Sunday, August 26, 2012

More on the Subject of College Writing

Below is a discussion board thread I just created at the course discussion board; since it is something substantial, I thought I would repost it here also.

Since there has been a lot of discussion at the forums about writing skills and what it means to write at a college level, I thought I would share here something that people might find of interest. I teach Gen. Ed. classes at the University of Oklahoma; they are upper-division classes, and the majority of students are seniors, although there are a few juniors as well. At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students to complete what I call a "proofreading assessment," which is basically an assessment of spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. I give the students a story 1000 words in length into which I have introduced the kinds of errors I most commonly see in student writing, and I ask the students to correct those errors. When they send me back the corrected story, I count up the errors that they left uncorrected, along with the new errors they have introduced in the process of trying to make corrections. The range in any given class is pretty enormous - you can see the chart of results and read more details here if you are interested: (it goes to a Google+ post)

The point I wanted to make here is that even upper-division college students need a lot of help with their writing - and by that, I mean actual instruction in writing provided by someone qualified to provide such instruction. Only a rather small proportion of the students in my classes would be qualified to give feedback on writing mechanics to someone else, especially to someone else who is struggling with written English. I have LOTS of peer feedback in my classes, but I do not ask the students to make comments on writing mechanics (they can if they want to do so, of course, and some of them do). For the most part, my students are not really qualified to provide that kind of feedback, but they are definitely qualified to give feedback on the content of the other students' writing, and they do a really good job with that (enthusiastic, friendly, etc. - and NON-anonymously). For feedback about writing mechanics, that burden falls on me, and it occupies the majority of my time each week as I read and respond to student writing (appx. 90 students total in a given semester).

I don't have a lot of ESL students in my classes; this semester, in fact, I don't think I have any at all. The writing assessment I give focuses on the errors that are most common to native speakers of English; if I were to conduct an assessment for non-native speakers, I would go about it rather differently.

I should also add that because I teach Gen. Ed. classes (that is, classes required for graduation, but not part of a specific departmental major or college degree), many of the students in my classes don't like to read (some will even remark that they hate reading), and many of them - perhaps even the majority of them - do not like to write. That is something that makes them rather different from the self-selecting population in this class. I would guess that anyone who voluntarily signed up for this class probably reads a lot and likes to read, along with the people in this class who positively like to write. I always have some students every semester who really like to write, but they are usually few in number.

Anyway, I wanted to share this in order to make it clear that even upper-division college writing classes wrestle with some basic writing problems. Although it would be great if we could assume that all upper-division college students have strong English writing skills, that is not the case at all. A big part of the problem is that most college courses, even if they involve writing, do not provide writing instruction. With its lack of any provision for actual writing instruction, this course is not different from most college courses. That doesn't make it right, in my opinion - but it's a very typical problem in college courses: professors understandably focus on the content of their courses and don't have the time/background/inclination to also provide basic writing instruction, even if their students might be very much in need of it.


  1. This is why, when I gave my first six this past week, I didn't make an issue of the few trivial punctuation mistakes I "caught." I doubt anyone else would have even recognized that there was anything wrong. (Use of appositives, essential/non-essential names, and such.) Unless the punctuation or lack thereof causes confusion, it doesn't matter. I point out the correct punctuation, explaining why it should be changed, but I can't see my way to deducting a point when what I see in the essay is clearly stated, with no ambiguity. Now if only those who grade me were as nice about my choice of difficult words.

    1. I know EXACTLY what you mean, Satia - with native English speakers (unlike ESL speakers), it is very rare that the writing errors actually prevent you from understanding the meaning of the sentence (except for the howlers like "let's eat Grandma" and such). I think that is a big part of why most college faculty just let it go - they can tell what the student means more or less, even though they are very aware of the errors.

      At the same time, it is a darn shame that colleges are sending out so many graduates into the world who are not able to write English well. I esp. worry about the many education majors I see who are not able to write well. How on earth will they teach their own students to write well if they are not competent or confident in their own writing skills?

      So, I work on this with all my students and never give up, and I never let them give up... although for some students, their writing deficits are so great and their bad habits are so ingrained that it is really hard to accomplish any kind of lasting change. But nobody can say that I did not try - and for some students, I know it makes a big difference.

    2. Laura, thank you so much for your generous sharing of information about writing and grammar with other students on coursera discussion board. I think the time will come when coursera offers a class on grammar and basic college level writing! I would definitely take it! Meanwhile, I am thankful for your posts and contributions. I am really "blind" when it comes to grammar. I am an ESL student. I just "feel" my way through writing. I miss a lot of articles, commas and more. I desperately need to learn to write better in my line of work where email and written communication is vitaI! I am a real estate broker. I don't like to send out emails when I feel there are grammar errors - I just don't see them! I have lots of books on grammar but I did not commit myself to structured improvement yet. If you ever have a good link to share where one can take an online class, somewhat similar to coursera, with beginning, middle and the end on grammar and writing I would greatly appreciate it!

    3. Thanks for your note, Leeza - and believe me, you are not alone! In fact, ESL students often do a better job with some of these things because you are able to cast a critical eye on English, with a kind of distance that native speakers don't have at all. But then there are things like English articles which come 100% naturally to native speakers, but which are a nightmare to learn. I'm not even very good at explaining those rules for ESL students - often when I am helping an ESL student with their writing, I have to look up things about English in a reference book myself! Which is fascinating, of course - as a native speaker, there is so much I know but don't know about English, if you see what I mean; I'm not trained as an ESL instructor so I do lots of things automatically as a native speaker, without being able to articulate the rules.

      I don't know of a good online course - but there is a new service called which offers a lot of interactive quizzes on English writing. I am going to try to use it with my students this semester. I just learned about it a couple of weeks ago, though, and have not set up any quizzes yet. I tested it briefly last weekend, and it looked like it would be fun and useful!

  2. And then of course there is the fact that occasionally breaking the "rules" makes for a more arresting argument :)

    1. Exactly! And when they come up with a computer that knows how to do that, then I really will have to go get another job, ha ha. :-)



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.