The Skidmore College
Expository Writing Network

Strategies for a Writing-Intensive Instruction

Three kinds of activity easily integrate into witing-intensive courses. First are those activities which focus only on the CONTENT, such as lectures and discussions of texts. Second are activities related solely to WRITING as separate from the content concerns of the course. Grammar drills or sentence combining exercises fall into this category, but so would lecturing on writing in general or examining models of good writing without reference to the content. Third are activities which teach BOTH WRITING AND CONTENT. Peer critiquing, journal writing, and group brainstorming teach both writing and content as does examining model essays which are chosen for both the quality of the writing and the value of the content. The following suggestions are intended to show how writing can be taught not merely as a mechanical skill (through sentence and paragraph modeling), nor merely as the display of information (by concentrating solely on content), but as a generative intellectual activity in its own right. They are based on three premises:

that students can learn a great deal about themselves as writers by becoming more careful readers;

that astute readers attend to the structure of the text and find that analyzing the author's choices at specific junctures gives them a surer, more detailed grasp of content;

that students can give their writing more focus and direction by thinking about details as parts of a whole, whether that whole be a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.

Thus, attention to a discipline's language, methodology, formal conventions, and ways of creating context--as these are illustrated in texts, lectures, and student papers--is an effective way of teaching writing.

Summary and Analysis Exercises
Organizational Pattern Work

Formulation of Questions and Acceptability of Evidence

Peer Critiquing

Non-Graded Writing

4th Credit Hour Options for EN 105, 105H, 205, and Writing Intensive Courses


Summary and Analysis Exercises

A) Have students write a 500-word summary of about 2000 words of text; then a 50-word summary; then a single sentence summary. Compare results for inclusivity, accuracy, emphasis, and nuance.

B) Analyze a text chapter or section. How is it constructed? What has the author done to make the Parts add up to an argument?

C) Analyze a particularly complex paragraph from a text. How is it put together? What gives it unity? What role does it play in the entire chapter or section of text?

Organizational Pattern Work

A) Scramble a paragraph and ask students: 1) to put it together; 2) to comment on the mental processes involved in the restoration, the decisions about continuity they had to make based on their sense of the author's thinking.

B) Have students find several types of sentences in a text, and explain exactly, in the terms and spirit of the text, what these sentences are intended to do: juxtapose, equate, polarize, rank, distinguish, make exceptions, concede, contrast. Often, of course, sentences will do two or more of these things at once.

C) Have students examine an author's punctuation and explain, again in terms of the argument, why, say, a semicolon was used.

D) Have students outline as a means of analyzing structure and discuss the choices a writer makes and how these choices contribute to achieving the writer's purpose.

Formulation of Questions and Acceptability of Evidence

A) What can be treated as known? What is acceptable procedure for ruling cases in or out?

B) Discuss how evidence is tested against an hypothesis, and how hypotheses are modified. (How models are made and applied to data; how observations turn into claims, etc.)

C) Examine cause and effect; condition and result; argumentative strategies, such as comparison-contrast, and agency (especially the use of verbs), as basic building blocks in definition and explanation.

Peer Critiquing

Peer critiquing and discussion of student writing can be handled in a number of different ways. The purpose of such activities is to have students read one another's writing and develop their own critical faculties, using them to help one another improve their writing. Peer critiquing and discussion help students understand how their own writing compares with that of their peers and helps them discover the characteristics that distinguish successful writing. It is important to remember that a teacher criticizing a text for a class is not peer critiquing; for this will not give the students practice in exercising their own critical skills. Here are a few models of different ways this can be handled, and we encourage you to modify these to suit your own purposes.

A) The Small Groups Model--The class is divided into three groups of five students each. Each week the student submits six copies of his or her paper, one for the instructor and one for each member of her group. One hour per week is devoted to group meetings in which some or all of the papers in the group are discussed. Before this group meeting, students must read all of the papers from their group and must write comments to be shared with the other writers. Thus, weekly writing, reading and critiquing are a part of the course, and students develop skills through repeated practice that they would be unable to develop if only asked to critique on three or four occasions. Because the teacher is present with each group, he or she can lead the discussion to help students improve these critical skills.

B) The Pairs Model--Students can be paired off to read and comment on one another's writing such that each student will receive written comments from one other student as well as the teacher. The teacher can, of course, look over the critical comments as well as the paper to help students develop both writing and critical skills. This method requires no special copying and need take very little classroom time. The teacher may wish to allow some time for the pairs to discuss each other's work, or this could be done outside of the class. The disadvantage of this method is that the teacher cannot guide the discussions and students are limited to comments from only one of their peers.

C) Small Groups within Class--Many teachers break their classes into small groups (from 3 to 7 students) and allow class time for the groups to critique. The teacher can circulate among groups or sit in on an entire session with one group.

D) Critiques and Revision--Many teachers combine peer critiquing with required revisions to teach students how to improve not only their mechanical skills, but also their thinking skills. Students may have critical comments from their-teachers as well as from their peers to work with. Some teachers prefer to have students revise a first draft with only comments from their peers and then revise a second time based on the teacher's comments.

E) Student Critiques--Students must be taught how to critique one another's work. While some teachers may leave the nature of the response up to the students, most try to give their students some direction.

1) Standard Critique Form--This is a set of questions or guidelines general enough to be applicable to any writing a student might do. In English classes, the questions concentrate on such staples of rhetoric as audience, voice and purpose; in philosophy, they might guide the student to examine the logic or structure of an argument.

2) Assignment Critique Form--This is a set of questions designed specifically for a particular writing task. Such a form has the advantage of making students attend to the special aspects peculiar to the given task. If students use them repeatedly, however, they may become dependent on them, never asking their own critical questions of the texts they critique.

3) Descriptive Outline--Instead of providing questions to direct students, some teachers prefer to teach their students to write a "descriptive outline." The student reads the paper and stops to write after each section or paragraph, recording what he or she thought the section said and his or her responses or questions concerning it. At the end, the student writes his or her "summary comments" describing his or her reaction to the piece as a whole, raising questions about the writing, and perhaps making suggestions for further writing.

Non-Graded Writing

Since writing in itself is of value, teachers need not grade all writing assignments--for instance journals, exploratory writing, and early drafts of more formal pieces. Teachers may make many comments on such writing to help students further their thinking but may wait for a more finished, formal product before assigning grades.

Teachers may choose not to look at some assignments at all. Peer critiques may go directly from the reader to the writer, for instance. Teachers may spot-check journals without reading every entry. The purposes of non-graded writing are many. When students write, they learn, they discover meaning. If they write about what they read, they get more out of their reading; this is why a reader's journal is so attractive to teachers of cross-curricular writing courses. Teachers need not evaluate such writing for it to be useful, although they may wish to read and respond to some of it to guide their students. When teachers take their students through exploratory writing and drafts of papers, they may wish to encourage thinking or guide revision without evaluating until the process has reached its logical end, the finished paper.

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