Teaching Basic Writing

I have taught Basic Writing (Remedial English, Developmental Composition) at four different colleges. I love teaching it. In fact, I decided to get my PhD so that I would have more credibility in arguing with faculty that developmental students did belong on campus.

Because of that I was particularly interested in Culture Cat’s “Thoughts Basic and Not-so-basic Writing.”

She discusses the two methods for teaching:

1. The Sequential Method

This approach has the goal of getting rid of sentence-level errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation (GSP). When the writing is clearer in this regard, the instruction can then proceed to issues of genre, argument, etc. Proponents, at least the ones I’ve talked to, sometimes make the “you have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk” comparison, which, by the way, isn’t true for babies. Writing assignments may be sentences or paragraphs as well as essays; there’s a pretty well-established collection of “paragraphs and essays” writing textbooks, many with GSP worksheets and exercises, tailored for this approach.

2. The Tandem Method

This approach, which seems to be favored in the scholarship I’ve read, calls for students to learn GSP and conventions of academic writing concurrently, so students would learn about making claims with reasons supported by credible evidence, analyzing audience, academic genres like annotated bibliographies, etc.* while learning GSP, but only the GSP the specific student needs to learn. The student may have subject-verb agreement mastered, so no sense spending time on that, but still need help in semicolon usage, for instance.

She also gives some of her assigned readings. And she discusses reasons and rewards for doing the two methods.

As a former high school English teacher and a former pre-remedial college English teacher, where the sequential method is taught, I would also suggest that the sequential method (and the tandem) give the students vocabulary they did not have before.

Some students have no formal exposure to grammar prior to our classes. A sequential method allows those students to learn the rules of grammar that are related to the reading they have (hopefully) been doing in some classes, at least. For students with no previous exposure, I found that the sequential method was very helpful.

They couldn’t have been only introduced to grammar issues they needed because most of them had no grasp of grammar at all. You think I am kidding, but I am not. Some of them did not realize that a sentence had to start with a capital letter and end with some sort of final punctuation.

I am not saying they had not been exposed to this concept before. Certainly somewhere in their elementary school years someone at least modeled this. However, the students I was teaching at Small Public University did not remember this. They didn’t know what nouns and verbs were. They didn’t know how to organize a sentence.

In their favor, they did speak fairly standard English, so once they learned the vocabulary and rules, they could apply those to their own sentences. It wasn’t like learning a second language.

How did they get into college with such rudimentary literacy? They all graduated from area high schools. One student frankly told me that he earned his As in high school English by earning blue ribbons showing his bull. When he earned a blue ribbon, his English teacher gave him an A. I would assume that he had the same teacher all four years. (Yes, in small rural towns, this is not only possible but likely. My uncle taught 7-12 grade science in his community until his retirement 10 years ago.)

Caveat
I am not saying that the sequential method is the preferred method. I teach the tandem usually. However, if the students have no comprehension of grammar, the sequential method can be useful.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Basic Writing”

  1. I am a new teacher, and I have to teach the tandem method in my department. The difficulty for me is that I have one semester to teach both grammar (including advanced sentence structure) and paragraph-level writing, as well as vocabulary and critical thinking. It just seems to be way too much, and while I can double up the vocabulary and the grammar, as well as the critical thinking and the writing, so far I am constantly struggling to actually “teach”, yet cover two full textbooks of material.

  2. What about teaching the structure of sentences and paragraphs and then having them write paragraphs and have them work individually on their grammar problems?

    I use Bedford Guide and one reason I like it is that it has grammar exercises online where my students can go and take quizzes over the grammar. I ask them to do the exercises in their problem areas and I let them redo the quizzes until they like their top two grades. (Some students will take ten quizzes. This helps them learn it better and they aren’t mad at me for “requiring” it.)

    Would something like that work for your class?

  3. That would be great for me, but I don’t think it would fly with the program director, who wants the textbooks all covered in class. I’ve been trying to offload the grammar onto homework more, but I still have to go through the book chapter by chapter. I wonder whether I could do something similar with the quizzes, though; I am a big proponent of student responsibility. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it online, since I’m working where there is a culture of cheating, but I could let them redo them during my office hours. Thanks for the idea!

  4. Can you recommend a remedial writing text for college students

    Is there a separate text for schools of education with education topics inclucded

    thanks

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