Teaching Students to Write Compositions


Although many students can explain what is incorrect in a sentence, they are not always able to do this clearly in a written text.

Teachers are feeling that for all these efforts, including various assignments and activities, students are still not able to write clear and concise text that someone would want to read.

The traditional pedagogy behind writing text assumes:

  • The focus needs to be on process and product, not just one of these,
  • Topics need to give students the opportunity to examine complex issues, and
  • Courses should combine reading and writing instruction.

For many teachers, these don’t work.  One point to remember is that most students do not revise.  We assume that a course in the composition will include revisions.  When writing we need to make decisions based on the audience and this often requires careful revision.  Despite limiting the requirements to three compositions developed over a number of drafts, using peer to peer comments and assistance, creating portfolios and deferring grades, many find that revision just doesn’t happen.

What generally happens is the weaker drafts remain that way, and the stronger ones improve marginally.

Some teachers believe that workshops with peers may increase a student’s confidence, but in many cases, they don’t take on the suggestions, and these suggestions are not based on expert advice.  A teacher who is experienced can do this more efficiently and effectively.

Another important point is that students don’t always use the basic structures of a written argument which gives the text a clear cohesive voice.  In one example, students were given articles relating to a liberal education and the role it plays in a democracy.  Although class discussions were interesting and some students even had difficulty with the readings, very few compositions displayed clear and unifying arguments.  The question is how they can make a choice about their writing if they are unaware of the rhetorical choices available to them.

For example, an essay about the topic of mass shootings could be improved by further discussion about causes of violence.  However, if the student isn’t able to argue using causation, then there is not much choice available.  If you don’t know the choices, it is impossible to choose one.

It is incorrect to continue to believe that ‘critical reading’ is as important to a writing course as the teaching of actual writing – including arguments, structure, paragraphing and sentences.

Studies have shown the link between reading comprehension, background knowledge, and the context.  There are basic strategies for reading critically, including the following:

  • Read slowly and carefully,
  • Note important sections,
  • Make summaries in note form, and
  • Connect what you are reading to your own knowledge.

We need to talk about reading something, not merely general reading strategies.

By their very nature, strategies for reading come to be about content and this creates two problems:

  1. A writing course can turn into a course about content, rather than the actual writing, and
  2. The instructors themselves are not always qualified to be teaching the content of all disciplines.

Therefore students are able to discuss various issues, but unable to write persuasively about them.  If a course spends too much time on the ‘critical reading’ there is less time to spend on actually learning the task of writing.

How to help students actually write better!

  • From the very beginning of the course students need to write one essay and receive feedback from the teacher. By the end of the second week, they need to have completed a short argumentative composition and received feedback on its structure, including the thesis, the evidence used and the sources.
  • Less time needs to be spent on difficult texts and most of the time should be spent writing argumentative essays. If too much time is spent on content there is not enough time for the structure.  The main point is more writing with good feedback needs to be done.
  • Multiple drafts or peer comments are not needed for every composition. Students should read other essays and comment on them but it is the teacher’s feedback that counts.
  • The writing process is critical. If a student can write a good composition without a draft, he/she should not fail – it is the product, not the process that counts in the end.
  • At times a project can be discarded. Professional writers do this sometimes and start a new project.  Although revision is an important part of writing, sometimes there is no point and it is best to start again.
  • The job of the teacher of a course on composition writing is to teach students how to express themselves coherently when writing. Developing clear prose is a crucial aspect of composition for freshmen.  They should be able to analyze difficult texts, but in a course on composition they need to learn to write effectively.  All the issues around critical reading are important for the freshman’s education, but they are not the objective of a course in composition.


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