Teaching Composition Skills
This page provides a bit of background on ways composition experts have approached the teaching of writing. It then advocates an overall strategy for teaching writing that addresses students’ motivation to improve their writing.
A Brief Introduction to Composition Pedagogy
In the mid-twentieth century the dominant approach to writing pedagogy focused on the written product. The practice required a single, final draft, comprehensive error correction by the teacher on that draft, and summative comments justifying the grade assigned. The teaching of writing was consigned to English and Rhetoric departments; it was assumed that such courses could give students a generic or neutral set of good writing skills to apply to whatever writing tasks they might encounter in other disciplines.
This traditional approach had drawn stiff critique by the 1970s and 1980s. The emphasis on eliminating error seemed adequate for students who were already skilled writers, but instructors working with students who made a lot of errors in Standard Written English found themselves pouring an excessive amount of time into voluminous markings and comments that students were too overwhelmed to learn from. Improvement from one assignment to the next was minimal for all the effort put in.
Two important approaches have surfaced in the last few decades. One is process pedagogy, the other Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and the closely related movement Writing In the Disciplines (WID).
Process pedagogy emphasizes that good writing is achieved not in a single pass but through a series of activities involving multiple writing sessions and student reflection. The process, as well as the product, is important. Students learn from feedback they receive on their work at different points in the writing process and learn to make improvements on their own. As UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science guidelines put it, the R&C courses at UC Berkeley “emphasize the recursive nature of writing.” Developing an idea, crafting a thesis, creating supporting arguments, writing a draft, review, revision, and proofreading — with trips back through these steps as needed — all receive instructional time, review, feedback, and practice in the composition course.
Some critics confuse process pedagogy with affective or experiential pedagogy, in which students focus on their own opinions and lives in their writing. While process pedagogy can involve personal reflection, it is not at all necessary to remain there. Process pedagogy need not exclude working with evidence, reasoning, and disciplinary knowledge.
WAC works from the insight that writing can deepen student learning in any discipline because writing provides opportunities to recall, explain, apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate material learned; WAC also supports teaching students to improve their writing in all courses, not just “composition” courses. Excellent resources for a range of learning-by-writing activities for all disciplines include Davis’s Tools for Teaching, Bean’s Engaging Ideas, and the chapters on student writing in McKeachy and Svinicki’s Teaching Tips.
WID, an offshoot of WAC, challenges the assumption in the traditional composition teaching model that any single department (traditionally English) can train students in a generic or neutral set of writing skills. Anthropologists value different aspects of writing from art historians, for example, and the style and formats students learn in their English classes might not be appropriate for their majors in anthropology or art history. WID researchers investigate how writing happens differently in different disciplines, the genres and discourses particular to individual fields, and (most especially) how to orient students to the writing tasks native to a particular field.
At UC Berkeley, R&C courses are given in several different departments, reflecting the WID approach. GSIs in German, Comparative Literature, Anthropology, Art History, African American Studies, and several other departments teach their R&C students to read different sets of texts and to write somewhat different kinds of papers, though they share the goal that students learn to devise persuasive analytical and interpretive arguments based on evidence in their formal essays. WID contextualizes the process of writing within each discipline.
The books listed below are available for use in the GSI Teaching & Resource Center, 301 Sproul Hall.
Bean, John C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Davis, Barbara Gross (2009). “Helping Students Write Better in All Courses.” In Davis, Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 305–13.
Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj (2004). The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
McKeachie, Wilbert and Marilla Svinicki (2006). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (revised edition). Boston : Houghton Mifflin.