Students Don’t Need “Our” Writing Rules

All, Teaching Tips

7 steps to help students develop their own writing rules

Recently, Penny Kittle shared this awesome quote via Twitter:

“Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. In the end it’s the language itself—the shimmyshine of it—that matters so much more than the manners the grammar police want to put upon it.” Colum McCann

There was some pushback on EduTwitter about this idea. First, by those who argue their students aren’t readers and second by teachers who claim they don’t have class time to devote to reading (because content). These teachers claim that teaching “rules” is a great short cut to better writing. Actually, I’m pretty sure the research does not back up that claim or why else would best practices stress something else entirely?

As I note in my blog post “Stop Blaming Student Writers: 10 lessons for teachers,” NCTE’s guideline “Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing“ states:

“Every teacher has to resolve a tension between writing as generating and shaping ideas and writing as a final product, demonstrating expected surface conventions. On the one hand, it is important for writing to be as correct as possible and for students to be able to produce correct texts so that readers can read and make meaning from them. On the other hand, achieving correctness is only one set of things writers must be able to do; a correct document empty of ideas or unsuited to its audience or purpose is not a good piece of writing.”

I commented in that post: We must help our students understand and address this tension without simply dictating rules that seem arbitrary and inscrutable. Simply helping developing writers understand the reader-writer contract can go a long way to resolving this issue, in my experience.

Of course, developing this understanding of the reader-writer contract requires both reading and writing (supported by coaching) which not every teacher (especially in content areas and disciplines where literacy instruction is not the custom) knows how to set up this work. While the McCann quote (I suspect) is speaking of more personal or poetic writing, I believe the truth of it is the same for academic and professional writing across disciplines. As more experienced writers, it is our job as teachers to help our students develop their own rules for writing rather than to hand them commandments etched into stone tablets. Here are the seven steps I use to help my students write their own rules. I use this process in my professional writing class where students tackle document types that are completely unfamiliar to them and require writing skills contrary to those of the academic or creative writing they have performed prior, so I believe these steps would work well for writing in a variety of disciplines.

Step One: Build background knowledge

For this step I gather a collection of lessons, strategies, and tips for writing the specific document type (ie. white papers). I like to give students a choice of text types (textbook reading, professional literature, popular media such as blog posts, videos, podcasts) but not present an overwhelming list as some students will review ALL the material while others will be more selective with their sampling. My goal is to introduce students to a range of definitions and descriptions so they can see that there is not a formula for this document type while learning there are some common traits or expectations.

Step Two: Create working definition

After students have reviewed the background material then I direct them to create a working definition or description of the document type we are studying and that they are expected to create. This is very much a work-in-progress, but I encourage them to think about how their writing context (their approach to the assignment) fits into the spectrum of definitions.

Step Three: Locate mentor text

Once students have a basic understanding of the text I send them out into the world to find a mentor text – ideally a document of the type we are studying and they are expected to create that is also similar in topic (ie. a white paper about legal aid).

Step Four: Crowdsource

Students bring their new knowledge and mentor texts to an online conversation about the document type so we can build a library of resources. Here students share their definitions and mentor texts then compare notes as well as ask questions. This process means that we are able to arrive at a consensus definition and description of the document type as well as explore some of the variations that might be appropriate for different contexts – and there are now a wealth of mentor texts that students can use as models when it comes time to create their own documents.

Step Five: Plan

Then we take our conversation into the private sphere and in a one-on-one conversation with me students share their plans for the assignment and I can address any confusion. It is also a good place to discuss mentor texts if there is a better one in the class collection – or theirs is not particularly apt.

Step Six: Discuss rules

Now it is finally time to get down to the nitty-gritty and talk rules and conventions. I always build assessment collaboratively in my classes and this is where those important those important conversations about the reader-writer contract come in to play. We look at the expectations and conventions for both the specific document type and context (ie. external or internal document) and professional writing (or academic writing for other classes) in general. We refer back to the original documents, working definitions, and mentor texts. What kind of writing do we see (or not)? What kind of vocabulary? Who is the audience? What is the primary purpose of this document? How much should we be concerned with appearance, style, white space? What about conventions of standard written English? What about word choice, style, tone, and plain language? Early in the semester it is necessary for me to do a lot of guiding and pushing, but as the semester progresses students are better able to take this task on so by the end I rarely need to do much at all. The important thing about these conversations is that the “rules” and “conventions” are in context and guided by mentor texts and not simply dictated in (what often appears to students as) arbitrary rules.

Step Seven: Workshop

Peer review and writing workshop can be one of the most hated and frustrating experiences for students, but student who have talked about the conventions, expectations, and rules for specific documents and the specific writing context are better equipped to provide meaningful feedback and so the workshop becomes much more helpful to everyone participating (students report via feedback to me).

This seven-step process for helping students develop conventions and rules for specific document types usually spans several weeks in my class as we work it into and around other classroom activities. I have found that the process reduces student stress and faculty workload as well as improves learning and final documents. How do you introduce your students to new document types? Do you think students should develop their own rules for writing?

Artwork by Jean Beaufort on Public Domain Pictures.

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