can be found. Subject-verb agreement is one such rule. Style is not.

Structure of Feedback

Dana Ferris (2003) breaks feedback into direct (the teacher giving the answer) and indirect (which ranges from merely noting the location of an error to using editing symbols to more explicit directions, such as use “future tense here.”). She says that direct feedback is preferred for beginning students, while indirect feedback seems to have better effects for intermediate and advanced students, likely because students must think about the errors and engage in self-editing (Ferris, 2003).

To some degree, if students think about an error, they're constructing declarative knowledge. But are they diagnosing the rule accurately and time-effectively? It would be better to first have the rules accompanied by examples and explanations that they continue to refer to. No doubt, Ferris and most instructors refer students to their grammar textbooks, but I'm thinking that students should construct their own textbooks to use grammar feedback more effectively.

Grammar notebooks: Students should maintain grammar notebooks with these examples and explanations, adding to the notebooks as new rules, examples, and explanations are covered. Extra space or pages should be available for students for revision. For instance, if an error was a case of misunderstanding, perhaps the explanation for the rule in their notebook should be revised. Or, if a rule doesn't seem to fit neatly into rules, examples, or understandings previously given, then students can revise the rule, create a new rule, make new examples, or write new understandings. In this way, students can acquire the requisite declarative knowledge, and the notebook becomes a textbook emerging out of, contributing to, and individualized to their own learning.

Goal logs: Students can keep a goal log, in which they set grammar goals and track their improvement over time. Seeing improvement is motivation, and seeing the same error repeatedly can help students target that error, review and revise their grammar notebooks accordingly, and determine strategies for reducing its occurrence.

Program-embedded feedback: Notebooks and goal logs should be used across courses in a program to provide the continuity and repetition needed of reading, writing, and revising understanding across different contexts to proceduralize grammar.

Frequency of Feedback

One problem with learning to write is that unlike sports, chess, and video games, feedback does not occur immediately or even often. Up until now, in my own classes, I generally only give grammar feedback on their major paper assignments, which means they get grammar feedback at the most every 2-3 weeks, and even that occurs several days after the paper is turned in.

If time allows, consider having students write for 5-10 minutes every class and then checking their work or perhaps checking their classmates' work. But instead of having them check for all errors, have them check for one specific error according to class needs. On days with less time, consider using a student example, perhaps from another class. Re-iteration of rules, or anything else, at spaced intervals is crucial for learning. This sort of task would work well for homework, too.

Note that while I grade the grammar component on a major paper assignment, I do not grade it on other assignments. Although the reality check of a grade is a given in most educational institutions, most feedback should be informational rather than evaluative. Otherwise, intrinsic motivation can be dampened.

Grammar Instruction

General lessons on grammar do not fit the criteria above. However, Ferris (2003; cf. Hinkel, 2004) suggests that mini-lessons may be useful if they have the following characteristics:

  1. Mini-lessons should be brief and narrowly focused …
  2. Instruction should focus on major areas of student need, rather than minor fine-tuning.
  3. Lessons should include (minimally) text-analysis activities so that students can examine the target constructions in authentic contexts and application activities so that they can apply newly covered concepts to their own writing.
  4. Instruction should also include strategy training to help students learn to avoid errors and to self-edit their work. (p. 157)

An example of a single task incorporating these guidelines and the criteria above would be one centering on the reporting of an interview (adapted from Hinkel, 2002). A mini-lesson could look at grammatical structures in interviews, such as tenses and reporting verbs. Examples would be given along with understanble explanations. Students would then analyze interviews in newspapers or magazines, focusing on tenses and reporting verbs and comparing to their examples. Next, they would interview someone and write a report of the interview. Finally, students would compare how they used tenses and reporting verbs to the grammatical findings of their earlier analyses and examples in their grammar notebooks.

The key diffferences in the original task and this one is (1) establishing declarative knowledge appropriately and (2) integrating feedback into the task via students' grammar notebooks. Many tasks in textbooks and elsewhere can be reframed to incorporate the learning and motivation criteria above.


Feedback is crucial for learning any activity, including languages. There are “no magic bullets” to accelerate learning. Rather, appropriate feedback helps students spend “effective time on task,” thus eliminating wasted time and effort.

Disclaimer: Because these suggestions are the recent result of my reviewing these theories and considering their application to error feedback, I haven't implemented them yet. This summer I intend to work on reframing the way I provide feedback and implement my new understanding in the fall semester. After doing so, I hope to provide some feedback here on how it went.

Call for feedback: If you have tried any of these approaches or others based on these theories, email me and let me know how it went, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and I'll post your experiences here.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

From the previous posts on learning theory (here and here), two crucial points were:

  1. Acquiring expertise in any field, including language, requires extensive practice.
  2. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.

You have to be motivated to practice extensively. Videogamers are and do. They can spend 50-100 hours on a game. Imagine a student spending 50-100 hours writing an essay! In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine ... [is] its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. ... Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.

These principles of expertise and competence are also seen in two theories of motivation: self-determination theory and flow.

In self-determiantion theory, motivation is driven by three needs:

  1. autonomy,
  2. social relatedness, and
  3. competence, including informational (not evaluative) feedback on competence, that is, feedback that supports autonomy in learning as opposed to controlling it.

Flow is a state in which one is fully engaged in the task at hand (see this review of Csikszentmihaly's book Finding Flow). Another post noted that flow occurs under certain conditions, three of which are:

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. tasks that challenge (without unduly frustrating) one's skills

These needs and conditions are an integral part of video games. But have they been in providing error feedback?

Probably not as directly as in other arenas. Just look at the condition of "immediate feedback." In my own first-year composition classes, error feedback is given mostly on essay drafts, which I receive every 2-3 weeks and return in 2-7 days. Can you imagine a basketball coach giving feedback only every few weeks and then a few days after the practice in question?

Although it's not as easy to incorporate these motivation principles into error feedback, I have a few ideas I'll discuss in the next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

My earlier post Error Feedback in L2 Writing looked at Truscott's position (pdf) not to correct grammar at all.

Is Truscott right? Should we abandon grammar correction in our writing classes? One reason he gives is that the research does not support correcting grammar. Even Dana Ferris (1999), responding to Truscott, admitted that the evidence supporting error response was "scant." But she added that that was not the same as saying that it doesn't help students. She mentioned a few studies not mentioned by Truscott that do support error correction, stating,

This rush, or stampede, to judgment is especially egregious in Truscott’s review essay. Based on limited, dated, incomplete, and inconclusive evidence, he argues for eliminating a pedagogical practice that is not only highly valued by students, but on which many thoughtful teachers spend a great deal of time and mental energy because they feel that helping students to improve the accuracy of their writing is vitally important. Had Truscott used his review to ask some pointed questions about error correction and to identify some of the problems raised by the available research, he would have done teachers and scholars a valuable service. But because he went further and offered sweeping conclusions, he has potentially put students at risk--that their teachers, teacher educators, or researchers will accept his claims uncritically and adjust their practices accordingly, to the possible detriment of students’ development as writers.

I find this position less than satisfactory. If the evidence is "scant," according to someone who supports error correction, then which way to turn is little more than a coin toss. If it has little or no effect, why would anyone want to do, as Ferris puts it, "time-consuming and mostly tedious" work? Ferris adds,

I also find that the time and energy I spend sometimes does not pay off in long-term student improvement.

Although Ferris qualifies that statement with "sometimes," such a statement coming from her, a major proponent of error feedback, is discouraging. Even so, I figured if there were any research supporting error correction it would be found in Ferris's (2003) Response to student writing, which contains an excellent review of the literature on error feedback. However, either my library has misplaced it or someone decided the library didn't need it as much as they did. So, I looked at Laurel Reinking's (Linguist List 16.111) friendly review of the book. But even she had to conclude,

Although Ferris provides an insightful analysis of each study presented, because, as she complains, "the results of the ... studies ... have been conflicting and not always well designed or clearly described ..." (p. 67), her conclusion does not support the efficacy of error correction.

Not much support here. So, I turned to one of Ferris's more recent articles "The 'grammar correction' debate in L2 writing." In this article, she summarized her position:

  1. the research base on the ‘‘big question’’—does error feedback help L2 student writers?—is inadequate;
  2. the previous studies on error correction are fundamentally incomparable because of inconsistencies in design; and
  3. existing research predicts (but certainly does not conclusively prove) positive effects for written error correction.

In other words, the best we can say is that some research hints that error feedback may be helpful. Ferris concludes that what she has done is to

critique most or all of the previous research and essentially argue that we need to start from scratch. Obviously, it could be years, even decades, before we have trustworthy empirical answers to some of the questions we need to consider—so what do we (teachers and teacher educators) do in the meantime?

As Ferris herself notes, we teachers don't have "decades" to wait. We have to teach now. One possibility is to consider other theories outside of the SLA and SLW boxes in order to re-frame the error correction issue. So, more on theory in the next post.


Ferris, D. (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D. (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) Journal of Second Language Writing 13, 49-62.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

The Second Language Writing Interest Section has a lot going on at the TESOL 2007 Convention in Seattle. Here are a few highlights.

1. Featured second language writing academic sessions:

Shifting Boundaries in ESL/EFL Writing Instruction by Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock.
Sheraton Grand Ballroom D
Thursday, March 22, 2007
8:30-10:20 a.m.

This presentation will invite participants to consider how shifting perspectives on ESL/EFL writing processes influence classroom instruction. After reviewing three dimensions of change—conceptualizations of novice writers, writers’ texts, and contexts for writing—the presenters will invite participants to discuss how evolving frames of reference affect their practice.

Responding to Students when Teaching with Technology by Maggie Sokolik and Paige Ware.
Sheraton Grand Ballroom D
Thursday, March 22, 2007
10:20 - 11:15 a.m.

This session focuses on student and instructor attitudes toward the use of technology in different writing classes: post-secondary writing courses, ESL adolescent and ESL community college online mentoring projects, and international online exchanges. Based on our research findings, we will address teaching strategies for balancing fluency, accuracy, and complexity.

2. Interest Section Intersections:

Second Language Writing / Material Writers IS Intersection:

Using Corpus Findings to Develop L2 Writing Materials by Gena Bennett, Pat Byrd, Jan Frodesen, Diane Schmitt, and Norbert Schmitt
Conference Center Room 609
Friday, March 23
9:30-11:15 a.m.

This intersection explores how current corpus findings can inform writing teachers and materials developers. Presenters demonstrate strategies for designing corpus research and analyzing findings to choose activity foci, generate activity templates, highlight frequent vocabulary and structures in use in particular genres or registers, and augment existing textbook exercises.

Higher Education / Second Language Writing IS Intersection:

Appropriate Writing Support for International Graduate Students by Sharon L. Cavusgil, Lynn Goldstein, Robert Kohls, Talinn Phillips, and Silvia Spence
Convention Center Room 310
Friday, March 23
2:00-3:45 p.m.

International graduate students at US universities come from a variety of linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds and enroll in a variety of degree-specific programs. Presenters will examine issues surrounding how to provide both general-academic and discipline-specific support, in various contexts, to such a diverse group of students.


An Evening with the Second Language Writing IS:
Answering the Needs of Second Language Writers & Their Teachers
Sheraton Grand Ballroom B
Thursday, March 22
6:00-8:00 p.m.

Talk about hot topics in second language writing and visit with the experts:

Dwight Atkinson, Diane Belcher, Joel Bloch, Suresh Canagarajah, Christine Pearson Casanave, Ulla Connor, Deborah Crusan, Dana Ferris, Lynn Goldstein, John Hedgcock, Alan Hirvela, Ann M. Johns,Jessie Moore Kapper, Ryuko Kubota, Ilona Leki, Jun Liu, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, Joy Reid, Dudley Reynolds, Tony Silva, Christine Tardy, Margi Wald, Sara Cushing Weigle, And Many More!

All TESOLers, be sure to visit the SLWIS booth Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (12-3 p.m.). We will feature guest appearances by renowned SLW scholars. And also attend the SLWIS meetings open to all:

SLWIS Open Meeting
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
5:00 - 7:00 pm
211 Seattle Convention Center

SLWIS Planning Meeting
Thursday, March 22, 2007
12:00 - 1:00 pm
211 Seattle Convention Center

Make your voice heard! And become a part of what will take place at TESOL 2008 in New York City and throughout the year!

Do you ever wonder how your English language learners (ELLs) to improve their grammar? For myself, when I look at their papers in first-year composition, I'm struck by the number of errors in grammar, not simply problems of prepositions and the articles a and the, but problems of subject-verb agreement, incorrect use of verb tenses, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and many more.

Language learning is a long, arduous process, and it's not realistic to expect that ELLs will become nativelike in less than 10 years, much less the one semester I have them in my course. Just consider that Ulla Connor, a leading scholar in contrastive rhetoric and professor of English at Indiana University, stated in her book Contrastive Rhetoric (1996) that she still “tends to use [articles and prepositions] inappropriately” 20 years after receiving her doctorate and teaching in the U.S. (p. 4).

So, how can we help our students improve their grammar? Or can we? Some believe that we can't. Innatists, such as Krashen, hold that language acquisition differs from language learning, that the two have no interface, and so grammar instruction does not aid language "acquisition," only "learning." Still, even Krashen (2004) admits that some grammar knowledge can be useful for advanced learners in editing. This makes sense as writing, unlike speaking, allows time for monitoring. How to help advanced learners acquire this knowledge remains problematic, however.

Another anti-grammar-correction proponent is John Truscott. His (in)famous article "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes" (pdf) reviewed the literature on error feedback and asserted:

Do not correct grammar.

Truscott's main reasons for abandoning grammar correction included:

  1. Research has not shown grammar correction to be effective.
  2. Language acquisition is a gradual process that cannot be accelerated through the "transfer" of grammar knowledge.
  3. The time students spend on understanding grammar correction and applying it could be spent more productively on other activities, such as improving organization and logic.
  4. Teachers may do a poor job of recognizing and correcting errors.

Truscott's position is controversial, of course. So, we'll look at the reasons and positions on error correction in more detail over a series of posts, with the next post on the paucity of evidence.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

In an earlier post, I wrote,

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Many apparently disagree with that assertion, at least about the part on structure being limiting. I'm not sure why they do. Perhaps it's because many do use the five-paragraph essay in limiting ways. Perhaps it comes from a notion of learning as a creative endeavor, and perhaps the notion of "creative" for many suggests that learning occurs by intuitive leaps and bounds, which structure unduly restrains. However, without structure, no creativity can take place. Language itself requires structure to communicate meaning. In English, for example, stress can differentiate between adjectives and compound nouns, as in the difference between a "blue bird" (a bird that is blue in color) and a "bluebird" (a particular type of bird).

learning never occurs de novo.

Similarly, structure is crucial for learning. After all, learning never occurs de novo. Rather,

  • Learning always builds upon that which came before, and
  • Learning almost always involves a remixing of known building blocks.

My favorite example of these two principles is the many species that have evolved from the remixing of only four building blocks of DNA.

In looking at the five-paragraph essay, we can see at least four potential building blocks of writing:

  • introduction
  • "main idea" (thesis statement and topic sentence)
  • evidence
  • explanation (explanation of evidence and conclusion)

Let's look at how these four building blocks are used across three different situations: (1) framing a quotation, (2) the five-paragraph essay, and (3) introducing an academic journal article.

When introducing a quotation, as Graff and Birkenstein note in their book "They Say / I Say", it is typically framed. First, one introduces the source/author of the quotation and the author's main claim, then the quotation (evidence), and next one explains the quotation in light of the author's claim. Then, one uses the framed quotation to introduce one's own position (claim), thus starting another cycle of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation.

In the five-paragraph essay, of course, one introduces the main claim (thesis statement), provides evidence for that claim in the form of subclaims (topic sentences), explains the subclaims with more evidence and explanations (logic or reasoning), and finally re-explains the main claim in the conclusion.

In introductions to academic journal articles, John Swales has shown that regardless of discipline they always include four rhetorical moves: introduce the topic, review the literature on that topic (explain the topic and the evidence surrounding it), indicate a gap in the literature (explain how something is missing or wrong in the literature, a claim accompanied by evidence and explanation), and then explain what one will do to remedy that gap (another claim with the evidence and further explanation forthcoming in the rest of the article).

The building blocks naturally take different forms in each context and build upon one another as the context becomes more complex. The power of such an approach is its interlocking strength of basic concepts across contexts, thus facilitating learning and transfer via student use and practice of building block concepts across different writing landscapes.

Thus, again, although one can use structure in limiting ways, when used appropriately, structure supports learning. For those who use the five-paragraph essay, then, rather than treat the structure as a formula, it would be more fruitful to familiarize students with its building blocks across contexts (including the five-paragraph essay), rearranging the building blocks in different orders and combinations to consider their rhetorical effect.

To acquaint students with these building blocks, consider beginning by building upon their own experiences with conversation. For example,

  1. First, have students write a conversation they might have with friends trying to persuade them to see a certain movie, play a particular game, or do some other activity, keeping in focus that their friends want to see a different movie or play a different game.
  2. Next, have them analyze their conversations, asking questions such as:
    • Are the building blocks of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation there?
    • Are there other building blocks?
    • Are they consistently in a particular sequence?
    • Does the order of building blocks change?
    • Is a particular sequence of building blocks more effective?
    • When?
    • Why?
    • How do the sequences and uses of building blocks in conversations compare/contrast to those in the five-paragraph essay?

Of course, you can extend this process of analysis to other genres, such as blogs and editorials in newspapers, and to other media, such as podcasts and videos.

contradictions ... are the driving force of learning.

Whether learning new languages or new dialects, such as academese and blogese, this process of analyzing concepts across contexts can bring into focus contradictions between the rhetorical conventions of different dialects, languages, disciplines, and media. And it is contradictions that are the driving force of learning.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Click on building blocks and contradictions under Topics.
See also my article in Complicity: "Building Blocks and Learning".

The five-paragraph essay: Is it limiting? Or a useful stepping stone in learning to write?

Of course, if used inappropriately any approach can be limiting. It's easy to imagine how the five-paragraph essay can be used as a cookie-cutter formula that excludes revision, critical thinking, and other genres. It's also understandable that many teachers, especially public school teachers, may not have much of a choice when they must prepare students to take exams based on the five-paragraph essay, who have 4-5 classes with each one having 25+ students, and who have responsibility for teaching students more than just how to write. Nevertheless, some aspects of the five-paragraph essay have value in teaching students how to write.

Of course, some will argue that writing is a process and that it takes place across a variety of genres. Definitely! However, writing requires structure, too. If we want to submit an article to a newspaper, magazine, journal, or book publisher, we have to consider our audience. They are not interested in the process of how we write; they have structural expectations that our products fit a specific genre with specific rhetorical conventions.

In fact, the process of revision is multi-faceted: we revise our ideas, our presentation, and our structure. I'm not quite sure why many denigrate the structures of topic sentences and thesis statements, but I find them helpful for my own writing with respect to keeping focused. And they help students to

  • focus more narrowly on an issue,
  • develop their ideas in more depth, and
  • avoid stringing together a "list" of ideas, some related and some not so related.

Just like any other type of writing, revision and critical thinking can be present in a five-paragraph essay, too. Let's look at the example posted (with some irony) on the TESL-L email discussion list by David Kees, a teacher in China:

There has been a lot of discussion about the Five-Paragraph Essay. Although widely taught in the USA it is also severely criticized.

The Five-Paragraph Essay is a hamburger. It is the literary equivalent of two all-beef patties with lettuce, tomato, mayo and American cheese squashed between a sesame bun. Parke Muth, Director of International Admissions at the University of Virginia, calls them "McEssay". He says reading them is as predictable as eating a Big Mac. You know all the regular ingredients will be there. You know what it will taste like before you begin.

The formulaic style of the Five-Paragraph Essay is not enough for college. A student in Texas learned the Five-Paragraph Essay and with other formulaic training passed the Texas high school exam with flying colors. She qualified as a "Texas Scholar". At the University of Houston, when asked to write an essay she couldn't do it. Dr. Les Perelman, director of undergraduate writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that professors spend the first year of college unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay.

Yet many American high school teachers feel compelled to teach the Five-Paragraph Essay even though they know it kills creativity. Teachers recognize good writing is good thinking. But even though the Five-Paragraph Essay forces students into a boring uncreative style teachers must teach it. If the students can manage the essay well they will score better on state mandated exams.

The Five-Paragraph Essay generates predictable useless uncreative writing. Although teachers hate it they know they must teach it.

Quite a few teachers in public schools would likely be more than satisfied with this essay. It has metaphor, credible sources, coherence, and so on. Even so, if we wished, we could provide feedback on each paragraph, prompting the student to revise and think more critically.

For the introduction, we could ask for more background on the various perspectives that are in conflict.

For the body paragraphs, we could ask that the author's assumptions be examined. For instance, on comparing the five-paragraph essay to a Big Mac, we could ask whether it is the structure that provides the "taste" or the content. Does a particular syle make the writing "boring" and "uncreative"? Only four building blocks of DNA are responsible for they myriads of species in the world. With respect to writing, it is the interaction of the claims, evidence, and reasoning that makes writing interesting, not necessarily the particular structure.

We could challenge the appropriateness of the metaphor. After all, there are many types of sandwiches in the world, even many that use lettuce, tomato, mayo, and cheese. But a turkey sandwich doesn't taste like a hamburger, which doesn't taste like a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich. How is it that these sandwiches taste different although having the same structure?

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

We could have students question the evidence. Is the "Texas scholar" typical of most students with "formulaic" training. Was that the only type of writing that the student had done in high school? Does the five-paragraph essay only create "predictable useless uncreative writing"?

And so on.

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Recently I read someone opposing the use of the five-paragraph essay in teaching writing on two points. One was that "professional writers" didn't use it to organize their ideas. Another implied that extensive reading would be sufficient for people to know how to organize their ideas in a written form.

On point one, professionals in any field do not use the same techniques as beginners. Can you imagine a research chemist or physicist thinking in the same terms as students in first-year introductory courses? The differences between professionals and novices, however, do not speak to the process of learning to become a professional. Whether the five-paragraph essay can be useful in learning to become a professional writer requires more evidence than claims based on irrelevant observations.

With respect to extensive reading, I can imagine some transfer to writing. But there's two problems with this assumption. One is that all, or at least most, students read widely. In today's electronic world, that claim is unlikely. Even if it were true, it's been shown quite convincingly that expertise in one area does not transfer to other areas (see Philip Ross's review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Speaking of my own experience, even after I had been in college for 9 years, my writing was terrible, or so one of my professors suggested one day. Why? Because my writing had been limited mostly to lab reports and translations of dead texts (i.e., Latin, Greek, and Hebrew). but had done little writing outside of lab reports and translations of dead texts. The following semester, I took a course called "Advanced Expository Writing." I had to write 12 essays that semester along with editing every classmate's essay. That intensive writing and editing course improved my writing considerably.

Now, that course didn't mention the 5-paragraph essay. It was a few years later when I began to teach writing in Turkey, that is, teaching the 5-paragraph essay, that I became aware of notions like thesis statement, topic sentence, coherence, and unity of thought. Those notions have also improved my writing. At least others seem to consider my writing clear and well-organized.

Writing is learned much like playing basketball. Both require practice--not watching or reading the work of others. And coaching (i.e., teaching) can help focus one's attention on elements needing work, thus facilitating the learning process faster than otherwise.

I don't know whether teaching the 5-paragraph essay is the best way, or a good way, of teaching writing. Even so, the concepts accompanying it are useful in focusing students' attention on elements of writing, and most beginners would be better off writing a five-paragraph essay than a five-chapter dissertation. As their experience grows, I would expect the type of writing they do to mature, too. Perhaps the five-paragraph essay has a role to play at beginning levels. Perhaps only its attendant concepts. Perhaps not at all. Regardless of our position, we should move past initial emotional reactions toward evidence-supported reasoning.

"Why can't business majors write?" asks Dave Carpenter (Post-Gazette.com) in his article, Eschewing obfuscation: Business schools, firms target bad writing:

Like a dark and stormy night, bad writing has long shadowed the business world -- from bureaucratese to mangled memos to the cliche-thick murk of "corporatespeak."

But in an era of nonstop e-mail and instant and text messaging, written communication skills within companies may be getting even worse as quality is compromised by the perceived need for speed.

Wary of the trend, not just businesses but also business schools across the country are working harder to eschew obfuscation. Some have added or expanded writing programs in recent years; others use corporations' faux pas as case studies in hopes their students will learn to avoid them.

"eschew obfuscation"? Hmm. The article relies entirely upon anecdotal evidence, so let me add one of my own to the mix.

Once upon a time, there was a student who, working on a second undergraduate degree, had been in college for 9 years but had done little writing outside of lab reports and translations of dead texts. Conversing with his Latin professor, he mentioned, "I think I'll take the advanced expository writing next semester."

"Why," asked the professor?

He replied, "Well, to learn to write."

The professor shrugged a "whatever" gesture.

At the end of the semester, the student handed in two 3-page papers. Quickly perusing them, the professor glanced up and stated, "You might want to take that writing course." And the student did and wrote competently ever after.

Although some in the article would claim that business majors can't write due to laziness or the IM-multitasking culture, it's simply that writing, like any other skill, is one that must be practiced. According to Peter Handal,

"I think that would suggest that people are just so happy to get the communications going that they aren't spending the time on how to communicate," he said.

Probably, most people just aren't that interested in writing to spend the time. If they were, they would become writers—or at least bloggers.

Update: Alex Reid has a relevant post on student writing.

Michael Shaughnessy (columnist with EdNews.org) interviews Elizabeth Kantor, author of the recently published book The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Kantor says,

students are not getting what they need in order to learn to write well. Human beings learn language—both spoken and written—through imitation. If students don't read good writing, they won't become good writers. Grammar is also very useful to writers, and unfortunately it's been out of fashion in composition classes for some decades. ...

I'd say both attitudes and information are essential to any kind of learning. But different combinations yield very different kinds of education! For example, consider the traditional English literature survey, arranged chronologically. Students get a chance to sample some very different "attitudes," first of Anglo-Saxon poets, then of a late medieval author such as Chaucer, then of Shakespeare, Milton, and so on, through the Romantic poets into the 20th century. The students won't learn everything there is to know about the great literature in English, but they'll have enough "information" to pursue more learning, if they're interested. They'll have a basic "knowledge" about the classics.

If, on the other hand, an English literature class is organized around the various trendy forms of "literary theory"—Marxism, feminism, "gender studies," "queer theory," deconstruction, and so forth—then the students are the poorer for it. All these different brands of "theory" will tend to communicate a single "attitude" to the student: a sense that the whole history of Western civilization is simply a record of oppression—whether of women, or homosexuals, of the poor, or of "people of color." And meanwhile, the student hasn't been given the "information" he needs to get to the classics, and thus to develop his own informed attitude about our past and the roots of our culture.

I have some sympathy for Kantor's perspective. When I read works of literature, I want to enjoy them for what they are, for the ideas they embody, not for anachronistic analyses. Talk about how to destroy an appreciation for literature! Even so, I have some reservations about several points in this interview.

One is, "students are not getting what they need in order to learn to write well", and for Kantor, that means reading the classics of English literature.Naturally, English majors will read all of these, but they are a small percentage of all university students. It seems unreasonable to expect that (1) a one-semester survey on the classics will have much influence on students' writing and (2) most students will read the classics deeply and widely, whether as a requirement or on their own. Perhaps they should. But that's another issue with its own complications.

Also, while I would agree that reading good writing leads to good writing, Kantor makes no mention of how much time is needed for this process to occur. Most of my students (mostly ESL, but at times non-ESL) have done little reading before entering college. A crash course in reading cannot catch these students up in a semester or two to a level at which they can readily learn to recognize and apply what they read to what they write. I'm not arguing against having students read a lot. Rather, I'm simply saying that reading literature is not a panacea for a lack of reading and writing experience.

Another issue is the conflating of literature with composition in general. Although good reading habits are usually intertwined with good writing, there's an assumption that one type of writing, or reading, transfers to another type of writing. That's simply not true. Just consider the long process that "Nate," a doctoral student who had considerable experience in expressivist writing, went through to learn to write with the conventions expected in his rhetoric program (Berkenkotter et al.). How much more so for undergraduate students without considerable reading and writing experience! With this in mind, reading in composition and other writing intensive courses should be tied to the types of writing that students will do, not to great works of literature unless it is a course on writing types of literature.

Extensive reading and engaging with great ideas are important elements of good writing. For non-English majors, however, a foundation of reading and writing based not on the classics but on contemporary writings would bear more fruit in helping students' reading, writing, and thinking skills to develop.


Berkenkotter, C., Huckin, T. N., & Ackerman, J. (1988). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.


I just came across this article Read good writing to become a good writer. In it, Carol La Valley interviews Jim Quinlan, professor at Gila Community College (Payson, Arizona), who has students in English 101 read nonfiction essays to strengthen their reading and writing skills.

For academic achievement, use a fountain pen. Or, so says Bryan Lewis, principal of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Scotland (reported by Ben McConville, Associated Press, via Remote Access):

"The pens improve the quality of work because they force the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem," principal Bryan Lewis said. "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been."

Students as young as 7 have been instructed to forgo their ball point pens and get to grips with its more artful predecessor. By the time they reach grade five, at age 9, they are expected to write mainly with fountain pens.

In another post, I wrote about a claim that holding a pen or pencil "stimulates ideas," because it "massages acupuncture points." And now we read that "proper handwriting" results in "better work," because it "massages" self-esteem. It's interesting how it can even make sense: Students take more care, so their work improves, which in turn improves their self-confidence, which in turn improves their work, and so on. But,then again, it may be an instance of an expectancy effect, such as the Hawthorne Effect. What do you think?

Kathy Sierra asks "Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?":

If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering. ...

What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. ...

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

Kathy is right: Learning "facts" is not the same as "doing". That's one advantage of teaching composition: it's always focused towards the "doing" of writing. It's still not perfect, of course. Writing in first-year comp can easily be disconnected from the writing that students will do in other classes or in their careers. On that basis, some make the argument that first-year comp should be abolished and replaced with discipline-specific writing courses. I suppose we could carry that logic a little further and claim that discipline-specific writing courses be replaced with writing-intensive internships in one's future career. But what then happens to the goal of a well-rounded university education? Is it education to become no more than intense vocational training? That's not what Creating Passionate Users is arguing, of course. However, we do need to consider, What is the purpose of writing in first-year composition? In the University? For students who are not majoring in writing. Especially for ESL/EFL students.

ATPM writes on Writing Environments, Plus Two New Outliners:

This column we’ll just note the types of things I suppose should be on a list of capabilities to consider. You might call them features. We’ll list them this time, with another list of the products we’ll draw from for our examples. Then you’ll have some time to set me right, correct, and add things. Next column, we’ll redo the list, show examples, and give some discussion.

OK? It’ll be like the old ATPO days.

Where we are deviating from the ATPO model is that many of the applications we’ll look at don’t use outlining. You know, usually I’m pretty strict about what we discuss here and at drawing the line around outliners. But I’ve had many requests to address writing, and it makes such sense to. Many ATPO users are in the outliner community because they use their outliners in workflows that produce some written output. I admit I am one of those. And it just doesn’t make sense to talk about writing without starting with the actual writing process and seeing where it takes us.

This will be a good opportunity to compare and contrast various word processing, notetaking, and outlining apps. As I use Tinderbox, I'm always interested in how it compares to other applications. I'm also interested in other apps that I sometimes read (but know little) about, such as Ulysses, which its website says is "The text editor for creative writers." And I'm looking forward to seeing what features they consider useful for writing and why.

Henry Jenkins (subbing for Mark Glaser at Mediashift) writes an interesting article Learning by Remixing. He notes that re-mixing is a Western tradtion: that The Iliad and the Odyssey were remixes of other myths, that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is a remix of Biblical stories, that Shakespeare's work is a remix of parts of other plays, and so on. However,

Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally “original work”, schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don’t teach them the relationship between analysis and production.

Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.

After reporting on those projects that value remixing, Jenkins concludes:

What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.

Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother’s things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.

Jenkins' position on "learning by remixing" meshes well with the building blocks in John Holland's model of complexity theory. Interactions of building blocks lead to the emergence of new building blocks at higher levels. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

I've wondered before what would be the building blocks that could lead to the various genres and concepts of writing. From classical rhetoric are candidates, such as stasis theory or the elements of pathos, ethos, and logos. More recently, Toulmin logic or Halliday's functional linguistics might be candidates. It's not that clear, however. Holland himself (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry has a "looser framework" than physics when it comes to re-combining building blocks. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

Perhaps the levels are utterance (or word), clause, paragraph, and genre. I'm not sure how helpful using these levels would be in learning to write across genres. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) tied Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics to activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

I've noticed that quite a few books on writing have similar sorts of questions. From stasis theory comes: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? From Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

Quite close to the notion of Holland's building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

These similarities across disciplines and theories suggest that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), so perhaps the building blocks of any of those paths will be sufficient for students to learn and use in their writing in ways that help them transfer their learning to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers.

The key, however, remains remixing. In a fashion like the four bases of DNA that in various combinations lead to different species, composition might focus on a few building blocks that can produce a variety of genres across different contexts. Previously, I wrote about Graff and Birkentstein's book They say / I say. The book's goal, as they put it,

is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. (p. x)

There are just two basic building blocks: "They say" and "I say". However, the permutations and recombinations are endless.

The Second Language Writing Section Interest Section (TESOL) has their own website (via Paul Matsuda).

In "Pitching Writing", Laurence Musgrove gives advice to faculty teaching writing. One piece of advice concerned how faculty design assignments:

Garbage In, Garbage Out. And then come the many complaints that students don’t know how to write.

I don’t mean to place all of the blame on faculty — though some serious reflection on our culpability in these matters would certainly help. However, I did say to my colleague that students often fail to understand the complexity and time-consuming nature of writing, and instead of just demanding writing projects and assume students come to us as primed and ready to fire away, we need to help them manage their writing projects by providing carefully constructed assignments and a few opportunities to practice writing as a process over the course of the term.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, asserts that "Immersion is the best way to learn a language". Without commenting on the issue itself, the speech is a great study in rhetoric and audience awareness.

Schwarzenegger uses "I" 19 times, mostly when giving his own experience as a second language learner and identifying with second language learners (i.e., he knows what he's talking about). He uses "we" three times in identifying with the people of California and what they ("we") need to do (i.e., we're all in this together). On Proposition 227 and supporting it, he uses the words, "voters" (twice), "experts" (with examples), and "our State Board of Education and Legislature" and "board", and "California" (twice). In other words, it's the decision of the voters, board, and legislature; he just agrees with them.

This article should be interesting to and useful for discussing the rhetorical use of pronouns with L2 (and L1) learners, along with combining personal experience with outside expertise for a stronger argument.

Engaging Minds I'm re-reading a fascinating book, Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World. It's a book that intertwines learning theory and pedagogical practice. In it is the following claim:

Teachers must themselves know what it means to engage in a particular practice before they can teach it. Whether writing poetry, conducting a scientific inquiry, or whatever, being able to engage learners in disciplined study demands a well developed sense of what is involved in such engagements. One needs more than a textbook and a teacher's manual. To teach how to write, one must have written. To teach mathematics, one must have participated in mathematical inquiry.

The authors are not saying that teachers must be professionals in their discipline but that they must participate in the discipline to understand how to structure learning environments specific to the discipline.

As a composition instructor, I do my own sorts of writing. I submit manuscripts to be published, I post on email listservs, and I blog. In fact, the reason I began to blog was because I wanted my students to blog, I wanted to understand what blogging entailed. However, as a teacher of second language writing, I don't engage in writing in a second language. I've studied quite a few languages, but have had limited experience writing in them.

It might be interesting to have myself do what I have my students do: read blogs and keep a blog. (I might hold off on writing publicly for a while until I achieve an intermediate level of proficiency again, as it's been some time since studying my last language.) And I could perhaps join a listserv. The difficult part might be getting sufficient and targeted feedback. I wonder,

  • How much time would I need to invest?
  • How much time would be needed to obtain insights that would inform my teaching practice?
  • How would the insights gained compare with the insights obtained from just reading the literature and listening to my students as they learn to write in another language?
  • Does learning to write programming code count?

A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?

I read an article two months ago called "Simple ways to make yourself far cleverer" (Denis Campbell, The Observer, in The Guardian). According to it, we can all become up to 40% cleverer in a week by playing games, solving puzzles, remembering lists, even "taking a shower with your eyes closed." Some time ago, I read another article on a similar topic, which included using the left hand to do functions normally reserved for the right hand (vice versa if you're left-handed, of course), such as combing your hair or brushing your teeth.

Apparently, just as exercising one's muscles strengthens them, exercising one's brain makes it cleverer. But, I imagine, just as serious weightlifters change up their routine about every two months--because the muscles plateau when repeating the same exercises--brain exercises must vary the games, puzzles, or types of lists.

I'm wondering about applying these findings to composition pedagogy, particularly that of playing games or solving puzzles. It's not clear that making someone smarter is related to helping someone learn. That would be an interesting proposition to research. But I'm wondering if it's not only that people become smarter, but that they may do so related to a particular subject like writing. For now, I'll bypass that and look at the interest factor of games and puzzles.

I like the notion of applying games and puzzles to learning, not simply because it would make students smarter, but because as Csikszentimihalyi wrote in his "Thoughts on Education",

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

Csikszentmihalyi states that it's important that students understand the real consequences of learning, or not learning, and that it's more important that learning become "fun," that is, intrinsically interesting.

Games and puzzles are intrinsically interesting. It would take some time to formulate a game for a composition course, although the Ann Arbor District Library System has created an online game as part of their library system. What sort of game could it be? A mystery novel incorporating research to make an argument? In place of a game, could a wiki be used to write such a novel?

Puzzle solving is a little easier to arrange. Perhaps an ethnographic approach to writing that compares how professor and student languages resemble each other, and how they don't, when making an argument. Along these lines, I'm still looking at Graff and Birkenstein's book They Say / I Say that I mentioned in an earlier post. Or perhaps it's as simple as making the familiar unfamiliar by using classical rhetoric to analyze students' ways of arguing. Or perhaps a combination of the two. Or ...?

On Tuesday at the NJTESOL-NJBE Spring Conference, I presented on different pedagogical strategies for helping English language learners improve the grammar in their writing.

After I brought up the importance of hedging in academic writing, one participant stated that in high school, they taught students to take a position and argue for it strongly rather than allow for any uncertainty or for the possibility of other positions having some validity. I imagine that state testing requirements lead naturally to this style of writing. However, it creates problems for students when they enter the university. Although I'm not against testing or accountability, such a situation shows that standardized testing has a strong influence on pedagogy and also that influence is not always a desirable one. As I mentioned in another post, "Let us make education in our image, says business",

present methods to measure accountability end up in dumbing down instruction and damaging student learning, as shown clearly in George Hillocks' The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, and that disturbs me.

The ESL Program at Kean University received an ELMS (Education of Language Minority Students) Grant from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education for the purposes of implementing software to help our students to learn English. One software program that we acquired is Citation

In the grant team's discussions of how to use this software, we have focused on its notetaking capabilities to improve students' reading and writing abilities. Some of our ideas include having students take notes on everything related to the class: lectures, readings, activities. Others were summarizing readings, excerpting importation quotations, and responding to the summaries and quotations. We also considered having students review their notes at the end of the semester (and also throughout), reflect on them, and use them as a springboard for an essay on their learning.

Although Citation is convenient with respect to searching and writing up references in different styles, actually, all of these activities can be done without Citation. We'd like to use Citation in a way that takes advantage of its capabilities to move beyond simply replicating print possibilities. If anyone has any thoughts on to be innovative with Citation, I'd appreciate hearing them.

They say / I say

They say/I say : the moves that matter in academic writing is a lovely introduction to academic argument by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein that shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying. The chapter headings summarize the book fairly well:

Part 1. "They say"
ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)
TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)
THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"
FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)
FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)
SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)
SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together
EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)
NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)
TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

Besides showing "the moves that matter" in an easily understandable way, the book provides templates to help students make these moves in their own writing. Graff and Birkenstein anticipate "naysayers" on templates as being prescriptive and "stifling creativity," but respond by noting their classical history and present modern examples from academic journals. Then adding their own voice, they write,

One virtue of such templates, we found, is that they focus writers' attention not just on what is being said, but on the forms that structure what is being said. In other words, they help students focus on the rhetorical patterns that are key to academic success but often pass under the classroom radar.


In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students' ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence.

For ESL/EFL students, making explicit the implicit is crucial in learning to write an academic argument. And this book does that in a way that captures the essence of academic writing and represents it in a down-to-earth way. Although written for L1 composition, They Say / I Say is a book I plan to read and re-read this summer and incorporate into my classes next fall.

I had to return early from the Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, but that one day yielded some interesting thoughts.

Kathleen Yancey, (Professor and Director of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University), started the conference off with her talk, "Composition as Material Practices: What That Means and How That Means for the Teaching of Writing in the Early Twenty-First Century." One notion that caught my interest was that "different portfolios create different kinds of students." She compared print portfolios to being like a book, a finished product, and digital portfolios to being gallery-like with multiple paths that may not have conclusions. I think this claim has some validity, but is it necessarily so? Having a digital background could easily influence how one approached creating print portfolios, and vice versa. Even so, I will start thinking about how I might introduce my students to the notion of portfolios not having conclusions for all of its paths but rather being an ongoing exploration.

Yancey quoted Alan Luke as positing a "need to 're-invent' the discipline" and herself for a "need for a new vocabulary" of "texts/technologies/circulation." The likelihood of "re-inventing" a discipline is remote. Nevertheless, having this attitude of always seeking new ways of seeing and doing is crucial to learning, and sometimes having new vocabulary, even if for almost the same things, can help one achieve a different stance from which to see things anew.

In another sessions, Laura McGrath (Assistant Professor of English, Kennesaw State University), discussed the need to prepare students for different rhetorical situations, audiences, products, and purposes for a new global society. In doing so,she broke down learning objectives into three types:

Functional = create blog and blog intries; integrate images and hyperlinks

Critical = think critically about the power of communication technologies as well as their dangers

Rhetorical = assess available communicative possibilities; write for real readers;master conventions of Web writing; make appropriate choices in terms of presentation/style, tone, content; develop understanding of how ehtos is created, communicated, and maintained

This is a useful breakdown of keeping objectives in mind when designing one's curriculum. I wonder a little about the "critical" perspective. Up front, I think developing a critical awareness of anything is an ongoing process and a bit of exposure to it can help stimulate its development. But I imagine that a developed critical awareness depends much upon content knowledge, in the case of communication technologies, not only how they are used in a variety of ways in depth but also how they intersect with societal practices. As compositionists, we tend to be more aware of communication technologies but, again I imagine, considerably less so in other disciplines, simply due to our lack of content knowledge. When I take this perspective and then consider the time constraints in a course and student needs for functional and rhetorical understanding, I'm not sure how much time can or should be devoted to helping students develop a critical perspective. I often wonder how much of our perspectives in curriculum design is affected by where we are in our own intellectual growth, neglecting to take into account the path and time required to reach our present outlook.

In the same session, Tara Shankar (M.I.T. Media Lab) introduced her spriting tool. (Sprite = speaking + writing.) From the abstract of her dissertation defense:

Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself. This thesis considers a particular (still primitive compared to what might come in the future) version of spriting in the form of two technology-supported representations of speech: (1) the speech in audible form, and (2) the speech in visible form. The product of spriting is a kind of "spoken" document, or talkument. As one reads a text, one may likewise aude a talkument. In contrast, Shankar uses the word writing for the manual activity of making marks, while text refers to the marks made.

Shankar found that spriting facilitated peer collaboration with elementary children throughout the revising and talking process unlike the one-time (or few times) collaboration of writing. In fact, the children showed a sophisticated sense of genre and language while spriting. It allows students who lack writing skills to develop their understanding of language, organization, and other genre skills crucial to formal education, and as Shankar states, "spriting can serve as a stepping stone to writing skills."

Friday morning, I'll head out to a two-day (actually two half-days) conference at the University of Amherst Massachusetts: Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, K-College

New technology is providing new venues for writers and for teachers of writing, offering us all exciting possibilities and different perspectives on what writing is, can, or should be. As tech-savvy students post blogs and teachers engage with new software to organize their courses and share student writing, technology challenges our definitions and practices of writing instruction. The Conference on Writing, Teaching, and Technology, K-College, will be an opportunity for teachers from all grade levels to share ideas, methods, and projects on integrating technology effectively into the writing classroom.

Kathleen Yancey and Charles Moran will be featured speakers. A couple of sessions will focus on first-year composition and one will look at the use of weblogs in the classroom. Looks like I'll have an opportuntiy to learn.

TESOL's new interest section, Second Language Writing (SLW-IS), published right before the Tampa conference its inaugural newsletter, SLW News (accessible by interest section members only), which provides current news on second/foreign language writing theory, research, and pedagogy, including reviews of books and software, calls for papers, reports on research, SLW coverage from K-16+, and more.

If you'd like to get to know those involved in SLW-IS and help out at the same time, SLW News has editor positions open for the Book Review Column, Research Forum, and Context Columns. From Margi Wald, SLW News Editor:

Book Review Editor

The book review editor will compile and manage a list of new books of interest to SLWIS members, publish the list on the SLWIS website, solicit submissions, coordinate with publishers to have review copies sent to potential reviewers, and write reviews him/herself as desired.

Research Forum Editor

The goal of this column is to provide a venue for researchers to share research questions, preliminary results, and areas of interest and for members to keep abreast of current research in the field. The research forum editor will compile a list of brief reports on recently completed or in-progress research projects by SLWIS members. This editor will also compile summaries of conferences and presentations on L2 writing outside TESOL. Furthermore, this editor will solicit reports and summaries from SLWIS members, as well as choose a format and a system of categorization for reports.

Context Column Editors

Given SLW News’ goal of encouraging submissions related to a variety of educational settings, especially traditionally underrepresented contexts, we are seeking editors for our Context Column to ensure strong, broad coverage. Ideally, we will have several editors for this column, each of whom would represent a particular educational level or context. Possible contexts include, but are not limited to, elementary, secondary, 2-year or community colleges, college/university, community programs, and professional institutes; both ESL and EFL contexts should be represented. Editors will solicit articles of relevance to people working in the chosen context and coordinate with the SLW News editor to ready articles for publication. If interested, please note the context you would like to represent.

To join SLW News, candidates must be members of TESOL and SLW-IS (primary or secondary). If you are interested or have questions about the newsletter, please contact Margi Wald, SLW News editor. For general information on SLW-IS, email our new chair, Jessie Moore Kapper. For those TESOL members interested in joining SLW-IS, email members@tesol.org to change your preference. The SLW News Mission Statement and Call for Submissions can be found here.

TESOL has a new interest section: Second Language Writing (SLW-IS). Actually, it was accepted back in July 2005, but it takes time to become active. Still, SLW-IS is growing strong with more than 200 members. Here are excerpts from a message written before the TESOL 2006 conference from its first and now immediate-past chair, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper:

The new SLWIS provides a forum for researchers and educators to discuss and exchange information in the area of second language writing. Specifically, our goals are

∑ to increase awareness of the significance of writing in teaching ESL/EFL

∑ to encourage and support the teaching of writing to ESOL students at all levels

∑ to provide a forum to discuss issues of writing assessment and the placement of second language writers

∑ to disseminate and promote research on second language writing

The hope is that SLWIS will facilitate communication about writing across teaching levels and settings. Recent research on the scope of second language writing scholarship suggests that most of the field’s nationally (within the United States) and internationally circulated scholarship is produced by scholars in postsecondary education at research-intensive institutions. Other contexts for writing (pre-K through 12, 2-year colleges, community programs, international K-12 schools, etc.) often have much larger populations of ELL/EFL writers, but scholars, particularly teacher-researchers, in these settings do not often receive support for researching and writing.

In light of that, the new SLWIS provides us with the opportunity to initiate more research and scholarship in these underrepresented contexts by supporting new collaborations and partnerships across levels and by providing a forum for discussing shared experiences. Indeed, the SLWIS will hopefully bring teachers, teacher-researchers, and second language writing specialists together, from across nations, across institutions, and across grade levels, to discuss the unique needs and concerns of ESL/EFL writers. Along with the Symposium on Second Language Writing and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Committee on Second Language Writing, the SLWIS at TESOL hopes to broaden the scope of L2 writing research and to help teachers and administrators further their understanding of second language writers.

I'm reading an article by Marinara, Vajravelu, and Young on assessing learning in a general education program. With respect to the composition aspect, they include its mission statement:

First-year composition introduces students to the skills necessary for critical literacy. Students will be expected to practice and revise their writing in contexts that mirror tasks they will perform throughout their academic and professional lives.

The mission statement took two months of discussing, arguing, and revising to craft, with one point centering around whether the word "literacy" should be in the statement. The authors don't go into why that point got discussed, but I'm curious, too. Literacy is related to composition, as one needs to critique texts that one uses in one's writing, in fact, to critique one's own writing. However, when crafting a two-sentence mission statement, one might think that the focus would be on writing itself. Although the statement mentions that students will "practice and revise their writing," it doesn't mention introducing students to the skills necesssary for composing.

I wonder if the term "literacy" is required due to the list of writing characteristics" they found crucial in the teaching of writing":

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of process-invention, drafting, revision
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of audience and context
  • Students will demonstrate critical thinking about their chosen topic
  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the conventions of academic writing, including an awareness of sentence structure, mechanics, and spelling
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the research process and documentation styles
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of diversity and social justice

Critical literacy and "an understanding of diversity and social justice" go hand-in-hand. As Ira Shor, a professor at the College of Staten Island, writes:

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to help shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward in life: men are addressed differently than are women, people of color differently than whites, elite students differently than those from working families. Yet, though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.

In other words, such a mission statement is necessary if composition should be an arena for social and political change. Karen Welch (Social Issues in First-Year College Writing, Academic Exchange Quarterly) writes on the debate concerning the nature of First Year Composition. Welch cites Maxine Hairston as opposed to this re-design of first-year composition:

I see a new model emerging for freshman writing programs…that disturbs me greatly. It’s a model that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student. It’s a regressive model that undermines the progress we’ve made in teaching writing, one that threatens to silence student voices and jeopardize the process-oriented, low-risk, student-centered classroom we’ve worked so hard to establish as the norm. It’s a model that doesn’t take freshman English seriously in its own right but conceives of it as a tool, something to be used. The new model envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers. It is a vision that echoes that old patronizing rationalization we’ve heard so many times before: students don’t have anything to write about so we have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political. (180)

Some would say that the problem remains of how one can write about any topic without critiquing deeply the language on that topic, which implies the sociocultural elements of the topic, thus justifying introducing their own social agendas into the classroom. Perfect neutrality is not possible, but to the extent we can approach it, perhaps we should ask, How can we help students in composition courses to write more thoughtfully (i.e., critically) without injecting our own biases into the process?

Shari Wilson (The Surprising Process of Writing, Inside Higher Ed) asserts that students write better by hand than by computer. She cites work by Daniel Chandler, The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand, and claims that writing by hand directs students to the process of writing rather than assignment mechanics and physically brings them closer to their text than a computer does.

There's no question that the tool of writing influences how one writes. Haas, 17 years ago, showed that writers who use only word processing, in comparison with those who use only pen and paper, plan less overall, conceptually, and during prewriting, but do more local and sequential planning—whether expert writer or novice.

There is a question, however, whether these differences cause writing to deteriorate. In my own writing, the ability to revise without re-penning every word has led to greater clarity due to better organizing of my thoughts. Still, it seems likely that a certain threshold of revising must be reached to make up for the lesser amount of planning and conceptualizing in word processing. As it's unlikely that students will revise as many times as I do, it is possible that writing by hand may lead to better writing in their case.

Thus, another question is whether the amount of revising that students actually do will lead to better writing in the long run. That is, does the act of writing a lot lead to better writing more than the act of thinking a lot? Then again, we probably don't want to pit writing against thinking. Perhaps we should redesign our pedagogy to facilitate better conceptual planning while using a word processor.

From my other blog ESL Writing & Technology, I reported on Matt Barton's attempt to create a Rhetoric & Composition wiki textbook, aided by his students this semester. This fits in well in complexity concepts of providing opportunity for interaction, feedback loops, and networks of learning, in effect, creating an ecology of learning.

On a listserv, we're discussing the concept of transfer in writing. We know that people learn and that they build on prior knowledge. But it's not clear in the field of composition how writing (whether skills or concepts) transfer to other classes and to careers. In fact, often the case seems to be that students do not transfer what they have learned in first year composition (FYC) to later classes.

Returning to the notion of building blocks and Davydov's germ cells, we can see that students need practice in adapting ideas from one context to another. But with only one semester in which to practice, which apparently is too short a time frame, I believe there needs to be a focus on those germ cells/building blocks that will be most fruitful in transferring, recombining, etc., along with practice in using them in a variety of contexts and genres.