Updates from the anti-5-paragraph essay campaign

I’ve spent much of the winter break typing up students’ papers for my dissertation research. The task was descriptive writing — first describing the student’s house, apartment, homestay, or dorm room, and then (after the intervention) writing a featured home article about a house for sale as if for a local newspaper. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was still struck by the number of students who tried to shoe-horn one or both tasks into a pseudo five-paragraph essay, and this despite the fact that neither prompt mentions essays or even paragraphs! In fact, the featured house article is taught as a genre with a regular structure that has little to do the so-called English theme. Some of the results are awkwardly amusing: Everyone has a house, even animals. I’m going to describe my house. Or: this house has two floors. First of all, the first floor.  You can imagine the rest.

For anyone still harboring a sentimental attachment to the “ahrehtorical” (to quote Christine Ortmeier-Hooper) and ageneric (as I keep misquoting Christine Ortmeier-Hooper!) teaching of a universal form of bland, banal writing, here are some recent articles fighting the good fight for teacher genre-aware, context-specific writing skills:

Plus a few of my previous thoughts on the subject:

Update: Well, this is getting interesting. Over on the TESOL blog, Rob Sheppard has written a spirited defense of the 5-paragraph essay in which he usefully critiques Brian Sztabnik’s rather over-enthusiastic piece. But we couldn’t let that stand, so Luciana de Oliveira and I have written a rebuttal, “Why We Still Won’t Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay.” Let the games commence!



Inside my genre-based writing presentation!

Tamara Jones has written a lovely two-part description of my recent workshop on genre-based pedagogy and Inside Writing at Howard Community College. Her writing is so vivid, I almost feel I was there. OK, I actually was there, but if you weren’t, you might enjoy reading about how she was converted to genre-based writing and the teaching/learning cycle. Thanks for the kind shout-out, Tamara!

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)

Can you reduce a non-restrictive relative clause?

Yes, I know that’s a question which has been keeping you up at night, but head on over to Cambridge’s Grammar and Beyond blog for my attempt at answering it. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got it quite right yet. While you’re there, you can play my new favorite game: find the sentence that faintly suggests the cover photo for the blog post!

My other recent posts there have been on there is/are and this/that/these/those, and they are equally riveting.

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?”

Grammar titbits and tidbits

I have a column in this month’s Grammar and Beyond newsletter on one of my favorite topics: noun + noun modification. It’s a nice segue from my recent articles on shifting from everyday to academic registers using nominalization and relative clauses. Suggestions for future topics are especially welcome right now!

I also just discovered that the reason I couldn’t get the title of this post to look right is that we say titbit in British English but tidbit in American English. Apparently, according to my favorite blog on the subject, this isn’t a case of Puritanical prudishness (you may titter all you like, dear reader), but an example of American English using the historically older form while British English goes off on its own tangent.

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”