Monday, August 30, 2010


Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes 1,2,4.
You may be forgiven for considering this frightfully amusing and completely irrelevant as what is at issue here is student essays. If this dictum were to be applied or taken seriously, after all, we would have to give up all attempts to get students to write properly and revert completely to ticking boxes. Some would argue that this is already becoming the case as more and more exams forgo essays and papers. Part of the reason for this is the sheer numbers involved; there are large numbers of students taking tests and it is simply too impractical to require them all to answer essay type questions. It would take armies of teachers a month of Sundays to complete the corrections. Technology aids and abets this trend by making test type questions easy to administer, answer and correct. Plus, of course, is it really fair to require students who have not really done any serious essay writing to suddenly start at eighteen. Yet fortunately, universities continue to require students to write essays, papers, dissertations and theses as there is nothing like a well written essay to reflect the depth of knowledge, grasp of the subject, insight and true metal of a student as written work. This being the case, the teaching of writing proper in one’s own native language – the logic is after all universal – should start when the students are tiny tots, and why it doesn’t is a mystery. This, however, has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Having recognized this need, administrators of all widely accepted exams have serious writing components. In the case of the TOEFL, students have to read a text, listen to a passage and the write an essay related to the topic; in the case of the ABITUR, students have to write three essay type answers to three serious comprehension questions related to a text they have read or a section out of a book, the whole of which they are supposed to have read. They are told to write no more than 1200 words; that is about five pages and is not something you can just rattle off. The resulting essays are then graded for content, quality of English and organization. Understandably, the modern student is, for the most part, terrified of such exams. Maths and science pose no problems but ask the modern student to express himself in writing and he goes weak at the knees. A lot of teachers would be quick to blame the student for his ineptitude; but is this fair? Considering the falling standards in essay writing worldwide, one would have to assume entire generations are completely incapable of writing “with clarity and charm”. Entire generations? Really?

Samuel Johnson refuted…

When Samuel Johnson famously said “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the sign of ideas”, he certainly wasn’t thinking of what student essays have currently become; he was referring to the ideal, the logical and the common sense! The fact that it is possible to produce words, string them together to form grammatical sentences, bring the latter together to form structurally accurate paragraphs – albeit devoid of meaning or rational argument – and finally bring the latter together to form what, at first glance, looks like an essay has been proven by students in many parts of the world. The problem has become so entrenched that teachers at the institution I work at, at least, have given up demanding anything other than a piece of writing similar to the one described in this paragraph. The teachers are right not to penalize such drivel for the simple and obvious reason that the students are not really to blame; you can’t punish someone for a misdemeanor he has no control over – especially if he has been taught that what he is doing is right. Students write in this way for the simple reason that they have been taught to do so by their teachers who then turn round in surprise and horror to blame them for doing as they are told!

Enter the formulaic approach to teaching writing!

As a species, we love to “pigeon hole”, to categorize, to make order of what appears to be chaotic. This admirable tendency lies at the root of the current approach to the teaching of writing. How, you may wonder, can an activity such as essay writing be reduced to a formula or a prescription where one recipe fits all? It can and it has; what is more, the approach has been made widely popular thanks to the numerous writing books on the market. Open even the very best and you will be confronted with a plan for writing, persuasive essays or problem solution essays, or cause and effect essays for example. Take Virginia Evans’ famous series of writing books for example: on page one the “formula” is provided; what follows are sample essays all written according to this formula and smacking of TV dinners. The students are then given the second major ingredient of the ideal essay: transition words and essay writing jargon. To the modern student, everything is now as clear as day. What he must do is simple:

1. Look at the title and consult “the handbook” (I must hasten to add here that Virginia Evans’ books are only one example; she is certainly far from being alone in feeding this frenzy).

2. Select the appropriate formula.

3. Factor in the major arguments.

4. Mix in “the jargon”.

5. Sprinkle liberally with transition words.

6. Serve hot or cold!

I don’t need to tell you what the resulting essay reads like: you know, you read them all the time and ironically, complain about them! I really fail to see any reason for the surprise, the horror and disgust a lot of teachers evince on being confronted with such drivel as the students are only doing as they are told. The state of affairs described here defies all logic: why persist in an approach to teaching which is so counterproductive? The reason is very simple really; the student body in this part of the world certainly, has never been taught to think. Rational thought, critical thinking and reasoning skills have been studiously avoided throughout their education – more details about which can be found in the papers on this site. Instead, they have learnt to reduce everything to simple formulas; an activity which is automatic and can, I am sure, be done by a suitably programmed robot. A lot of experts argue that at eighteen, it is too late to suddenly change horses and revert to “critical thinking” so they give them more of the same. It is this latter view that I would like to challenge as it is by no means too late: I know because I have been doing it for years and it works.

Freedom of thought and freedom of expression

Having established that a lot of teachers and authors of writing books unwittingly continue the process of intellectual castration that forms the backbone of many students’ early education, we need to look at what can be done to remedy the situation. First and foremost, every scrap of material that “talks about writing” needs to be discarded. Formulas are out and reasoning is in; transition words – which most native speakers don’t, in fact, use much – and “jargon” are out and good English is in; clichés are out and ideas are in. When this is done, the piece of writing the students produce can be truly called an essay. This brings us neatly to our most important obstacle to the teaching of writing proper: a lot of teachers believe that this cannot be achieved at the ripe old age of 18! I beg to differ for the simple reason that I have disproved this notion time and time again, year in and year out, with countless students. The first step is ideas for without them, no writing is possible contrary to what is taught in the formulaic approach to writing. A good writing program can’t exist in a void unaccompanied by a good, informative, motivating and enlightening reading program the details of which will build the students’ arsenal of knowledge, ideas and eventually individual opinions. The utmost care should be devoted to feeding the students the knowledge they require to formulate opinions, and that in turn requires looking beyond what exercises a text will lend itself to when selecting material as is often done. Teachers should not be blinded by vocabulary they would like to analyze or sentences they would like to dissect for what they believe is the students’ benefit, and focus on the message and actual content of the text too. The appropriate input of ideas will, in time, merge with budding opinions which will ripen as they are aired and discussed, and develop further as the individual turns them over in his mind. It is this state of mind that produces good essays so “cast your bread upon the waters”. Without reading, listening or viewing, therefore, ideas are not possible. How about the tools; i.e. the English I hear you exclaim; how will students acquire mastery of the mechanics of the language – the structure – without careful analysis I hear you cry. The answer is simple: analysis is not necessary for learning to take place; analysis has its place certainly but like all good things, too much constitutes a handicap. As already explained in detail in the teaching of reading, structures do have a way of floating in along with the ideas and are ingested very satisfactorily thank you very much. This might make some teachers feel as if they are not really doing their jobs but nothing could be further from the truth. The most painless way of learning which requires the least possible effort and plenty of pure enjoyment is surely the best.

We have established so far that the students have to be provided with the opportunities to develop ideas of their own, and provided the reading program is appropriate, structures will also get ingested. Some may still be wondering about those lists of transition words and clichés writing books are full of. I would like to reiterate that this approach is one that aims to teach writing all by itself, in a void and therefore feeds the students the lingo to make their writing look like essays. How miserably this approach fails has been proven time and time again on tests in our university. I, personally, never distribute lists of transition words and avoid the jargon like the plague. Without mastery of the language, the latter stick out like soar thumbs!

Getting down to brass tacks: the writing lesson proper

I am one of those people who believe that all writing is basically argumentative so let us take the teaching of the argumentative essay as an example. The principles described hear will, naturally, apply to all forms of essay writing. The first thing we need to pay attention to is the reading program for those weeks: the texts need to be controversial, open to debate, thought provoking and of course well written. By the latter I mean good, formal written English rather than a more conversational style; the latter can come later when the learning is complete. Dealing with such texts as described in the papers on the teaching of reading will enable students to soak up the logic which is after all very basic: defend your own view and refute the counter arguments. They will also discover that there is more than one way to do this and it doesn’t matter which they choose. A couple of texts tackled in this way, and those dreaded organization problems are mostly dealt with. Then what I recommend you do is throw your topic in to the ring in the form of a short text, a film or a listening passage and let them get their teeth into it. I usually put the title on the board, elicit a discussion and work through the text allowing plenty of give and take of opinion while also putting the main points on the board. When the study of the text is complete I ask the students where they stand and tell them to put pen to paper. I remind them of the general principle that they can’t leave their opponents a leg to stand on and they usually nod without even looking up at me – they have ingested the organization remember. When you return home and settle down to correct the essays, I guarantee that there will be no organizational mistakes and the pieces of writing will look like essays. This is what I did last year, for example, and went home to find all the standard ways of writing argumentative essays with some equally good and original extras. I then photocopied some good examples so that the students could see the various ways of completing the task and we took it from there.

Stand back and let them learn!

I can almost feel some colleagues throwing their hands up in horror and disbelief! Let the students get on with it? Stand back? Whatever next; how on earth can students learn without a teacher? That is not, however, what I said: there is a difference between guiding and hovering; between grabbing the pen or the chalk and writing down all the conclusions, and allowing the student to reach them himself. As a breed, we are control freaks; we are never happy unless we are cracking the proverbial whip and actively controlling every ounce of grey matter involved in “the learning”. Yet I am sad to have to inform you that although you may exhaust yourself physically and reduce your nerves to shreds working this way, the actual learning that takes place at every level will be much less than if you were to stand back a little and let the students do the work. People learn much better through being actively involved rather than being fed servings of “knowledge”. This fact is the major obstacle to success in the classroom: not something the students do but a wrong approach to teaching – however well-intentioned. All this is true for writing too as described above, and it works like a dream. So be brave, bite the bullet and take the plunge; you’ll never look back.

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