10-second review: The reviewer of this book on the history of writing instruction in college does not find the answer to the question about whether freshman college English courses actually teach students how to write. So I’m going to give the reader my opinion about how to teach a freshman college or high school writing course successfully.
Title: Review of Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. James A. Berlin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Reviewed by Sharon Crowley. College Composition and Communication (May 1988), 245-247.
The course is a single semester in length, meeting three times a week. To help students visualize the organization of expository writing, I emphasize the formula, “Tell them what your are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.” Even if the students have had writing courses in the past, they have not mastered the first step in the formula, “Tell them what you are going to tell them.”
To implement the formula, I teach the students that a composition consists of an introduction followed by a thesis sentence or main idea (“Tell them what you are going to tell them”); intermediate paragraphs beginning with topic sentences (“tell them”); and a concluding paragraph that summarizes the composition (“tell them what you told them”). Seven or eight major compositions will be enough to help students succeed in mastering the “Tell them….” formula.
Grammar, Usage, Punctuation, Awkward and Clear Expression
Seven or eight major compositions will NOT help students correct problems in grammar or style. I accomplish this instruction by having students write for ten minutes on the topic of their choice at the beginning of each class period.
I literally “correct” this ten minutes of writing each night, not by labeling mistakes, but by actually rewriting the mistakes in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. I also show students how to write in formal style by avoiding needless repetition of “there,” “get,” “it,” “thing,” and by relating the demonstratives “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” clearly to antecedents. I also rewrite awkward expressions (Students do not understand what is meant by “awk”) and ideas that are not clearly expressed (Student: “But it seems clear to me”).
Students understand the process of revising and editing by observing how I revise and edit their work. If they do not understand my corrections, they simply ask about why I made the changes in their writing. I ask them to rewrite the corrected version of their writing, which helps them visualize their writing as correct, clear and smooth.
By the way, I mark major assignments by labeling mistakes as is traditionally done and having them refer to the reference text. I only correct by rewriting the ten-minute essays that the students write at the beginning of each class period.
The results are astounding. Most students significantly improve their writing by the end of the semester. Their most frequent comment is that they now have confidence in their writing in almost any situation. RayS.