Who is teaching my students to write rhetorical questions?

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No, really, I’m not being ironic: who are you? And could you please stop? Two of my high-advanced students — smart people by all accounts — started their diagnostic essays thus:

Do you think profit should be the only motivation for businesses?

Should profit be the only goal for business?

And guess what? (OK, that one was rhetorical) The prompt was: Should profit be the only goal for a business? So, essentially, the students started their essay by asking me the same question I asked them. Oh yes, and the second student had even given the essay a title: Profit is the only goal for business. I need to teach them what a spoiler alert is.

Let me be clear: I’m not blaming, mocking, or criticizing my students. After all, they’re reproducing the poor writing strategies they’ve been taught, in which all writing must begin with a so-called “hook,” and proceed with the familiar tedium of the five-paragraph essay. I don’t really like teaching hooks at all in academic writing. They’re fine for a magazine or newspaper article where the writer’s success (and perhaps paycheck) depends on attracting the reader’s attention, but a hook is entirely useless in a class assignment, which it’s my job to read. I can’t choose not to read essays that don’t have my attention! In the end, what makes an academic argument engaging isn’t a weak rhetorical trope in the first sentence; it’s a thoughtful, balanced, and well-supported claim that’s developed coherently and cogently. Continue reading “Who is teaching my students to write rhetorical questions?”

The great Japan tour!

I’ll be in Japan in November talking about genre-based pedagogy, the teaching/learning cycle, critical thinking, Q: Skills for Success 2nd Edition, and Inside Writing. Come join me!

JALT 2015, Shizuoka (Japanese Association for Language Teaching International Conference)

  • Saturday Nov 21, 1:20-2:20pm, Room 910:
    Integrated Skills, Critical Thinking, & Academics
    Discover how to connect reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary in exciting and engaging ways. Thought-provoking questions are explored from multiple angles through complementary readings, authentic videos, comprehensive skill instruction, and embedded language development. Participants will experience the process of using online and offline discussions, writing models, and self-reflection in this interactive demonstration, which is centered on the question: What makes a public place appealing?
  • Sunday Nov 22, 4:40-6:10pm, Room 1001-1:
    Mastering Real Writing With the Teaching/Learning Cycle
    Experience the power of language-focused, scaffolded instruction for academic and professional writing. The Teaching/Learning Cycle is a genre-based writing pedagogy that prepares all students to understand and produce the genres they need for school and work. Grammar and vocabulary are meaningfully integrated as students write with purpose in authentic contexts. Using cutting-edge research and classroom examples, the presenter demonstrates the three stages of genre analysis, collaborative writing, and independent composition for learners of all levels.

Oxford Day 2015, Sunday Nov 29, Kyoto University

10-11am: Mastering Real Writing with the Teaching/Learning Cycle (Inside Writing)

What grammar do ESL students really need?

We had an interesting discussion around the proverbial water-cooler at work this week about the grammar that we should expect students to produce correctly before they matriculate to their university degree programs (we teach in a pre-matriculation intensive English program). It’s tricky: our raison d’être (excuse my French) is to prepare students for success in their academic classes, which clearly requires very advanced proficiency in English. But of course it would be impossible, unreasonable, and flat out absurd to demand a level of flawless accuracy attained by few native speakers of the language. Even first-year undergraduate Delawareans, I suspect.

grammarSo, how good is good enough? For example, some of our most advanced students can speak fairly fluently for extended periods of time without a single verb that agrees with its subject (“he go … the research show …” etc.). My syllabus tells me that speaking with level-appropriate accuracy is a required learning outcome. Do I tell the student to use some -s endings? Yes. Do I assign a lower grade? Maybe a little. Do I hold the student back from matriculating? Certainly not!

Continue reading “What grammar do ESL students really need?”

2015 Conference Presentations

It’s like my blog, but LIVE! Here are some of my upcoming presentations this year:

Consortium on Graduate Communication Colloquium

March 25, 2015: Toronto (registration is closed: we are at capacity)

  • “The State of Graduate Communication Support” with Michelle Cox (keynote presentation)

TESOL (handouts and PowerPoint slides here)

March 26-28: Toronto

  • “From Theory to Practice in SLW: Crossing Borders, Building Bridges” (Discussant after an incredible panel including John Swales, Chris Feak, Dana Ferris, Maria Estella Brisk, and Gena Bennett). Thursday 3/26, 1pm, room 104A
  • “Genres that Work in the Writing Classroom” (with Monica Farling), Thursday 3/26, 4:00, room 707
  • “Transitioning to College Writing: The Essay Language Project” (with Ken Cranker), Friday 9:30am, room 203B
  • “Mastering Genres with Inside Writing“, Friday, 5pm, room 801B
  • “Using Needs Analysis Data to Improve Programs and Curricula” (colloquium I convened, featuring Scott Stevens, Neil Anderson, Carmela Gillette, Kay Stremler, and Adrian Wurr). Saturday, 9:30am, 717B

Continue reading “2015 Conference Presentations”

From everyday to academic writing

I’m excited about my column in this month’s Cambridge grammar newsletter: it’s about a technique to help students move towards the register of academic writing by changing subordinate clauses into relative clauses. The idea came to me when I was teaching our pre-matriculation ESL undergraduates last session. I had several students who were writing quite accurate sentences with interesting content, but in a style that seemed wordy and prosaic. Fortunately, I had just been reading some research in Systemic Functional Linguistics (Ho, 2009) which found that at the university level, more sophisticated writers tend to choose embedded clauses (i.e. restrictive relative clauses) over clauses with subordinate conjunctions (such as because, even though, etc.). We also know that coordinated clauses (and, or, but) are more frequent in spoken, informal, and less mature English (e.g. Brisk & De Rosa, 2014, in de Oliveira and Idding’s great new volume). Sure enough, I was able to pick out sentences in my students’ papers with lots of coordinating and subordinating conjunctions that would be more academic and effective with relative clauses, especially when reduced. I think some of it even sunk in! Take a look at the article and the worksheet, and let me know what you think. Next month, in part 2 of this thrilling mini-series, I take on another SFL staple, nominalization. Theory into practice: it really works.

Happy Grammar Day, incidentally.

Inside Writing hits the shelves!

My latest textbook project, Inside Writing from Oxford University Press has just been published. I helped design the pedagogy for this innovative writing textbook series, and I co-authored books 2 and 4 with the fabulous Jenny Bixby. The books look amazing (we love our editors and designers!), and we have exciting plans to launch the series in the fall, so stay tuned. I’ve put up a page with more details, or you can see the whole series on OUP’s website.

Inside Writing takes a genre-based approach to teaching ESL writing, rather than the usual sentence–paragraph—short essay–5-paragraph essay progression, and is full of useful vocabulary and grammar. Each unit teaches a different genre, so students learn to use and manipulate the rhetorical modes (narrative, description, explanation, comparison, argumentation, etc.) in realistic contexts and in multiple formats (essays, letters, web pages, discussion boards, test questions, etc.). We’re really excited to see this series in print — take a look and let me know what you think!

How many tenses do students need to learn?

In my column in this month’s Cambridge Grammar Newsletter, I argue that the magic number is 3.

OK, so I know I’m playing fast and loose with the word tense, and many linguists would argue that there are only two (past and present), possibly three if you allow the future to squeak in. But I’m using tense in the way most teachers and students (and textbooks!) understand it, as time + aspect (so present simple, past simple, present perfect, and … well that’s all you need anyway).

Any suggestions for future columns?

Penn-TESOL East 2013 Presentation

Thanks to everyone who came to my presentation at Penn-TESOL East today. As promised, here is my PowerPoint with all the information and references.You might also be interested in the article I wrote recently on this topic (“From Generic Writing to Writing Genres”) in SLW News.

The textbook series I mentioned will be called Inside Writing and will be available in spring/summer 2014 from Oxford University Press. It takes a genre-based approach to teaching writing, from beginner to advanced (academic preparation) levels. I’ll post more details as production continues!